In the quarter-century since making that heart-warmer, Tornatore has followed with a hodgepodge of projects, many of them touched with a sentimental or precious spirit — a middling record, which is why it’s intriguing to see him turn to a genre picture.
Yes, “The Best Offer” is a character study as well, but it has a built-in suspense mechanism that leads the writer-director away from his more pretentious tendencies.
Plus, any movie that puts Geoffrey Rush in the central role has already created interest.
Rush plays the feared auction-house owner and connoisseur Virgil Oldman, who glides through the high-art universe, gavel in hand. (Where, exactly, this universe is centered is vague; the setting is an unnamed Euro-city where everybody speaks English as common language.)
The epitome of class, he’s actually running a tidy scam in plain sight, collecting expensive paintings by underestimating their true worth and using a plant (Donald Sutherland) as high bidder.
Virgil, a lifelong bachelor, is drawn into a mysterious relationship with a wealthy young client (Sylvia Hoeks) who needs to sell the treasures from her rambling mansion.
She refuses to let herself be seen, but needs Virgil to appraise her belongings, and they carry on an oddly tender communication from opposite sides of a hidden door.
Occasionally he lingers around the place, hidden behind a statue, just to catch a glimpse of her; a lifetime of looking cannot be denied.
Meanwhile, he surreptitiously gathers odd steampunk gizmos from her basement, and conspires with a local tinkerer (Jim Sturgess, from “Across the Universe”) to assemble the pieces of what appears to be a pre-20th-century robot.
Tornatore doesn’t exactly have a light touch (in case we might not fully understand Virgil’s aversion to human intimacy, the character always wears gloves), so the average viewer will see big plot developments hatching from very early on.
Nevertheless, the movie’s a pleasant enough collision of arty eye-candy (pretty locations, secret rooms lined with painted masterpieces) and trash, all goosed along by a cheeky musical score from octogenarian Ennio Morricone.
The story line hangs on a series of unlikely events, but Tornatore’s sheer commitment to the material (every scene is visibly fussed over) makes even random interiors dense with detail.
And Rush, an elegant actor who always seems game to mess himself up, gets to play around in his catlike way. He justifies this overdone but enjoyable exercise in fluff.
“The Best Offer” (three stars)
The story line violates credibility at various times, but this suspense film from Oscar-winner Giuseppe Tornatore is an enjoyable enough collision of arty eye-candy and trash. Plus it has Geoffrey Rush, as an elegant art dealer who strikes up an oddly tender relationship with a young woman hiding inside her mansion.
Rated: R for nudity.
Showing: SIFF Film Center.
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