To describe Bernardo Bertolucci’s Besieged as pointless is not to dismiss it as silly or stupid. It just lacks any reason to exist. It is not blatantly “bad,” but its cumulative impact is incredibly slight. It feels as if it was made because it could be, not because anyone had a burning need to bring it to the screen. A light breeze would blow it away.
There are nonetheless plenty of story “points.” Shandurai (Thandie Newton) is an expatriate African nurse fleeing persecution who works as a housekeeper in Rome. Her landlord, Jason Kinsky (David Thewlis) is in love with her, but the film’s (quickly abandoned) political postures suggest there will be some attempt to link the love story to greater social issues. The resulting elliptical narrative can be generously described as a character study, but there is nothing revealed about these people that is not immediately apparent. There is some dramatic movement as Shandurai begins to realize that Kinsky is secretly working to get her husband released from jail but we wait impatiently for her to understand what we have already guessed. All the detail leading up to her realization is just so much filler.
Newton and Thewlis’s behavioral inventions provide some emotional texture, but every gesture and inflection (like Shandurai’s little dance as she irons, or Kinsky’s skill as a juggler) is just so much psychological filigree woven around a conceptual void. Since the situation and outcome are obvious from the beginning, the purpose of the story is presumably to get caught up in the complex feelings, but at best you recognize the emotions without experiencing them. On the other hand, if the emotional distance is meant as some kind of analytical objectivity, just what we are meant to conclude from this extended game of “will she or won’t she?” remains obscure.
So, this being a Bertolucci film, it must at least look good, right? Yes, but there is little beyond what dozens of competent filmmakers could provide. The unfamiliar African backdrops have visual impact, but Bertolucci shows nothing of interest on his home turf. Maybe he was trying to reveal the daily banality of Rome rather than treating it as the subject for tourist’s snapshots in a kind of formalist reversal of expectation. Thus the fractured, minimalist dialog, rough camerawork, gratuitous jump cuts and predictably open ending are meant to expose the elisions of Western life papered over by familiarity. If that is the purpose, the results may not be Hollywood, but they are just as calculated, familiar and formulaic, the nervous reflex of a modernist unable to think of anything new.
Clinging to such stale mannerisms at least allows Bertolucci to return to form from his previous effort, the abysmal Stealing Beauty and the material might make for a good short. But at 90 minutes, Besieged is the longest hour-and-a-half I’ve spent with a movie in quite a while.