BESIEGEDSYNOPSIS From master filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci comes Besieged, a smoldering love story set in the contrasting climates of politically-charged Africa and the tranquil confines of an enchanting Roman villa. A man and a woman caught between love and loyalty form the emotional core of this intimate drama.
Luminous newcomer Thandie Newton (Beloved) stars as Shandurai, a young African woman who leaves her homeland in the wake of her husband's brutal abduction. Disenchanted with her country's oppressive government, Shandurai relocates to Rome, where she finds work in the home of an eccentric English musician, Mr. Kinsky (David Thewlis). Shandurai works for Mr. Kinsky by day and studies for a medical degree at the local university by night.
Amidst the faded antiquities of his inherited Roman villa, Mr. Kinsky composes music and hides behind the lacquer of his piano. It is only his blossoming love for Shandurai that draws this reclusive artist from his hiding place, setting the rhythms of their two very different worlds on a crash course seemingly destined for disaster. The depths of his devotion will ultimately strip Kinsky of his most precious possessions and challenge the moral integrity of these two characters as they are torn between desire and duty.
In a unique creative collaboration, Bertolucci and his wife Clare Peploe are both credited with writing the screenplay for Besieged based on a short story by James Lasdun. A Fine Line Features presentation, the film is produced by Massimo Cortesi and associate produced by Peploe.
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
"Every time I start a new project, it is like visiting a different planet," says Bernardo Bertolucci. "I want each of my movies to be a complete change from what has come before." With Besieged, Bertolucci makes yet another fascinating departure - this time into an intimate and deeply romantic love story told in a flurry of evocative and lyrical emotional images.
The story itself is primarily simple - a man and a woman with nothing in common find themselves in a slow, seductive dance of romantic advances and nervous retreats - but the circumstances surrounding it are extraordinary. For as their love grows, an enormous sacrifice will cut through their cultural and personal boundaries and drive them towards an unexpected precipice.
From a filmmaker whose work includes such historically and politically complex works as Before the Revolution, The Spider's Strategem, The Conformist, 1900, Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man and the Oscar-winning The Last Emperor, this new film represents a turn to a more personal style of filmmaking and the rediscovery of a more elemental style. Unlike the gorgeous, painterly epics for which he has become known most recently, this is a smaller, highly energized story about the transcendence of love.
The journey to make Besieged began almost a decade ago when Clare Peploe first came into contact with James Lasdun's short story "The Siege," about the all-consuming romantic obsession of a wealthy man for a young and secretive political refugee. She was drawn to the story emotionally as much as intellectually. "I found it such an unusual and haunting love story," she says. "I loved the way the two characters came from such completely different countries, classes, backgrounds, lifestyles and yet still reached each other. There was so much unspoken in their love, so much hidden in the simplicity of the story. It had a very cinematic feel to me."
Peploe brought the story to her husband, Bernardo Bertolucci, beginning a creative collaboration that was to continue throughout the making of the film. Says Bertolucci of their relationship: "I often saw this film as a piano concerto, but instead of having two hands on the piano, I had the pleasure of having four."
Like Peploe, Bertolucci was immediately intrigued by the story's themes of sacrifice material, cultural and personal - for ideals of love. "When Clare first showed me this story, I saw that the love at the center of it was very, very special," states Bertolucci. "it is about a love so great that the man is ready to give up everything, even his very soul, to help the woman he loves. It is about the kind of love where in order to be happy, one has to make another person happy at all costs." Bertolucci has explored themes of romantic dalliance before - most notably in his erotic masterpiece Last Tango In Paris. But this time he approached the classic subject from a different, more radically emotional perspective that speaks to our own romantically idealistic times. This time, the man and the woman do not so much use one another physically as engage in a subtle war of looks, glances and hidden desires, letting a love that seems impossible, sweep them towards one another in astonishing ways.
"Only after making Besieged did I realize the similarity between the two," comments Bertolucci, "in both films there are a man and woman alone in a house. But here there is also a new element, the piano. Also, the difference is that Last Tango was set in another moment of history and sexual customs. It took place in a time when transgression was the most important thing. It was a more desperate moment in many ways. Transgression equals extreme eroticism. Today, instead of this erotic impact, in this film there is something else which is more a kind of building tension of sensuality and feelings, which move up and down the spine of the staircase.
