Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci
Written by Bertolucci and Clare Peploe
With Thandie Newton and David Thewlis
Distributed by Fine Line Features
The many flaws of Bertolucci's last film, STEALING BEAUTY, can be summed up quite simply: he filmed his hometown like a tourist. After making a worldwide splash with his 1964 film BEFORE THE REVOLUTION, he was widely hailed - along with James Ivory, ironically - as part of the worldwide "New Cinema" movement inspired by the French New Wave, a traveling companion of such politically and formally radical filmmakers as Jean-Marie Straub, Glauber Rocha and Nagisa Oshima. However, his ties to Italian culture and history gradually loosened after his 1970 masterpiece THE CONFORMIST, apart from 1900 and the underrated TRAGEDY OF A RIDICULOUS MAN. The vapid exoticism of THE SHELTERING SKY and LITTLE BUDDHA couldn't be further from the intensely personal and local focus of BEFORE THE REVOLUTION. Austrian critic Alexander Horwath has decried "the reduction of European and Asian cinemas to a few 'masters' who can transcend all national borders and dance on all markets" as part of the impact of globalization on film culture. Although he cites Zhang Yimou and the late Krzysztof Kieslowski as exemplars of this kind of director, most of Bertolucci's work over the past 20 years fits the bill. Horwath declares that the antidote to this homogenization lies "in filmmakers who speak in concrete words and voices, from a concrete place, about concrete places and characters." That may be too much ask of present-day Bertolucci, but BESIEGED is his best film since THE LAST EMPEROR precisely because it takes the spiritual rootlessness created by the absence of concrete places and voices as its subject.
BESIEGED begins in an African village where Shandurai (Thandie Newton) lives with her husband, a schoolteacher jailed by their unnamed country's brutal government. After his arrest, she emigrates to Rome to attend medical school while waiting for word on her husband's fate. She finds a job as a housekeeper for a wealthy Englishman Kinsky (David Thewlis), a pianist who gives lessons and private concerts for kids but refuses to perform in public, but soon after she takes the job, Kinsky declares that he's fallen in love with her. Distressed by this news, she informs him that she's already married and suggests that he aid her husband get away safely.
With BESIEGED, Bertolucci has thankfully jettisoned the Tradition of Quality feel and indulgence in prettiness for its own sake that Vittorio Storaro, for all his talent, brought to his work. Who would have thought he'd make an elegantly disorienting film that resembles Cassavetes more than David Lean? Here, space becomes fluid: pooling and flowing in a chaotic fashion that challenges the way camera angles and framing usually create an illusion of stability. Abrupt edits and close-ups disrupt continuity, contributing to an elliptical feel. Style doesn't reign over substance here: Bertolucci isn't over-directing to cover up his deficiencies. Instead, style is substance, half a reflection of and half a counterpoint to the tension between Shandurai and Kinsky.
J. Hoberman has dismissed BESIEGED as a ludicrously racist "white man's burden" fantasy, a position echoed by several other critics. However, I don't find the creepily obsessive Kinsky all that benign a figure, even though much of his behavior has positive consequences. Nor is Shandurai simply a helpless, childlike victim: she's canny enough to mistrust him - a feeling often reflected in her body language - and use his passion to her benefit. Remarkably, Thewlis and Newton's performances rely far more on subtleties of posture and facial expression rather than dialogue - his head usually tilts at a 25-degree angle, as if he can't quite face her straight on - although Thewlis occasionally overdoes the histrionics. Even when Shandurai finally responds to Kinsky's affection, this racial tension never quite disappears. I agree with Hoberman that the sacrifices he eventually makes for her sake don't come close to matching hers, but despite the vast differences of privilege between them, their dual exiles - his voluntary, hers undertaken out of desperation - eventually lend them some common ground.
Globalization may have dealt a fatal blow to European national cinemas, with the major exception of France, if not to the whole notion of a national cinema. Asian films like Edward Yang's A CONFUCIAN CONFUSION & MAHJONG, Jia Zhang Ke's XIAO WU and Hou Hsaio-hsien's GOODBYE SOUTH, GOODBYE have documented the alienation produced by these ugly conditions - whose impact, of course, extends far beyond the rarefied realm of film culture - far better than recent European cinema, so I'm delighted to see Bertolucci responding to this challenge. If it may no longer be possible to make a specifically Italian cinema - at least if one expects to reach an audience outside Italy - BESIEGED is a step towards the kind of modest, intelligent cross-national cinema that might be able to take its place. Between this exhilarating film and Wim Wenders' minor comeback with BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB, the past month has been good for old-school European auteurs. Here's hoping that Theo Angelopolous' ETERNITY AND A DAY, which I'll be seeing in the next week, makes it three for three.