“You ever wonder, when something is just starting, how it’s going to end?” remarks tourist Berenice Hollis (Elizabeth Debicki) to art critic James Figueras (Claes Bang) after having sex in an early scene of The Burnt Orange Heresy. It’s almost as if she’s not just saying something about their relationship, but actually discussing the act of watching the film itself. This kind of meta-commentary about the art of cinema isn’t an isolated incident—all throughout the movie, characters discuss the value of art and of the artist and the power of the critic in shaping viewers’ interpretations and expectations.
The film by Italian director Giuseppe Capotondi follows the brisk romance between Berenice, an American teacher vacationing in Italy, and James, a stuck-in-a-rut British art critic, as they tell stories, discuss art, smoke, and do drugs. Berenice accompanies him on a trip to the Lake Como villa of a renowned art collector named Joseph Cassidy, badly overplayed by Mick Jagger.
Cassidy happens to house Jerome Debney (Donald Sutherland), one of the most famous and reclusive artists of his generation whose art also happens to suspiciously burn down all the time, leaving none intact. Cassidy wants James to steal a piece Debney is currently working on. In return, Cassidy will use his influence to make James the head of an art museum. It’s the deal of a lifetime for both men—one will become wealthy beyond compare and the other will finally get redemption from the industry that he was pushed out of by an unfortunate incident of embezzlement.
This is also where the film starts to taper off as it plunges into a bizarre, poorly-written second half. The first half of the film, which was really enjoyable, did not do enough to set up James’s later decisions—the latter half just swerves without any sort of continuity.
My favorite part of the film was how gracefully it captures the sudden relationship between the two leads. Even though their romance, on the surface, may seem as if it was extremely rushed, the film itself doesn’t share this issue—it’s completely natural. The viewer is not left skeptical when Berenice decides to travel to Lake Como with a man she has just met because the film takes care to portray why she is doing so. There were important, well-paced scenes that were necessary for truly understanding both James’s and Berenice’s perspectives and building up to the emotional climax.
Following the climax, however, the film only has plot-driven scenes, forgoing explanation of the emotional and psychological aspects of James’s decision-making. At no time is there any semblance of a rationale for his awful choices other than the fact that he is an ambitious man.
What kept the film watchable even as the writing started to tumble is the acting and the cinematography. Debicki does a beautiful job portraying an innocent-but-not-naive tourist who does not realize the extent of her lover’s ambition. There’s a beautiful scene in the second half where she’s getting in the car with him and she realizes that he is being suspicious, but doesn’t ask any questions—she knows he’s hiding something, and her acting clearly conveys all of the emotions of a person who is starting to doubt her lover’s actions. Bang gives it his all to make his character’s actions a bit more watchable. He’s so charismatic that even an audience who knows he’s lying could be forgiven for believing his words.
From the beautiful lake-side villa to the ominous ruins on the edge of the property, the scenery is just superb. The juxtaposition between the elegant villa and the menacing ruins on Lake Como’s banks highlights the fact that not everything pretty on the outside is as nice on the inside. As their time in the villa progresses, a shadowy fog starts to envelop the sky, hinting at the eventual tragedy about to unfold.
The Burnt Orange Heresy may not be a greatly-written film, but its scenery and acting elevate it into something that doesn’t disappoint too much. Even if the ending leaves you discontented, there is enough in it to make it worth your time.
Image Credits: IMDb