Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Best Offer

Giuseppe Tornatore, who wrote and directed the affectionate tribute to moviegoing “Cinema Paradiso” in 1990 and also made my top-ten list with “Malena” in 2000, returns with a film I enjoyed thoroughly and admire more the more I think of it.

It’s called “The Best Offer,” and it stars Geoffrey Rush in another exceptional performance as Virgil Oldman, who runs a high-end Vienna consignment house and himself presides as auctioneer. His eye for beauty is infallible, his expertise as a valuator and evaluator of artworks and antiquities unimpeachable. Virgil can instantly tell you the piece you’ve brought him is a forgery, educate you about the forger, and console you that even as a forgery it’s worth a fair amount. He’s germ-phobic – he wears gloves to the fine-dining restaurants he frequents – and has rarely (or maybe never) known the feeling of a loving touch.

His only friends are Robert (Jim Sturgess), a young restorer of mechanical objects, and Billy Whistler (Donald Sutherland), his longtime accomplice. Virgil, you see, also knows when an artwork is undervalued, and over the years has amassed an immensely valuable collection of portraits – all of women – by intentionally misattributing them to lesser artists or setting artificially low estimates. In such cases – auctions in which Virgil announces the item will go to “the best offer” – Billy bids up to an agreed price and delivers the work back to Virgil, pocketing five or ten thousand euros in vigorish. Tornatore spends about the first half-hour of the film sumptuously limning Virgil’s world of luxury – set to a lush and evocative score by the great Ennio Morricone – and for us in the audience it’s an addictive vicarious thrill.

The plot kicks into motion with a series of phone calls on Virgil’s 63rd birthday. They come from a Miss Claire Ibbetson (Sylvia Hoeks), whose parents passed away a year earlier and who wishes to engage Mr. Oldman to inventory and appraise the furniture and objets d’art they left behind. For this, he must come to her “villa,” a home with so many rooms the longtime handyman (Philip Jackson) says he stopped trying to count them. After she misses a few appointments, he becomes suspicious. Finally, she confesses that she cannot meet him. She is agoraphobic and has not left the villa for over a decade. When he or anyone else is inside, she retreats to her room and will not come out for anything. He resigns several times – and she fires him just as often – but an unknown connection keeps these two (the germ-phobe and the agoraphobe) coming back to each other.

On each visit to the villa, Virgil finds one or more large round gears lying about, which he tucks into his briefcase and brings to Robert. Robert believes they may be part of an old-fashioned mechanical automaton, which he sets about attempting to piece together. As Virgil’s feelings for Claire deepen from concern about her disorder and paternal protectiveness to something more romantic, Robert, who has a steady girlfriend and a number of flings on the side, coaches Virgil on the ways of womankind. At the bar across the street from Claire’s villa, the publican’s daughter – a dwarf and mathematical genius – sits by the windowsill, rattling off an endless string of numbers.

And here I want to refrain from revealing any more about the plot, except to say that there may not be one more ingenious all year. Tornatore has crafted it intricately and painstakingly. It has the rare and great quality of surprising you in the theater and blowing you away as you reflect on it over time. You remember lines of dialogue, little details, and see how meticulously they all fit. It’s creepy, almost scary. The ending is exquisite and shattering.

I think I kind of love “The Best Offer” – more now even than when I started writing this review. I can’t wait to see it again.

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