May 21, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

After 1996’s Stealing Beauty, Bernardo Bertolucci’s surface-skimming trip to Italy that launched a thousand magazine fashion layouts and a temporary interest in bread dipped in olive oil, Besieged is a thrilling reminder of what moving, personal art the director of The Conformist and The Last Emperor can make when inspired by the right material.

Once again we are in Italy. This time it’s Rome, where Jason Kinsky (David Thewlis), a wealthy, solitary Englishman, lives in a large villa with a large piano and a large art collection, largely out of touch with humanity. His only consistent relationship — conducted primarily through the dumbwaiter that connects employer’s quarters to employee’s digs — is with Shandurai (Thandie Newton), an African woman from an unspecified oppressed land whose husband is a jailed political prisoner. She works as a maid in Kinsky’s home while studying for a medical degree at night.

Kinsky lives upstairs, Shandurai lives downstairs; he listens to Western classical music (and plays his piano deftly), she dances to an African beat. The two are displaced loners, outsiders, all but oblivious to the beauty of Rome around them (celebrated with a luscious palette of color and light by cinematographer Fabio Cianchetti). Still, Kinsky is not entirely insensate: He falls in love with his servant, who proudly, fearfully rebuffs him. If he really loves her, she says in a flash of outrage and despair, he will free her husband.

Thus begins an extraordinarily elegant plot spiral, something O. Henry would have enjoyed, as the tiniest changes in Kinsky’s environment — first a painting is missing, then a tapestry, then more and more expensive tangibles — signify a devotion on the shy man’s part that the object of his affection at first doesn’t even notice. Yet with the de-accessioning of his possessions, Kinsky makes even more room in his heart for valuable emotions; he literally lightens up. And Shandurai shifts and softens, too.

Key to the sweep and tenderness of the film (adapted from a James Lasdun short story by Bertolucci and his wife, Clare Peploe, and originally made for European TV) are the lambent performances by Thewlis and Newton, neither of whom have we seen exude such soft control before. The growling required of Newton in Beloved gave no clue she could work so subtly, or with such economy. And Thewlis — usually cast as a rotter in Mike Leigh films — displays tremendous delicacy as a sensitive man of breeding. His air of mournfulness without mustiness is just the breeze needed to smoothly propel this deeply felt love story. A-


Bernardo Bertolucci
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