Bernardo Bertolucci | Beseiged

Classic Film and Television Home Page

Bernardo Bertolucci


Besieged (1998) shares some themes with The Dreamers (2003). Both take place largely in ancient, traditional looking, urban European homes, where life centers around culture: music in Besieged, cinema in The Dreamers. In both, the people living in the home are recluses, who have barricaded themselves off from the outside world. In both, sexual attraction is running rampant among the home's denizens. Both films end with important political events in the outside world forcing themselves into the home, and onto the attention of the anti-social characters living there. The political events will actually interrupt the characters' inward-looking sexual obsession - seen as a good thing in The Dreamers, a tragic one in Besieged.

These endings also recall the opening of Little Buddha, where the Tibetan monks come from out of left field to interrupt the conventional domestic life of a Seattle family. The hero of Besieged is good with kids, but emotionally cool otherwise; this recalls the loving but otherwise low-key family in Little Buddha. However, the characters in Little Buddha are much more "normal" than those in the later films: they are a married couple with a kid.

Bertolucci likes public train transportation. The most striking shots in the Seattle sections of Little Buddha show the elevated train. In Besieged, we see the Rome subway.

There is a tremendous sense of fertility everywhere - Bertolucci loves summer. One recalls the lush Italian landscapes of The Spider's Stratagem (1970).

Visual Style

Besieged has a rich visual style. One component: many shots involve "repeated visual elements". We see the hammers in a piano, striking the keys. There are dozens of hammers, all in a row. Similarly, we see long stretches of steps (the film takes place near the Spanish Steps in Rome). The metal balustrade of a spiral staircase, with its repeated metal supports. A wine shop with hundreds of bottles in rows. African fabrics, with repeated geometric designs running through them. Hexagonal floor tiles, and slats of a shutter. Even a letter, with the words "Thank You" written over and over in it.

These repeated visual elements give a strong sense of visual rhythm to the shots. It is like a pulse of energy running through them. Bertolucci can cut from one such image to another.

The characters are also often at the bottom of well like regions. The high narrow streets of Rome help here. So do strong vertical regions of color inside the house - a wall of brilliant red, for instance, running up behind a character.

The film is full of bright reds and oranges, both in the clothes, and the interiors. Occasionally, these are contrasted with soft greens, or green foliage. The bright orange color recalls the monks' robes in Little Buddha.

There are also polished surfaces, which reflect things. A piano lid serves as a diagonal mirror across the composition, leading to an almost kaleidoscope effect. The same piano is lowered (by moving men) from a window, leading to a dangling "mirror" effect in the street. Later, we see a Roman streetscape reflected upside-down in the convex golden bowl of a door bell.

As in Beyond the Clouds (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1993), some of these images oddly recall film noir. Shots of spiral staircases run through Anthony Mann's Desperate (1947) and many other noir works. Buildings are reflected in a getaway car during the early robbery sequence of Kansas City Confidential (Phil Karlson, 1952).