Color, 1998, 92 mins.

Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci

Starring Thandie Newton, David Thewlis, Claudio Santamaria / Produced by Massimo Cortesi / Music by Alessio Vlad / Cinematography by Fabio Cianchetti

Format: DVD - New Line (MSRP $24.98)

Letterboxed (1.85:1) (16x9 enhanced) / Dolby Digital 5.1

Though it would have barely registered with audiences during the '70s heyday of Bernardo Bertolucci, Besieged has been referred to as a return to form for many viewers missing his visually elaborate character studies like Last Tango in Paris and The Conformist. While Besieged bears some similarities to both of those, it marks new territory by presenting a woman as the central and most fully developed figure in the story while leaving the male lead as an object, a cipher in a puzzle of her own creation. While these subdued chamber mind games may not be to everyone's taste, Bertolucci fans in particular should find much to savor here.

After an opening sequence in which her political activist husband is taken away and jailed by an African dictator, the lovely Shandurai (Thandie Newton) flees to Rome and begins studying at a local medical school. To make ends meet she takes a job as a live in housekeeper for Mr. Kinsky (David Thewlis), a withdrawn English pianist and composer who becomes smitten with her. Shandurai is quickly irritated by his numerous gifts but finally makes the ultimate demand on his unrequited love: get her husband out of prison. Surprisingly, Kinsky proves open to the suggestion, but Shandurai finds that her words carry higher emotional consequences than she realized.

A virtual short subject by Bertolucci standards, Besieged really only offers two notable characters and moves quickly (in European terms, anyway) during its brief running time. Newton is a particular standout in a tricky role requiring both independence and submission, while Thewlis is fine in a role that doesn't require much of his usual verbal showmanship. Fabio Cianchetti's remarkable cinematography produces some spectacular simple visuals within the aesthetics of Kinsky's house, featuring a spiral staircase which nicely echoes the spiralling nature of his music. Delicate and beautifully rendered, this was originally planned as a television film in Europe and still betrays its more simplified origins; thus, it's not a major work but a welcome diversion all the same.

While New Line's packaging makes no mention of it, Besieged is actually a fully loaded special edition DVD complete with a commentary track by Bertolucci and co-writer Clare Peploe. Bertolucci's accent makes for tough going at times, but he provides some useful insights and manages to inadvertently refute virtually all of the damning (and mostly unjustified) criticisms hurled at the film by Roger Ebert. On a separate track, writer James Lasdun reads his original short story, "The Siege," which provided the basis for the film, and offers some additional comments about the genesis of the story. "A Blind Man Among His Furniture," a 15 minute short subject by Giuseppe Bertolucci about the creation of Besieged, is also included, along with the theatrical trailer. Not surprisingly, the transfer itself is a feast for the eyes, filled with warm color schemes (red, brown, orange) and startling bursts of color (the inital flower left for Shandurai). The Dolby Digital mix admirably showcases the beautiful music soundtrack but only features a few ambient directional effects. A lovingly produced effort, Besieged is well worth the reasonable price tag, especially in light of all the unadvertised and very welcome extras.

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