‘Very few international directors in the past four decades have managed to remain at the “critically successful” as consistently as Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci, whose career has straddled three generations of filmmaking, four continents, and several movie industries. Alongside his provocative explorations of sexuality and ideology, his highly kinetic visual style – often characterised by elaborate camera moves, meticulous lighting, symbolic use of colour, and inventive editing – has influenced several generations of filmmakers, from the American “movie brats” of the 1970s to the music video auteurs of the ’80s and ’90s. Perhaps the most important reason for Bertolucci’s continuing relevance has been the intensely personal nature of his movies: although he makes narrative features, very often based (albeit loosely) on outside literary sources, Bertolucci’s films over the decades reveal distinct connections to their creator’s private dilemmas and the vagaries of his creative and intellectual life. In other words, he has been able to fulfill his dream of being able “to live films” and “to think cinematographically” – to lay bare his inner life through his work.
‘Many of Bertolucci’s early films work simultaneously as homages and exorcisms. Pasolini and Jean-Luc Godard were the filmmaker’s twin spiritual fathers in the 1960s, and the latter’s influence is clearly evident in Partner (1968), Bertolucci’s third feature, an attempt at the elliptical, playful, highly symbolic, and politically active style of Godard’s post-nouvelle vague filmmaking. A loose adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Double, Partner is the story of a young idealist (Pierre Clementi) who is faced with his politically revolutionary, socially active, and possibly psychotic doppelganger. Full of attempts at Brechtian distanciation (onscreen text, direct address to the camera, etc.), the film today retains a certain fascination for the ways in which the power of Bertolucci’s burgeoning lyricism and cinematic confidence clash with the fragmented, highly declarative style of Godard’s more political films.
‘In between these two cinematic homage/exorcisms, Bertolucci made a remarkable work imbued with the personal style he would go on to develop further. 1964’s Before the Revolution (Prima della rivoluzione), the director’s second film, tells the story of Fabrizio (Francesco Barilli), a bourgeois youth torn between his revolutionary aspirations and the decadent comfort of his surroundings. Introducing a political element that would later become even more refined, the film worked as an exorcism of a different sort:
‘”I needed to exorcise certain fears. I was a Marxist with all the love, all the passion, and all the despair of a bourgeois who chooses Marxism. Naturally in every bourgeois Marxist, who is consciously Marxist, I should say, there is always the fear of being sucked back into the milieu he came out of, because he’s born into it and the roots are so deep that a young bourgeois finds it very hard to be a Marxist.”
‘In essence, Bertolucci used Before the Revolution to explore the nature of political doubt: Fabrizio abandons one type of patriarchy (his conservative family) for another (the ideological demands of Marxism). As in most of the director’s films, this dichotomy is accompanied by sexual tension: While left-wing politics and haute bourgeois surroundings provide the milieu for Revolution, the main narrative (a very loose adaptation of Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma) concerns Fabrizio’s affair with his aunt Gina (Adriana Asti). But unlike in his later works, Bertolucci doesn’t quite manage to reconcile the film’s sexual politics with its more overt ideological content. Try as we might, it’s hard to read Gina as a symbol for anything – she simultaneously represents sexual freedom and Fabrizio’s stuffy family relations; it’s hard to divorce her from the rest of the world, even though she is clearly an outcast in her own surroundings. (It’s also possible to read the incest taboo as a sublimation of homoerotic desire; several early scenes are devoted to Fabrizio’s clearly gay, suicidal young friend Agostino [Allen Midgette], whose death is one of the centerpieces of the film.) Ultimately, what emerges from Before the Revolution is not a coherent vision but a brilliant, highly kinetic portrait of a very confused young man – made, perhaps, by a brilliant and very confused young man. Bertolucci even throws in a beautifully filmed, lushly scored ode to the environment, in which a minor character delivers a lyrical monologue to the decaying Po River, right near the end – a gorgeous sequence that almost feels like it deserves to be its own short work.
