movie review by
Crissa-Jean Chappell


(© 1999 Fine Line Features. All rights reserved.)

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“Please love me," the man begs. "What can I do to make you love me?"

The woman stares. "Get my husband out of jail."

In the opening sequence of Bernardo Bertolucci's latest opus, Besieged, a band of African military police abduct a schoolteacher from his classroom. As he is taken away, his wife watches in horror. She opens her mouth and makes no noise, as if sound could express what she feels. Without further explanation, we cut to present-day Rome. Shandurai (played by Thandie Newton, known for her formidable role as the ghost-girl in Beloved) has taken a house-cleaning position for the quirky British pianist, Mr. Kinsky (David Thewlis). Strange gifts pop up in her closet: an orchid, delicate as crepe paper; a jewel-studded, antique ring; a blank sheet of music, inscribed with an inky question-mark.

At first, it appears Bertolucci has stooped to cross-cultural, romantic metaphors. Africa takes the place of his own country, Italy, as the mysterious (that is, feminine) incarnation of the unknowable while England embodies the colder, white European taste for tradition. So goes the literary formula. A lesser film might've succumbed to the same old social criticisms. Instead, the husband-wife team of Bertolucci and Clare Peploe have pieced together an intelligent, achingly sensual narrative, based a short story by British author James Lasdun. Originally intended for European television, they took turns crafting an elegant script from the perspective of each gender. One wonders how the script might read, as it seldom depends on dialogue (25 minutes pass before an actual conversation takes place).

Mr. Kinsky articulates his emotions through music. In a similar fashion, the film follows the structure of a classical composition, presenting a rhythmic series of themes (with specific visual details), and then it comments on the themes through clever juxtapositions. Taken as a whole, the patterns form a mosaic. Cinematographer Fabio Cienchetti beautifully exaggerates the drudging details of an ordinary existence (simple acts like washing clothes or brewing a cup of coffee) and makes them seem momentous. The foam that wreathes a mug of beer becomes the suds that Shandurai sloshes across a tile floor. A petal-pink orchid, crumpled in a trash can, becomes a petal-pink umbrella, bobbing through a rain-drenched crowd of businessmen.

Melody and image meld into a unified syntax in this near-silent film. Mr. Kinsky listens to Bach, Beethoven and that a painter might illustrate with bold, hard brushstrokes in solid hues. Shandurai sneers at Mr. Kinsky's piano playing. She prefers the more-vibrant, rollicking refrains of African pop (personally selected by Thandie, who was born to a Zimbabwean mother and British father). Only when Mr. Kinsky slides the needle over a record of John Coltrane's "My Favorite Things" does Shandurai stop and reflect.

Subjective viewpoints add a depth and complexity to the simple plot, which is about love, in its truest sense. (Not simply erotic love, heavy on histrionics. But true love in the form of self-sacrifice.) How much would a person give to win another's love? What sort of morality colors their giving (and demands love in return?). These are the sorts of ironic, philosophical questions worthy of an O. Henry short story. The film's perfectly-paradoxical climax couldn't seem more appropriate, nor more maddening.

Some may speculate why Bertolucci leaves out the socio-political background on Kenya. Others have called him "racist" for inexplicable reasons. Perhaps some people feel uncomfortable watching an interracial couple confront their similarities without alluding to their differences. The very fact that Bertolucci avoids mentioning race or politics puts the focus on his characters, not their color. The film works as a surrealist allegory. Even Mr. Kinsky's decaying bohemian digs, with ornate tapestries and dusty statues, serves as a metaphor for his interior state. Once his lovely possessions (including his Steinway) start to disappear, he walks less carefully in the room. Soon, there's little left to hide behind.

David Thewlis has appeared in many Mike Leigh movies (most notably the shrewd absurdist rant Naked). Usually, he's shouting four-letter phrases in a Cockney accent. This time, he's taken a much subtler approach as the reclusive Mr. Kinsky, a sensitive man who gives concerts to children. His charm lies in his awkwardness, a pure-hearted eccentricity that seems completely unaffected.

Thandie has already proved herself in films as early as the hilarious Australian indie"Flirting. Here, she is spellbinding. Whenever she appears onscreen, it's difficult to look away. If she were merely a pretty actress, she wouldn't hold our attention for long. She possesses a fiery brand of vigor, not to mention bravery, that permits her to perform such unladylike tasks as vomiting (messily), spitting, and crying until snot glazes her chin. In the end, she must chose between someone for whom she gave so much...and someone who gave so much to her. Be careful when you wish for love. You just might receive it.

[rating: 4 of 4 stars]