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“The Best Offer”: The Secret Vault of Giuseppe Tornatore’s Film

“What more suitable place than Italy, the home of beauty, to set a story with such an elegant theme?”

On January 1st, 2013, Italian cinemas screened Giuseppe Tornatore’s “The Best Offer” for the first time. The film combines an ingenious plot with an equally intriguing protagonist, perhaps the actress most coveted by all directors: art itself.

What more suitable place than Italy, the home of beauty, to set a story with such an elegant theme? The director chose the cities of Trieste, Parma, Rome, Milan and Bolzano to shoot the film’s interior and exterior scenes. 

We eagerly watch the metamorphosis of an eclectic character,  an established collector and expert auctioneer, who is a shy, gruff and reclusive man, so unsociable and phobic that he always wears gloves, except when he has to touch a work of art, a clever contradiction that gives us a peek into his inner psyche.

One day, upon being contacted for an appraisal, the old Mr. Virgil Oldman, played by Geoffrey Rush, makes the acquaintance of a young woman named Claire Ibbetson. Claire (played by Silvia Oaks) never leaves the house because she suffers from a severe form of agoraphobia. The historical villa she lives in, located in Udine, is full of works and ancient, valuable artifacts belonging to her family which she wants to get rid of. Fascinated by the woman’s story, confident and armed with their shared eccentricities, Mr. Oldman tries to “save” her and convince her to come out of the room to which she has confined herself. He succeeds, through twists and lies as Tornatore warns us: “Emotions are like works of art. They can be forged, they seem just like the original but they are forgery.” 

For Mr. Oldman it is evident that the young Ms. Claire Ibbetson embodies a muse in the flesh, a living work of art and, like the women in the paintings he loves to buy and jealously guard, he falls madly in love with her to the point that he even quits his job as an art dealer.

His private collection is composed of a constellation of works all representing female portraits, neatly arranged in a secret vault, hidden beyond a walk-in closet, among which we can recognize some of the most famous painted women in history: “Portrait of a Young Girl” by Petrus Christus (1470), “La Bella” by Titian, the “Birth of Venus” by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, and even “La Fornarina” and “La Muta” by Raphael, as well as “Femme aux Macarons” by Modigliani. Finally, Claire is added to his collection and, like a matryoshka doll, she seems to hold all of the other masterpieces within her. Virgil Oldman’s first true love. Will it be sincere? Virgil himself will say: “There’s always something authentic concealed in every forgery”. Perfection tends towards its idealized form. 

The film comes to an end in a space of timelessness, albeit set in a bistro crowded with all sorts of clocks, in Prague (the only location besides Vienna that is outside of Italy). The Sicilian director has created a psychological thriller that stages the vices and virtues of the human being, betrayal, love and its idealized and sublimated form in art.

The camera leaves the viewer with a big question and makes them contemplate the thin line that divides real life from the imagined one. The mind is a complicated cog; the work of the critic just as complicated. He tries to interpret signs and clues which reveal secrets behind works of art, but often fails with words alone to describe the emotions that a work of art arouses in him. One can try to bridge the gap between artist and critic by pursuing beauty in all its manifestations and extravagances. It is this fever that grips the cabinet of curiosities enthusiasts around the world!

And here you are, after watching the film, perhaps wondering how to build your own secret vault full of beauties of all kinds.

If you have high standards, like Mr. Oldman, you will have to rely on the ruthless world of auction houses. In addition to the Italian branches of Sotheby’s and Christie’s, which are the best-known names in the industry, the country boasts around twenty of the most profitable auction houses (among the leaders are Pandolfini, while Wannenes is a rising player). According to Barnebys, the source for all the latest news on the state of art and auctions, there are about twenty thousand thefts of masterpieces per year in Italy. In 2018, the country came in first place in the world ranking of thefts of rare and expensive works of art. Art auctions are open to all, each with their own set of rules, and due to the rise in virtual auctions they can be viewed online.

If, on the other hand, you have a more modest budget, a Sunday stroll through the vintage markets is enough to amaze you. Between the market stalls and antique shop windows, you can imagine a story for those stacked and apparently lifeless objects, where every precious ceramic teacup and every worn mirror are the testimony of faded memories. Here, the background melody will no longer be that of Ennio Morricone, or the distant sound of Virgil’s auctioneer hammer, but rather of the crystals of some ancient chandelier, kaleidoscopic prisms of rainbow colors, whose clinking tickles your inner ear.

Or perhaps one can go on the hunt, locate niche artists and follow his trail. Oldman’s obsession with paintings does not rule out that he may have had other obsessions as well: jewelry, design, books, coins, old prints….

If you are in Bologna, and you want to delve into the magical world of antiques and second hand, your best bet is Piazza Santo Stefano.

Along Strada Maggiore, you can also find pretty shops and small art galleries, especially distinctive as they are located right under Bologna’s famous arcades.

In Milan, on the other hand, you can take a look around the Brera and Navigli neighbourhoods. Once you have a trained eye, it will be easy to recognize some relevant historic pieces.

To stay well trained and continue breathing in art, you can consider the custom of having morning breakfasts in historic buildings or museums, going to the vernissages (private viewings) of new exhibitions, if only to have the opportunity to learn more and peek at entire catalogs. To give just a few examples, in Milan there is Caffè Fernanda at the Pinacoteca di Brera, just a stone’s throw from Francesco Hayez’s Kiss, or Bar Giacomo under the Palazzo Reale. And what about Caffè Terzi in Bologna, where the Cremino is served in an environment dominated by Venetian-style stuccos? Can you find a better offer than this?