1999, Movie, R, 92 mins


Maddening on many fronts and strangely wordless, Bernardo Bertolucci's purported love story breaks no new ground. Shandurai (Thandie Newton) flees her unspecified African homeland, where her husband was summarily arrested, to pursue a medical degree in Rome. There she earns room and board by cleaning the villa of a wealthy Englishman, Mr. Kinsky (David Thewlis). Kinsky puts his heart and soul into playing elegaic classical compositions, while Shandurai combats homesickness by listening to sprightly African pop. Despite their different tastes, he becomes obseseed with her and, in an archaic romantic gesture, declares eternal devotion. Shandurai declines his attentions, then boldly challenges him to secure her husband's freedom if he truly loves her. One by one, Kinsky's precious possessions, the sculptures and curios that Shandurai so diligently cleans, begin to disappear. And Shandurai gradually becomes as intrigued with Kinsky as he is with her. The impressionistic, poetic, music video-inspired style Bertolucci adopts makes for a gorgeous-looking film, a dramatic change from the overblown style of THE LAST EMPEROR and LITTLE BUDDHA. But in this case intimate experimentation doesn't make for particularly absorbing storytelling, and Bertolucci's cavalier use of Africa in general and Shandurai in particular as color to enliven Kinsky's sterile life is inexcusable: Political correctness obviously hasn't made great inroads in Italy. That consideration aside, Bertolucci has also committed the fatal error of making a listless, unsexy and unromantic love story. What's supposed to be a gentle stirring romance doesn't fly, through no fault of the talented leads: Thewlis and Newton (who again distinguishes herself as the actress most likely to salivate, writhe and pee in her pants, and looks great even when she's supposed not to) valiantly soldier on, unassisted by such niceties as dialogue. By leaving so much unsaid, Bertolucci ends up saying close to nothing. leave a comment --Sandra Contreras

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