(English and Italian dialogue)
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. While the director’s habitual themes are by no means entirely absent, the film represents such a significant departure that some long-term devotees may be disquieted. But its keen take on the distance between generations, and its sensitive portrait of sexual initiation may help put the intimate drama across to a new, and perhaps wider, audience.
Following its run in Italy (pic preemed Thursday night in Siena under its local title, “I Dance Alone”), the film will bow internationally in competition at the Cannes Film Festival before going out in the U.S. in June via Fox Searchlight. Distrib’s biggest challenge in selling the pic to an American public will be luring the late-adolescent viewers to whom the drama speaks most directly.
In fact, one of the notable achievements here is that a 56-year-old male filmmaker has been able to slip convincingly inside the head of a 19-year-old girl. Bertolucci subtly fathoms her approach to sex and emotional commitment, and that of a generation governed by social, sexual and moral codes that are vastly different from those of his own youth. Director is aided immeasurably in this by a perceptive screenplay, penned with U.S. novelist Susan Minot, and by a star-making turn from Liv Tyler.
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 close friends of her late mother. But 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 Graysons’ 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).
The household is drawn to Lucy in different ways, their senses awakened and reinvigorated by her youth and beauty. Most of them either belong to or are a product of the libertarian 1960s generation, and 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. But he turns out to be an unromantic skirt-chaser, and Lucy’s conflicting feelings cause her to back off. Adding to her confusion is a poem written by her mother, which indicates that Lucy was conceived during a summer at the farmhouse and that her father is not the man she grew up with.
This search for a father’s identity is no thematic stranger to Bertolucci’s work. It enhances the personal nature of the material here, the sincerity of which is magnified by the transition to a smaller, simpler film after years of colossal epics.
While Lucy quietly wrestles with her own dilemmas, her presence slowly begins to change the people around her. This is best observed in her relationship with Alex, made intensely moving at times by Irons’ penetrating performance. Her life force at first strengthens the afflicted man, then supplies him with the peace he needs to confront death.
A model of poise and restraint, the film flows in a way that is deliberately undramatic, but made no less involving by the dreamy gentleness of its approach. In this aspect, Tyler is theperfect accomplice. At times sweetly awkward, at others composed and serene, the actress appears to respond effortlessly and intuitively to the camera, creating a rich sense of what Lucy is about that often is not explicit in the dialogue.
While the character has grown up in a time of AIDS awareness, resurgent moralism and new values, she is no uptight prude. Lucy clearly has had an enlightened, liberal upbringing, and while she may be vulnerable, she is sufficiently strong to act according to what is right for her.
Consequently, her eventual discovery of her real father and the joyful consummation of her first love are both given considerably more resonance thanthey would otherwise have.
The film marks Bertolucci’s homecoming only in a geographical sense, and his rapport with Italy clearly remains a discordant one.
The characters are an insular bunch without real roots in their chosen home, and the few direct references to the state of contempo Italy feel forced, such as a TV transmitter being erected to brainwash the electorate, or roadside immigrant hookers working just over the hill from so much rural good living.
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. Carlo Cecchi stands out in the generally strong ensemble as a war correspondent subject to dark moods in peacetime.
Bertolucci regular Stefania Sandrelli appears as a lonely-hearts columnist given a new lease on love.
As is customary with Bertolucci, the depth of space is extraordinarily lush. Gianni Silvestri’s rustic production design makes a warm, accommodating environment of the bohemian farmhouse, and fills the visual field with colors that are natural yet heightened.
This is only the second Bertolucci feature in 25 years not to be shot by Vittorio Storaro, and, in his place, Darius Khondji (“Seven”) 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.
Instead, he opts for a softer half-light, bringing out Silvestri’s intense colors and suffusing the actors with an often radiant glow.
Along with Richard Hartley’s score, a sharp, extremely varied selection of songs effectively underlines the characters’ moods.