Friday May 21, 1999
From the start of the enchanting "Besieged," a film that combines a stunning sensuality with a rigorous economy, you know that you're in the hands of a filmmaker who trusts in the storytelling power of the camera. And since the filmmaker happens to be Bernardo Bertolucci, you can count on his images to be ravishingly beautiful.
It begins this way: Bertolucci cinematographer Fabio Cianchetti's gracefully fluid camera picks out a beautiful young woman (Thandie Newton) caring for a large group of disabled children at a rural clinic in an unnamed African nation. A series of shots of posters of a military leader being pasted up everywhere in the area follows. Then cut to a man in a schoolroom asking his pupils if they know the difference between the words "boss" and "leader."
In a rapid montage we see a group of soldiers brutally take the schoolteacher into custody as the young woman, Shandurai, is bicycling home. Next, we see Shandurai awaken from her troubled sleep in a room so humble and nondescript that we don't know that we've moved from Africa to Rome, where Shandurai has fled from her homeland, which clearly has been taken over by a military dictatorship. Her room is on the ground floor of an ancient Roman villa, where she works as a housekeeper while pursuing her medical studies.
The owner of the villa is a Mr. Kinsky (David Thewlis), a young English pianist-composer who spends most of his time at the piano. He also gives lessons to a number of clearly gifted children. He is a tall, thin man, not conventionally handsome but attractive, absorbed in his music and a shy loner of exceptional intelligence yet possessed of warmth and kindness.
Shandurai is so zealous a housekeeper that you wonder when she finds time to devote to her studies--and how and when she became so fluent in Italian; so seductive is this film that you just take it on faith that she can handle the load. You also begin to suspect that all that intense scrubbing and dusting is a kind of exorcism for her, a way of dealing with survivor's guilt and her worry about the now-imprisoned schoolteacher, who happens to be her husband.
As caught up in his work as he is, Kinsky, who inherited the villa from an aunt, can't help but notice Shandurai's diligence and, more important, cannot help but notice her striking looks and be stirred by the grace with which she performs household tasks. She is an alluring woman, all the more so for being so completely natural and spontaneous.
One day Kinsky, who has no idea that Shandurai is married, places on a dumbwaiter a large diamond ring, which had been his aunt's, and sends it down to Shandurai's room. Perplexed and upset, Shandurai tells him she can't accept such a gift. He blurts out that he loves her and wants to know how he can prove it to her. Now thoroughly upset, she retorts in exasperation that he can do so by getting her husband out of prison.
Working from a script he adapted with his longtime co-writer Clare Peploe, from a short story by James Lasdun, Bertolucci spins a tale with the assurance, fascination and subtlety of an Isak Dinesen novella. When he's in top form, as he is here, Bertolucci displays an innate sense of proportion, as at home with the epic scale as with the intimate. In keeping with his strong appreciation of the visual, Bertolucci keeps dialogue to a minimum, which means Newton must be as expressive as a silent-era actress. He makes the same demands upon Thewlis, and both his stars glow under his direction.
He has also understood that with this particular material the setting is crucial and the villa in fact becomes almost a third character. An irresistibly charming structure of shabby elegance, it is dominated by a dramatic circular staircase that allows Bertolucci to suggest the levels and shifts within the relationship--the spiraling emotions--between Shandurai and Kinsky.
"Besieged" is heady stuff, and Bertolucci has always been an impassioned filmmaker, starting with the bravura "Before the Revolution," which made his international reputation 35 years ago. With "Besieged," as with all his best work, Bertolucci confronts tempestuous circumstances with complete control of his material. Such discipline only intensifies the impact of "Besieged's" hard-to-predict finish.
Besieged, 1999. R, for brief sexuality. A Fine Line Features presentation of a Fiction Films and Navert Film production in association with Mediaset. Director Bernardo Bertolucci. Producer Massimo Cortesi. Screenplay by Bertolucci and Clare Peploe; from a story by James Lasdun. Cinematographer Fabio Cianchetti. Editor Jacopo Quadri. Music Alessio Vlad. Costumes Metka Kosak. Production designer Gianni Silvestri. In English and Italian, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes. Thandie Newton as Shandurai. David Thewlis as Mr. Kinsky. Claudio Santamaria as Agostino.