1996, R, 119 min. Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. Starring Liv Tyler, Sinead Cusack, Jeremy Irons, Jean Marais, Donal Mccann, D.w. Moffett, Stefania Sandrelli, Rachel Weisz.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., July 12, 1996
Bertolucci returns to his native Italian soil for the first time in 15 years, and the result is a gorgeous albeit fairly insubstantial homecoming. Set in a villa nestled amongst the rolling hills of Tuscany, Stealing Beauty begins with the arrival of 19-year-old Lucy Harmon (Tyler), an American who has traveled to Italy on the pretense of having her portrait sculpted by an old family friend, Ian Grayson (McCann). Her real reasons are more complex, however; it is in this same villa that she was conceived, and though her mother, a poet, has died and she never knew her father, Lucy feels she may be able to regain a bit of her lost past, and perhaps even discover the identity of her father. A virgin, she also hopes to find true love, or at least the beginnings of womanhood amongst the colorful cast of characters that populate the villa during the summer months. Among them, the wry artist Ian and his wife Diana (Cusack); the dying playwright Alex (Irons), who finds a final spark of life in the presence of this exuberant young girl; the senile antique dealer Monsieur Guillaume (Marais); and a smarmy entertainment lawyer and his mistress (Moffett, Weisz). With memories of her first kiss lingering in her head, Lucy seeks out a trio of young men whom she first met at the villa while visiting four years ago. One of them, she knows, will be her first lover, but which one is anyone's guess. Amidst the olive groves and vineyards, Lucy will find all she needs to know, and more. The problem with Bertolucci's lushly romantic film is that it's hard to care one way or the other about Lucy's situation. Like Shakespeare's (and Kenneth Branagh's) aptly titled Much Ado About Nothing, there's really not much of a plot here, just a series of interesting characters set down against an achingly beautiful backdrop with precious little to do but flirt and bask in the Tuscan sun. The only seriously arresting object in the film is Liv Tyler, whose appearance is nearly enough in itself to warrant repeated viewings of what might have otherwise been the flimsiest of films. Tyler is one of those rare individuals who seems made for the camera. The moment she's onscreen, the camera can't take its eye off of her, and for good reason: Her face, her presence, everything about her is stunningly photogenic, though you get the feeling she's not even aware of the camera half the time. And then, of course, she's a beautifully naturalistic actress, mouthing even the most inanely romantic dialogue without a hint of unease. Even the brilliant Irons is overshadowed by this wonderful new actress. In the future, it will be interesting to see if Tyler can sustain such an unprepossessing aura once out of the Italian hills and Bertolucci's golden camerawork. I suspect she can, and will, and again, that's reason enough to catch Stealing Beauty: It's the birth of a superstar.