The Best Offer

THE BEST OFFER (La Migliore Offerta). Starring Geoffrey Rush, Sylvia Hoeks, Jim Sturgess, and Donald Sutherland. Directed by Giuseppe Tornatore. Rated M (Sex scene, infrequent coarse language and violence). 131 min.

This is a romantic film directed in thriller mode by the same director, Giuseppe Tornatore, who brought us “Cinema Paradiso” in 1988. Australia’s Geoffrey Rush joins him to depict a love story based on obsession in the world of high-art auctions and antiques. The film won six Italian Silver Ribbon film awards in 2013, and took out the award for Best Director.

Virgil Oldman (Geoffrey Rush) is an arrogant, eccentric director of a prestigious auction house somewhere (unnamed) in Italy. He is enormously self-disciplined, and lives a sophisticated life style in which everything is clean, ordered, and the people who defer to him are reliably obsequious. He is a respected authority on authenticating valuable works of art: he knows expertly what is real and what is fake. Howeverowever,, he sidelines by fraudulently collecting masterpieces, and arranges for his friend, Billy Whistler (Donald Sutherland), to buy them at low cost and pass them back to him. On the auction floor, Billy bids on undervalued works of art that Virgil auctions on a “best offer” basis. Virgil’s special collection of masterpieces, which is hidden away in his house, depicts only females. He likes to look at women and artists’ reproductions of them, but goes to great lengths to keep his relationship to everyone, especially women, at a comfortable emotional distance.

One day, he receives an unexpected call from Claire (Sylvia Hoeks), a young heiress, who lives in a crumbling Italian villa. She tells him that her parents have bequeathed a valuable collection of art antiques to her, and she wants Virgil to prepare them for auction. Claire attracts Virgil by being totally elusive. She is emotionally fragile, and suffers from agoraphobia (fear of open spaces). Her pathology plugs directly into Virgil’s neurosis - both Virgil and Claire find talking to people “extremely perilous”.  

Jim Sturgess plays a person who runs an Old Curiosity repair shop in the centre of the town. He pieces together what Virgil brings to him, which turns out to be a valuable, eighteenth century automaton. While doing that, he instructs Virgil on how to win over the reclusive Claire, who lives inside a locked section of her villa. It frustrates Virgil that he can only communicate with Claire over the telephone, or by shouting at her through walls or closed doors.

This film is very well constructed and holds attention from start to finish. Its photography is lush and atmospheric, and the musical score in the film obtained one of its six Italian awards. Geoffrey Rush captures Virgil’s loneliness and obsession exquisitely, and gives a sensitively nuanced performance of an austere, obsessive man who is attracted to a woman who seems to him to be almost as inner-directed and isolated as he is. In constant fear of exposing himself emotionally, however, Virgil knows that Claire is a dangerous threat to his stability.

At one level, the film is a story of a corrupt, art-house director who falls tragically in love with a mysterious woman. At another level, it explores the artifices of the world of art and the eccentricities of the people who inhabit it. More significant themes lie beneath. Artworks can be faked, and the film explores whether emotions can be faked as well. All the time it asks how real some things have to be, to be taken as genuine.

The film has a final twist that can’t be revealed. Suffice it to say, that the movie is constructed to communicate dramatically the tensions between what is real and what is not. Claire says she trusts Virgil, and shows herself to him. Virgil infatuated with her, declares his love, but Virgil’s feelings for her have made him vulnerable. His love for Claire has moved him from curiosity to infatuation, and then to requited passion, and there are consequences.  

This is a very entertaining film that is wonderfully directed by Giuseppe Tornatore. It keeps one involved and intrigued throughout, and always elegantly and artfully so.

Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.

Transmission Films.

Out August 29th 2013.

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