Directed by Bernado Bertolucci.


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It has been quite a long time since Bertolucci who broke ground with the movie Last Tango in Paris made anything as emotionally charged as this film Besieged. It is a story that shows love can develop between people who have very little in common and who are in rather arcane circumstances. The film tells the love story in gestures and insinuations. The dialogue between the two characters plays a secondary role to the thematic symbols that are expressed in the cinematography and soundtrack.

The first scene is in Africa where an old singer chants a solemn song under a tree; we see crippled children as they are led to school. In the schoolroom the teacher is a social critic who aims to change society; he would start by teaching the children a new way of life. Troops burst in and arrest him. His wife Shandurai, played by Thandie Newton, witnesses his capture and wets herself as he is dragged away.

Shandurai then moves to Rome where she becomes a medical student and is employed as a maid in the home of Mr. Kinsky (played by David Thewlis). He regularly plays the piano in his vast apartment well adorned with elegant tapestry and works of art, all inherited from his rich aunt. Bertolucci plays with symbolism here as she lives in the lower servants’ quarters and he lives in the upper floors. The only thing that connects them is a long spiral staircase. On one occasion she drops a cleaning rag down the spiral staircase and it lands on Mr. Kinsky’s face. He removes it and stares at her above; she looks down at him and is convinced that he loves her.  To attract her attention he uses the only thing he can, his music, but the music he plays is foreign to her. She is very attached to the music of her homeland. He transforms his music by mixing African choral songs with American Jazz music. After all his vague hints have not been comprehended, he blurts to her that he loves her and he will “do anything to make you love me”. She throws him a boomerang condition: “you get my husband out of jail”. He loves her so much that he would do anything to get her approval, even that which would threaten his position.

As the film progresses Bertolucci reveals more of the two characters, Shandurai becomes a more complex character. She lives in two worlds: physically she is in Rome but her loyalty is to her husband in Kenya. She is separated from both worlds by a growing love for a man she should not normally develop feelings for.  This inner conflict affects her, should she remain loyal to her husband to protest against an evil government or a man that is doing all he can to express his love? Mr. Kinsky never knew she was married but began to sell all his possessions to secure her husband’s release. All this to get her to love him, he even sells his precious piano.

Besieged reminds us of the Last Tango in Paris which was a breakthrough in the portrayal of sexual politics in its depiction of the passionate, conflicted relationship between the older gentleman (Marlon Brando) and a younger woman (Maria Schneider). Here the older man has the need to make emotional connection with another person. He has been so damaged by the suicide of his wife (which he interprets as a betrayal) and the mundane activities of everyday existence, that he becomes a virtual recluse and can express himself only through acts of crude sexuality. The other film that resonates with Besieged is The Sheltering Sky. In this film two young naïve Americans lovers decide to immerse themselves in North African culture. Like most travelers they were attracted to the beauty, purity and harshness of this land, but the reality they confront almost destroys them. These films ask questions about the object and objectives of love.

Besieged creates a beautiful interaction between the characters' oppositions. The upper and lower sections of the 
house, the British artist in Rome and an the African refugee, the rigid western classical music and the rhythmical African music, the difference in culture and race, even the falling in love with two diametrically opposed characters (freedom fighter who wants to change society and the reclusive artist who barely has his life in control).

When she heard about her husband's release from prison Shandurai had to face the reality of being with him or the man she has now developed feelings for (bearing in mind that Mr. Kinsky sacrificed all he owns to make her happy). To ease the agony one day she gets drunk in her room and decides she has to let Mr. Kinsky know the way she feels. She writes many drafts of a note until she reveals the truth “Mr. Kinsky I love you”. Holding that feeling she caresses herself until she cannot hold back her feelings anymore. She goes to Mr. Kinsky’s room and slips into his bed.

In the morning all we see is that she is in his bed (there is no clear indication that they made love). Her freed husband arrives in Rome and  turns up at Mr. Kinsky’s flat pressing the door bell several times (it is not clear whether he is ignored). This is a film with an unconventional narrative and an open end. The simple morality tale is not present here. One may interpret her action as betrayal or perceives her as someone that gave into love nstead of loyalty. It all depends one what we feel is more important in life. Should she, as we expect of her, have remained loyal to the social critic who intended to change society, or should she follow the man who is willing to give up everything for her but from a different background and race? I guess that is what love is all about, it exists in very unconventional circumstances.

David Thewlis and Thandie Newton are immaculate choices for this film. David Thewlis had to portray vulnerability and longing in a very covert eccentric way. While Thandie Newton displayed natural grace and self criticism in her attempts to suppress innate feelings. Bertolucci conveys her internal battle with startling images of Africa that emanates from her dreams. His use of montage is also very useful in that it shows how the two worlds she inhabits differ (she is physically in Rome and emotionally in Kenya). This division is also well expressed with the soundtrack, the music of Kenya depicting the place she to which she loyal to and the music of Kinsky depicting the world into which she is falling. The use of handheld camera gives us a sense of immediacy; we are no longer long distance observer’s participants in this tale of subtle internal conflict.

The essential quality of Besieged is its realism. It depicts love as it really exists. Bertolucci goes against the trend of several Hollywood romance movies that have a very simple formula and shows us how complicated relationships can be. It can exist between people you would not normally consider compatible couples. In Last Tango in Paris the two characters developed a no questions relationship in their own little world of the small flat in Paris (they were also from different cultures). In The Sheltering Sky they were an idealistic couple that wanted to experience a different culture that would spark some life into their relationship. In this film neither of them planned anything - love just developed in an uncanny situation.

In this film we are also made to realize the price of love might also be quite high. Is she to give into her desire for the man she has fallen in love with, which would mean  she would have to betray the brave virtuous man who has been imprisoned (this complicates matters because he is not the conventional wicked abusive husband)? We do not have a conclusive end, she spends the night in his bed and then her husband arrives from Africa, turns up at the house and presses the door bell downstairs. The story ends there, we do not know if she left David Thewlis and returned to her husband or remained with the eccentric musician in bed, which is tantamount to saying goodbye to her past.  Bertolucci leaves us to come to our own conclusion, whatever we decide depends on what we feel should take precedence in our lives, love or loyalty.  I think the poet W.B Yeats best described their situation in his poem Her Anxiety:

Earth in beauty dressed
Awaits returning spring,
All true love must die
Alter at the best
Into some lesser thing.
Prove that I lie

Such body lovers have,
Such exacting breath,
That they touch or sigh.
Every touch they give,
Love is nearer death.
Prove that I lie.

W.B Yeats (1865-1939)

Francis Akpata
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