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‘Under the Tuscan Sun’ surprises with its warmth

It’s funny how the elements that make the least sense in “true stories” turn out to be fictionalized or fudged.

Think of the Von Trapps breezily hiking over the Alps at the end of “The Sound of Music.” (The courtship ended happily; the problems afterwards would have been a whole other story.) Or “A Beautiful Mind” skipping to a moment of triumphant acknowledgment.

An incongruous situation generates the film of “Under the Tuscan Sun,” which writer-director Audrey Wells adapted from Frances Mayes’ autobiographical best seller.

The central character of Frances (Diane Lane) is beautiful, bright, vivacious and exemplary in the manner of traditional film heroines. She’s a fallen-away Methodist who is jealous of, but not spiteful toward, believers.

She’s also a San Francisco-based author and book reviewer whose marriage evaporates overnight when she learns of her husband’s infidelity. How could he be dissatisfied• She’s perfect.

A lesbian couple, including the pregnant Patti (Sandra Oh), send Frances on a recuperative “Gay & Away” tour of Tuscany, Italy. Out of a sense of destiny, she impulsively buys a 300-year-old villa with snakes, scorpions and an orchard and hires a wacky Polish crew to rehabilitate it.

Never mind that the adulterous ex-husband had been her dependent and blindsided her financially in the divorce settlement. She has money and leisure to burn.

Except for lapses in judgment, such as leaving all of the windows open during a torrential storm while she hides under the covers, or falling fast for a transparent smoothie named Marcello (Raoul Bova), she leads such an idealized life you’d think she had drifted into a Sophia Loren romantic comedy.

She even gets to play fairy godmom to the Italian Chaira (Guilia Steigerwalt) and the Polish Pawel (Pawel Szajda).

Sound sappy• You might be as surprised as I was by the quantity of unforced charm that washes through “Under the Tuscan Sun.”

It has color cinematography by Geoffrey Simpson (“Fried Green Tomatoes”) more sumptuous than any we’ve seen in years. You have to go back to the early days of Cinemascope (“Three Coins in the Fountain”) and VistaVision (“To Catch a Thief”) for such a scenic swoon for Europe.

Lane’s comely radiance warms each frame. She’s supported by welcoming actors, especially Vincent Riotta as a personable real estate agent.

Lindsay Duncan, as Katherine, dresses and behaves so much like a Federico Fellini heroine that when she re-creates Anita Ekberg’s fountain romp from “La Dolce Vita,” you see how favorite film moments inform the way people see themselves.

Wells has designed her film as an extraordinarily attractive metaphor for reconstruction — the house and several lives.

It’s full of verbal metaphors, too, and the foreshadowing, symmetry and serendipity of romantic novels.

But this is a true story, isn’t it• Yeah, the settling into Tuscany and the renovations really happened. But the real Frances Mayes was happily married. What• No movie in that•

Additional Information:

Movie Details

‘Under the Tuscan Sun’

Director: Audrey Wells.

Stars: Diane Lane, Vincent Riotta, Sandra Oh.

MPAA rating: PG-13 for sexual content and language.

stars


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