Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Sep 28, 2003 4:02 pm 
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Frances Mayes achieved astonishing success with her book Under the Tuscan Sun, in which she tells about buying a ruined villa in Italy, restoring it as a summer house, and getting joyously and knowledgeably into Italian cuisine. The book gradually became a bestseller. And that led to a sabbatical for Mayes from teaching creative writing at San Francisco State, to a contract, and thence to several other books, including a Gothic novel; a weak sequel about Italy misleadingly called Bella Tuscany; an illustrated version of the first book; and a cookbook. It has also led to the acquisition of more property in Italy, to fame and wealth and many opportunities at speaking dates to talk to eager multitudes of Americans and foreign nationals about this subject: what can you call it? The book has become a franchise. And now: Under the Tuscan Sun - The movie.

The real-life Mayes once divorced a rich man and married a younger writer and lived in San Francisco and that’s where she was when she bought the villa “Bramasole” in Cortona to use as a summer home. Her book Under the Tuscan Sun is about exploiting Italy for its real estate and cooking value. It’s about the saga of buying a property and restoring it in a foreign country, supervising construction work amid trips back and forth between Tuscany and San Francisco. It’s about a talented cook discovering the joys of adopting and using the local ingredients in Italian cuisine on site. Mayes writes well and she takes joy in her subject and it seemed an engaging read to me.

It was only when I gave this book to my mother at Christmas that she, who had lived in Italy herself and studied it all her life, punctured the balloon. She pointed out that Tuscan Sun was a shallow book, containing little real knowledge of Italian culture. The book’s charm turns sour when you sense a certain naïve self-congratulatory air about it, as if the author believes owning property and inviting guests over for wonderful dinners in Italy makes you some kind of expert on the country.

Nonetheless the book is a skillful piece of process writing: you watch the house come together and the meals develop. Perhaps it’s all a bit second hand, at least the cultural and house reconstruction parts are. Still the story could have made a perfectly good movie. But that’s not how it was done. Writer/director Audrey Wells has taken the book and tweaked it into a romantic woman’s turnaround movie featuring the charismatic Diane Lane. And a lovely movie it is, in its conventional way.

Lane is an interesting actress. She always seems to be brave, struggling through sadness into the joy of sex – and in this case Italian living. She seems to be wonderfully handsome and alive despite having taken some hard knocks and she’s got a perfect body. The thing is, she’s really only thirty-eight – that’s not old!

In this new Diane Lane/Audrey Wells version of Tuscan Sun, Frances Mayes is freshly divorced and cries all the time. She has given up all her possessions except three boxes of books and a small glass vase. To help her out of her funk, her San Francisco Asian lesbian pal Patti (Sandra Oh) gives her a ticket for a gay bus tour of Tuscany; Patti’s pregnant and doesn’t want to go. Once in Tuscany, Frances stops the bus and gets off with her big suitcase to look at a villa for sale that she’s seen an ad for in town. Instead of being a long-deserted place, Mayes’property “Bramasole” in the film contains an aging contessa who’d rather sell to Frances than to a German couple and immediately does so. When Frances buys the property in Cortona she moves in and stays, hoping to escape the despair into which her divorce has plunged her. (In truth this is more than tweaking: the only stress the real Ms. Mayes went through was that of the house restoration and the jet lag from the flights back and forth to California.)

This new beautiful, frustrated, sad Frances Mayes doesn’t get to gourmet cooking but once in the movie when, seemingly on a sudden whim, she invites all the workers and neighbors and an eccentric Cortona Englishwoman and produces an unbelievable multi-course Gourmet Magazine meal for them – but that comes later, after the big story, the love affair, and Patti’s surprise appearance about to have the baby. Meanwhile we get glimpses of various assorted characters, including three Polish workers who’re brought in to do the construction work. One of them is a young guy named Pavel who is too adorable and hunky not to have some romance himself. He falls for a neighbor’s daughter immediately and the subplot is in place.

Fed up with the craziness of the restoration – done by the three Poles supervised by an old Italian builder whose English is limited to “Okay” – Frances takes a bus to Rome and soon (she’s lucky with busses) bumps into a very handsome Italian called ("Of course") Marcello, who invites her to his shop in Positano. This requires a trip down the Amalfi Drive in a sports car. Guess what happens when they get there. Italian lovers have gotten taller and thinner since Roman Holiday and Three Coins in a Fountain: TV star Raoul Bova little resembles Rossano Brazzi and the lovemaking is a bit more specific. Marcello doesn’t stay the course – the whole trouble is she’s in Cortona and he’s in Positano -- but eventually a nice young American writer turns up at the end (he’s Ed Kleinschmidt, to whom the real life Frances was already married when she bought the place).

Meanwhile there is a dissolute Englishwoman, Katherine (Lindsay Duncan) who once had a small part in a Fellini film and who repeatedly urges our heroine to lighten up and have more fun. There’s Patti, who has her baby in Italy and stays on at Bramasole because her girlfriend in San Francisco has dumped her. And Frances helps Pavel get the neighboring family’s blessing and there’s a nice big local wedding with the reception at Bramasole (the real Mayes’ daughter did get married there recently, but that’s another story. . .)

The discerning filmgoer will perhaps want to feel the most utter contempt for Wells’ conventionality. But anyone looking for a bit of innocent romantic fun will be very glad to suspend disbelief and watch every pretty minute of this good looking, upbeat movie and forget about yuppie real estate schemes and foreign food.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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