Stealing Beauty (1996) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

I suppose Bernardo Bertolucci is the least Italian of all the great Italian directors. Before this, he had not made a movie in Italy in 15 years, and this one wasn't much of a homecoming in the sense that it is in English, and is really about a bunch of Brits and Americans living in and visiting a countryside villa in Tuscany.

Stealing Beauty begins with the arrival of 19-year-old Lucy Harmon (Liv Tyler), an American who has traveled to Italy after her mother's suicide, on the pretext of having her portrait created by an old family friend. Her real reasons are more complex. Her mother's diaries reveal that Lucy was conceived in this very villa, but mother's words do not reveal the identity of her real father. All of her life, she has been told that her father was the man married to her mother, but now she knows that to be false and wants to know who it really is. She also thinks perhaps this would be a good time to lose her cherry. Of course, these projects have to follow a certain chronology. It would be wise to determine who dad is first, in order to avoid sleeping with him.

That's pretty much all there is to it, and you can bet that she will find her dad and her deflowerer, and that they will be two different people, so there's no real mystery. In fact, the film even shows you who her father is before she knows. Given that complete lack of plot or suspense, the film has to rely on character and atmosphere to hold your attention. 

Well, characterization ain't it. Lucy, the central character, is underwritten and what little personality she has is vacuous. She is 19, but she seems to have the mind and the emotional development of a 14 year old. We see her poems, empty-headed, lacking in talent, riddled with spelling mistakes, rhyming childishly like Burma Shave signs.

The dye (sic) is cast

The dice are rolled

I feel like shit 

You look like gold

I didn't make that up. That was the real poem, verbatim. Do you believe that was written by a 19 year old whose mother was a distinguished poet?

Big sigh.

I used to teach English to high school juniors. They were 16-17 years old. The level of sophistication in their thoughts and writings were far beyond anything Liv shows in this film. One of my classes was a "sweathog" class, but they, too could express their thoughts far better than Liv does here. So the character we see in the film writes and speaks in a manner far less sophisticated than a 16 year old slow learner, yet she is supposed to be the 19 year old daughter of a noted author!!

Poor old Bertolucci seems to be out of touch with the development of humans through adolescence. Perhaps he's forgotten the kinds of thoughts and capabilities we have at certain ages. Or perhaps he really wanted the character to be 14, but couldn't face the reactions he would have gotten from the press and religious groups, so he kept the character the same,  but simply said she was 19. I don't know. I do know that it isn't a realistic 19 year old of any kind.


Liv Tyler showed one breast while she was posing for a painting, and the other breast in a bathtub scene. She later took part in a lovemaking scene in which her breast was exposed, and there was a brief flash of her crotch as she removed her panties.

Rachel Weisz did a lengthy scene in which she was sunbathing topless.

Stefania Sandrelli showed the top of her butt in a seduction scene, and her entire butt in a skinny-dipping scene.

Sinead Cusack showed her butt in a sunbathing scene. 

Male: Donal McCann, D.W Moffatt, and Carlo Cecci were all naked in swimming/sunbathing scenes, with clear frontals from the latter two.

Hell, how many beautiful 19 year old virgins do you know? Now that I think about it, it seems that he absolutely must have written this character to be 14, only to cave to some external pressure.

It really doesn't matter, anyway, because this Lucy is really not a person at all. She's just a symbol of youthful beauty, like the blonde in the convertible that keeps turning up in those Lampoon's Vacation movies, except our Lucy is a symbol of innocent youth rather than high-spirited youth.

If the part was meant to be vacuous and beautiful, Liv Tyler nailed it. In her performance, and in the accompanying interview, she demonstrated a head devoid of thoughts, and an intellectual  maturity level less than her physical age. Her use of baby-talk terms like "ex-specially" in the interview was, well, exspecially irritating. But you have to admire the genius in casting her. She is beautiful, innocent-looking, and perfectly suited to play a girl who was deceived about the true identity of her father. That's exactly what the film needed. 

The secondary parts weren't developed much better. Except for Jeremy Irons as a dying author, the characters were cut out of cardboard stereotypes and dressed up in the official Betsy McCall "eccentric wardrobe", sort of like "East Village Barbie". Irons rose above the rest of the cast, nearly carried the whole movie himself, either because his part was written better or, more likely, because he personally breathed life into it. It was refreshing to see him use his considerable talent to play a role with no sinister character traits, and he pulled it off with great dignity and genuine humanity.  

I guess you think I'm going to tell you to avoid this film. Not so. I enjoyed it.

"Come again, Scoop? If the plot and characterization is poor, what the hell did you like?"

Great direction is all about atmosphere. Are you impressed with the plot and characterization in A Touch of Evil? The plot is grade-z junk, and the characters were all cartoons, although Orson Welles' character was a fascinating cartoon. People think that is a great film because of its atmosphere. Same thing with Stealing Beauty. The atmosphere of the film is very similar to "Sirens". The locals live in an isolated hilltop community where they live some kind of pagan existence, amid unique statuary, golden and green hillsides, naked swimming and sunbathing, eating, lovemaking, and music. It is a moveable feast without much movement. Like Sirens, it takes place in an isolated self-contained community headed by a freethinking artist. Like Sirens, this film did for me what a good doobie used to do in the old days when I was uptight. It just bathed me in a wave of contentment, and sucked me into its hazy world. By the end of the film I was lying in a hammock in the Tuscan sunlight, talking to the rest of the characters, enjoying their comings and goings.

The film presents a marvelous and eclectic selection of music to accentuate the erotic and sensuous mood of their world. Folk, rock, classical, swing, tango - having only sensuousness in common. 

And the camerawork is luscious. 

Just let yourself be carried away by that atmosphere, and you'll never notice the film's weaknesses. Sure, it's just a Zalman King film with more class and a higher I.Q, but is that such a bad thing?

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 2.35:1

  • brief, making-of featurette

Tuna's comments in yellow:

Bernardo Bertolucci wrote and directed, and the film is visually magnificent. The entire film was shot with very warm lighting (possibly a slightly orange filter).

IMDB readers say 6.2 of 10, which is proof that this film is not for the masses, but, if it is your kind of film, it is one of the best. The characters are interesting, the performances all round are excellent, and the photography is absolutely beautiful.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: two and a half stars. Ebert 2/4, Berardinelli 2.5/4, Maltin 3/4.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 6.2 
  • With their dollars ... it grossed $4 million in the USA
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C+. Paced too slowly, and far too static and predictable for mainstream success, but I liked it just based on the music and photography. (Tuna says B)

Return to the Movie House home page