Besieged, the new film by Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci, is a poetic, provocative meditation about love and otherness at the turn of the century.
Jason Kinsky (David Thewlis), an English classical pianist and composer living in an old house in Rome, falls in love with Shandurai (Thandie Newton), his live-in housekeeper, an African medical student and political refugee.
They are both foreigners living lives of quiet desperation, Kinsky hiding behind his Mozart, Grieg, Bach, Scriabin and his music lessons to children. Shandurai getting ahead in medical school, negotiating the bureaucracy for his residency papers and listening to modern African pop stars Papa Wemba, Salif Keita and Pepe Kalle on the radio while pining for her husband, imprisoned by the military dictators back home.
When Kinsky clumsily declares her love she rejects him. Not only is she married, there are profound divides between them. "What do you know about Africa?!," she rages when he proposes they marry and go live in Africa. "I don't understand you. I don't understand your music," she cries in despair and frustration after rejecting a gift.
When the stunned Kinsky stammers a vow to do anything for her, she angrily blurts out: "Get my husband out of jail."
Quietly, without her knowing, without expecting a reward except her happiness, he sets out to do just that. It is a selfless act, and the work, the learning, the sacrifices that it entails, profoundly changes them both.
Besieged is a richly layered, small jewell of a film by a mature, master filmmaker in total command of his craft. But it is also a curiously flawed masterpiece.
Perhaps love does conquer all, but reaching past our personal limitations, cultural and otherwise, surely can not mean ignoring the history of colonialism or continuing troubling class and racial questions. Yet Besieged, so smartly nuanced in so many issues, seems ahistorical and color blind.
It is in love that Kinsky finds purpose and dimensions of his humanity long buried under hours spent on practicing piano and writing compositions that will never be played in public. It is also in love that the counterpoint between Kinsky's European music and Shandurai's African pop, resolves informed by the discoveries they have made about themselves and each other.
In fact, Bertolucci, using minimal dialogue and cut-to-the-point editing, sets Besieged as a sort of cinematic four part fugue in which the atraction, deep feelings and mistrust between Kinsky and Shandurai play off those between Europe and Africa. But Bertolucci's concerns about a relation between servant and master, and a black woman servant ("A" medical student or not) and white male master at that, are much less clear.
An African singer and storyteller appears in spots throughout the film, singing in an indigenous language to a traditional harp-lute. Bertolucci offers no translation, turning viewers, comfortable insiders in Kinsky's apartment in Rome, into outsiders in the African scenes.
It is a gentle shock of otherness, a role reversal that serves as a reminder that communicating across language, culture and race requires generosity and an honest effort.
Questions about history, class and unequal power remain.