Making the love story of Besieged very much of the moment was key to Peploe and Bertolucci's adaptation. They moved the story to a new cosmopolitan Rome where rapid immigration and multi-ethnicity are changing the face of the city and its culture. "In the film, every time you see an image of Rome, you have an intense sense of immigrants, perhaps more than you might in reality," says Bertolucci. "But I saw this new Rome as the story of Kinsky and Shandurai's contrasts written large. Italy has one of the lowest birth rates in the world - but there is a new energy coming to the country in young immigrants like Shandurai.
They also updated the characters - making Shandurai a refugee from a fictional African country, and Kinsky a more youthful but still reclusive heir of a Roman villa. Explains Bertolucci: "I wanted to set the film in Rome, so it made sense for Shandurai to be African, as there are many African refugees here. I also didn't want to have a middle-aged man with a young girl, because I feel that has been explored too many times before.
But the biggest challenge came in writing a script that is astonishingly and provocatively visual, that revels in its near wordlessness, in its economy of language and landscape of sheer emotion. In looking forward to a new era of cinema, Bertolucci also looked back to the explosively creative era of silent film. "Because the film was for me a way of beginning again, I was thinking about the early days of movie-making," explains Bertolucci. "There were no words in the beginning - film was silent. And it was this feeling of the pure origins of cinema that drove us to use very few words - to instead focus on gestures, movements, shadows.
So it was that Bertolucci and Peploe constructed a script in which information is imparted in dreams, in sensual movements, in the symbolic objects that appear and disappear via the dumbwaiter in Shandurai's basement room. Bertolucci continues: "You can often be much more effective showing things than saying things. You can visit human emotions in images more than with words. I have made movies with lots of words before, but for this story, this moment, it seemed right. As the writer on the set, many of Clare's suggestions throughout the film were visual rather than literary. We had the pleasure and the challenge of trying to tell a story in the most intimate terms, beyond spoken language. I think the silences tell much more than the confrontation of words. In this house, there is a confrontation of silences. That of course pushed us to invent, to have more ideas with the camera and lights and interior.
Bertolucci worked closely with cinematographer Fabio Cianchetti to forge a dynamic look for Besieged, one in which the camera's movements themselves take on a psychological dimension. The broad, canvas-like scope of Bertolucci's best known works is nowhere to be seen in Besieged. Instead, he and Cianchetti utilized hand-held cameras, a free-form, spontaneous style and a tighter, more intimate visual field. For Bertolucci, it was essential to let the camera in Besieged be privy to the character's most interior states and emotions. He says: "The camera became like a spirit moving from one character to another, entering in their eyes. Shandurai and Kinsky's eyes almost never meet but we see that they are always looking for each other.
In addition to the camera work, Bertolucci used lighting design to tell his story without words, contrasting the dark tunnels of the subway with the blinding Roman sun, revealing how Mr. Kinsky's shadowy house becomes filled with light and clarity as he gives up more and more for Shandurai.
The contrast between Shandurai and Kinsky is also played out musically. His music is the lush, linear beauty of Mozart, Grieg, Bach and Chopin. Hers is the buoyantly vital pop of Salif Keita, Papa Wemba and Ali Farka Toure. "Their music reflects the rhythms of their lives, the different ways they walk and move through life," says Bertolucci. "Kinsky's music has a great age to it, whereas Shandurai's is very modern." According to Clare Peploe: "Their music begins to seep into one another and that is the beginning of their falling in love. He begins to take on her rhythm."
Bertolucci and Peploe also added an unusual character to the film's tableau - a wizened African griot or musical story-teller who moves through the streets of Africa and Rome singing a heartbreaking tale to his primitive thumb piano. "I found this be a very extraordinary kind of music," says Bertolucci. "From this archaic music came the blues that we all know and listen to and love. I think as a character the storyteller brings a feeling of the ancient world that is behind this girl who is very modern. I thought it was important to give a sense of that past. I also did not want to translate what he is saying. This leaves it more of a mystery, more pure emotion."
The emphasis on the shimmers of light and emotion that pass through the faces of the two main characters, rather than on mere words, made casting the lead characters with two very versatile and expressive actors a priority. For the role of Shandurai, the filmmakers chose Thandie Newton, the rising British actress who was most recently seen in Beloved.
