Nanni Moretti (Caro diario ), the darling of Italy's progressive cinema since the late '70s, led the charge against Bernardo Bertolucci almost a decade ago: "He's lost touch with his national, cultural roots."
This is the popular portrait of Bertolucci as the dreaded internationalist of contemporary European cinema – working with big stars and big budgets in far-flung continents, serving up pretty pictures and soothing sounds for the world market.
Not that Bertolucci makes it easy for himself. Since beginning his internationalist phase, the director has seemingly become obsessed with spinning variations on cultural Otherness, tackling Chinese history in The Last Emperor (1987), Eastern religion in Little Buddha (1993) and the lure of the primitive desert in The Sheltering Sky (1990).
In retrospect, Last Tango in Paris (1973) signals both the culmination of Bertolucci's acclaimed first phase (in its style and themes) and the beginning of the end (in its embrace of Brando, the American icon).
In many ways, however, what Bertolucci is doing now is perfectly consistent with the existential and political concerns of his earlier work. Bertolucci's films have always been about displacement, longing and a loss of identity: the alienated middle class boy in Before the Revolution (1964) looking for a free, authentic life; the marginalised, self-oppressing homosexual straining to be normal in The Conformist (1970); the weak-willed investigator swallowed up by the spectres of the Fascist past in The Spider's Stratagem (1970).
Now Besieged ups the ante by emphasising racial Otherness – and presenting the encounter of a black African woman with a white British man as a mysterious, tender, tentative kind of love story.
Beyond the vivid prologue, explicit political issues are secondary here. Everything focuses on the cat-and-mouse moves between Shandurai (Thandie Newton) and Kinsky (David Thewlis).
Moreover, this slow dance of attraction could be mistaken (by uncharitable viewers) as an ode to sexual harassment, wherein the man lays siege, relentlessly, to the object of his vague, impulsive desire. Little wonder, from one angle, that Cahiers du cinéma magazine curtly dismissed the film as a bunch of hoary, old "ethno-erotic clichés" overlaid by a typically eclectic World Music wash of classical trills and Afro pop.
Now, more than ever, politics appears to fortify some filmgoers and critics against the beauty and daring of an unfashionable director's best work. Besieged continues the poetic, passionately engaged research into human perplexity which filled Bertolucci's previous film, the underrated Stealing Beauty (1996).
Those fans nostalgic for the Bertolucci of The Conformist or 1900 (1976) may have missed a gradual but crucial sea change in his overall orientation. His characters are no longer haunted by the ghosts of the past (whether social or personal, Marxist or Freudian). Now, rather than being eaten away by impossible longings, they hurl themselves into the effervescence of the present moment, losing themselves joyously in arabesques of dance, flirtation and masquerade.
No one films bodies like Bertolucci. Besieged – a largely plotless piece nourished by the youthful styles of Wong Kar-wai and Leos Carax – is a ravishing portrait of a man, a woman and the charged, sensual space between them. Far from being an inveterate sexist with a stolidly prurient male gaze (as is often charged these days), Bertolucci directs his richly appreciative camera-eye everywhere, democratically: the animals, furniture and architecture are no less erotic or polymorphous than Newton or Thewlis.
More than most films, Besieged needs to be experienced rather than explicated. While not attaining the perfection of Stealing Beauty, it draws us into an enchanted circle where the boundaries between men and women, love and politics, rich and poor melt for a brief magical moment – creating the rarest and most precious kind of movie utopia.
© Adrian Martin September 1999