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Art For Art's Sake, Money For God's Sake - "The Best Offer" (Italy/USA, 2013)

Geoffrey Rush in 'The Best Offer.'
Geoffrey Rush in 'The Best Offer.'

‘The Best Offer’ opens for a two-week run at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Friday, January 17th.

Giuseppe Tornatore’s The Best Offer (La Migliore Offerta) (Italy / USA, 2013) has all of the ingredients for a superior thriller. Aficionados of beautifully photographed interiors, fine artwork and antique furniture will find a little bit of cinema heaven here. Mystery fans who enjoy mentally racing ahead of the accumulating details will have a field day. And we’re once again regaled with a seemingly flawless performance by the wonderful actor Geoffrey Rush. And yet, typically for a Tornatore film (Cinema Paradiso, The Legend Of 1900, Malèna, The Unknown Woman), the sum of these uniquely well-presented parts ends up being far less than a successful, or even satisfying, film experience.

In the film, Rush plays Virgil Oldman, the proprietor of a very distinguished fine art auction house (located in some unnamed hybrid of a European city, presumably in Italy, although everyone here speaks perfect English). Virgil leads an almost ascetic bachelor/connoisseur high-life – he dines alone in elegant old-school restaurants, jets all over Europe to deal with collectors and conduct others’ auctions, and has an excruciatingly elegant apartment that features an immense racked closet for his gloves, which he wears throughout, treading a thin line between fastidiousness and obsessive compulsion. But he also has a secret passion – a hidden gallery containing a thrilling collection of original female portraits, perhaps hundreds, painted by art history’s masters, famous, middling and unknown. The primary acquisition strategy is to inform particular clients that they have, desolé, unfortunately purchased forgeries, but that, as known forgeries, they are still marketable. The client puts the painting up for auction at Oldman’s, looking to cut their losses quickly, and Oldman’s longtime accomplice, Billy Whistler (Donald Sutherland), enthusiastically outbids the others for what are actually originals. However, these portraits are strictly for Oldman’s private appreciation and indulgence. He has no intention of ever profiting from them; they are the soul-quenching reward for leading a life devoted to art and beauty otherwise undisturbed by real contact or intimacy with the fairer sex.

One day, Oldman receives a call from a young woman who is interested in selling off the estate possessions of her late parents. After a few missed meetings and crossed signals (on her part), the annoyed Oldman finally gets a look at the estate, and finds an immense and excellent panoply of art, furnishings and collectibles, along with some curiously orphaned mechanical parts that he assigns to another of his associates, the craftsman Robert (Jim Sturgess), whom has a nose for timepieces, metallic mechanisms and arcane automata. But his reclusive young client, Claire (the young Dutch actress Sylvia Hoeks), we eventually learn, is cripplingly agoraphobic, and refuses to leave the house or be seen by any other human being. Oldman, nonetheless, carries on with his commission, which becomes a dual mission – represent this rich estate professionally yet profitably, and pursue the mystery of whom this never-seen, eccentric, frustrating but utterly fascinating woman might really be.

Those of you getting a whiff of Hitchcock here, and/or Irena Adler (for the Irregulars among us) have discerning noses – between the intriguing caper elements, workable from two or three sides of the overall situation, and the Mystery Woman who compellingly compliments Oldman’s own neuroses, Tornatore weaves a fairly complex and self-propelling thriller that might have done Sir Alfred, or Sir Arthur, proud. For my own part, though, I must confess that as the story progressed, I found the voluminous details thereof enervatingly humorless, progressively formulaic and eminently predictable. The big twists in the final sequences of the film aren’t just easy-to-spot early on – they end up being the only credible result of everything that’s come before.

There’s a lot to swim around in with this film – it’s technically and aesthetically impressive (cinematographer Fabio Zamarion’s work is genuinely exquisite throughout), and the performances range from wholly believable (Sutherland, Sturgess and Hoeks) to transporting (Rush), with some appealingly eccentric supporting characters as well. And listen up for yet another beautiful Ennio Morricone musical score (you’ll hear a few phrases of ‘Deborah’s Theme’ here and there, but at least he’s stealing from the best – himself). I can pretty much guarantee that fans of the Julian Fellowes school of melodrama, or many of the other well-appointed BBC –style mysteries, will be utterly enraptured, and to them I heartily recommend the film. But many others will find Tornatore’s conceits to be well-trodden territory, and wonder, like me, how so many good ingredients could result in such an ultimately disappointing result.