Jun 9, 1999 at 4:00 am
Co-written and directed by Bernardo Bertolucci

Bernardo Bertolucci's Besieged is a movie of enthralling visual poetry. Set almost entirely inside a ravishing Roman villa, it is a love story played out in furtive glances and stolen looks, by characters on opposite sides of the ethnic divide. Culturally, Mr. Kinsky (David Thewlis) and Shandurai (Thandie Newton) couldn't be more different. Kinsky is an accomplished pianist who dedicates himself completely to his music. By day, Shandurai, who immigrated to Italy from her African homeland after the imprisonment of her husband, works as a cleaning woman for Mr. Kinsky; at night, she attends university in order to complete her medical degree.

While Shandurai goes about her chores, the reclusive Kinsky practices his piano, filling the villa with exquisite music. What soon becomes clear, though, is that Kinsky is trying to make contact with the young African beauty and, rather than do so directly, is attempting to reach out through his music. At first, Shandurai appears distant and uninterested. But Kinsky casts out his music like a net, and when that doesn't work, he begins sending cryptic messages to his housemate via a dumbwaiter that connects his part of the villa with hers.

Predictably, Shandurai views these intrusions as a violation of her personal space. But even as she is voicing her irritation to her friend Agostino (a sympathetic Claudio Santamaria), Shandurai begins to let down her guard. With each passing day, she begins to inch closer to her seducer. As the dance progresses, Bertolucci makes subtle changes in his compositions and his editing rhythms to heighten the sexual tension. That Besieged shows a fusion of sexuality and cultural politics places it in the mainstream of Bertolucci's interests. But he has never worked with the simplicity and discipline or the subtlety that he shows here.

In this regard, Besieged is one of the director's least novelistic works; the impact it has is that of a short story. Still, Bertolucci and his co-screenwriter, Clare Peploe, have built a political dimension into the developing relationship between the protagonists, placing pointed emphasis on the fact that Kinsky is from the West and Shandurai from the emerging Third World. That Shandurai works for Kinsky doing custodial work is also of vital importance in that it describes the power relationship between the two. These details, quite naturally, are of much greater importance to Shandurai than they are to Kinsky. As a result, the director creates an imbalance of power that she feels acutely but to which Kinsky is totally oblivious.

If these political implications were given any more weight, the entire structure would have collapsed completely. As it is, they remain in the subtext, giving the story a much-needed sense of urgency and weight. At a point near the middle of the film, when the two characters finally confront each other, the tension between them grows almost unbearable. In that brief instant, as Kinsky learns the truth about Shandurai -- and in particular why she fled her home in Africa -- the agenda for the film's second half is set.

The course the picture takes from here is shrouded in mystery. After their dramatic encounter, Kinsky seems to be filled with a greater sense of purpose, as though, finally, he knew what needed to be done to win Shandurai's heart. What's strange, however, at least from her perspective, is that Kinsky isn't around her as much and doesn't seem to pay her much attention. At the same time, an ever-increasing stream of workmen descend on the villa, and with each day the magnificent collection of furniture, carpets and artwork is sold off and removed from the premises. In the end, even Kinsky's piano is packed up and gently carted away.

As this winnowing process is carried out, it seems as if something more than the mere removal of furnishings is taking place; an interpretation of precisely what would probably not add anything to our overall understanding -- and certainly not our enjoyment -- of the film. Regardless, the result is that Kinsky has by this process continued on next pagecontinued from previous pagemade himself worthy of Shandurai's love. (I won't reveal whether or not he gets it.) As for our enjoyment, the atmosphere that Bertolucci has created is rarified and cultured without being enervating. And visually, the film's surface is handsome without being lavish, luscious without being painterly.

In Besieged, Bertolucci demonstrates his phenomenal ability to draw forceful, dynamic performances out of his actors. As Shandurai, Newton is a revelation. She is a fearless, electrifying actress; no one working today performs with greater immediacy or authenticity. Every emotion is freshly and vividly expressed, with not the slightest trace of vanity. As Kinsky, Thewlis works with tremendous simplicity and authority. When he sits at the piano, you feel as if you can read the music in his face, and when he is with Shandurai, his fragility and openness are heartbreaking.

Besieged is a love story awash with music and emotion. It's a subtle, masterful creation by one of the world's most gifted filmmakers.

