Reel Life: Stealing Beauty

I once watched a TV mini-series about Leonardo da Vinci with my mother when I was far too young to stay up so late. She sometimes let me do that — watch TV with her long after my younger siblings had been sent to bed — but only if she saw I was genuinely interested in what she was watching.

This time, I was. That mini-series planted the seed of my life-long interest in the art and history of Renaissance Italy.

I was also captivated by the landscape. “Where’s Tuscany?” I asked.

“Italy,” replied Mom.

I knew then that one day I would go to Italy. It was the first time I was motivated to travel by images I saw on-screen, but it certainly wouldn’t be the last.

Every time I watch Stealing Beauty, I want to book myself on the next flight to Florence. Liv Tyler, in a break-out role, plays Lucy, a 19-year-old American visiting friends of her late mother. They live an idyllic life in a renovated farmhouse somewhere near Siena. Lucy has travelled to Tuscany to have her portrait done by the resident artist, although she suspects it’s really just an excuse for her father to send her to Italy for the summer.

Her mother’s friends have opened their home to all sorts of hangers-on: Jeremy Irons plays a dying playwright, Jean Marais a former art dealer gone senile, Rachel Weisz and Joseph Fiennes — before they became Rachel Weisz and Joseph Fiennes — play the adult children of Sinéad Cusack’s character, the matriarch of the place. Her husband, played by Donal McCann, is the artist. When he explains why he has forsaken wet, damp, chilly Ireland for Tuscany, he says it’s all about the work, the “great tradition of art in these hills” — a homage to the artists of the Italian Renaissance if there ever was one.

All of the characters talk about Lucy — and her dead mother — behind her back. Lucy, however, is interested in only two things: reconnecting with the neighbour boy she fell in love with four summers earlier, and learning the identify of her real father. This last undertaking comes about because Lucy discovers a cryptic entry in her mother’s journals that hint at Lucy’s conception through a one-night affair one summer in Italy when her father was elsewhere.

Film critics didn’t think much of Stealing Beauty, particularly in comparison to some of Academy Award–winning director Bernardo Bertolucci’s other ground-breaking work (including Last Tango in Paris and The Last Emperor). I saw the film only a few months after my own mother’s death and first thought that’s why it resonated with me so loudly — in particular, a short scene involving an ambulance that caught me by surprise when it made me burst into tears in the middle of the dark theatre.

But every time I watch the film I am awestruck, so I think my enthusiasm for it is much more than simply being able to relate to the film’s portrayal of grief. Stealing Beauty is a film with an affecting but realistic screenplay, first-class acting, great music, seductive cinematography, and one of the most beautiful settings possible. In short: it’s a picture-postcard of Tuscany. If you want to find out how enchanting a summer in Italy can be, watch this film.

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