Liv Tyler gives a luminous performance in Stealing Beauty that deserves to make the daughter of Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler a star in her own right. Tyler, 19, plays Lucy Harmon, an American visiting family friends in Italy after the death of her poet mother. In the olive groves of Tuscany, where she was conceived, Lucy intends to lose her virginity to the boy she kissed on her last trip, four years before. She also means to follow up on the hints in her mother’s diary about the identity of her biological father.
That’s the setup for the first film that the Oscar-winning director Bernardo Bertolucci (The Last Emperor) has filmed in his homeland in 15 years. Disillusioned with Italian politics, he traveled afar for the disappointing Sheltering Sky and Little Buddha. Bertolucci turns Stealing Beauty, with a script by the American novelist Susan Minot (Monkeys), into an intimate meditation on sex, art and leaving home.
If that sounds lofty and mawkish, it often is. The farm Lucy visits is filled with expatriate artists who, the locals say, steal the beauty of Tuscany. The striking camera work of Darius Khondji (Seven) makes you see what they mean. Diana Grayson (the excellent Sinead Cusack) is the friend who takes Lucy into this family of nomads. Diana’s husband, Ian (Donal McCann), paints Lucy’s portrait. These aging intellectuals are stirred by Lucy’s beauty, especially Alex (Jeremy Irons), an invalid playwright who has come to Tuscany to die.
Irons and Tyler share the film’s most poignant scenes, in which Bertolucci confronts his own youth and ’60s idealism. In contrasting the sexuality and rebellion of Lucy’s generation with his own, Bertolucci clearly yearns to rekindle his creative spirit. The flawed Stealing Beauty is only a start. But what a sweet, hopeful start it is.