Besieged (1998): Bertolucci’s Intimate Melodrama, Starring David Thewlis and Thandie Newton

Though made for Italian TV,  Bernardo Bertolucci’s Besieged received theatrical distribution in many countries, including the U.S., where Fine Line is releasing.

Modestly scale, this intimate drama, largely set indoors, depicts the evolving relationship of two characters that could not have been more disparate in nationality, race, social class, profession, and status.

British actor David Thewlis (who several years before made a strong impression in Mike Leigh’s brutally candid drama, “Naked”) plays Jason Kinsky, an English pianist and composer who is living in Rome. African-American actress Thandie Newton plays Shandurai, his housekeeper, an African refugee whose husband is a political prisoner in an unnamed African country.

The movie lacks social or political urgency, but Bertolucci, who co-wrote with his wife, Clare Peploe, is most effective in coaxing vividly expressive performances from his two leads, who seldom leave the house and whose communication in the first half of the film is limited to the exchange of looks and gestures; dialogue is minimal throughout. But, as always, Bertolucci is great with building the right atmosphere, here manifest in the erotic tension between the white master and his African helper.

Gradually, Kinsky becomes smitten with his employee and he winds up pawning or selling everything he owns (including his most precious possession, a Steinway grand piano) in order to help get her husband out of jail.

In the end, the husband is freed and joins his wife. But the night before his arrival, the couple consummate their slow-building affair.

If you did not the feature’s TV origins, you would think it was made for the big screen for it’s truly an art film, boasting Bertolucci’s visual signature and stylistic flourishes.

 

Cast

Thandie Newton… Shandurai

David Thewlis… Jason Kinsky

Claudio Santamaria… Agostino

John C. Ojwang… Singer

Massimo De Rossi… Patient

Cyril Nri… Priest