Opens June 11.
-- Hal Hinson

Lovers of the Arctic Circle
Written and directed by Julio Medem

The second dazzling Spanish import of recent months, following Alejandro Almenabar's truth-and-illusion thriller Open Your Eyes, Julio Medem's Lovers of the Arctic Circle is arguably an even more intriguing work. The two stars of Medem's film, Najwa Nimri and Fele Martinez, were supporting players in the Almenabar movie, but the similarities go beyond that. Both directors are interested in the ambiguities of narration; both play tricks with cinematic point of view that shake our sense of reality, albeit in quite different ways.

Lovers of the Arctic Circle opens with an even more stylized, less realistic sequence that Open Your Eyes: An all-white screen is revealed to be a snowstorm, through which we eventually spot a crashed airplane. Medem cuts to a newspaper photo of the same image, then to a young man chasing a woman and then his reflection in the irises of her eyes. The rest of the film is a gradual expansion and explication of these images; only at the end do we fully understand their context. Well, not fully: Even at the end there is plenty of room for doubt as to the exact nature of what has transpired.

Most of the rest of the film shuttles back and forth between the narrating point of views of the main characters -- Otto (Martinez), a courier pilot, and Ana (Nimri), the elementary-school teacher he loves. As in Hilary and Jackie, the film has intertitles announcing which character is guiding us.

Flashing back and forth through time, Medem presents the couple's history as something of a jigsaw puzzle. We learn how they first met as children (played by Sara Valiente and Peru Medem), how they became lovers as teenagers (Kristel Diaz and Victor Hugo Oliveira) and how, as young adults, they are parted. By then, we are almost exactly halfway through the film. Much of the rest of the action is a tease, in the manner of Sleepless in Seattle or Alan Rudolph's interesting 1987 failure Made in Heaven. Otto and Ana both obviously yearn for each other but, even as their paths cross, they always seem to just miss connecting, until the very end -- the very ambiguous end.

Like most plot synopses, the bare bones don't adequately convey the film's magic. Medem's accomplishment is in the telling. Repeated images, themes and even words are studded throughout the movie in ways both clever and evocative. For instance, airplanes figure from the very start, from the crashed plane in the first shot to the paper airplane on which a crucial plot development turns to the reflection of Otto's plane between Ana's legs as she bathes in a lake. An image from a schoolbook is replicated in real life; a character from a dream shows up a second time in reality; passing metaphors are recapitulated as literal events. These connections are not simply for the audience's benefit: The characters perceive them and recognize them as having quasimystical significance. They are literary/cinematic tropes that take on concrete plot functions -- the word made flesh.

Surprisingly, the wordplay survives the often perilous necessity of translation. When we hear a story about another pilot named Otto, Ana quips, "Otto el piloto." Note (as the characters do early on) that both "Otto" and "Ana" are palindromes. "A palindromic name gives you good luck," Ana tells us in voice-over, "and it did turn my life around." This sort of playfulness may seem trivial or arch, but in fact it's perfectly unified with the movie's themes. It is not giving anything away to point out that the film is itself a palindrome, with the second half in many ways a reverse mirror of the first half.

This is Medem's fourth film; the first three -- including his debut, Cows (Vacas), a very different but nearly as arresting multigenerational family saga in which large passages of time are presented from the point of view of, well, cows -- have only shown up in the U.S. in one-shot festival screenings. Medem's sure manipulation of all the visual and aural resources of film suggests comparison to David Lynch -- most notably his Lost Highway (1997) -- but they are also very different. A more telling comparison, perhaps, would be Vincent Ward's Map of the Human Heart (1993), with which Lovers shares a thematic obsession with destiny and much of its central plot.

But a much more evocative, though more obscure, comparison would be Belgian director Jaco van Dormael's Toto the Hero (1991), which similarly presented a lifetime out of order, filtered through unreliable memories and dreams, with an intricate interweaving of themes and motifs. It's almost as though Medem, inspired by both Ward and van Dormael, decided to retell Ward's story through van Dormael's technique. The central difference is one of tone: Regardless of how you read either film's ending, Toto's basic view is comic; Lovers, for all its cleverness and wordplay, is far more grave. In general, the comic worldview trumps the serious nine times out of 10. But Lovers of the Arctic Circle is that other one out of 10; it earns its gravity.