‘The early 1970s proved to be a significant period for Bertolucci’s cinema. The Spider’s Stratagem (La strategia del ragno) (1970), an expansion of Jorge Luis Borges’ brief short story “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero”, and The Conformist (Il conformista), a major adaptation of Alberto Moravia’s novel of the same name, are both among Bertolucci’s most highly regarded works, with the latter considered by many to be his best. Stratagem, produced soon after the filmmaker entered psychoanalysis, begins as a modern-day story about a young man, Athos Magnani Jr., (Giulio Brogi) arriving at the small town of Tara to investigate the death of his partisan father, Athos Magnani (also played by Brogi), ostensibly at the hands of Mussolini’s fascists. The film then flashes back to the scenes of the elder Magnani’s exploits as a small-time Resistance leader. However, Bertolucci creates a jarring effect by casting the same older actors as Magnani’s comrades both in the present and the past, without trying to make them any younger. Coupled with the fact that the same young actor plays both Magnani Senior and Junior, the film appears to take place in a world divorced from reality – a landscape of the mind, perhaps, where the present and the past intermingle freely. It’s a highly symbolic work, tempered by Bertolucci’s expressive camera moves and bursts of vivid, at times surreal, colour (it was shot by Vittorio Storaro, who would become one of the director’s most cherished collaborators); as such, it perfects Partner‘s faltering attempts at a blend of the self-conscious and the conventional. Indeed, although Stratagem is by no means an “easy” work, it features several scenes of heightened suspense that suggest Bertolucci could be at home in the thriller genre. (Incidentally, one of his dream projects since the late 1960s has been to film Dashiell Hammett’s detective novel Red Harvest.)
‘The Conformist tells the tale of Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a young man in Mussolini’s Italy desperate to create the illusion of “normality” by rejecting his past, which includes a homosexual incident and a murder in his youth, and joining the Fascist Party, which entrusts him to locate his old Professor in Paris and assassinate him. Clerici, who has also embraced marriage to a petit bourgeois girl (Stefania Sandrelli) as part of his attempt to conform to society’s expectations, travels to Paris, only to fall in love with the Professor’s bisexual wife (Dominique Sanda). Whereas Moravia’s novel relied on a purely linear mode of storytelling, beginning with Clerici’s childhood and going all the way to his demise during the fall of Mussolini’s government, Bertolucci begins his film closer to the end, with Clerici waiting in a hotel room in Paris for the phone call that will whisk him away to the Professor’s assassination. The past then begins to play out while Clerici rides in his car, chatting with his fascist bodyguard. Even the flashbacks themselves have flashbacks – a visit to a priest on the eve of his engagement leads to a remembrance of the homosexual encounter where Bertolucci locates Clerici’s psychosis.
‘What distinguishes The Conformist’s structure from other works that rely on framing devices – including the director’s own The Last Emperor (1987), which replicates The Conformist‘s structure in a more conventional fashion – is Bertolucci’s avoidance of standard cinematic grammar, shirking dissolves, track-ins, voiceovers or other motifs that would traditionally indicate a flashback is about to occur. It certainly works to keep the audience from settling into a conventional story, but it also portrays something more profound. As Millicent Marcus has argued:
‘This ordering technique also says something about the moral and existential consequences of adherence to Fascist thought. By privileging the car ride, which would merit no attention at all in a sequential telling of the story, the film is able to concentrate our attention on the present of decision-making whose results Bertolucci identifies with Fascism itself. The journey is really one agonizing process of choice – will Marcello intervene to save the life of his beloved, or will he watch her murder in complicitous passivity?…Marcello’s original motives in undertaking the journey are heroic, activist, interventionist ones…The car ride to Savoy is fascism in its movement from a seemingly heroic ethos to a passive and cowardly one.
