Friday, February 18, 2011

Stealing Beauty

Originally Written and Posted at on 5/15/06.

After a trilogy of ambitious yet spectacular epics starting with 1987's Oscar-award winning The Last Emperor, Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci scaled back on his ambitions. The follow-ups in 1990's The Sheltering Sky and 1993's Little Buddha were considerable disappointments. After doing these projects, Bertolucci chose to return to his roots in going to smaller films. In 1996, Bertolucci released a film that returned to his roots of small, intimate films about a young woman trying to discover the identity of her real father in Italy after the suicide of her mother entitled Stealing Beauty.

Directed by Bertolucci with a story he wrote that turned into a script by Susan Minot, Stealing Beauty tells the tale of a young woman who comes to Italy to visit family friends after the death of her mother. Hoping to find the true identity of her father and to lose her virginity to a boy she knows from pen pal letters, she is amazed by the beautiful countryside of Italy as well as the worldly views of a dying playwright. Starring Liv Tyler, Jeremy Irons, Sinead Cusack, Rachel Weisz, Joseph Fiennes, Donal McCann, Jean Marais, D.W. Moffett, Jason Flemyng, and longtime Bertolucci siren Stefania Sandrelli. Stealing Beauty, despite its flaws, is an enchanting coming-of-age tale from one of cinema's most beloved auteurs.

After the suicide death of her famed, poet mother, a young 19-year old American woman named Lucy (Liv Tyler) arrives via plane and on train onto the Tuscany countryside landscape in Italy. While meeting a mysterious man named Carlo Lisca (Carlo Cecchi) on the way, she arrive to the home of her mother's old friends. Living in the house on the hill on the countryside is an Irish sculptor Ian Grayson (Donal McCann), his British wife Diana (Sinead Cusack), an Italian gossip columnist Noemi (Stefania Sandrelli), and an old Frenchman named Monsieur Guillaume (Jean Marais). Also staying for the holiday is Diana's jewelry designer daughter Miranda (Rachel Weisz) and her entertainment lawyer boyfriend Richard (D.W. Moffett). For Diana and Ian, Lucy's visit is a welcome since they're still mourning the death of her mother whom they knew and was surprised by her suicide.

Lucy's intentions for her arrival are for two different reasons, to find out who her real father is after learning that the man she knew her life in America isn't her father while hoping to lose her virginity to a young man named Niccolo` Donati (Roberto Zibetti), whom she met four years before as the first boy she kissed as well as corresponded through a few letters. During a night where she is still in mourning over her mother's death, she meets a dying playwright named Alex (Jeremy Irons) who knew her mother while asking her questions on why she arrived in Tuscany. After Ian and Diana's daughter Daisy (Rebecca Valpy) arrives from a sleepover, the couple is also awaiting the arrival of Diana's son Christopher (Joseph Fiennes) ,who is on a trip to Turkey with Niccolo` and his brother Osvaldo (Ignazio Oliva). Knowing that Lucy will be bored among the adults, they hope to find people her age to talk to. While Lucy decides to be a subject for Ian's next sculpture, she meets Carlo Lisca along with his son Michele (Francesco Siciliano).

Thinking that Carlo might be her real father whom her mother had referred to as a mysterious man in an old poem. She tries to seek the truth with the help of Alex as she hears what the adults' intentions of what they hope to do with her to help her meet some boys. Hoping to leave, Christopher arrives with Niccolo` and Osvaldo as she decides to stay. With a party at their home with Niccolo` and Osvaldo's mother Chiarella (Anna-Maria Gherardi) as a guest, Lucy hopes to flirt with Niccolo but it becomes an embarrassing disaster. Entranced by its beauty of Tuscany, Lucy explores more while writing little poems along the way. Richard is also entranced by her beauty as an attempt to flirt with her only causes his problems with Miranda.

