There are spoilers here.
We watched a strange movie last night: The Best Offer. It was made in Italy by Italians, for the most part, although the leading roles were mostly taken by English-speaking actors.
It concerns an ageing and wealthy art auctioneer who is so full of himself that arrogance reeks from him. Not only that he's been running a little scam for decades in which a friend of his bids for art works that the auctioneer is actually buying. And in the first scene we see him snapping up what appears to be a worthless piece of wood because he knows that underneath the grime is a valuable painting - snapping it up in the sense of saying that he'll take it off the hands of the unknowing owners.
Geoffrey Rush plays the auctioneer and plays him brilliantly. But I suspect that the scriptwriter had someone younger in mind; there are elements of the story that seem a little awry as a result of this piece of casting. Rush's character Virgil Oldman (did you get it? - not obvious at all) has never been in love. He can't even bear to touch other people, and wears gloves all the time. A young woman calls him and asks that he make an inventory of the furniture and art works in her parents' home. He goes to the house, but she never turns up for meetings, always having some excuse on the phone. She continues to persuade him to go ahead with the inventory, and then one day he discovers that she actually lives in the large house, behind a false wall. He pretends to have left the house, but stays behind to see her. She has claimed that she has a form of agoraphobia, that renders her unable to leave the house and not to be good with people, face to face.
In a secondary element to the story, Oldman, on his visits to the house, keeps finding more and more pieces of something mechanical, dating from the 19th century. He takes it to a young engineer friend of his (a man who has no problem attracting young women) and gradually the engineer (Jim Sturgess) puts together an automaton, one that was known to have spoken to customers and given them answers to their questions. The engineer, incidentally, never seems to have any customers in his shop, and does all the work for Oldman for free...
The audience's suspicions have by this time been aroused that there's something not quite right about the girl, or the relationship she's formed with Oldman, or even, perhaps about the young engineer. Things seem to be fitting together too nicely. And in the end that's exactly the case: the whole thing is a scam against the auctioneer, and the biter is bit.
If it wasn't for the acting, especially Rush's, the film would fall apart. Most of it turns out to be nonsense, but it's beautifully done, the visual elements are extraordinary (especially the room full of paintings of women that Rush has hidden in his own house), and it sustains its major hoax until near the end. Even if you're suspicious about it all, you won't necessarily figure it all out.
The director and writer is Giuseppe Tornatore, who made Cinema Paradiso. That film was so long that it's never been seen in its entirety. Even the shortened version now available on DVD is stretched out. And Best Offer is overlong too; there are some moments, especially towards the end, when you just want it to reach its point and stop. But it's too beautiful, like most of the works of art that appear in it.