Bernardo Bertolucci's Besieged is a movie of enthralling visual poetry. Set almost entirely inside a ravishing Roman villa, it is a love story played out in furtive glances and stolen looks by characters on opposite sides of the ethnic divide. Culturally, Mr. Kinsky (David Thewlis) and Shandurai (Thandie Newton) couldn't be more different. Kinsky is an accomplished pianist who dedicates himself completely to his music. By day, Shandurai, who immigrated to Italy from her African homeland after the imprisonment of her husband, works as a cleaning woman for Mr. Kinsky; at night, she attends a university to complete her medical degree.
While Shandurai goes about her chores, the reclusive Kinsky practices his piano, filling the villa with exquisite music. What soon becomes clear, though, is that Kinsky is trying to make contact with the young African beauty, and, rather than doing so directly, is attempting to reach out through his music. At first, Shandurai appears distant and uninterested. But Kinsky casts out his music like a net, and when that doesn't work, he begins sending cryptic messages to his housemate via a dumbwaiter that connects his part of the villa with hers.
Predictably, Shandurai views these intrusions as a violation of her personal space. But even as she is voicing her irritation to her friend Agostino (a sympathetic Claudio Santamaria), Shandurai begins to let down her guard. With each passing day, she begins to inch closer to her seducer. As the dance progresses, Bertolucci makes subtle changes in his compositions and his editing rhythms to heighten the sexual tension. That Besieged shows a fusion of sexuality and cultural politics places it in the mainstream of Bertolucci's interests. But he has never worked with the simplicity and discipline or the subtlety that he shows here.
In this regard, Besieged is one of the director's least novelistic works; the impact it has is that of a short story. Still, Bertolucci and his co-screenwriter, Clare Peploe, have built a political dimension into the developing relationship between the protagonists, placing pointed emphasis on the fact that Kinsky is from the west and Shandurai from the emerging Third World. That Shandurai works for Kinsky doing custodial work is also of vital importance in that it describes the power relationship between the two. These details, quite naturally, are of much greater importance to Shandurai than they are to Kinsky. As a result, the director creates an imbalance of power that she feels acutely but that Kinsky is totally oblivious to.
If these political implications were given any more heft, the entire structure would have collapsed completely. As it is, they remain in the subtext, giving the story a much needed sense of urgency and weight. At a point near the middle of the film, when the two characters finally confront each other, the tension between them grows almost unbearable. In that brief instant, as Kinsky learns the truth about Shandurai--and in particular why she fled her home in Africa--the agenda for the film's second half is set.
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The course the picture takes from here is shrouded in mystery. After their dramatic encounter, Kinsky seems to be filled with a greater sense of purpose, as if, finally, he knew what needed to be done to win Shandurai's heart. What's strange, though, at least from her perspective, is that Kinsky isn't around her as much and doesn't seem to pay her much attention. At the same time, an ever increasing stream of workmen descends on the villa, and with each day, the magnificent collection of furniture, carpets, and artwork is sold off and removed from the premises. In the end, even Kinsky's piano is packed up and gently carted away.
As this winnowing process is carried out, it seems as though something more than the mere removal of furnishings is taking place; an interpretation of precisely what would probably not add anything to our overall understanding--and certainly not to our enjoyment--of the film. Regardless, the result is that Kinsky has by this process made himself worthy of Shandurai's love. (I won't reveal whether or not he gets it.)
In Besieged, Bertolucci demonstrates his phenomenal ability to draw forceful, dynamic performances out of his actors. As Shandurai, Thandie Newton is a revelation. She is a fearless, electrifying actress; no one working today performs with greater immediacy or authenticity. Every emotion is freshly and vividly expressed, with not the slightest trace of vanity. As Kinsky, David Thewlis works with tremendous simplicity and authority. When he sits at the piano, you feel as if you can read the music in his face, and when he is with Shandurai, his fragility and openness are heartbreaking. Besieged is a love story awash with music and emotion. It's a subtle, masterful creation by one of the world's most gifted filmmakers.
Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. Screenplay by Bertolucci and Clare Peploe. Starring Thandie Newton, David Thewlis, and Claudio Santamaria. Opens Friday.