‘In other words, the film’s style, both in movement and design, is symbolic of Fascism’s rise and fall: Just as Marcello Clerici’s attempts to order his life according to society’s harsh rules lead to his eventual psychic disintegration, so too do Fascism’s attempts at regimentation and authoritarianism lead to anarchy and chaos. The earlier parts of the film, full of the clean, imposing spaces of Mussolini’s Italy, are directed with a highly orderly aesthetic – symmetrical compositions, lateral, precise tracking shots, and very tight, controlled movements by the actors, particularly Trintignant. The later parts are draped in shadows, or shot through with unflatteringly harsh lights, working to create a unique sense of violent social turmoil. The scene where the Professor and his wife are murdered is full of rough, handheld camerawork and jump cuts. The finale of the film, set in a dark, dank prostitute-riddled corner of the Colosseum on the night of Il Duce’s fall, with distracting searchlights and other odd lighting effects, is a far cry from the cleanly lit, orderly spaces of the earlier scenes. The mixture of homosexual and heterosexual hustlers (among them the gay chauffeur Marcello thought he had killed as a child), the disorderly political protesters, the collapsing symbols of fascism’s fall, all create the sense that the protagonist has wound up in a world where everything he sought to suppress has come out of hiding and into full view.
‘If The Conformist is today Bertolucci’s most critically lauded film, his next two were probably his most notorious, in more ways than one. Last Tango in Paris (1972), the story of an American widower (Marlon Brando) and a young French woman (Maria Schneider) engaging in anonymous, raw sexual games inside an unfurnished Paris apartment, burst onto the scene thanks to its explicit content and the middle-aged Brando’s intense performance. The critic Pauline Kael, in an infamous review, compared the film’s New York premiere to the first performance of Stravinsky’s The Rites of Spring, calling it “the most powerfully erotic movie ever made” and speculating that it “may turn out to be the most liberating movie ever made” as well. Today, some of Last Tango‘s explicitness has dated, but the potency of its characters’ acting out of their aggressions through sexual encounters reveals the film to be the primary influence on later films as diverse as Cedric Kahn’s L’Ennui (1999), Louis Malle’s Damage (1992) and Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992).
‘The enormous popular success of Last Tango allowed Bertolucci to assemble a massive budget and an impressive cast for his next film, the impossibly ambitious 1900 (Novecento) (1976) a politically committed 5-hour-plus epic about 20th century Italy starring Robert De Niro, Gerard Depardieu, Burt Lancaster, Donald Sutherland, Sterling Hayden, Dominique Sanda, Stefania Sandrelli and the late Laura Betti. However, the film’s vast running time and its explicitly Marxist political stance caused a major rift between Bertolucci, his producer and his studio. The film was recut twice and finally released by Paramount in the US with no publicity in a compromised 4 hour version.
‘1900‘s immense running time was not just a stunt: Bertolucci cut a wide swath through history, telling the story of two boys born on the same day in 1901 (the date of Giuseppe Verdi’s death) – Olmo (played by Depardieu as an adult) is the son of peasants and destined to be a socialist; the other, Alfredo (De Niro as an adult) is the son of landowners and destined to be a hopeless bourgeois, an unwitting defender of fascism, and an inadvertent propagator of crimes against his labourers. The vast historical melodrama that ensues is one of Bertolucci’s most committed and audacious works. Paradoxically, for most of its running time, 1900 is also probably the director’s most conventional film, full of war and conflict and love and sex. Its last act, however, sharply divided audiences, with Bertolucci depicting a Red Flag-waving trial of the landowners after the fall of fascism – a purely fantastical scenario that was closer to a Maoist show trial than anything that occurred in Italian history. Addressing those critics of his – many of them from the Italian Communist party – who claimed that these final scenes were inconsistent with historical fact, Bertolucci himself confirmed this: “This entire sequence is an anticipation”, he said in 1978. “It is a dream of something yet to be” (4).
