Stealing Beauty (United States/Italy, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

What do you call a character study with shallow, sketchily-drawn characters, but a gorgeous setting? A scenery study, perhaps. Or an atmosphere study. Either would be appropriate for Stealing Beauty, a stylish, sensual motion picture that's hollow where it should have a heart. This film is aesthetically pleasing but not emotionally satisfying. It's occasionally erotic but rarely dynamic. While these aren't unforgivable traits, I somehow expected more from a Bernardo Bertolucci (Last Tango in Paris) film.

The main thrust of the movie are the attempts of the lead character, Lucy Harmon (Liv Tyler), to lose her virginity. At age 19, she's never slept with a man -- a revelation that causes a great stir among the residents of the Tuscany villa where she is spending the summer. Everyone is sympathetic with her situation, and they begin to consider who might best be able to accommodate her.

There is no shortage of candidates. Stealing Beauty presents them one-by-one, then dismisses them in the same manner. There's the American boyfriend of the jewelry-maker daughter of Lucy's hostess. There's the son, Christopher, or one of his friends, including Nicolo, with whom Lucy shared her first kiss four long years ago on her last visit to Italy. Then there's Nicolo's shy, sensitive friend, who turns away from the sight of an exposed female breast.

As the story, such as it is, develops, a mystery subplot is introduced: who is Lucy's real father? There are three apparent possibilities: Alex Barnes (Jeremy Irons), a dying writer; Ian Grayson (Donal McCann), the sculptor husband of Lucy's hostess; and Carlo Lisca (Carlo Cecchi), a mysterious ex-military man. We know the truth long before Lucy does, but Stealing Beauty is never surprise-oriented. It doesn't take a genius to weed through the choices to determine who will get the opportunity to deflower Lucy.

Despite all the screen time accorded to Tyler, her character shows little development. Events seem to swirl around her, only briefly touching her shallow emotional center. Fundamentally, she's no different at the end than at the beginning (except that her hymen is no longer intact). Several of the supporting characters show greater depth. Most notable of these is Jeremy Irons' terminally ill author, who becomes Lucy's confidante and vicariously lives out his last days through her.

There's very little comic relief in this too-serious film, which makes for a rather grim movie-going experience. Stealing Beauty is long, but doesn't really go anywhere. It is most remarkable for its excellent sense of time and place. The Italian countryside becomes as vital a supporting character as Alex, and when Lucy dives into a lake, you can almost feel the cool, clear water. Stealing Beauty functions as a two-hour, surrogate holiday -- diverting and visually captivating, but far from a cinematic landmark.

Stealing Beauty (United States/Italy, 1996)

Run Time: 1:58
U.S. Release Date: 1996-06-14
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Content, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1