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Lights, camera, takeoff

Filming the good, the bad, and the ugly of travel

''You walk around dazed, squinting into fold-out maps. You don't know how to talk to people, how to get anywhere, what the money means, what time it is, what to eat or how to eat it. Being stupid is the pattern, the level and the norm. You can exist on this level for weeks and months without reprimand or dire consequence. . . . There is nothing to think about but the next shapeless event."

DON DeLILLO, ''The Names"

That is as precise a description of what it means to be a tourist in an unfamiliar country as has ever been written, but it hardly sounds like the stuff of cinema. Yet the movies have time and again been able to mine entertainment and art out of the clashing of cultures. Plonk an American down in Europe or the Far East, pull the rug out from under his or her self-assurance, and the suspense is immediate. Why is that person screaming? Where are my papers? What exactly did I just order? The paranoia can be exquisite if it's not happening to you.

Two current films harvest this fertile field, with ''Under the Tuscan Sun" presenting a fairy-tale Italy in which a lonely divorcee can reclaim her true self, and ''Lost in Translation," offering a moodier, richer take on the dysfunctions specific to traveling abroad.

Of the two, ''Tuscan Sun" has the most obvious cinematic roots. The Audrey Wells adaptation of the Frances Mayes bestseller falls into a genre that could be labeled ''Tourist Heaven," in which heroic Americans face amusing obstacles overseas but live to see the triumph of love and English.

The blueprint for such movies is the 1955 David Lean classic ''Summertime," which, admittedly, is a more bittersweet experience than what followed. Starring Katharine Hepburn as an aging Ohio secretary on vacation in Venice, the film's strong suits are Jack Hildyard's color cinematography and the star's emotionally naked performance as a woman who slips into an affair with a married man (Rossano Brazzi) because she knows it's all she will have. Diane Lane has it easier in ''Tuscan Sun," but that's progress for you.

Shallower but more fun is ''If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium," the kitschy 1969 Mel Stuart comedy-romance about a busload of American TV character actors (Norman Fell! Peggy Cass! Marty Ingels!) clattering through Europe. Skit-like in nature, the film does have a narrative throughline in Suzanne Pleshette's brief fling with tour guide Ian McShane, but that is generally not a good idea.

''Before Sunrise" remakes the tourist-heaven gambit for the Eurail Pass generation. Directed by Richard Linklater (currently riding high with ''The School of Rock"), it's a lovely romance about an American (Ethan Hawke) who meets a French student (Julie Delpy) on a train and persuades her to spend 24 hours in Vienna with him. ''Sunrise" is full of the passionate talk that only the young know, but Linklater is so focused on his young lovers that he barely gives us the expected travelogue shots of the city. And yet, there is that kiss on top of the Ferris wheel in the Prater. . . .

So much for heaven -- what about tourist hell? The movies have plumbed those depths too, eking out the dread that comes with dealing with unfamiliar plumbing fixtures and pulling it into truly dangerous waters. The grandaddy of such films is Nicholas Roeg's 1973 ''Don't Look Now," which turns the Venice of ''Summertime" into Elvira's haunted mansion. Fleeing memories of their daughter's death, Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland run headlong into a pair of elderly psychic sisters, many echoing nighttime alleyways, and a possible ghost that turns out to be something far nastier. It's brilliantly filmed, but not something the Italian tourist board has ever pushed.

''The Sheltering Sky," Bernardo Bertolucci's 1990 adaptation of Paul Bowles's classic novel, may be the ultimate expression of the perils of going native. John Malkovich and Debra Winger are a rich, bored American couple traveling through post-World War II North Africa -- no mere tourists, but in search of experiences to make them feel alive, to which the adage ''be careful what you wish for" obviously applies. The film is as visually deluxe as you would expect from Bertolucci, with an unnerving sense of foreign travel as a sinkhole of entropy from which it's impossible to escape.

If that's too heavy for you, try the lite version: Danny Boyle's ''The Beach" (2000), with Leonardo DiCaprio as a callow American backpacker who falls in with a doomed utopian community on a fabled Thai island. The island scenes are weak -- think warmed-over ''Lord of the Flies" crossed with the international rave scene -- but the early sequences nicely convey the West's privileged youths trampling over a culture they can barely comprehend. ''Wanna drink snake blood?" asks the hustler in the Khao San Road bar, and when DiCaprio initially demurs, he scoffs, ''Just like every tourist. Just like America."

The two latest films to show Americans abroad stake out opposite ends of the spectrum: One shows the dream, the other hints at the reality. ''Under the Tuscan Sun" purveys the classic tourist fantasy of not only going somewhere else but being embraced by its inhabitants, and without having to adapt in the slightest. That the film is solid guilty-pleasure fun -- director Wells films it in high comic style and Lane is enchanting in the lead -- only makes the dream that much more alluring.

''Lost in Translation," by contrast, shows with a kind of slow midnight poetry the psychic dislocations that can result from being in another time zone. The bereft Hollywood star played by Bill Murray and the neglected young wife played by Scarlett Johansson are stunned into insomnia by the foreignness of Tokyo, which director Sofia Coppola presents as a nexus of manic sensory overload. Retreating from the neon streets and the echoing hotel bars, the two form an emotional support group that becomes, rather profoundly, a country unto itself.

This isn't tourist heaven or hell, in other words -- it's tourist limbo. And it may be the closest the movies have come yet to the heart of what it's like to be a stranger in a strange land.

Ty Burr reviews movies for the Globe.

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