‘The popular failure of 1900 – still one of the most ambitious works ever made by a major filmmaker – left Bertolucci scarred, but an American studio releasing a Communist film at the height of the Cold War seems downright surreal even now, and it’s to Bertolucci’s credit that he managed to mount such a contradictory production in the first place. The film’s reputation has increased over the years; the full version was restored in 1995 and finally released properly in the US, garnering significant critical praise.
‘In the wake of the debilitating struggle over 1900 (he has often described the experience as akin to having all his bones crushed) Bertolucci’s next two films could be seen as a calculated retreat: Luna (1979) is the small-scale, though no less gorgeous, story of an American opera singer (Jill Clayburgh) struggling with her disaffected teen son (Matthew Barry) and his drug addiction during a trip to Italy. One senses in the film a deliberate attempt by Bertolucci to reinvigorate his career by re-examining his work, especially in the charming manner in which the film becomes a travelogue through the director’s earlier career – from the farm in 1900 to an appearance by Pasolini regular Franco Citti, to a small but inspired moment when the boy’s father, right before his sudden death, discovers a piece of gum stuck under a balcony railing – right where Brando’s character in Last Tango left it, immediately before his own demise.
‘Luna was not a hit, and it was followed by Bertolucci’s last truly Italian film, The Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man (Tragedia di un uomo ridiculo) (1981), an intriguing political thriller featuring Ugo Tognazzi as an industrialist whose son is kidnapped by Communist activists. A film that sits uncertainly on the border between Bertolucci’s earlier work and his later films, Tragedy not only begins to express the director’s disillusionment with Marxism, but it ties up some loose ends as well.’ — Bilge Ebiri
Bernardo Bertolucci @ IMDb
‘Bernardo Bertolucci on being burned by Hollywood’
‘How Bernardo Bertolucci Found Himself’
‘Bernardo Bertolucci on Returning to the Director’s Chair’
‘Even Making a Cup of Tea is Erotic’
‘Maria Schneider vs. Bernardo Bertolucci vs. Marlon Brando’
‘Bernardo Bertolucci and the Fascist Mind’
‘YOU, ME, AND BERNARD BERTOLUCCI’
‘BERNARDO BERTOLUCCI BREAKS DOWN SOME OF HIS GREATEST SCENES’
‘A Conversation With Bernardo Bertolucci’
‘Emotion and cognition in the films of Bernardo Bertolucci’
‘MEMORY, HISTORY, AND POLITICS IN THE FILMS OF BERNARD BERTOLUCCI’
‘Poetic Surrealism in the Films of Bernardo Bertolucci’
Bernardo Bertolucci – Honorary Palme d’Or at Cannes
Intervista a Bernardo Bertolucci 1970
Bertolucci shooting ‘Moi & Toi’
Bernardo Bertolucci Interviewed by Scott Feinberg
A good way to start would be talking about Pasolini, and how your relationship with him began.
Bernardo Bertolucci: I don’t know if I told that in the interview on the DVD, but my father was an Italian poet, Pasolini was young, and one day–I think I was 14 or 15–he knocked at the door of our house. I went to open it, and there was this man. It was a Sunday afternoon after lunch. My parents were sleeping. I saw this quite young man, dressed up for a Sunday, with a white shirt and a tie, and a very intense look, very intense eyes. He said, “I want to speak with Attilio Bertolucci.” So I said, “Okay, wait.” I went to knock, and my father was asleep, and I said, “There is somebody, but I think it’s a thief.” He said, “Who is it?” I said, “He wants you. He’s called Pasolini. But I think he’s a thief, and I closed him outside the house, on the landing.” He said, “Oh, what are you doing? He’s a great poet, go open the door!” So that was the first meeting. He was so intense, I thought there was something wrong. Soon, later, he came to live in the same building as my family. We were staying on the fifth floor, he was staying on the first floor, with his mother.
Did you have a lot in common? Did you share a similar sensibility?