Hoping to get to know Niccolo` more, she goes to his house where she finds Niccolo` with a girlfriend and she becomes upset. Only Alex provides comfort to her as she becomes his guiding spirit in his last days. With an army lieutenant (Leonardo Treviglio) arriving with a broken car, they eat dinner as Lucy still feels upset over Niccolo` only for the next day when he tells her that he broke up with his girlfriend. Lucy's hopes for a relationship with Niccolo` is shattered when she learns that he is not the boy he appeared to be. With Alex providing comfort, she reads him her mother's last poem before her death about the identity of her real father. With Alex giving her insight on the ideas of who her real father is, she is happy to be with someone as intelligent and caring as Alex.

With the Donatis' planning an annual party at their house, Lucy joins everyone while Ian and Alex stay home. Lucy asks Ian about the sculpture as he admits, he never met the man who had been her father for many years while that same man also hated the painting he made of her mother. With everyone going to the party as Noemi talks to Michele about a book he'd given her while Lucy finally notices the shy Osvaldo. After dancing with Carlo and asking where he was on August 1975, he only remembered the last days of Vietnam since he used to be a war correspondent. Coming home with an Englishman named Gregory (Jason Flemyng), Diana hopes that it's the antidote to Lucy's social anxiety. The brief moment of happiness is dashed when Alex's illness takes its toll as she ponders on who her father is while wanting to retain her innocence and the understanding of her mother's death.

While Bertolucci does take a refreshing, intimate approach from his recent epic film work, Stealing Beauty does have it share of flaws. Notably in its plot where the emphasis is on Lucy's exploration of Tuscany and her attempt to lose her virginity rather than exploring the truth of her parents. Although Bertolucci does somewhat reveal the answer near the end of the film, he at least does with such subtlety where the moment is emotional. Susan Minot's script is flawed since the film does take on several perspectives from the other characters while the whole film revolves a lot around Lucy. It's not that many of the characters are very interesting, likeable personalities, it's kind of a distraction from everything that's supposed to be the protagonist.

Bertolucci falters a bit with the script too though he does manage to capture some great moments like the Donati party scene and many of the moments at the Grayson home. Even in the way Bertolucci handles Lucy's exploration and growing up since he understands youth a bit better than some directors. Especially in the way they're more cautious about sex and trying to find some identity in an era where young people aren't sure what to do with their lives. There with the idea of character study, Bertolucci does it very well as does engage on the perspectives of Diana, Ian, and Alex who are important adult characters in how they react to her maturity. In the end, Bertolucci crafted a film that has a lot of moments and stellar performances that does manage to overcome some of its flaws.

Helping Bertolucci in the visual department is cinematographer Darius Khondji whose colorful lighting of sunlight exteriors mixed with green, yellow, and orange is a wonderful complement to the enormous beauty of the Tuscany landscape. The interiors that Khondji shot are also exquisitely beautiful to convey not just the atmospheric coloring of the homes but also to convey its design. The location of Tuscany is wonderfully inspiring as its captured in breathtaking, exquisite detail by production designer Gianni Silversti, art director Domenico Sica, and set designer Cynthia Sleiter. The look of the film captures the posh lifestyle of the Italians living in Tuscany as well as the look of Ian's farm which features some amazing sculptures by Matthew Spender.

Costume designer Louise Stjernsward also does great work in designing the film's clothing, notably the dress Liv Tyler wears as Lucy and Lucy's mother. Editor Pierto Scalia does some fine editing in giving the film a nice, leisurely pace while doing some great perspective work on the cutting for its characters. Sound mixer Ivan Sharrock also does great work in capturing the atmosphere of the sound of Tuscany and its ugly side outside of the place. Film composer Richard Hartley does great work with the film's score to convey the vibrancy and romanticism that is Italy with flourishing arrangements and style.

