Italy 1998

Reviewed by Sally Chatsworth


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

In Kenya, Shandurai's husband Winston is arrested for opposing the military government. Shandurai moves to Rome to study medicine; she cleans the house of an English composer and pianist named Kinsky in exchange for lodgings and befriends a gay fellow-student named Agostino. One evening Kinsky gives Shandurai a diamond ring and declares his love. She tells him she cannot understand his music or accept the ring. When he offers to do anything to win her love, she asks him to get her husband out of jail. Kinsky listens intently to the music at an African church service.

Passing an antiques shop, Shandurai sees Kinsky's statuettes on sale; the paintings have disappeared from the walls of the house. She vacuums Kinsky's piano-room while he plays music infused with black rhythms, at which she smiles and almost dances. She sees him meeting an African priest. Later, she receives a letter saying that Winston is to receive a civil trial, and catches Kinsky bargaining for the sale of his piano. He invites her to a private recital at his house, where she receives a telegram saying that Winston, now freed, will arrive in Rome the next morning. She asks Kinsky if Winston can stay at the house and he agrees. That evening, after covering whole pages with "Thank you", Shandurai writes, "Dear Mr Kinsky, I love you," on a note and goes to bed. She awakens, takes her note upstairs and lies down beside a drunken Kinsky in his bed. The next morning, Winston rings the bell repeatedly while Shandurai lies beside Kinsky. Finally she gets up.


Bertolucci's favoured genre has always been melodrama in which feelings are vehicles for meanings. Besieged establishes a triangle between Shandurai, Winston and Kinsky which develops throughout the film: Shandurai moves from one man to the other. One might wonder whether she loves Kinsky because he gets Winston freed from jail. But what makes Kinsky so lovable is that he expresses his love for Shandurai by restoring her husband to her.

The main characters are all cultural outsiders. Kinsky's world is made up of music, art and love. His love for Shandurai makes him interact with others, but his love for music is too great to let him play in public. Shandurai is a foreign student, an outsider within Roman culture, as is her gay friend Agostino. Winston is opposed to his government, and consequently in jail. After his release he arrives to be with his wife - at that moment in bed with Kinsky. The film ends with Winston's attempts to gain entry to what has become a 'community' of outsiders.

Shandurai and Kinsky also change in cultural terms. To seduce Shandurai, Kinsky transforms his music, bringing it closer to African composition. We do not see the genesis of his infatuation with her - it is there at the outset of the film, which delicately portrays Shandurai's growing sympathy and affection for him. She inhabits two worlds: on the purely material level Rome, on the emotional level Kenya, kept apart from others by something inside her. In her case, we know what that is; in Kinsky's case, it seems to be art. For both of them, love breaks down this sense of 'being elsewhere'. The film uses sound, framing and montage rhetorically. The music (diegetic music as opposed to background, non-diegetic music) comes from within the story so forcefully it seems stronger than the images. The same is true of the noise of Kinsky's dumb waiter. Both we and Shandurai are besieged by two sets of sounds: those of Kenya, and those of Kinsky, so that sound, rather than the camera, creates a perspective for the viewer.

Much use is made of a handheld camera, filming close up and cutting very swiftly on movement, a style of cinematography Bertolucci once eschewed. A long and beautiful pull up the stairwell away from Shandurai washing the floor is broken up by cut-aways to other shots. We are no longer at an observer's distance from what is photographed, and the slow-motion, stop-action cinematography is part of the attempt to communicate feeling. Bertolucci has always used montage to manipulate time, to convey what is inside his characters and the presence of the past in the present. Shandurai lives in a present Rome through a Kenyan past, an 'elsewhere' both cultural and geographical. Bertolucci is constructing what he calls "a dramaturgy without conflicts, one that is held up by feeling". Unlike characters in his films from Prima della rivoluzione to The Last Emperor, these characters do not struggle for a social identity - they are resigned to not belonging.