BB: I started to read his poems when I was 15, 16. I was very influenced, immediately. I was writing poems when I was young, you know, because my father was a poet, so it was absolutely normal to follow my father. At that point, I had a new father, which was Pier Paolo. I was writing, and then I was flying down the stairs to the first floor, knocking at his door, giving him the new poem. He was telling me what he was thinking. In fact, when I was 20 or 21, he introduced me to a publisher, who published my first unique book of poems, called In Search Of Mystery.
So he was your poetic mentor?
BB: Yeah, he was my mentor. But I must have been a young man looking for many mentors, because then in ’59, I had–I think in English it’s A-level, my exam at the end of high school. It went well, so my family paid for a trip to Paris. I went to Paris with my cousin. I saw Breathless, which was just out in the theaters. I completely fell in love with it, the cinema, the film. Then we are back in Rome, and Pier Paolo one day meets me at the entrance of the building, and says, “You are a poet, but you want to do movies? Okay. You will be my assistant.”
Was Breathless the first film that had that kind of impact on you, that made you want to be a filmmaker?
BB: I wanted already to be a filmmaker after I saw La Dolce Vita. La Dolce Vita was, for me, such a shock, in a good sense. I went to see it when it wasn’t finished. I think I was 18. My father took me to Cinecittà. [Federico] Fellini started to be anxious about if the movie was able or not to be released in Italy, because he was afraid of having the Church or the Vatican against it. There are many allusions to religion in La Dolce Vita. So he was doing this screening for intellectuals, his friends, et cetera. So I remember that we went with Pasolini, Giorgio Bassani, who was the writer of The Garden Of The Finzi-Continis, and my father, in a little screening room in Cinecittà. We saw the movie before it was dubbed, in a kind of language which was in English, Italian, and I remember Nico [Otzak] was speaking Swedish. It was very mixed up; it was fantastic. You would hear often, the voice of Fellini [offscreen], saying “Anita, don’t be stupid,” to Anita Ekberg. “Smile!” It was an extremely naughty film. That’s when I decided there were too many poets around me, and I had to do something else. Then I saw Breathless in Paris, and I completely fell in love with that style, that language, that freedom.
What about Godard appealed to you? What do you think he meant to you and to cinema as a whole?
BB: I think that, in some way, his first movies were so free, as I said. Going against all the rules and inventing a new way to tell a story. He also used this passion for contamination, when you bring together different genres… Pollution, in a good sense. Mixing up very different materials, and this new kind of editing with jump cuts.
The French New Wave, particularly Godard, was influenced by American filmmakers of the ’40s. Were you interested in them as well?
BB: It was great to go to watch good Hollywood films of the ’30s and ’40s. After Godard and [François] Truffaut and all those guys had liked them, and in a way, starting from them. I mean, they weren’t just imitating the Americans. They were just using these materials, evolutioning… But you know, the movies I like are always movies where cinema is reinvented like if it was the beginning of cinema.
It seems like that was how you felt about Pasolini’s first film, that he was sort of reinventing cinema as well.
BB: Yeah, yeah.
What was it like working for him at such a young age?
BB: First of all, it was the first time I stepped into a movie set. I said to him, “I’ve never done movies, how can I help you?” He said, “Me too, it’s the first time for both.” In a way, knowing how close he was, I felt he was very generous. Since we were living in the same building, every morning we were leaving together to the set. I was going with him in his car. I was still living with my parents. I was 20 and I didn’t have a car. He was driving, and I remember this drive to the set, which was the other side of Rome. It was very silent, and suddenly he was starting to tell me what he dreamt. In a way, in a very indirect way, his dreams were becoming part of what he was doing. But he was very strict about what he wanted to do, and very precise. He had decided that his model was the icons of 14th-century Tuscan art, from Giotto [di Bondone] to the Sienese, these bunch of fantastic painters in Siena, like Simone Martini, et cetera. Which means, at the end, this kind of beatific vision, kind of sacred. Like if his actor was a saint. The camera was always still. In parts where the camera was moving, he would follow them always in order to keep the same distance. The first few weeks were close-ups, and always a still camera. That’s why doing a movie from a story for Pier Paolo, which was meant, when we wrote it, to be in the style of Pier Paolo, when they asked me to do it, I felt like going completely against the style of [Pasolini’s debut film] Accatone. I wanted to find my own style, which was the opposite. The shots in Accatone are so still, and the shots in La Commare Secca are constantly moving. There is a camera which is moving all the time.
