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(Italian/UK, 1998, 93 minutes, color, 35mm)

Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci

Based on the novella The Siege by James Lasdun

Thandie Newton . . . . . . . . . . Shandurai
David Thewlis . . . . . . . . . . Mr. Kinsky
Claudio Santamaria . . . . . . . . . . Agostino

The following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Pennsylvania State University:

Bernardo Bertolucci's most well-known work has been a new kind of epic cinema. Spanning Europe, Asia, and the US, his vision is sweeping and passionate. Bertolucci's cinema is a vast canvas, fascinated with the workings of history, interested in the workings of civilization, and endlessly curious about the way that distant, abstract forces of politics work on the lives of ordinary people caught in the crush of events. Yet Bertolucci's epic is not the same as David Lean's, or Anthony Mann's, or Ridley Scott's. In films like 1900, The Last Emperor, The Spider's Stratagem, and The Sheltering Sky, Bertolucci's lush, even grandiose method of describing cultures, with its eye for tiny oddities and absurdities in the rush of great events even as he is inquiring about the way ideological purity sometimes runs amok, makes him an heir to Brecht, at the same instant florid and incisive. Like Thackeray and Tolstoy, Bertolucci enjoys placing a relatively affectless character at the heart of the madness and the agony of history, in a demand that, while we may experience that history at second-hand, we must understand it for ourselves. Bertolucci is that rarest of cinematic artists: he is both an analyst and a poet.

With Besieged, Bertolucci turns his attentions from a cyclorama to a miniature, a story smaller in scale than almost anything he has attempted in the past. Yet, Bertolucci treats this more intimate tale (he called it "a piece of chamber music for the cinema") with the same extravagant visual means and concern with politics that have marked his giant masterworks.

The film is the story of "Shandurai" (Thandie Newton), an African woman caught between the pulls of European protocols of restraint in love and class politics, and an active engagement of emotions which in the film is distinctively African. Two men in her life, "Mr. Kinsky" (David Thewlis), and her husband, missing for a good part of the story but constantly in alive in her consciousness. They duel for her attentions as surely as if they were squaring off in a dawn-lit forest glade with long-barreled revolvers, two characters who focalize the differing, turbulent worlds Shandurai lives in.

Like many Bertolucci protagonists, Shandurai tells us little about her feelings. Instead, we read them in her face. Or, rather, we imagine we read them, for Newton's face, as Bertolucci realizes it, is like the face of Garbo, a relentlessly intriguing visage that Bertolucci's camera fetishes wholly. He insists that we do not merely watch Shandurai, but that we adore her.

This film about the impact of political change on the human landscape begins with one of the most striking depictions of anguish in recent cinema, an image that is simultaneously metaphorical and urgently literal. It is typical of Bertolucci's adaptation of James Lasdun's story that he seeks such elaborate visual equivalents for Lasdun's own powerful prose; it's as if every shot must stand in, not only for Lasdun's ideas, but for the novelist's way of seeing, as well, a refractory gaze that refuses the earnest literalism of so many contemporary films.

— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University

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