Re:View – ‘The Best Offer’
It’s very easy to sneer at Guiseppe Tornatore – and critics often do – after all, this was the man who made ‘Cinema Paradiso’, a film about the power of the moving image that reduced grown men to tears and was only grudgingly admired by critics.
Subsequently, the director made a film in English that was even harder for them to love. ‘The Legend of 1900’ starred Tim Roth as a jazz pianist unable to leave the liner on which he was born. Tornatore tells stories – something that’s never popular with critics – and they’re fables. He must know that his English dialogue is clunky, but in general that has never concerned Italian directors – look at Fellini, who barely bothered with dialogue at all.
In ‘The Best Offer’, Tornatore returns to the theme of love and emotional imprisonment. Geoffrey Rush is Virgil, an unscrupulous antiques dealer whose secret collection of paintings in which beautiful, unattainable women stare out from canvases masks a hidden failure; his inability to connect with or understand women at all. It also – a brave move, this – makes him a faintly creepy virgin.
But while valuing the contents of a house, Virgil comes into contact with the most unattainable of all women – an agoraphobic who hides in her private rooms, always invisible. And inevitably, she turns out to be stunningly beautiful. Virgil confides in Robert (Jim Burgess), who’s repairing an automaton for him (a bit of a heavy-handed metaphor), and in his co-conspirator in the auction room, Donald Sutherland.
Love blossoms between the pair who are both locked away in their own shells, but Tornatore has a Hitchcockian side that he explored in the superb ‘The Unknown Woman’, and here he’s channeling a little bit of Dario Argento, aided by a lustrous late gem of a score from Ennio Morricone.
So it’s no surprise that the film turns into a thriller, and as thrillers tend to tie their plots up neatly, they can have less emotional heft. But it’s a satisfying and highly enjoyable ride, for all that; Tornatore sets his tale in a mythical mittel-European city and populates it with English actors, which heightens the sense of it being a fable about time and love. Visuals are sumptuous, the post-production is often atrocious (‘He’s gone crazy!’ announces an off-screen extra when we cut to Rush looking a little frazzled) but you can overlook anything when you’re involved in a good tale – and that’s something Tornatore always delivers, despite the lashings of cheese. Nice use of an autistic dwarf, too, and there’s a touching end line that deserves to become a classic.
So, what’s wrong with a good story well told? I love European films, but sometimes I get fed up staring at a donkey in a field for 20 minutes. Tornatore is the antidote; slick, elegant, and big-themed.