L'assedio (1998)


(director/writer: Bernardo Bertolucci; screenwriters: Clare Peploe/story by James Lasdun; cinematographer: Fabio Cianchetti; Editor: Jacopo Quadri; cast: Thandie Newton (Shandurai), David Thewlis (Jason Kinsky), Claudio Santamaria (Agostino); Runtime: 94; Fine Line Features; 1998-It.)

“There is a raw power in Bertolucci’s direction.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The main characters don’t speak much; Jason (Thewlis) plays Mozart, Grieg, Bach and Scriabin on the Steinway piano and Shandurai (Thandie) is his black housekeeper who doesn’t understand his Western music. She has fled from an undemocratic, unnamed African country after her schoolteacher husband was imprisoned by the military for ridiculing the dictator. Jason Kinsky is an Englishman who has inherited from his aunt a splendid four-story Rome villa, which has a spiral staircase, a garden patio, ornate statues and a dumbwaiter. He must be a rich man; he spends all his time giving piano lessons to children and pining after Shandurai, living an almost reclusive existence.

Jason’s love for her is expressed in the passion he exhibits on the piano. Through the varied camera angled shots of the kindly pianist peering down the spiral staircase we see him looking at his beloved muse while she is ironing or animatedly listening to some African pop sounds of Papa Wemba on the radio, with the steam coming out of the iron. The sexual tension is building up–as we are left to watch the two quietly go about their household business, seemingly unable to connect because of all the differences between them.

Shandurai polishes his artifacts, dusts the furniture, and mops his floors. She is working her way through medical college, where she is an A student. Her closest friend is a less serious student, Agostino (Claudio Santamaria), who wants to sleep with her despite telling her that he’s gay.

Jason, wearing a nerd-like smile and displaying an awkward knack for the art of casual conversation, can’t control himself any longer one day and grabs onto the startled girl who does not respond to his romantic gestures. He, in desperation, blurts out that he loves her and that he will marry her, telling her that he’ll do anything for her love. She surprises him by responding in an angry tone, that she is married and what he could do for her is free her husband from prison.

Nothing more is said about that incident after Jason apologizes, saying he didn’t know Shandurai was married. But the house gradually becomes empty of all the artifacts, tapestries, furniture, and finally the piano; and, it becomes obvious to her what Jason is doing. Their contact is now, even more so, done through the solo piano pieces he plays. By Jason’s visits to a local African church he is able to learn how to blend in her African music into his Western, allowing her to become more interested in the music.

What is going on inside Shandurai’s head is seen through the marvelously constructed dream sequences of her in Africa, as a griot — an African musical storyteller — chants out an indecipherable medley of very potent songs that are very emotionally received by her. This is the kind of filmmaking Bertolucci does best. There is an element of vague beauty and mystery in these sequences that evoke a sense of wonder.

When Shandurai hears that her husband has been freed from prison, she gets tipsy on a bottle of champagne and tries to write a thank you note to Mr. Kinsky. When that fails to materialize she finds herself feeling a love for him and goes up to his bedroom, where she finds Jason sound asleep from a night of drinking. Remaining in bed with him until morning when her husband rings the doorbell, as the picture enigmatically ends with us not quite sure who she will remain with.

The beauty of the film lies in the interplay between the two strangers…but Shandurai’s too perfect and overachieving to be credible and Jason gives up too much of himself to be considered anything less than a saintly figure. They wrestle with their incomprehensible feelings and desires, struggling to face themselves. Strangely enough, their past seems to be becoming more and more inconsequential. The imponderable emotions of love are caught in the music, the stunning visual spectacle of the film, and in the quietude of their personalities. They are reaching out across man-made barriers to a point where they can’t avoid each other anymore and must stop being evasive. How this works out, is hard to say. It wasn’t easy for me to be sure if love meant the same thing for both of them. The glib ending didn’t help me understand them any better as it felt like something was missing from their relationship, something that either I didn’t catch or that something was just left out of their relationship that shouldn’t have been.

The acting of Thewlis and Newton was first-rate and very unnerving, we could see their thinking and emotional process unfolding onscreen; it is ultimately what makes this film somewhat special.

The up and down career of Bertolucci is up again after this less than epic film (actually made for an hour-long TV program, but lengthened for the sake of a feature movie). It is the kind of small art story that Bertolucci seems to excel in more than with some of his more recent commercial ventures (“Little Buddha”/”The Last Emperor”). What the story means to imply, is not tied in with some of the director’s political or psychological ideas of the past. This is more or less a film that lives through its style and grace of letting the two lovers tell their story without much help from the script. And it worked out better than these kind of films usually do, mainly because there is a raw power in Bertolucci’s direction. All his films are worth looking at, and this one more so than some of his recent ones. It sort of grows on you, and seems more emotionally satisfying the more you think about it.