The irony is that when it came out, everyone said it was very much like Pasolini.
BB: Yeah. Not at all! It’s the fact that the context was Pasolini. The story is kind of mobs, kind of lumpen, very poor people. You know, Pasolini always had a kind of religious, mystic vision of reality. I think that La Commare Secca and my other movies don’t have that kind of vision, don’t have that kind of religious obsession that he always had. You see Accatone, and you see [Pasolini’s 1974 film] The Gospel According To St. Matthew, and you see that the music is the same, like if Accatone was a martyr.
What did you learn from Pasolini?
BB: I think that what I learned then, I didn’t know I was learning. I just knew that I was very privileged to see somebody who was a writer, a great poet, and very smart-faced. Suddenly he becomes a director, so he has to invent cinema. It was like watching the invention of cinema. I was very impacted by the New Wave–Godard, Truffaut, [Agnès] Varda, [Jacques] Demy, [Jacques] Rivette, all these guys. But I found out also that Pasolini taught me a lot. It was, especially, the kind of respect that he had for reality. He had kind of epiphanies in his movies, like when a moment becomes full of grace, and it is like as if it was the most important moment in the life of a character. That’s what I learned from Pier Paolo. There’s a moment of tension, a peak, and then you go back down. And again you go to the peak. But he was doing it in a way that, to me, seemed very primitive. Like in the cinema of origins. Only recently, like when I did Besieged, which is a movie where they speak very little, I was thinking like Pier Paolo, like the beginning of cinema. The origins.
You talked about being inspired by the New Wave, and by Italian filmmakers like Fellini. How do you compare the respective film cultures in those countries at the point when you began making movies?
BB: In Italy, we had great directors like [Roberto] Rossellini, [Vittorio] De Sica, [Luchino] Visconti, Fellini. But I was seduced by the nouvelle vague, because it was really reinventing everything. And the Italian cinema that one would see in the theaters in the late ’50s, early ’60s was Italian comedy, Italian style, which, to me, was like the end of neo-realism. Neo-realism, like Open City or Bicycle Thief or Ossessione by Visconti was a fantastic explosion. I think cinema all over the world was influenced by it, which was Italy finding its freedom at the end of fascism, the end of the Nazi invasion. It was a kind of incredible energy. Then, late ’50s, early ’60s, which means more or less 15 years after the end of the war, the neo-realism lost its great energy and became comedy. If you see Italian comedies, they all are a bit like neo-realist cinema, but like if neo-realism became pink in a way. It lost its first impact. So, there we are, and from France comes The 400 Blows, or Jules Et Jim, or Breathless, Vivre Sa Vie, and all these movies which were really a new beginning. I think Hollywood has been influenced by it. The problem in Hollywood is that they try to become the only kind of cinema in the world, okay? The imposition everywhere of a unique culture, which is Hollywood culture, and a unique way of life, which is the American way of life. But Hollywood has forgotten that, in the past, what made Hollywood great and what made it go ahead was the fact that Hollywood was fed with, for example, Jewish directors coming from Germany or Austria and enriching Hollywood. Still, after the war also, Hollywood was influenced by cinema coming from all over the world. In 15, 20 years, Hollywood became imperialistic. In this movement, in this kind of imperial tension, there is its own distraction. Cinema goes ahead when it is marriaged by other culture. Otherwise, it turns on itself.