Opens June 11 at the Tivoli.
-- Andy Klein

Dr. Akagi
Co-written and directed by Shohei Imamura

At a time when Japanese cinema is in an uncomfortable transitional state, Shohei Imamura -- perhaps the greatest living Japanese director and certainly, with the death of Akira Kurosawa, the best known internationally -- has been enjoying a bit of a revival. Last year's The Eel, his first film in nearly a decade, won the Palme d'Or at Cannes -- Imamura had also won previously for The Ballad of Narayama (1983) -- and was released in the U.S. to critical raves. Now along comes Dr. Akagi, which is at once messier, livelier and better than its more restrained predecessor.

The time is the closing months of World War II; the place, a small fishing village on a Japanese island. We first see the town from the air, from the perspective of a squadron of gung-ho American bomber pilots on a mission. From the overview of the big world, the war is everything. But, as we follow the bombs down to sea level -- to human level -- the balance shifts. A man and a woman are having sex on the beach, and to them, the bombing is a nuisance, its main immediate effect to interrupt their down-to-earth pleasure. The war may be raging, and its impact is felt by everyone, but at the same time, the rest of life must go on.

The town is too small to afford more than one doctor, particularly with much of the country's medical talent dealing with military casualties. That overworked practitioner is Dr. Akagi (Akira Emoto), an honest, devoted man who spends his days and nights running from one home to another, accepting payment in whatever way his patients can manage -- mostly food. Dashing around the island in his boater and bow tie, Akagi cuts a somewhat comic figure. And at first we suspect that despite his good intentions, he is some kind of a quack: No matter what symptoms a patient presents him with, Akagi's diagnosis is the same -- hepatitis. After a quick examination, he explains to one patient, "Mentally, you're a small child; physically ... you have hepatitis!"

It is no wonder that the villagers, though grateful for his ministrations, jokingly refer to him as "Dr. Liver." But we soon discover that Akagi is smarter than we thought. He's right -- in a country decimated by war and privation, hepatitis is a nearly ubiquitous problem that complicates recovery from all other illnesses. As with many visionaries before him, his apparently crackpot ideas are correct. Unfortunately, the military authorities don't know that and are continually threatening to limit what they see as an excessive prescribing of glucose, which is also needed at the front.

When his son, also a doctor, is killed in action, Akagi devotes himself to isolating the microorganism responsible for hep. Although samples of infected liver tissue are to be found in every household, the equipment to analyze them is in short supply. Nonetheless, Akagi's enthusiasm and earnestness attract a ragtag group of helpers, including a morphine-addicted surgeon (Masanori Sera) and an escaped Dutch POW (Jacques Gamblin). The most important of his crew, however, is Sonoko (Kumiko Aso), a teenage girl whom Akagi has been forced to hire as his assistant after promising her father on his deathbed.

Like many Imamura heroines, the uneducated Sonoko is in some ways wiser than her elderly benefactor; at the very least, she is more in touch with both the quotidian and spiritual aspects of life. She is a passive, but not powerless, figure. She promises Akagi to give up her moonlighting as a prostitute, but the rest of the world keeps coming up with good reasons to keep her in that role. ("Please sleep with my son," the desperate mother of an old school friend pleads. "He's heading for the front, and everyone knows that virgins attract bullets.") To Akagi's dismay, Sonoko quickly falls in love with him.

Akagi is clearly a hero, but Imamuracontinued on page 47continued from page 45 doesn't let him off easy. Even the best motivations can lead to immoral consequences, and Akagi's intermittent successes in his quest come at a price. Even the clearest morality is revealed as complex. Imamura has long been a master at portraying the fabric of everyday Japanese life: His concerns draw him to the world of ordinary people, within whom he finds both the extraordinary and the appealingly average. He never overdramatizes emotions; his characters may be stand-ins for larger ideas, but they are always human beings, first and foremost. His eye can see the importance of both critical events and minimal, but telling, gestures.

Dr. Akagi has a broader canvas, a richer texture and a more comic tone than the sharper, more focused The Eel. It overflows with the illusion of real life.

Plays at 8 p.m. June 11-13 at Webster University.
-- Andy Klein

Written and directed by John Sayles

In John Sayles' Limbo, which is set amid the rough-and-tumble of southeast Alaska, an ex-salmon fisherman with guilty memories (David Strathairn), an itinerant lounge singer with a lousy voice (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), and the singer's melancholy teenage daughter (newcomer Vanessa Martinez) become stranded, Robinson Crusoe style, on a remote island. This thrown-together family must forage for food, share inadequate clothing and put up with each other in a desperate situation. Winter is coming, and there's no guarantee some passing aviator will catch sight of their signal fire before the snows fly.

