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Nothing quite nourishes the soul better than a trip to Italy. About six years ago, I had the good fortune of visiting Florence, and in my brief, yet meaningful odyssey, I learned the literal meaning of the beloved Italian expression, "la dolce vita." Since then, I've tried with no avail to recreate my own American version of "la dolce vita," savoring life's little pleasures as though I were back in Florence, wandering the beautiful, copper tinged Via della Canonica, gazing up at the Duomo with nothing more than a cup of pistachio gelato and the romantic mysticism of the world's fourth largest church, brimming with over six centuries of history--including frescoes and statues by Renaissance masters such as Donatello, Giotto, Andrea del Castagno, and Paolo Uccello--to peak my interest. That is until I saw Under the Tuscan Sun--writer-director Audrey Wells' seductive ode to Italy and all her fatal charm--and once again; I remembered what it felt like to be back in Florence, learning life's most valuable lessons alongside my generous Italian amici.
Based on the best-selling memoir by poet Frances Mayes, Under the Tuscan Sun tells the fictional story of a 35-year-old San Francisco writer, also named Frances Mayes, who attends a boring literary party at a friend's house. Only to find out from a vengeful writer whose book she once panned, that her husband, the very same man who she's been supporting while he idly pens his first novel, is not only a two-timing cheat, but a two-timing cheat with a pregnant, twenty-something girlfriend.
Heartbroken, Frances moves out of the couple's elegant home, and into a dingy, short-term apartment complex, overflowing with weepy-eyed divorcées. Lonely, isolated, and terribly depressed, a gloomy Frances halfheartedly tries to move on with life, but suffers a painful post-divorce set back. Fortunately, her adorable best friend Patty (a scene-stealing Sandra Oh) has exactly what the doctor ordered: a 10-day, all expense paid trip to picturesque Tuscany. But, there's a problem. Frances is so fed up with life that she can't possibly imagine having a good time anywhere, let alone Italy, and graciously declines Patty's offer. The next day while wrestling with a severe case of writer's block, she turns, looks in the mirror, and decides to listen to reason.
Choosing hope over hopelessness, Frances boards a plane with three-dozen gay tourists, and sets off on a life-altering tour of Tuscany. Once in Cortona, a gorgeous, sun-drenched town, nestled precariously in the olive dotted hills of northern Italy, the dried up wordsmith finds herself instantly transformed, both creatively and spiritually, by the rugged, provincial ambiance of this old-world oasis. Just about this time, a new-and-improved Frances sashays through the town square--teeming with local farmers selling fresh fruits and vegetables--and encounters a free-spirited woman (Lindsay Duncan) who sees her looking at a real-estate ad for a villa called Bramasole. The woman--an English rose, who once seduced Fellini--asks a slightly amused Frances if she intends to buy the 300-year-old villa whose name means "something that yearns for the sun." Frances, who smiles and politely says no, eventually gets back on that rickety old tour bus and plans to continue on with her trip. That is until the rundown diesel pusher mysteriously stops in front of Bramasole, prompting Frances to jump off the bus, and spontaneously buy the ramshackle villa.
Experiencing a strange, yet oddly intoxicating sense of buyer's remorse, Frances enlists Senor Martini (Vincent Riotta)--the town real estate agent--to help her contact a boisterous Italian contractor named Nino (Massimo Sarchielli) to repair the villa's costly structural damage. Of course, this is where Under the Tuscan Sun gets its true comedic muscle, as Frances and the Polish construction crew (Valentine Pelka, Pawel Szadja, and Sasha Vulicevic) work to rebuild the crumbled old villa, and end up creating more than just a home, but a makeshift family.
Just as Frances begins to heal, she takes a spur-of-the-moment trip to Rome, where she meets a handsome Italian antiquities dealer called Marcello (Raoul Bova)--no doubt because of his charismatic Mastroianni-like magenticism--who whisks the newly christened "Francesca" away in a red convertible Alfa Romeo to the sleepy little town of Positano. At home on the tranquil shores of the Mediterranean, Marcello introduces Frances to his family and lays the groundwork for a continental love affair that begins with an innocent walk on the beach--complete with champagne glasses afloat in sugar-sweet Limoncello--and escalates to grand scale passion.
But there's more to Under the Tuscan Sun than just red-hot sex on the splendid Mediterranean. Writer-director Audrey Wells ( Guinevere ) successfully evokes the stunning, haphazard grandeur of Tuscany in such a winning manner that she virtually allows its irregular landscape to mirror Frances' up-and-down journey toward self-fulfillment. Wells, who was shrewd enough to revamp the book's uneventful narrative and write a delicious screenplay--filled with witty, warm-hearted humor that highlights exactly what middle-aged women fantasize about--avoids the typical clichés associated with most romantic comedies by giving the audience a believable 35-year-old heroine, who struggles, long and hard, through countless obstacles and ill-fated bad luck, before uncovering the key to happiness.
Ripe off her Oscar-nominated turn in Unfaithful , actress Diane Lane hits another one out of the park with her seriocomic role in Under the Tuscan Sun. Lane, perfectly cast as the erotically intelligent writer who tries to rebuild a broken down life by restoring a dilapidated villa, delivers such an emotionally charged, pitch-perfect performance that when she jumps on the bed and screams: "I've still got it," she outshines even Tuscany.