The setup for Bernardo Bertolucci's (LAST TANGO IN PARIS, 1900,
THE LAST EMPEROR, and LITTLE BUDDHA) latest film is a classic.
Probably everyone has had the puppy love stage when you kissed a girl
or a boy and then lost touch with them only to wonder later what has
happened to them and what would have come of the romance if it had been
allowed to blossom.
In STEALING BEAUTY, a title with many meanings, 19 year old Lucy
Harmon (Liv Tyler) travels back to the Tuscany countryside of Italy to
spend the summer with old friends and to get her portrait painted. In
reality the driving motivation is rekindle her friendship with the boy
with whom she shared her first kiss four years earlier. After she left
four years ago, he wrote for a while, but the letters stopped and she
does not know what that means. At any rate, she is a virgin, which
bemuses her Italian friends.
I will tell you a bit more of the story shortly, but let me stop
right here and say the only reason to see this film is for its visual
impact. The story itself is so insubstantial that if you think about
it for a moment, it will disappear. Moreover, the director's pacing
can be summarized as nothing much happens, but it happens slowly.
Don't get me wrong, you can make lightweight films worth seeing.
Perhaps the best recent example was SIRENS, but in STEALING BEAUTY
there is nothing compelling to involve the audience. The audience
becomes little more than voyeurs in STEALING BEAUTY, and the actors
seem strangely disconnected from the characters they are playing.
Back to what is right about the film. Tuscany has never looked so
lovely. In fact, Bertolucci went out of the way to make it even more
magnificent. As the press kit points out, he requested the set
designer (Gianni Silvestri) to take the gravel road where they were
shooting and dye it "a dark Siena ochre." Moreover, Bertolucci wanted
the sets "to create a contrast to the lightness of the story by using
heavy colors, deep reds, blues, burnt oranges."
The cinematography by Darius Khondji is as handsome as the sets.
Bertolucci told him to look at the paintings by Matisse, Derain and
Marquet and listen the music of Mozart in order to form the proper
texture for the film. Most scenes, even the meals, are filmed outdoors
for maximum effect. If you are not blown away by the images, get an
immediate appointment at your optometrist. The opening scene is shot
in dizzying swirls so that you are immediately engulfed in the radiance
of the film. When Lucy writes in her diary, words appear across the
screen in script as if written by an angel, and they then float across
the screen like an apparition.
Returning to the story itself, we have a tale set in Italy of a
bunch of friends, lots and lots of friends. Lucy stays at the villa
owned by the Grayson's. Diana Grayson (Sinead Cusack) is the
matriarch, and her husband is the painter Ian (Donal McCann). Visiting
them are Carlo Lisca (Carlo Cecchi), M. Guillaume (Jean Marais),
Richard Reed (D. W. Moffett), Noemi (Stefania Sandrelli), Miranda Fox
(Rachel Weisz), and Christopher (Joseph Fiennes). Finally, there is
the dying invalid, Alex Parrish (Jeremy Irons), who is staying with the
The show seems to be about sexuality, if indeed it is about
anything at all, but to me it is no more than a tone poem to
triviality. All of the males in the cast appear subtly to be trying to
seduce Lucy. Both sexes shown as free spirits who all run around
together with no clothes on, and who smoke dope together as casually as
others would share a jug of water on a hot day. I lost track of how
many times Lucy came upon others making love loudly and in easy view of
anyone walking by.
The acting and the music (Richard Hartley) is as trivial as the
script (Susan Minot based on the story by Bernardo Bertolucci). The
music is full of dreamy little jazz numbers that have an overall
numbing effect. Finally, the film does have a small mystery in it, but
it is easily solvable and plays only a small part in the plot.
STEALING BEAUTY runs too long at 1:56. The picture is mainly in
English although a bit of it is in Italian and French with English
subtitles. The picture is rated R for full frontal male and female
nudity, sex, drug usage, and some bad language. There is no violence.
I would only let teenagers go if they are mature and if they understand
the dangers of drug usage, no matter how cool this film makes it seem.
I enjoyed the gorgeous look of the picture, but I left feeling cheated
since there is no substance. I give the film a mild thumbs down and
rate it **.
Copyright © 1996 Steve Rhodes