After her husband, a school teacher, is arrested by the military dictatorship in an African country, Shandurai (Thandie Newton) flees to Rome where she enrolls in medical school and supports herself by working as a live-in housekeeper in the villa of Mr. Kinsky (David Thewlis), an eccentric pianist who seems to be hiding from human contact behind his piano. These two outsiders are strangely drawn to each other in an intimate dance of gestures and glances. Then one day, he gives her a ring and declares that he loves her. When he offers to do anything to get her to love him back, she challenges him to free her husband from jail.

This compelling and unusual drama about sacrificial love is written by director Bernardo Bertolucci and his wife Clare Peploe; it is based on a story by James Lasdun. One sign of Shandurai's possession of Mr. Kinski's soul is that his musical creations suddenly are infused with African rhythms. Attending a black Christian worship service, he is inspired by a New Testament passage to embark on a wild project of selfless love. The spacious but dark villa itself becomes a mirror of the unfolding relationship between the two characters. As their interest in each other grows, more and more light infuses the villa with an almost supernatural glow.