OFF THE TOP OF MY HEAD, I CANNOT THINK OF a movie that makes a more disorienting transition from light to darkness than Besieged. It opens with a dreamed remembrance of Africa as a place of vast plains and expansive trees (and uniformed soldiers bursting into classrooms to arrest the teacher), then brutally cuts to a midnight-dark bedroom in Rome. The dreamer is Shandurai (Thandie Newton), who has been driven from her home country by military leaders. With her husband still in prison, Shandurai is in Italy studying to be a doctor, and employed as a maid by Mr. Kinsky (David Thewlis), a pianist/composer of no import living comfortably off his large inheritance. Even though Besieged starts off with Shandurai's memory, even though the first 30 minutes consist of a detailed account of her daily routine, the movie--as much as the bedroom in which she startles awake--belongs to Kinsky.

This might seem an odd claim, since Thewlis has perhaps half as much screen time as Newton (who is properly listed first in the credits). Her appearance on camera, however, is almost entirely as the object of Kinsky's desire. Shandurai has her own story and life in Rome separate from Kinsky, but the camera consistently gazes at her with such naked lust that it borders on the shameful. Her smallest act is lovingly followed, and everything aside from Newton gets short shrift, including the rest of the cast. Thewlis, who can be one of our more explosive actors, here is touchingly awkward and subdued, as if in comparison with Newton's voluptuousness he found his own lanky, angular body embarrassing.

The last time Bernardo Bertolucci made a film, he was similarly fixated on a young lovely: Stealing Beauty must rank as one of the most godawful movies ever put out by a director who has claims to greatness. I've never been fond of Bertolucci's attitudes toward women, particularly the role they play in art (muses only, please); but here, for the first time, we're seeing the muse played from the inside. Before, Bertolucci's films merely showed us people caught up in fantasies--of power, of passion--but here he shows us what the world looks like from the perspective of someone so deep in the midst of his illusion he can't notice the real world at all.

Perhaps that's why the breathtaking beauty and color--Bertolucci trademarks--are so conspicuously absent from the film. Instead there are rapid edits and practical lighting. Everything is seen with the nervous, jumpy energy of a man who can't think of anything except the woman he loves. Not that this is a grim, ugly film; in fact, it's one of his best and, in its own way, loveliest. It's just that, for whatever reason (budgetary considerations perhaps, as Besieged was made for Italian TV), the stunning set pieces and gorgeous imagery that stuffed Stealing Beauty to the bursting point are here abandoned as distractions. Even the political situation Shandurai is escaping, which alone would have occupied other Bertolucci films, is barely sketched in. For maybe the first time, what the director puts on the screen and what his characters see are one and the same--and all either can see is Newton. Kinsky's spacious, multi-story apartment is just a backdrop to Shandurai's presence: whether it's the spiral staircase that wraps around her as she cleans the floors, or the dumbwaiter he uses to send down love tokens.

Bertolucci never kids himself, or us, about the disparity in the relationship, or the nasty air of proprietorship in Kinsky's attitude, even in his generosity. When Kinsky learns of Shandurai's situation, he begins selling off his possessions to finance her husband's release from prison. He never really comments on the increasingly bare rooms, the light patches where paintings once hung on the walls. This reduction of clutter, and thus housework, has the added benefit of giving him and Shandurai more time to talk. It's merely an attempt to earn or buy her respect; a lonely man playing out his obsession to the potentially bitter end. Though the humane thing gets done, there's no sense of pious liberalism or even morality at play here.

Eventually Kinsky's thoughts of Shandurai--and, inevitably, Africa--draw from him the only beautiful piece of music he'll probably ever write, but his performance of the piece, when it comes, is perfunctory. His audience, consisting solely of his adolescent piano students (including one girl who has a crush on him--and he is as oblivious to her as he is to everything else), quickly grow bored and restless. By the end, they're all out in the backyard kicking around a soccer ball. Kinsky, with absolutely nothing better to do, joins them. This seemingly casual gathering is of course a long, sad farewell to all that Kinsky thought mattered before he met Shandurai. The surprise is that Bertolucci and his two actors are so attuned to the bliss of surrender that this is one of the sunniest, most joyous moments in this small-scale but greatly effective movie.

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