Bernardo Bertolucci returns to his native Italy after 15 years and an exotic epic trilogy with Stealing Beauty, a richly satisfying chamber piece that is both literary and utterly contemporary.
Liv Tyler plays Lucy Harmon, an American sent to Tuscany for the summer following her mother’s suicide. The vacation is ostensibly to have her portrait done by her host, Ian Grayson (Donal McCann); he and his wife, Diana (Sinead Cusack), were friends of her mother. Lucy’s real motive is to follow through on an incipient romance from an earlier visit with handsome neighbor Niccolo (Roberto Zibetti).
Niccolo is away when Lucy arrives, leaving her at the mercy of the menagerie of expatriates camped out at the Grayson’s hilltop farmhouse. These include Alex (Jeremy Irons), a playwright dying of a terminal illness, a half-mad French art dealer (Jean Marais, giving free rein to theatricality), Diana’s spoiled daughter (Rachel Weisz) and her slick entertainment-lawyer lover (D.W. Moffett).
Their discussions dissecting Lucy take on a zoo-like curiosity when they learn that the ripely sensual girl is waiting before giving up her virginity. Niccolo’s return looks set to end that wait.
Although the elite aesthetes and intellectuals surrounding Lucy send off a certain chilliness that may alienate some viewers, the villa and its assorted inhabitants constitute a playfully Chekhovian frame for this modern girl’s emotional odyssey.
This is only the second Bertolucci feature in 25 years not to be shot by Vittorio Storaro, and, in his place, Darius Khondji (Se7en) again proves himself a major new talent. While never underselling the beauty of the Tuscan landscape (the pic was shot in the Chianti area near Siena), Khondji studiously avoids commonplace sun-drenched exteriors.