Besieged is an intimist film - an intimate chamber work - but it is not shot with the restraint customary of intimist films. It rides current Italian bandwagons - third-world immigrants, gayness, art - yet it is not essentially 'Italian'. With its mostly English dialogue, it is an Italian product projected at the international market. The production companies, however, are based in Italy (Silvio Berlusconi's Mediaset, and therein lies a tale), so this is no Jeremy Thomas-produced international blockbuster.

Does this allusive, delicate story work? The answer is yes, provided you are sympathetic with what Bertolucci is trying to do.


Massimo Cortesi
Clare Peploe
Bernardo Bertolucci
Based on a story by
James Lasdun
Director of Photography
Fabio Cianchetti
Jacopo Quadri
Production Designer
Gianni Silvestri
Alessio Vlad
©Fiction s.r.l. Rome
Production Companies
A Fiction and Navert Film in co-production with Mediaset presentation
Associate Producer
Clare Peploe
Production Co-ordinators
Barbara Ruggeri
African Unit:
Jenny Pont
Set Co-ordinator
African Unit:
Dan Kiarie
Production Managers
Andrea Filosa
African Unit:
Luigi Melecchi
Unit Manager
Emanuele Lomiry
Location Manager
African Unit:
Jimmy Mukora
Assistant Director
Serena Canevari
Henrique Laplaine
Ginevra Elkann
African Unit:
Yahya Chavanga
Script Supervisors
Suzanne Durrenberger
Fabien Gerard
Lucy Boulting
Fabiola Banzi
Casting Director
African Unit:
Lenny Juma
Camera Operator
Roberto De Nigris
Steadicam Operator
Salvatore Anversa
Visual Effects
Set Decorator
Cinzia Sleiter
Textile & Garden Design
Metka Kosak
Costume Designer
Metka Kosak
Make-up Artist
Roberta Petrini
Elisabetta De leonardis
Studio Sergio Faiella
Music Arranger/Performer
Stefano Arnaldi
"Fantasy in D Minor K 397" by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, performed by Stefano Arnaldi; "Sonata from Op. 7 in E Minor, 2nd Movement" by Edvard Grieg, performed by Stefano Arnaldi; "Prelude in E Flat Minor" from
"The Well-Tempered Clavier" by Johann Sebastian Bach, performed by Stefano Arnaldi; "Study Op. 8 No. 12 in D Sharp Minor" by Alexander Scriabin, performed by Stefano Arnaldi; "32 Variations in C Minor" by Ludwig van Beethoven, performed by Stefano Arnaldi; "Waltz in E Major" by Frédéric Chopin, performed by Andrea Quercia; "Africa", "Nyumbani" by/performed by John C. Ojwang; "Maria Valencia" by Papa Wemba, S. Mutela, C. Polloni, performed by Papa Wemba; "Le Voyageur" by Papa Wemba, M. Munan, performed by Papa Wemba; "Sina" by/performed by Salif Keita; "Mambote na nje" by/performed by Coro Bondeko; "My Favourite Things" by Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, performed by John Coltrane; "Diaraby" (trad), arranged by Ali Farka Toure, performed by Ry Cooder, Ali Farka Toure; "Full Option" by Pepe Kalle, performed by Empire Bakuba; "Cuore matto" by A. Ambrosino, G. Savino, performed by Little Tony
Maurizio Argentieri
Re-recording Mixer
Fausto Ancillai
Sound Editor
Sandro Peticca
Sound Special Effects
Cineaudioeffects snc
African Unit Armourer
Ben Pont
Thandie Newton
David Thewlis
Jason Kinsky
Claudio Santamaria
John C. Ojwang
Massimo De Rossi
Cyril Nri
Paul Osul
Veronica Lazar
Gianfranco Mazzoni
Mario Mazzetti Di Pietralata
piano buyer
Andrea Quercia
child pianist at concert
Alexander Menis
Natalia Mignosa
Lorenzo Mollica
Elena Perino
Fernando Trombetti
Veronica Visentin
children at concert
Alliance Releasing (UK)
8,422 feet
93 minutes 35 seconds
Dolby digital
In Colour
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011