I have a thing for films about a woman’s journey of self-discovery that take place against the backdrop of scenic Italy.
There’s Under the Tuscan Sun, the 2003 film based on Frances Mayes’s memoir of the same name. Starring Diane Lane as Mayes, it follows the writer as she fixes up the Tuscan villa she purchased after a nasty divorce.
While on vacation in New York City this past week I had the pleasure of seeing Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love, starring the incredible Tilda Swinton. It’s a wonderful film about the Russian immigrant wife of a rich Italian businessman and how, faced with an empty nest as her grown children move on with their lives, she searches for fulfillment outside of her cushy surroundings.
Then there’s Bernardo Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty (1996). Liv Tyler, in her first lead role, plays Lucy Harmon, a 19-year-old American girl who spends a summer at the Tuscan villa that belongs to friends of her mother, a poet who committed suicide. She claims to be there to get her portrait sculpted by her mother’s artist friend, but she has ulterior motives: to find out who her real father is, and to reconnect with the Italian boy she kissed during a visit five years earlier.
I first saw this movie the summer before my sophomore year in college and immediately fell in love with it. I was the same age as Tyler’s character and could relate to elements of her journey: searching for love, or what you believe to be love, and finding it where you least expect it; basking in being young; being ready to experience the world.
Stealing Beauty didn’t receive rave reviews when it came out. Many critics called it self-indulgent and cited the lack of character development as its main flaw, and I can understand those gripes, but I still love it dearly. I think Tyler does a great job as Lucy, and she has wonderful chemistry with the rest of the cast, particularly Jeremy Irons. I love the gorgeous cinematography and of course I adore the soundtrack, which is probably one of my favorite soundtracks of all time.
I was obsessed with the film’s soundtrack album for probably a year after I bought it. My original copy of the CD is now covered with scratches and is housed in a cracked, broken case — signs of true love. With its diverse mix of rock, trip-hop, jazz, blues, funk, and classical, Stealing Beauty‘s soundtrack tells the characters’ story just as well, if not better than, the film’s action and dialogue.
Certain songs belong to Lucy:
- Liz Phair’s “Rocket Boy” opens the film and introduces us to her;
- Hoover’s “2 Wicky,” which liberally samples Isaac Hayes’s cover of “Walk On By,” plays as she travels by car through the Italian countryside, heading to her home for the summer;
- Cocteau Twins’ “Alice” plays during a scene on her first night at the villa, when she cries while masturbating;
- “Rock Star,” by Hole, is the song Lucy dances and sings to as she celebrates finally getting to see Niccoló, the object of her affection;
- Portishead’s “Glory Box” plays as she explores Niccoló’s family’s estate and discovers him with another girl;
- Sam Phillips’s “I Need Love” is the perfect choice as she gets to know Niccoló’s brother, Osvaldo;
- and of course there’s Mazzy Star’s “Rhymes of an Hour,” which plays during a pivotal scene at the end of the film (I won’t spoil it for you).
The rest of the songs weave Lucy’s tale together with the other characters’. The Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, and John Lee Hooker tracks help convey the intimacy many of these characters share — through dancing, talking about losing one’s virginity, and making love. The jazzy instrumentals and the Mozart compositions perfectly meld with the beautiful Italian scenery to perfectly portray the atmosphere of a lazy Tuscan summer. Each song lets the viewer sink deeper and deeper into the world Bertolucci has created.
The official soundtrack album is still in print; I encourage you to buy it. However, since it’s incomplete, I’m going to provide as much as I can to fill in the gaps. I’m missing a few songs, including the classical pieces, but what I have given you is enough to let you experience Stealing Beauty on a sonic level.
I hope you’ll see the film if you haven’t yet. I can’t guarantee you’ll love it, but you should at least give it a try.
Liz Phair – Rocket Boy
Hoover – 2 Wicky
Helium – Comet #9
Billie Holiday – I’ll Be Seeing You
Cocteau Twins – Alice
Lori Carson – You Won’t Fall
Hole – Rock Star
Chet Baker – Tenderly
John Lee Hooker – Chill Out (Things Are Gonna Change)
Axiom Funk featuring Bootsy Collins – If 6 Was 9
Portishead – Glory Box
Pino Daniele – ‘O Cammello ‘Nnammurato
Charlie Haden and John Taylor – My Love and I
Nina Simone – My Baby Just Cares for Me
Stevie Wonder – Superstition
John Lee Hooker – Annie Mae
Sam Phillips – I Need Love
Mazzy Star – Rhymes of an Hour
Roland Gift – Say It Ain’t So