Newton took on the role of the bewildered but determined African medical student who exchanges housework for a paycheck and a room in Mr. Kinsky's house, all the while changing him with her strength of spirit and sensuality. Clare Peploe explains her interpretation of the character: "Shandurai is someone from a poor third world country and she comes to Kinsky's house with preconceived notions about a man who lives in a vast villa and listens to classical music and is rich. There is a kind of prejudice about what he will be like. But this is completely upstaged by his sacrifice, which just doesn't fit into her idea of what a man like that would do. It's almost impossible for her to accept. It's also completely confusing to her because she really wasn't looking for love."
Even Shandurai's position as a highly intelligent medical student cleaning a man's house places her in a vulnerable spot. "What I thought was very powerful is that if you're cleaning in someone's house, you have an intimate knowledge of that person, an intimacy almost no one else has," continues Peploe. "I saw Kinsky as someone who is afraid of women but because Shandurai is there to clean the house, they have this physical closeness. This closeness completely overwhelms him. They're both taken by surprise. Meanwhile, she's suppressing everything, not wanting to feel, until she realizes she is already in love."
For Bernardo Bertolucci, Thandie Newton had it all in her luminous eyes. "Thandie was the most central character in the film and I wanted somebody whose face had a bright light of intelligence shining within it, who had an intensity you could read on her face. She is someone who is studying medicine but at the same surviving by cleaning this house, these endless stairs. There is a lot going on inside her head, but rather than speak it in words, she has to show it in her gestures, her movements, in the expressions that pass on her face. Thandie does that beautifully."
Newton saw the chance to pursue acting in its purest and most challenging form as a compelling lure. "I loved the idea that this film would depend hugely on the atmosphere created through looks and stillness as opposed to words and action. This was very exciting for me as an actress," Newton says. "I love a film which allows for a mood to be established by the rhythm of the body - whether with the eyes, a smile, the tilt of the head, the speed of a walk, or a faltering step. And I'm sure the main reason why I love to convey a mood through my body is because I studied dance. Dance was the career I felt destined for until a twist of fate in the form of a back injury steered me toward acting."
The role of Shandurai also gave Newton a rare chance to explore her African roots. Though her mother is from Zimbabwe and she spent some of her childhood in Zambia, she is very much a Briton - a graduate of Cambridge University. "I was strongly influenced by my beautiful mother's experience as a Zimbabwean woman who came to London in the 60s to train as a nurse," she explains. "I talked to my mother about how she felt coming to England and I used her accent - which has faded now to a lilt - as a framework for the stronger accent I used in the film. I've also held tight to stories my mom has told us about her childhood, her family and their way of life, so all these things gave me an insight into Shandurai."
"This was the first time Thandie has really played an African," points out Bertolucci. "But she studied a lot and she developed certain movements, a certain manner of looking and being that is distinctly African and not English."
Newton also found inspiration from Clare Peploe's input. "Clare was very prominent in the process," she states, "and I would discuss Shandurai with her everyday on the set. Being women, we had a more clear view into Shandurai's story in that respect. Clare gave me a great resource to draw from."
Moving to Rome for production, Newton had an additional opportunity to tap into the feelings of cultural isolation Shandurai must come to terms with as an exile in a foreign country. "Ironically, my own experience of being a person of color in Rome allowed me to understand largely what Shandurai felt. Because I don't speak much Italian, I felt very alienated in that environment, a stranger in a strange land," says Newton.
Shandurai helps dispel her loneliness and disconnection by listening to music that infuses her with a fleeting sense of home. Bertolucci asked Newton to choose the songs that Shandurai listens to as she cleans, inspiring Newton to delve more deeply into modern African pop culture, especially the sounds of Zairean soukous legend Papa Wemba. "Bernardo gave me a selection of CDs and asked me to tell him which I liked best. He gave me all types of music from all over Africa and I wasn't familiar with any of them. But I liked the Papa Wemba the best because it felt very romantic, and his voice held nostalgia in it. I myself was missing home and I knew that Shandurai would also have been, so this component had a very strong attraction."
Newton continues: "In a sense, Shandurai brings contemporary life into Kinsky's home with her modern music and noisy friend. Later, he tries to woo her through his playing - it is as if he is growing to know her by learning her rhythms - and she begins to 'read' him through his music. I love the fact that music is the messenger between them. It's no secret that music is often used in films to promote feeling, to enhance feeling, but in Besieged it goes a step further and actually becomes feeling."
