In Besieged, the new film by Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci which closes the Miami Film Festival Sunday, a peculiar love story plays out over a profound cultural chasm.
Jason Kinsky (David Thewlis), an English classical musician living in an old house in Rome, falls, hard, for Shandurai (Thandie Newton), his housekeeper, an African medical student and political refugee.
They communicate, and stake their territories, through music. Kinsky plays Mozart, Grieg, Bach Scriabin. Shandurai listens to modern African pop stars Papa Wemba, Salif Keita and Pepe Kalle.
These differences explode when he declares his love and she rejects him.
She questions how much he knows about Africa, she questions his music, and besides, she is married and her husband is in a miltary prison back home. When a dumbfounded Kinsky says he will do anything for her, Shandurai angrily tells him to get her husband out of jail -- and this is what he, secretly, sets out to do. It is a generous gesture with profound consequences for both.
In the end, Besieged is as much a story about love as it is about otherness or, more precisely, transcending otherness.
"I'm a bit obsessed by the curiosity for the 'other,'" says Bertolucci, who will be 58 on March 16, from his home in Rome. "But I'm intersted in otherness as a seductive factor, not as a reason to fear. What I've found is that the first step of knowing the other one is to accept him or her."
It is a rich theme for a director whose recent films have taken him from Italy, more specifically his native Parma, (Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man) to China (The Last Emperor) and from North Africa (The Sheltering Sky) to Nepal (Little Buddah) and back to Italy (Stealing Beauty). Besides, Bertolucci's work is populated by foreigners or characters that are aliens in their own culture, struggling to make sense and connect with the world around them -- Paul in Last Tango in Paris, Pu Yi in The Last Emperor, Marcello in The Conformist, Port in The Sheltering Sky.
He says that because Italy "never had real colonialism ... there is no culture of racism in the country. When we had a lot of immigrants the last ten years I did start to feel a bit of currents of that kind -- but not like in France or England so we'll see. I see the country, the people, trying to understand better their position regarding aliens."
It was Bertolucci's wife, Tanzania-born director Clare Peploe (Rough Magic), who ten years ago was interested in doing a film based on James Lasdum story The Siege but eventually abandoned the idea. When a year ago Bertolucci was "looking to do a small film," he read the story and liked it "immediately."
"It was a very special love story," says Bertolucci. "The idea of somebody who is so much in love to the point of thinking he will be happy only by being able to make her happy, even after being rejected, was something that moved me. Specially in this moment, in this kind of society which is so 'me, me, me'."
He and Peploe re-wrote the story -- it was originally set in London and involved a 50-something Englishman and a young Latin American political refugee -- and filmed it in five weeks, a record speed for him.
"The impulse was to go really low budget and to shoot fast," he says. "Even faster than when I did The Spider's Stratagem (1970)."
For Bertolucci this was part of his impulse to move away from his previous film, reinvent himself.
"I am so afraid of starting to imitate myself. I am obsessed with that," he says. "I have seen directors I love who, at certain moment, give up searching and start to do the same film over and over, a la manier du (in the manner of). So for this film, I felt it was like starting over and at the beginning, cinema wasn't speaking, so I thought of having the characters speak as little as possible and feeling that would be very stimulating for visual ideas."
Dialogue, in Besieged, is used sparingly and to a precise effect.
"There was a kind of rule in the writing of this film which was to be as economic as we could with words," says Bertolucci. "What I was looking for was for any way cinema has to tell an emotion without words."
For this it was crucial, he says, that the co-writer of the film, his wife Clare, is also a director, " which means that instead of giving you a new line of dialogue she'll give you a visual suggestion. There are moments of the film that are a sonata a quattro mani (a sonata for four hands)."
The musical metaphor is not casual. Music plays a crucial role in Besieged as the main characters define themselves through the choices in music. In fact, "the music coming from Kinsky is the only identification we have of him," says Bertolucci. "We know nothing about him except he inherited the house and that he comes from another country. His identity is his music."
Later on he composes a piece that includes African rhythmic motiffs, suggesting his embrace of her African culture. This is something she recognizes and acknowledges and "it's the first time she looks at him differently ... it's the first time this falling in love clicks."
In such gestures, Besieged at times suggests a belated response to Last Tango In Paris. In the earlier film sex -- brutal, selfish, at times cruel -- superseded any intellectual or spiritual connection. In Besieged the love is selfless, nearly platonic. In Last Tango there was much about the struggle to cut loose from one's past, one's culture. In Besieged each character holds on to their own histories as they reach out.
"I can't deny that when I saw myself in front of woman a man in a house I felt "I've been here before'," says Bertolucci. "That movie was full of despair and the failure in trying to communicate between a man and a woman without identities. I have more hope now."