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[whitespace] Besieged
Beloved Again: Thandie Newton's Shandurai is delicately courted in 'Besieged.'

Bernardo Bertolucci creates an emotional epic on a small canvas in 'Besieged'

By Richard von Busack

THEY CALL the new Bernardo Bertolucci film, Besieged, an ominous title. Even the idea of a new Bertolucci film is a little ominous right now; he's made quite a series of missteps in the last 10 years. His last highly praised film was The Sheltering Sky in 1990, and Bertolucci's adaptation, less stark than Paul Bowles' novel, was really about communing with Bedouins-intuitive, fatalistic fellows they are, who scorn our fripperies, such as movie theaters.

The Sheltering Sky was followed by Little Buddha, with Keanu Reeves as the Enlightened One. Yes, the idea of Reeves as Buddha made people laugh at the time, but it's still funny six years later. Fans mesmerized by The Matrix could argue that it and Little Buddha form a unit. In the former, Reeves becomes the Buddha; in the latter, an enlightened Reeves shows humanity how to rend the veil of illusion. Of course, the real Buddha didn't have an arsenal to blast that veil with. But guns are just a metaphor. Ask any gunshot victim.

Finally, Bertolucci took us on a long tour around Liv Tyler in the overpraised, exhausted Stealing Beauty, in which the entire cast seemed to be performing from lounge chairs during a heat wave.

Counterpointing these movies were reissues of Bertolucci's earlier work. The Last Emperor, 1900 and The Conformist reminded us of what a uniquely ambitious director Bertolucci was when he was at his best. His career demonstrates how an artist could be a revolutionary and yet suspicious of causes, of dogma.

Besieged, the new film by the 59-year-old Bertolucci, is back to basics, and maybe that's what saves it. The film is based on "The Siege," a story by James Lasdun, who co-wrote the script for that dismal chamber piece about homelessness, Sunday. On the evidence of Sunday, Besieged must be a triumph of adaptation. It's easy to see how this slight story could have gone wrong. Taken in the wrong direction, Besieged could have been as Sunday was, a film quivering with repressed feelings like a Chihuahua.

In Vladimir Nabokov's novel Pale Fire, there's an anecdote about a literature professor who lowers the grade of any of his students who use the word "simple" as a positive description. Maybe "pure" or "immediate" are better terms to use to describe Besieged.

THE FILM was shot mostly in one large mansion, with very few lines of dialogue and handsome functional camera work (a lot of Steadicam, I believe). After the great epic webs Bertolucci has woven, it's satisfying to see him pounce on a subject deftly.

Besieged, co-written by Bertolucci's wife, the director Claire Peploe, tells the story of Shandurai (Thandie Newton). The first face ithat we see is the face of a griot--an African singing storyteller--roaring an untranslated lament as he sits underneath a huge tree. He sets the beat, and the film takes it up.

With the rapid sketching of Costa-Gavras at his best, Bertolucci shows us the aftermath of a military coup in an unnamed African country: the soldiers wallpapering a town with posters of the Leader in his military uniform and visored cap; afterward, a school teacher--Shandurai's husband--is hauled away to prison by the military as she watches, pissing in terror.

All of this is conveyed without dialogue, except for the griot's singing. (There's no credit in the press notes for this remarkable griot, who accompanies himself on what the studio deigns to call his "primitive thumb piano.")

We rejoin Shandurai as a refugee, a med student in Rome, in the neighborhood around the Spanish Steps. To pay her rent, Shandurai is working as a maid for an independently incomed Englishman named Kinsky (David Thewlis), who has inherited the place and its furnishings from his aunt. His days are spent composing classical music on a grand piano and drinking.

Kinsky's villa is a tall, sturdy, but beat-up building with a garden; he has the top floor, so that the heat and the noise of Rome are kept out. The front of the villa overlooks the open maw of a subway station. Foot traffic from this subway energizes what might have been an enervated film; the stream of people coming and going takes Besieged out of some timeless Eternal City blues and very much into the loud, vulgar and practical now. The pulse of the film thumps. Besieged is Bertolucci's shortest feature film in 35 years.