The music of the film is a true highlight thanks in large part to its soundtrack where its one of the more superior film soundtracks that Bertolucci has put on film. With tracks ranging from pop, soul, jazz, traditional Italian music, classical, and alternative rock, it's a very eclectic soundtrack that doesn't lose touch with the film or become widely inconsistent. With cuts from Liz Phair, Hole, Axiom Funk doing a cover of Jimi Hendrix' If 6 Was 9, Cocteau Twins, Mazzy Star, Helium, Mark Tschanz, and Lori Carson, those cuts convey the sense of youth as well as cuts from Sam Phillips, Charlie Haden, Stevie Wonder, and Fine Young Cannibals singer Roland Gift singing a great closing track. With classical cuts from Mozart as well as a few Italian cuts by Paolo Passano, Luigi Ceccarelli, and Pino Daniele, the film also harkens to blues and jazz cuts from Billie Holliday, Nina Simone, John Lee Hooker, and Chet Baker as well as two trip-hop cuts from Hoover and Portishead. Overall, it's one of the most memorable and overlooked soundtracks of the 1990s.

Finally, there's the film's cast which includes some nice, small yet memorable performances from Joseph Fiennes, Jason Flemyng, Rebecca Valpy, Leonardo Treviglio, and Bertolucci veteran Anna-Maria Gherardi. The weakest performance is easily Roberto Zibetti as Niccolo`, mostly because he comes off too vain and was too good looking for the role where it's not enough for him to even bring any kind of personality to the role. Ignazio Oliva fares much better as the shy, quiet Osvaldo who is the exact opposite of Niccolo` where he shines with his smile and quiet presence. Francesco Siciliano is excellent as the intelligent, book-loving Michele while Jean Marais is great as the old but playful Monsieur Guillaume. Carlo Cecchi is excellent as the mysterious Carlo whose charm matches his otherwise guarded personality where he has a great dancing scene with Liv Tyler.

D.W. Moffett is wonderfully funny as the flirtatious, workaholic Richard who cares only nothing but to flirt and to annoy his girlfriend Miranda. In an early role, future-Oscar winner Rachel Weisz gives an excellent performance as the humorless, frustrated Miranda who thinks she has a great relationship only to learn more of his behavior. Longtime Bertolucci siren Stefania Sandrelli brings the same vibrancy and energy that made her very memorable in Bertolucci's 1970 classic The Conformist as a gossip columnist whose advice on men and love matches her funny personality and wise take on the world. Donal McCann gives a quiet yet wonderful performance as the artistic-driven Ian whose intentions for Lucy as a subject shows his patience and maturity as an artist who isn't self-indulgent or egotistical.

Sinead Cusack is wonderful as the mournful Diana who tries to be the only maternal figure Lucy has while dealing with the death of Lucy's mother and Alex's ailment as she has great scenes with her real-life husband Jeremy Irons. Jeremy Irons is the film's best supporting performance as a charming, eccentric playwright whose wise take on life and sweetness provides the fraternal support that Lucy needed in Tuscany. Irons brings a lot of life to the role as a dying man where he has wonderful chemistry with Tyler. Liv Tyler gives one of best performances in the role of Lucy as a young girl trying to figure her own identity through her mother while trying to understand the world around her. Tyler manages to overcome some of the script's flaws while bringing an observing, wandering performance that is entirely memorable while using her charm, innocence, and beauty to convey an entrancing yet exotic performance.

When the film was released in 1996 and was nominated for the Palme D'or at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival, the film received mixed reviews for its script and Bertolucci's direction yet critics did praise Liv Tyler's performance. Notably because, it wasn't much of a stretch to her own life when she discovered that her real father was Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler in the late 80s when she was a kid. Still, the film manage to resonate with its young audience who related to Tyler's performance while being amazed by its imagery. While the film isn't anywhere near Bertolucci's great work in The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris, and The Last Emperor, the film's themes of youth and sexual innocence does relate to more with his recent 2003 feature The Dreamers. In the end, while it's not anywhere near the great works that Bernardo Bertolucci made in his career, Stealing Beauty is still an entertaining, strong film thanks to a great cast led by Liv Tyler, Jeremy Irons, Sinead Cusack, and Donal McCann.

Bernardo Bertolucci Films: (La Commare Secca) - (Before the Revolution) - (Partners) - (The Spider's Stratagem) - The Conformist - Last Tango in Paris - 1900 - (La Luna) - (Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man) - (The Last Emperor) - The Sheltering Sky - Little Buddha - (Besieged) - The Dreamers - (Me & You)

© thevoid99 2011

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