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Italy of the American imagination 

While most authors dream of literary success followed by cinematic success, most film producers attempt to exploit the public awareness that a best seller creates along with its built-in audience. The right combination of a blockbuster book with a profitable counterpart in film represents a publicist's dream, a marriage made perhaps not in heaven, but in the conference room of some production company. The locus classicus of such a match must surely be Gone With the Wind, both one of the most popular novels and one of the most popular motion pictures in American history.

            The great international commercial success of Frances Mayes's book, Under the Tuscan Sun, naturally therefore explains the appearance of the new movie of the same title. Because of the obvious and important differences between the two media, filmmakers notoriously (and surprisingly, sometimes even brilliantly) often make drastic changes in the text during its translation from book to motion picture. The process of transformation in Under the Tuscan Sun, however, suggests that the writer-director, Audrey Wells, simply gave up on anything like accuracy and decided to use the text as pretext, and make quite another version of the material.

            The screenplay adds to the book's account of purchasing and renovating a villa in Tuscany a number of other characters, some invented romantic subplots, and a quantity of aphoristic advice of a truly compelling banality. Diane Lane plays the protagonist, Frances Mayes, who now and then narrates her story of a shocking divorce that leaves her lonely and devastated, which leads to the kind gift, from a lesbian couple, of a ticket for a tour of Tuscany, and her impulsive decision while on the trip to buy a decrepit villa near the village of Cortona.

            That primary sequence of events probably most closely resembles the movement of the book, turning the movie into something like Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House or The Money Pit. It is a comical account of the difficulties of transforming an ancient structure into a modern, livable domicile, with all the usual problems of construction complicated by linguistic and cultural differences.

            The writer-director thickens all that matter with the story of Frances' search for love, which for a while overwhelms the primary plot. As decades of fiction and film (and even experience) inform us, attractive American women with money in Italy immediately attract the attention of Italian men.

            On the other hand, rich American women past their first youth visiting Italy immediately look for an Italian lover. Although Frances resists the advances of a number of men, she falls for a handsome, charming Italian named Marcello (Raoul Bova), who sweeps her off her feet, takes her to bed, and breaks her heart.

            Other plots and people accumulate, some apparently serving to pad out the unpromising material of the original text. A young Polish worker on the construction crew falls in love with an Italian girl. The pregnant member of the lesbian couple turns up, planning to stay with Frances and give birth in Italy. A generally irrelevant character, a striking woman named Katherine (Lindsay Duncan), pops up now and then to reminisce about her friendship with Federico Fellini and quote several of his apothegms. In the most ridiculous scene of the movie she wades drunkenly in the town fountain replicating, for no particular reason, a famous moment in La Dolce Vita.

            Italy occupies a special and significant place in the literary (and later, cinematic) imagination of several countries, including of course our own. Its treatment in American writing, at least since the early 19th century, remains the greatest influence on the contemporary imagination. American writers, like Frances Mayes in the movie, dwell not only on its manifold layers of the past, its rich history of art and architecture, its landscape and climate, but also on the mysteries of Catholicism, and especially on the seductive appeal of the people, which almost always come to mean seduction itself.

            The Italian, for generations of visitors from colder climes and sterner cultures ---Germans, Britons, Americans --- is a highly sexual creature who tempts and sometimes corrupts the tourist from another land, a process that forms the basis of innumerable books and films. No wonder Frances Mayes finds that falling in love with Italy entails actually falling in love.

            Although the actors all behave with competence and considerable charm, the real star of the picture, of course, is Italy itself. The Tuscan landscape, dotted with farms, vineyards, and olive groves, the town of Cortina, the few moments in Florence and Rome, the village of Positano perched above the Mediterranean on the Amalfi coast all create an entirely entrancing variety of images perfectly suited for the inspired travelogue that constitutes the heart of the movie.

            That often breathtaking visual splendor, coupled with an occasional sense of the mixture of modern life with the strata of history, outweighs much of the silliness and contrivance of Under the Tuscan Sun.

Under the Tuscan Sun, starring Diane Lane, Vincent Riotta, Raoul Bova, Roberto Nobile, Lindsay Duncan, Sandra Oh, Pawel Szajda, Giulia Steigerwalt, Evelina Gori, Mario Moncelli, David Sutcliffe, Jack Kehler, Kristoffer Winters; based on the book by Frances Mayes; screen story and screenplay by Audrey Wells; directed by Audrey Wells. Cinemark Tinseltown, Culver Ridge Regal, Eastview 13, Henrietta 18, Pittsford Plaza Cinema

You can hear George and his movie reviews on WXXI-FM 91.5 Fridays at 7:20 a.m., rerun on Saturdays at 8:50 a.m.


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