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.
This stratagem 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.
The opening 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.
Kinsky starts 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.
The production 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.