It took exactly a year from its original Italian release (as “La migliore offerta”) for Oscar-winning director Giuseppe Tornatore’s latest feature to arrive at a few New York City venues on New Year’s Day. He is, of course, best known as the creator of “Cinema Paradiso,” the enchanting tale of a boy’s friendship with an aging movie theater projectionist. That 1988 film, the winner of many well-deserved awards, had a 15-month lag between Italian and U.S. release, so perhaps the new film’s distributor thinks it may be worth the wait to reap the rewards again. While “The Best Offer” has already won six David di Donatello awards in its native country, is it a worthwhile English-language film (shot mostly in Italy, with hints of Vienna and Prague) to seek out in America?
Yes, if you want a nice , cultured, enigmatic mystery thriller.
Geoffrey Rush, fresh off his strong performance in last year’s “The Book Thief,” is 63-year-old Virgil Oldman, a somewhat vain (he dyes his aging hair, wears fine suits, and perhaps has as many gloves as Imelda Marcos had shoes), but rather lonely, connoisseur in his profession as an art expert and auctioneer. His stark-white, over-sized residence reeks of fine taste and emptiness. And his taste in dining (alone, “speaking to people can be extremely perilous” he remarks during a phone conversation) is reserved for only the best culinary delights. He rules over his domain with a strong aroma of disdain for those on the lesser side of life. That would be about 99.9% of everyone on the planet.
He’s got a more-than-slightly off-putting, even creepy, side, evident by his obsession with certain objets d’art that offer him tactile pleasure. A sly gratification enforced when he dotes on the many finely painted female faces that adorn the floor-to-ceiling walls of his private inner sanctum that sports his life-long obsession/collection. Da Vinci, Rubens, Renoir, etc. No doubt they were well worth the price. A man and his harem. And no conversation necessary.
But the talking does happen with a mysterious young woman, Claire Ibbetson, whose large, dank villa has a wealth of furniture and art work that requires his expertise. Initially put off when the woman doesn’t appear for a scheduled appointment, he reneges, after an obstinate fit, when told, in one of her several lies, that an automobile accident prevented their meet up. Virgil eventually begins this evaluation job, upset that Claire—an agoraphobic phantom who prefers life’s shadows more than any public awareness—initially uses a caretaker as a go-between. Played by 20-year-old Sylvia Hoeks, a Dutch model turned award-winning actress, her push-me, pull-me character only appears briefly in the first half of the film, but cuts a fine figure of slow boil intrigue in the second hour.
On Virgil’s first amble through the mansion, he pockets a set of iron gears, part of a curious contraption that contradicts the other items in the apparently deserted (of humans, not art) house. As the curious detective in him perks up (and allows for a cool subplot), Virgil wants to know more about the rusty piece of metal scrap. During further exploratory visits, more cogs and wheels are revealed, for later puzzle piecing together with the help of Robert (Jim Sturgess), a young fix-it whiz, gizmo restorer, and ladies man. Could it be the mechanical man we all fondly remember from Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo”?
While they have a amiable banter between them, Robert never calls his customer by his first name, just “Mr. Oldman.” But, as “friends,” Virgil seeks Robert’s advice, whether it’s figuring out how to break through Claire’s hidden shell or how to use his first-ever cell phone.
He also has a financially collaborative relationship with a long-haired, American bidder and failed artist played by Donald Sutherland. Virgil does love a good bargain. And hates losing.
Yet, the fine performance by Rush eventually allows his character to come out from behind his staid, emotional armor and show us what an pathetic fool he can be. The film’s increasing twists and revelations push the story (written by Tornatore) as if it were a chess match. Or maybe like clockwork. Lots of options.
Yes, it often branches off into far-fetched territory that might send a normal person to the police, with maybe a turn or two too many for belief. The twisty, sometimes haunting, sometimes heart-thumping score by Ennio Morricone, and naturalistic cinematography by Fabio Zamarion are first rate.
What a nice way to start 2014, with this intricate, multi-layered tale of mystery, deceit, and delicate anxiety.