Much of that feeling comes through the pianist hands of Mr. Kinsky, played by David Thewlis. Bertolucci chose Thewlis because he seemed to embody Kinsky's aristocratic air of mystery. "I had seen David in Mike Leigh's film Naked' and I always thought that this workingclass anarchist he played had a kind of aristocratic side, what we call a fin du race quality. He had this kind of eccentricity that is so English. He was also a very difficult person to get to know, a real mystery. And, also important, he was so white. This is necessary because when Shandurai opens his shirt, she finds this shocking paleness. But through her, he will receive a great injection of blood, and become less pale. She will give him an energy and bring color to his life."
"David was physically very, very good for the role," continues Clare Peploe. "He is sort of awkward and unable to express himself. We needed that to keep him from being too obviously romantic. I mean here's this young guy in a big house playing gorgeous music and he could be very easy to fall in love with. But David doesn't let him be too attractive, so that Thandie Newton has to grow to love him. David is also extremely intelligent, very shy and difficult to get to know - but in that way that you really want to get to know him. Kinsky also has these qualities."
Besieged was shot in just 28 days in both Rome and Africa. The filmmakers had made a decision early on to make Shandurai's home country a fictional hybrid of many politically troubled nations, but they shot the sequences in Kenya, where Clare Peploe was born. There, they also found the Luo tribesman musician who was cast as the wandering storyteller. "it was one of those chance things where we saw him and he was so great that he reinvented the character. He became very important to the story almost by chance," recalls Peploe. "And because he is a wanderer, he didn't have to be from any particular country, but from Africa in a more mythological sense."
Meanwhile, in Rome, the filmmakers searched for Kinsky's lavish and labyrinthine villa. What they found was almost too good to be true: a baroque abandoned mansion bordering both the picturesque Spanish Steps and a subway station where Rome's metropolitan masses amble by - an island in the middle of two worlds. Unused for three decades, Bertolucci and Peploe found the villa in exactly the same condition Kinsky leaves it as he slowly sells off his possessions - big and empty with a swirling staircase splitting the refuge into many levels, allowing for the constant ascent and descent of the characters, both literal and metaphorical. "It was perfect," summarizes Bertolucci, "a perfect fit for the characters and themes."
"The location was like another character in the film," notes Thandie Newton. "The staircase winding through the house was like a spine and the way the characters traveled up and down the stairs to find each other was a beautiful dance in itself. As soon as I saw the house, I could feel the awkwardness of Shandurai and Kinsky as I imagined them folding themselves into shadows around the stair's bends or boldly stepping out from a corner. The staircase could be metaphorically seen as a bridge between the two with a terrifying drop beneath it. They make halting steps towards each other but always with the risk of failing."
"No one could believe this house existed here," adds Peploe. "You can look out the window at Rome passing but inside there are no sounds and it feels like a private refuge. The house made it such a pleasant shoot. We could all walk to work. There were no limos, no generators, none of that heavy burden. It was just a house and crew and two actors. In a way, it was bliss."
Thandie Newton, for one, was surprised by the simplicity of Bertolucci's direction - and its power to bring out the beauty in the tiniest of moments. "He's an icon but he's so much more because he is not only concerned with icon-like things," she comments. "Quite the opposite. I was fascinated by the fact that he was interested in the smallest things. He would imbue things that seemed trivial with such poetry he made the mundane become magical."
She continues: "He is such a contradiction to what I'd imagined a man of his stature to be. He has a delightful glint in his eye which contrasts with the warm, enveloping softness of his personality. And he's got a very crafty sense of humor." Newton explains that she and Thewlis were given the freedom to take their characters in instinctual directions. "Bernardo loves actors," she notes. "He loves what they do and it's a beautiful thing to bask in this kind of respectful appreciation, especially when I was so much in awe of his incredible genius as a filmmaker. I never felt like he and Clare were dictating what to do, rather they just wanted to keep tabs on where we were going with the characters so we were all in sync. We only discussed the emotional center of a scene, never the specifics of language and so on. And if wanted to ad-lib or improvise to a small degree, then we would. It was relaxed and hugely enjoyable to work in this atmosphere of mutual trust."
Summarizes Clare Peploe about the film: "Ultimately, Besieged is about the mystery of love and so the final note is a mystery. The audience is left to write the end themselves. All the way through, the audience has to sort of complete things. Everything - the characters, the house - is in a raw state that needs completion. At the end, one can read things one way or the other. It's up to you."
(Taken from Yahoo's! production notes on "Besieged")