With epic films like "The Last Emperor," "The Sheltering Sky" and "Little Buddha," it's easy to forget that Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci is also a master at working on a more intimate scale. In the insular, even claustrophobic "Besieged," Bertolucci has gone so far as to strip down to the essentials of silent cinema, relying not on dialogue but on the expressiveness of the actors' faces and the emotional language of music to carry the film.
"Besieged" is a love story whose foundation is the tension between passion and restraint. This can be seen in the way the enigmatic pianist Jason Kinsky (David Thewlis), an Englishman living in an art-stuffed Roman villa, approaches his music and his reclusive existence. Kinsky alternately attacks and caresses his Steinway, the disciplined rigor of classical music sliding into an expression of his own voice.
Whenever Shandurai (Thandie Newton), his African live-in housekeeper, is around, Kinsky's playing grows more inspired. After many furtive looks and hesitant gift-giving, his natural reserve gives way, and Kinsky declares his love with the intensity of a burst balloon. What can he do to make her love him? Stunned, Shandurai's reply comes from her gut and shows that Kinsky knows almost nothing about her.
The twist is a surprise for the audience, too, especially in a time when love stories are often little more than glorified Cosmo compatibility tests. Bertolucci, who adapted "Besieged" with wife Clare Peploe ("Rough Magic") from a story by James Lasdun ("Sunday"), chooses to disregard traditional exposition, which means the narrative is driven solely by the emotional currents of the characters.
Shandurai is first seen in an unnamed African country that is being indoctrinated in the ways of a new totalitarian regime. She appears in Kinsky's house in the next scene with no explanation as to how she got there.
After Kinsky's thwarted declaration of love, the nature of their relationship changes. Shandurai continues her medical studies; he begins composing a piece of music that reflects the rhythms of the African pop she listens to. They dance around each other, which only draws them closer.
The elusive nature of their relationship brings out superb performances from Thewlis, who carried Mike Leigh's 1993 film "Naked," and Newton, whose subdued Shandurai is especially remarkable when compared to her scenery-chewing demon in Beloved.
But overall, "Besieged" works better in theory than actuality. Bertolucci's evasiveness, meant to be evocative, is often just infuriating. Short-story writers can be purposefully oblique because the reader is accustomed to filling in the spaces between words. This is much more difficult to achieve in film, a medium that's -- for better or worse -- much more literal.
Bertolucci spends the whole film bringing the action to a crucial moment and then abruptly stopping, as if the build-up is everything and the follow-through merely an outmoded convention. Perhaps "Besieged" represents a form of cinematic minimalism. But what it feels like is a cop-out from a storyteller who knows better.