Oh, and a pair of ruthless drug dealers might be coming back to kill them.
All this happens during the second hour we spend in Limbo. The first, set in a tough town called Port Henry, is devoted to telling us, among other things, that fish drown in air while people drown in water (the metaphorical value of which never escapes the filmmaker), that singing and writing can free the soul and that any number of Alaskan fish canneries and pulp mills have closed in the continuing tug-o'-war between industry and tourism. We also learn (this just in!) that Alaska is America's "last frontier" -- that the rugged boat captains and mercenary bush pilots and slippery land rapists who inhabit the place are constantly reinventing themselves according to need and whim. To survive in this harsh, beautiful land, you must be adaptable. Otherwise, like Sayles' symbolic salmon, dying in their spawning pools, you might "wear out and give up."

Anything else we need to know? Not much. With the wide-eyed wonder of a tourist and the intellectual vigor of a grad student in philosophy, Sayles gives us survivalism -- emotional and physical -- with a capital "S," set on what he sees as the end of the earth. Most of us are caught in limbo, the movie says -- between a past life and a future one, between adolescence and adulthood, between alienation and love. Those who don't have the courage to move forward drown in their regret. Even places can find themselves in limbo. Places like Alaska, where the quick-buck artist knocks heads with the artisan.

Does all this sound vaguely familiar? No doubt it does, especially if you caught David Mamet's eerily similar meditation on north-country survival, The Edge, or any of a dozen recent movies, from Saving Private Ryan to Boogie Nights, in which ad hoc families struggle against powerful forces. Limbo extends Sayles' concern with community, which began two decades ago with the reunion of ex-radicals in Return of the Secaucus Seven and reached its peak with the bond of striking coal miners in Matewan. It also suggests every lost-in-the-wilderness movie since Jack London took a wrong turn in the woods.

The elemental struggles with Naturecontinued on page 49continued from page 47and Evil that enlivened movies from Deliverance to River Wild are recapitulated here -- but in the same blunt instructional tone that characterizes many of Sayles' weaker films. In Eight Men Out, for instance, we came to understand that corruption, in the World Series and elsewhere, is a bad thing; in City of Hope, we found that urban crime can devastate even lives far from the scene. In Limbo, we learn that people and fish both suffocate if removed from their natural habitats and that entire states can find themselves in oblivion: Eager to score Brownie points with the Alaskan whole-earth set, Sayles seems intent on playing sociologist while mucking around in psychological tensions. That means he sometimes leaves drama on the doorstep.

Certainly, he seemed a lot more comfortable in some of the other "exotic" locales where he has shot previous films -- the coalfields of West Virginia, the Louisiana bayou (Passion Fish) and the flea-bitten Texas border town that served as the setting for his best work to date, Lone Star.

There are some things to like in Limbo, including a contemplative energy you won't find in the summer blockbusters and terrific performances by Martinez (who played young Pilar in Lone Star) as the alienated teenager and wry Kris Kristofferson as Smilin' Jack, the seedy bush pilot who turns out to be the story's moral pivot. But Sayles' innate need to lecture and his peculiar casting choices leave something to be desired.

The rather urbane Strathairn, an old pal who has appeared in six previous Sayles movies, comes off no better as an old salt (albeit with a college education) than, say, David Niven might. It's hard to imagine that mild Joe Gastineau has ever gotten his hands dirty, much less hauled huge haddock over the gunnels of his boat or suffered through a maritime disaster in which two friends died.

It's even harder to believe that he'd go for Mastrantonio's neurotic Donna, whose taste in men is usually no better than her vocal chords. Apparently, the otherwise competent star of The Color of Money and Class Action told Sayles that she was initially "trained as a singer." Although her training apparently did not include phrasing or intonation, Sayles rewrote the character as a singer, and Mastrantonio's Donna De Angelo belts out tune after sappy tune. No wonder the mental-illness, suicide and alcoholism rates are so high up in the 49th state: If this is what locals must endure in their nightclubs, there's not much to live for.

In the end, Sayles (ever the democrat) leaves us in limbo, too: We are left to decide whether our trio of newly bonded outcasts gets rescued or shot to death. But given a choice between knocking Donna off or listening to her mangle another Tom Waits song, I know which way I'd go.

Opens June 11 at the Plaza Frontenac.
-- Bill Gallo