..

UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Diane Lane, Sandra Oh, Lindsay Duncan, Raoul Bova
Director: Audrey Wells
Audio: English 5.1, French
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Buena Vista
Features: Commentary, making-of featurette, trailers, deleted scenes
Length: 113 minutes
Release Date: February 3, 2004

"Someday, you're going to be happy again."

Film ***

Something about Italy and France and the cinema always conjures up images of young lovers in love.  Once, genre films about exotic romance for international tourists in such European backdrops were quite commonplace.  Under the Tuscan Sun (2003) harkens back to those days of old.  Starring Diane Lane and set amongst the gorgeous countrysides of rural Italy, Under the Tuscan Sun is a redemptive tale of the struggles of a young and distraught divorcée to restore happiness and contentment back into her life.

Under the Tuscan Sun is a loose adaptation of a bestseller by Frances Mayes.  The film starts in sunny California, where good-hearted Frances (Diane Lane) has just uncovered her husband's infidelity (with a younger woman, naturally).  As California is a "no-fault" state, the complicated divorce settlement requires that Frances pay alimony to her faithless spouse!  Frances strikes a quick deal - she sells her share of their former home together to her ex-husband in exchange for a quick alimony buy-out to exorcise him from her life forevermore.

Frances moves to a halfway house of sorts for new divorcées.  Clearly, she is not particularly happy, but she has a devoted friend in Patti (Sandra Oh), who one evening presents to her a vacation ticket to Italy.  It is a gift of friendship and an opportunity for Frances to recover from her personal crisis, perhaps starting anew with a fresh slate.  At first, Frances is hesitant to accept the gift but soon realizes that she has nothing left to lose.  She then embarks upon a cathartic trip abroad that also serves as an internal journey through self-discovery and self-worth.

In Italy, Frances happens upon a quaint country manor that attracts her attention.  Run-down and mostly abandoned, this home strangely appeals to her.  Frances impulsively purchases the home, and her struggles to re-model and restore the house become a metaphor for her own attempts to reconstruct her own life.  As life and beauty is restored to this Italian manor, so does Frances's outlook upon life become more warm and inviting.

Naturally, lovers abound in this film.  Frances encounters several potential suitors - a caring realtor with an open ear to her early woes, a Polish construction worker with a not-very discreet crush on her, and naturally a young and virile Italian admirer.  There also is teenaged love between a young Polish carpenter repairing Frances's home and an Italian girl, the daughter of another carpenter.  Frances's role as a mediator between the girl's disapproving father and the young Polish carpenter is yet another step in her own personal recovery.

If Under the Tuscan Sun sounds decidedly familiar or even clichéd, that is because it is.  The film makes little attempt to hide its conventional elements, and though the love story (or stories) present nothing that audiences have not seen before in such films, its final message is still a hopeful and optimistic one - that true happiness can ultimately be found from within.  Sometimes, the support of friends is better than the fickle love of a fleeting romance or even a failed marriage.

As Frances, Diane Lane is reliably wonderful.  She is a gifted and lovely actress, and her performance is the best thing about this film.  Without Diane Lane, Under the Tuscan Sun would have seemed a generic and ordinary genre film; with her, the film, despite its clichés, demonstrates warmth and charm.  This film may not be particularly insightful, but its observations and optimism suggest that, no matter our personal crises, genuine friendship and compassion still exist in this world to help us through our darkest hours.

Video ***1/2

Under the Tuscan Sun is shown in its original widescreen 1.85:1 format.  The colors are quite warm, and skin tone is realistic.  Detail levels are solid without bleed or image breakup in darker scenes.  Much of the film's cinematography is lush and beautiful, so the fine video presentation on this DVD is much appreciated.

Audio ***

Under the Tuscan Sun is mostly dialogue-driven, so the soundtrack is generally muted and subdued.  However, the lush score contributes quite significantly to the romantic tone of the story.

Features **1/2

First of all, a pox upon Disney for continuing to place trailers and advertisement at beginning of all their DVD start-ups.  Fortunately, these obstrusions can be by-passed by clicking the menu button.  Sneak peeks include trailers for My Boss's Daughter, Hidalgo, and Calendar Girls, plus promos for the Soap Net cable channel and the Under the Tuscan Sun soundtrack CD.  You can review all of these items elsewhere in the "Sneak Peeks" supplemental section, too.

Overall, this DVD is generally light on substantial features.  There is Tuscany 101, a making-of featurette (9 min.) that is mostly promotional in nature.  Members of the main cast, director Audrey Wells, and author Frances Mayes all discuss the film's themes and its beautiful locales and settings.  There are also three deleted scenes covering a short singing contractor sequence, the discovery of a fresco painting, and a montage of eccentric town characters.

The most worthwhile feature is the audio commentary by director Audrey Wells.  She doesn't gush over her film but instead offers solid comments about the characters and their emotional motivations in service of the film's themes.  As far as commentary tracks for mainstream films go, this is a fairly decent one.

Lastly, there is an Easter egg that is accessible from the "Bonus Features" menu.  Click on the left-most flower pot on this screen to open a portrait-painting scene.  Because some shots in this scene contain nudity, the scene had to be digitally altered to garner a PG-13 rating for the finalized film version.  Some of the computer touch-up work is highlighted in this easter egg, which shows the scene as originally photographed.

Summary:

Centering upon an American woman's search for hope and romance in Italy, Under the Tuscan Sun is decidedly a feel-good chick flick.  While the story is not particularly original, its breezy, light-hearted tone and Diane Lane's appealing performance make the film a pleasant enough diversion from everyday worries.

FREE hit counter and Internet traffic statistics from freestats.com