`Besieged' a captivating story of love and hope

June 11, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

When Bernardo Bertolucci made "Stealing Beauty" in 1995, many filmgoers were surprised that the master of such visually opulent movies as "The Conformist," "The Last Emperor" and "The Sheltering Sky" would end a 15-year hiatus with such a relatively small film. With "Besieged," Bertolucci has gone even smaller.

A love story set on the fault lines of a contracting global culture, "Besieged" is virtually a one-set piece, focusing on the curious romance between two rootless people. What's more, Bertolucci has virtually done away with dialogue itself, instead evoking the mystery of attraction through a hyper-vigilant camera and kinetic editing.

The approach makes for a fascinating cinematic exercise, especially coming from one of the cinema's most enduring artists. And the actors who play this seemingly mismatched couple -- Thandie Newton and David Thewlis -- have the faces, bodies and intellectual energy to convey the powerful emotions of their characters.

Newton plays Shandurai, a young woman from a village in Africa who fled to Rome when her husband, an outspoken teacher, was imprisoned. Now a medical student, Shandurai lives at an elegantly appointed villa, paying her rent by working as a cleaning lady for her landlord, a musician named Kinsky (Thewlis), who lives upstairs.

Kinsky has fallen in love with Shandurai, conducting his courtship by way of a dumbwaiter that communicates between the two apartments, sending down messages and gifts.

Shandurai is appalled -- she doesn't understand this weedy Englishman, or his music -- and she studiously keeps her distance. But she warily starts to respond when Kinsky begins to communicate through his piano, then proves his love by performing an anonymous and astonishing act of self-sacrifice.

"Besieged," which Bertolucci and his wife, Clare Peploe, adapted from a short story by James Lasdun, owes a debt to O. Henry in its sensibility, although the director's emphasis on the protagonists' longing gazes and seemingly portentous moments (a handkerchief falling down a stairwell; an errant soccer ball bouncing through a courtyard) tends to make "Besieged" more melodramatic than that author's powerfully simple tales.

If "Besieged" suffers from overwrought emotion, it still benefits from Bertolucci's unerring eye and innate feeling for atmosphere. He has found the perfect setting -- a slightly decrepit villa situated between the Spanish Steps and a subway station -- to evoke the story's subtext of a city hovering between history and change. And his constantly moving camera fractures and recomposes the space in a disorienting, almost abstract, way that mirrors the dynamic emotions to which Kinsky and Shandurai find themselves captive.

"Besieged" may remind the director's admirers of his 1972 film, "Last Tango in Paris," which also took place largely in one house and also examined the primal, almost pre-verbal relationship between a man and a woman. Unlike that bleak film, however, "Besieged" offers a transcendent sense of hope.

Not only can men and women understand each other, Bertolucci seems finally to have concluded, but they can do so despite the best efforts of nations, cultures and histories to keep them apart.

`Besieged'

Starring Thandie Newton, David Thewlis

Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci

Rated R for brief sexuality

Running time 92 minutes

Released by Fine Line Features

Sun score: ***

Pub Date: 6/11/99

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