Director Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso, Malena) is obsessed with love and time’s bittersweet relationship and, in his best moments, he’s dished out several cinematic gems (Cinema Paradiso, Malena, The Legend of 1900, and the underrated The Star Maker). In our youth, the tides of passion crashing on our shores, but as the years exact their devastating toll, much of that fire is extinguished. But what happens if that flame visits us in autumn?
With The Best Offer, Tornatore introduces us to Virgil Oldman (Geoffrey Rush), an art auctioneer who can spot a masterpiece and a forgery within moments. High brow culture and refinement may sustain our protagonist, but human contact is far from his reach. Antisocial and arrogant by nature, Virgil’s only bedfellow is the artwork he’s collected or oftentimes swindled throughout his lifetime.
Claire Ibbetsen (Sylvia Hoek) is a beautiful shut-in whose sole contact to the outside world is her housekeeper. Both her parents are dead, and her family’s estate contains priceless artwork and collectibles that are being valuated by Virgil. During their first several encounters, she’s a phantom in Virgil’s hermetically sealed world, a voice he can faintly hear within the property’s walls. Although they’re both natural introverts, Claire’s insistence on not being seen in person makes Virgil look like the life of the party.
Eventually their mysterious and awkward dance leads to a temporary conjoining of souls, and when two lonely people find each other, a happily every after possibility arises. Since this is a Tornatore film, we know that every shared ache, forlorn kiss, and longing embrace is tempered with a bracing sense of reality, and The Best Offer doesn’t shy away from heartache.
Even though he’s spent years dining alone at the fanciest restaurants, Virgil prefers the company of the female portraits which adorn his meticulously crafted domicile. Sitting amidst their presence, these works of art are, before he meets Claire, his intimates. Workshop owner Robert (Jim Sturgess) may be Virgil’s sole friend, and the pair collaborate on putting together a piece of machinery that, when finally put together, will dramatically increase their financial well-being. The pieces to this machine, however, were discovered at Claire’s home, and whether or not Virgil will divulge his discovery to the woman he’s grown to love is one of the film’s greatest mysteries.
Virgil’s gradual seduction of Claire gives him a window to another life. He’s spent years collaborating with struggling artist Billy Whistler (Donald Sutherland in a small but deliciously played role) to have an upper hand at auction bidders. Since he knows the true value of each piece, Virgil employs Billy to bid on select items that he can resell at a significant profit.
But, as Tornatore’s tale suggests, Virgil doesn’t know the real price of human relationships. Like T.S. Eliot’s emotionally scarred J. Alfred Prufrock, he has no idea how to proceed. He holds court at his auctions, but dealing with women on a romantic level is his Achilles heel. When circumstance throws him a curve ball, Virgil must choose if his new love is the real deal or, like many of his findings, a complete forgery.
Tornatore mixes romantic melodrama and thriller elements into The Best Offer, as he and cinematographer Fabio Zamarion weave a spellbinding, visual portrait of a man whose most treasured work of art exists right before his eyes. The film’s slow yet steady pace enables us to revel in Virgil’s compromised universe for 130 minutes, and if you’re a fan of leisurely unraveled mysterious the film’s length won’t be a deterrent.
The Best Offer ranks among Giuseppe Tornatore’s finest work, and even if Virgil continues to confuse art with true love, it’s an easily forgivable flaw, especially since he’s joined the land of the living.
DVD special features: Unfortunately, The Best Offer (IFC Films, Rated R, 131 minutes) only contains the film’s trailer. The movie is a must see, however, if you’re a mystery/suspense fan.