The master and the maid share a dumbwaiter. At night, sometimes, the dumbwaiter creaks up the rope and returns with new objects in it. First a sheet of paper lined for music, with a question mark at its center. Later, there's a fresh hibiscus blossom. When Shandurai confronts Kinsky, the landlord blurts out a declaration of love, promising to do anything for Shandurai. "Get my husband out of prison!" she shouts.

Kinsky, who never knew Shandurai had a husband, repents. He makes a handsome apology to her. Though neither Shandurai nor Kinsky speaks of this apology, we understand what his sacrifice is. The siege of the title isn't a siege by an army but a siege by feelings neither Shandurai nor Kinsky wants. Besieged is thus a simple--damn the word--tale of self-denying, undemanding love at its best.

DID BERTOLUCCI spend more time mulling over Liv Tyler than he does over the graceful Thandie Newton? It seemed indecent, voyeuristic, when Bertolucci was stealing the (indifferent, I think) beauty of Liv Tyler. Why does his approach seem less so here?

(Maybe it's just that Tyler was supposed to be unaware of the commotion she was causing. Newton returns the gaze when she gets a brief, reluctant, but fascinated look at the whiteness of Thewlis' skin in the gap between his ankle and his trouser leg.)

The camera is watching Newton as she studies, cooks for herself or wraps a skirt around her hips. The movie is in her pocket, and though she's wordless for much of it, she's never unexpressive. Newton can really act.

Although she was lambasted for her performance in the title role of the failed film version of Beloved, I thought Newton was Beloved's "best thing," to borrow Toni Morrison's phrase. It was a brave, risky, strange role for an untried actress to attempt. As a clinging ghost, she had the least to work with and the most to create.

And Newton, as we can see here, has a gift for silent scenes. Her best moments in Beloved are the scenes in which she emerges from the creek, with moths and beetles attending her. Newton's Shandurai is completely different from Beloved. She's uncomplicated, a practical, hardworking woman who can't understand the silly piano-playing Englishman upstairs.

Thewlis' Kinsky is a bit of a clown. He juggles to entertain some children. You can hear him reaching for classiness in the studied Noel Coward-style phrasing of an invitation to Shandurai to hear him perform a "a rather ... trivial composition."

Thewlis shows us the crack between Kinsky's mannerisms and the man he must be underneath. Watch him when he's displaying what he considers a well-bred ironic smile. It's said that in England all you have to do is to open your mouth for everyone to tell what class you are. Sometimes all you have to do is speak your name. Kinsky is apparently not to the manner born. But it looks like an actor's deliberate choice, not miscasting on the director's part.

We aren't waiting breathlessly for the two of them to get together. Imagining, as we have to in the back of our minds, an African political prison; seeing, as we do, that there's something artificial and clumsy about Kinsky--there seems to be as much reason for them to keep their distance as to become intimate.

Their star-crossed romance doesn't seem like a crass delaying tactic. By showing how hard Shandurai works, Bertolucci reminds us that this is a romance between an upstairs landlord and his tenant, who lives literally and figuratively below him.

Although Kinsky is too shy to be menacing, he and Shandurai aren't really on an equal plane. Shandurai is plagued by nightmares in which she's tearing down the posters of the Leader back in Africa, even finding one with Kinsky's face on it. Intimate as the film is, it does bring up issues of racism--perhaps accidentally. At the end, you can see an art-deco lamp in the form of a Ubangi woman. Even if this is just some gewgaw Kinksy's aunt has left him, it's a weird breach of taste. Seeing that ugly lamp there for the one moment, I doubted that Shandurai was loved for her grace as a woman, instead of her exoticness as an African.

There is a war on in Besieged, but compared to the sex-war in Last Tango in Paris, Besieged is chaste, more courtly--an older man's film. Some would think this cautious romance is too small a subject for Bertolucci, but is the epic really the highest and the best kind of film? Few epics work all the way through. As with grand opera or the 800-page novel, the size is often more impressive than the quality.

A great artist can work as effectively on an 8-by-11 sheet as on a mural. Besieged has an ominous title, but actually you could call it the best summer romance of the year--something sultry and sweet you can enjoy and still keep your self-respect.

Besieged (R; 90 min.), directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, written by Claire Peploe and Bertolucci, photographed by Fabio Cianchetti and starring Thandie Newton and David Thewlis.

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From the June 10-16, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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