1999, R, 92 min. Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. Starring Claudio Santamaria, David Thewlis, Thandie Newton.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., July 16, 1999
It's been many a luna since Bernardo Bertolucci has given us a movie as potently charged with emotional interiority as he does with his new one, Besieged. Made in collaboration with his wife Clare Peploe (who co-wrote the screenplay and associate produced), Bertolucci's Besieged is an elemental love story told in gestures and intimations. Words and declarations of feelings play so minor a part in this love story that they can hardly even be thought of as playing second fiddle to the film's thematic motifs, which are expressed in broad visual and aural strokes. Very little beyond the essentials is spoken in the film; nearly the first 20 minutes pass without dialogue. Yet, Besieged is far from austere -- in fact, quite the opposite. It is a compact little story that raises more questions than it answers. To describe too much of the plot is to give too much of it away, for there is little more to it than what is there on the surface. The surface, however, is so intriguingly come-hither that you wish to dive below and discover its inner workings. Much is left to the imagination in this story of a beautiful African refugee medical student who cleans house for an eccentric pianist in his Roman villa not far from the Spanish Steps. Shandurai (Newton) and Kinsky (Thewlis) live in this handsomely decorated home -- he in the upper floors and she in the lower servants quarters, their domains connected by a circular marble staircase and a dumbwaiter that she uses as a closet shelf and he uses to lower romantic offerings into her realm. One day, Mr. Kinsky (for this is what Shandurai calls him, even when writing him a love letter), grabs Shandurai and asks what would make her love him. Impulsively, she replies that he would have to get her husband out of prison in Africa. For these people passing wordlessly -- he playing the piano while she dusts and vacuums -- it is the first knowledge Kinsky has that Shandurai is already married. In the end, Kinsky gives his all for love; it earns the husband's release and maybe Shandurai's love. In ways, they are reminders of the nameless lovers who meet in the empty apartment in Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris; then they take the shape of the transgressive inter-familial lovers in Luna. Bertolucci's early career obsessions with the collisions between Freudianism and Marxism have softened, though they are still clearly relevant; his latter obsessions with Eastern spirituality (The Last Emperor, The Sheltering Sky, Little Buddha) have grown into more personal questions about love and its objects and objectives. Besieged creates a beautiful interplay between the characters' oppositions: between up, down, and circular movements within the house; the culture clashes between the African refugee in Italy and the British artist in Rome; the contrast of the rhythms of the African popular music and the classicism of the Western canon; the differences in skin color; the bright light of the exteriors and the stark shadows of the interiors; and the colonialist bent of the emotional paradigm versus the irrational nature of the sources from whence come love. There is an unreality to the story (for example, how can this political escapee from a small African village manage to ace medical school and clean house, all while speaking three different languages?), but so much of it derives from the scarcity of background we are provided for the characters. Yet one suspects the occasional shallowness of the film's approach is a wholly intentional thing. Newton (Beloved, Jefferson in Paris) and Thewlis (Naked) are impeccable choices for Shandurai and Kinsky, both so expressively watchable and haunting. Bertolucci uses them as representational figures besieged by the war within.