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The very first frames of Bernardo Bertolucci's Besieged
display the hand of a master filmmaker at the peak of his powers. The main titles run
with footage of an African musician, a virtual one-man-band, singing his rhythmic and
emotional song as he sits beneath a huge tree arching out over the dry, hot landscape. The
song gives an immediate sense of emotional availability and yet, paradoxically, the singer
tells his tale dispassionately - his is an art distilling the experience of his people, a
verbal/musical history. But Bertolucci doesn't translate; the singer's communication is
achieved nonverbally, with sound and tone.
presages the film to come, in which dialogue is used sparingly. Music and visual imagery,
along with stellar acting, carry both the ideas and plot for Bertolucci's arresting,
offbeat love story.
sequences form a preface, telescoping the African experience of Shandurai (Thandie
Newton), who works with handicapped children in an unnamed country ruled by an oppressive
military regime. With great economy - a few short scenes - Bertolucci conveys the texture
of life in this primitive place. Shandurai's outspoken husband is carried off to prison by
the police, leaving her soaked in her own urine, generated by her terror - an image
perfectly conveying her despair, her loss of control.
Segue to the heart of the
story: Shandurai goes to Rome to pursue a medical degree and finds employment as a
domestic in the household of Kinsky, a recluse, a pianist absorbed in his private musical
reveries. In a scene of exquisitely painful clumsiness, Kinsky abases himself and blurts
out his love to Shandurai who fends him off, reminding him that she is a married woman and
challenging him to get her husband out of prison.
Aside from that one
scene, the courtship between the awkward, wealthy, white, European aesthete and his
beautiful, black, African servant is nonverbal. He sends her gifts via the dumbwaiter that
connects his upstairs rooms with her downstairs servants' quarters. He woos with his
music, shifting from European classics, picking up on the African beat that she loves and
incorporating it into a minimalist composition. Communication between them via music
bridges gaps that words could not.
selling off his paintings, tapestries, and furniture until there is little left but the
piano, and that, too, gets hauled away. He is sacrificing everything to buy a gift for
this woman he loves unreservedly - the freedom of her husband, the same husband who stands
between him and his beloved.
David Thewlis is
fine as Kinsky, finding just the right childlike qualities within the awkward man. But
this is Newton's film - she is on the screen almost uninterruptedly and she seems to live
in the role, from the fear of the politically subjugated, to the skittishness of a third
world person plunged into European ways, from the confident and successful medical student
to the wary object of unconditional love - she makes it all work, she makes it believable,
and she makes it fully credible that the rich pianist upstairs is in love with her.
We are, too.
design by Gianni Silvestri together with the cinematography of Fabio Cianchetti assist
mightily in realizing Bertolucci's artistic vision. This is not filmmaking in which
the filmmakers fade into the background; Bertolucci uses speedups and jump cuts,
effectively and appropriately - techniques that remind you of the artifice of film. Like a
painter in oil using a heavy impasto, you become acutely aware of the texture and
technique of the artist, even as you are caught up in the beauty of the painting. In Besieged
each frame ravishes the eye with color, composition, and unexpected angles and images.
A pink umbrella, a gospel choir, a perfect exotic flower - visual and aural richness
accomplishes for this film what words could not have done. It is celluloid poetry.
- Arthur Lazere