Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Thandie Newton, David Thewlis, Claudio Santamaria
Written by: Bernardo Bertolucci, Clare Peploe, based on a story by James Lasdun
Directed by: Bernardo Bertolucci
MPAA Rating: R for brief sexuality
Language: English, Italian, Swahili with English subtitles
Running Time: 93
Date: 09/14/1998
IMDB

Besieged (1999)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Last Piano in Italy

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Bernardo Bertolucci's Besieged looks like it ought to be a good movie.Perhaps a few people will even be fooled into thinking they've reallyseen something. Perhaps even history will call it a great movie. But Ican't say that I was affected by it much at all.

The story is simple, even old-fashioned. Shandurai (Thandie Newman, from Beloved) flees Africa for Italy after her husband has been jailed. She moves in to a room on the bottom floor of an enormous house occupied by an English pianist and composer called Kinsky (David Thewliss), and takes a job cleaning for him while she goes to medical school. He falls in love with her, and asks her what he can do for her. She tells him to free her husband. He does, and sacrifices his piano to do it. And then, with her husband free, Shandurai falls in love with Kinsky.

Bertolucci accomplishes this story with a minimum of dialogue, and virtually no subplots. (Remember the subplot with the filmmaker in Last Tango in Paris, which dragged compared to the Brando/Schneider storyline.) He uses mostly the inside of the large house which has a long spiral stairwell and a lovely garden rooftop. The few scenes we get outside really capture the city of Rome. The photography is gorgeous, and Bertolucci throws in some Godard-style jump-cuts and some choppy slo-mo every once in a while. He makes full use of the space inside the house, with the pianist living above and the student below. The dumbwaiter that Shandurai uses as a closet is even used as a crude communication device.

These are all nice touches. But despite all this, and the great talent and charisma of Newman and Thewliss, there is no spark. The story is told mostly from Shandurai's point of view, so that Kinsky's actions remain far off. Like in Bertolucci's The Last Emperor (1987), the characters seem passive. Any concrete action they take happens off screen. There is no sense of the great sacrifice Kinsky makes by selling his piano, nor of Shandurai's sudden change of heart. We see Shandurai studying and at medical school, and even passing a test, but Bertolucci seems more interested in watching her cleaning Kinsky's things.

Music also seems to be an integral part of the movie. It opens on an African singer, who reappears throughout the movie. One of the first images is a piece of music stationary with a question mark drawn on it. Shandurai listens to African pop music, and Kinsky is a classical composer. At one point, Kinsky incorporates some faster rhythms into his music, and Shandurai reacts positively to it. In another scene, Kinsky gives a concert for his piano students, but they all become more interested in looking for a lost soccer ball outside. What's Bertolucci trying to do? I don't know. All I can say is that in all these attempts to weave music into the story, there is still no emotion or passion involved.

Perhaps Bertolucci's goal was to make an anti-passionate love story, one without external conflict. If that was the case, perhaps he should have looked at "Last Tango in Paris" again, which Besieged so resembles. That movie was a small masterpiece of tangled emotions stripped bare to an animal level. Besieged is much more simple, yet less compelling.

I suspect that Bertolucci threw everything he had, heart and soul, into his 1976 international superproduction 1900. A movie like that is a visionary's dream, and only a few filmmakers are allowed to spend that much money and wield that much power. Since the completion of that movie, Bertolucci has seemed meeker -- tired and bored. Perhaps the draw of a movie like Besieged was a revisit to his past Last Tango glory, or perhaps it seemed like an easy shoot -- using only two actors and one set. I can't completely dismiss Besieged, but at the same time I can't help wondering if we can ever expect anything extraordinary from Bertolucci again.