Amazingly, writer/director/producer Audrey Wells has taken the simple, basically unexciting narrative spine of Under the Tuscan Sun, writer Frances Mayes' memoir about falling in love with a villa in Italy, and cleverly fictionalized it--wrapping it in dramatic muscle and cinematic flesh, and giving it real heart and soul. In the process, she has created a complex, touching and surprisingly original movie about a sensitive, caring, intelligent young woman trying to find her place in the world.

While Wells deserves kudos for the screenplay itself, her greater coup was casting Diane Lane in the film's pivotal role. From the moment, early on, when the fictional Frances first learns that her husband is abandoning her to live with a nubile teenager, Lane finds her character's emotional compass, and although it--and she--may swing wildly, there's no doubt she'll ultimately be led to a very satisfying sense of self-discovery.

With her marriage destroyed, Frances at first decides to stay in San Francisco, moving into a bleak apartment building specializing in short-term rentals for divorced people. She gets so depressed, she doesn't realize she's depressed. Enter her friend Patti (Sandra Oh), who's in a gay relationship and, because she has just discovered she's pregnant, she and her partner won't be able to go on a long-planned tour of Tuscany. They insist that Frances go in their place.

When Frances gets to Cortona, strange and magical things begin to happen. She encounters an otherworldly, free-spirited Englishwoman (Lindsay Duncan) who seems to live only for pleasure. She is inexplicably drawn to a real-estate ad for a villa called Bramasole and within the hour, her tour bus inadvertently stops right in front of it. Before she can even think about what she's doing, Frances jumps off the bus to explore the villa--and by the end of the day, with the help of a sympathetic realtor, Mr. Martini (Vincent Riotta), she has bought the place as her very own.

As unlikely as this scenario may sound, it does work. Beautifully. For a while, Under the Tuscan Sun, the movie, seems to follow the same course as the book, recounting all the major frustrations and small pleasures of trying to modernize old dwellings in old Mediterranean countries. One might think that Frances was fated to come to romantic Tuscany to find romantic fulfillment. But one might be wrong. Mr. Martini, who's obviously smitten with Frances, is nevertheless very married and therefore unavailable. And, beyond her Polish workmen, there are no eligible men in or around Cortona. Then one day, in search of a chandelier, Frances takes a bus into Rome and literally bumps into every girl's dream of an Italian lover. His name, of course is Marcello (Raul Bova).

But wait. There are no pat little plot clichs in Under the Tuscan Sun. Discovering one's true self is a complicated, unpredictable business. Fate intervenes in the arrival of Frances' by now very pregnant friend Patti, who has herself been abandoned by her partner. And Frances' household begins to expand.

Under the Tuscan Sun is a brave movie. Brave for accepting the reality of life-altering coincidence, that conundrum called fate. Brave for exploring, with considerable intelligence, great humor and empathy, the emotional complexities of the 'female condition.' Brave for its understanding of those courageous women who choose what some would call 'alternate' life styles. All the performances are grand--especially in the central women's roles. Oh is the best of best friends, and Duncan the most lovable (and loving) of eccentrics. Lane, however, is the heart and soul of this film. Her deeply nuanced performance--ranging from despair to girlish giddiness, sometimes within a single scene--is truly a wonder to behold. And, oh yes, Tuscany looks gorgeous.

--Shirley Sealy