There has to be sort of an intermingling of other cultures.
BB: All the time. And I think that Hollywood should also be influenced by directors from Hong Kong. You see how Quentin Tarantino is really the example of how you can develop, and how you can go ahead if you accept the existence of different cinematic cultures. There you have Quentin playing with kung-fu. That’s why the independents are the most interesting.
Marlon Brando recently passed away, and you directed him in probably one of his last really great performances. He had a reputation for being eccentric and difficult to work with. Can you talk a little about what it was like working with him on Last Tango In Paris?
BB: I think that he was the greatest, because he was accepting, without knowing it, or maybe knowing it, to take risk with me. What I wanted was to wipe off his mask, his Actor’s Studio mask. I wanted him, the real Marlon, on the screen. And he accepted to give me that. I think it remains one of his greatest performances. He kind of opened his mystery with me. But then he was very upset, because it went much more far than he thought he was doing it. So he was upset for a long time, and then it was very nice in the last 10 years. We had a lot of conversations. It was great.
It seems like you’re going full circle with The Dreamers, which is very much about the film culture of the ’60s, when you made your first film, and about falling in love with movies for the first time. How similar is the experience of the characters in The Dreamers to your experiences as a young cinephile?
BB: What I was talking about was, of course, very autobiographical–’68 was the moment when all the young people were incredibly excited, because when we were going to sleep, we knew we would wake up not tomorrow, but in the future. There was a sense of future that was the result of the mixture of politics, cinema, music, the first joints. And the movies were a very important part of that cocktail.
It seems like sex was a big part of it as well.
BB: Oh yeah, completely. It was a way of leading all these different materials, they always mix up with sex: politics and sex, cinema and sex, et cetera.
You’ve said that what happened in ’68 had a profound impact on the world as a whole. What did you mean by that?
BB: The life before ’68 was very different from the life after ’68. Before ’68, our days were full of authoritarian moments. There were authorities everywhere. In fact, the movement of ’68 was young people against their authorities, children against their parents. And that remained. The most important thing of all, the thing that lasted, was the first feminist movement and the position of women in society. That completely changed and that was very, very important.
14 of Bernardo Bertolucci’s 25 films
Before the Revolution (1964)
‘The 22-year-old Bertolucci made an impressive debut in 1962 with The Grim Reaper, a Rashomon-style thriller about the murder of a prostitute scripted by his mentor, Pier Paolo Pasolini. But it was his second film, Before the Revolution (1964), that made his name. Semi-autobiographical, partly inspired by Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma, and set in 1962 in his native Parma, the film is deeply indebted to the French new wave and centres on Fabrizio, a 20-year-old introspective haut bourgeois student both attracted to and repelled by middle-class conformity and revolutionary Marxism. He has an incestuous affair with his attractive young aunt (a recurrent theme in Bertolucci’s work), and it is altogether a dazzling film, both continually vital and something of a time capsule.’ — The Guardian
‘Combining Marx and Freud, as was his wont in his early days, writer-director Bernardo Bertolucci, along with co-scenarist Gianni Amico, used Dostoievski’s 1846, pre-imprisonment novella The Double: A Petersburg Poem, which they moved to Italy and updated to the pro-Vietcong student-protest present, as a springboard for Il sosia, a dark, often opaque and arty, although witty and intriguing film about a young avant-garde theater teacher, Giacobbe, who longs to muster the will and boldness to pursue his Clara and bring his revolutionary promptings to the world of political reality. Enter his doppelgänger, on one level to spark this will, but on another level, vis-à-vis him, dramatizing his ambivalence, paralysis. Note what isn’t the first word of this paragraph: Blending. Perhaps Bertolucci, then in his mid-twenties, felt (if only now and then) that he had to choose between Marx and Freud, politics and psychoanalysis. While it is true that he was en route to his most political film, The Conformist (1970) is set in the Fascist era and, postwar, right after, and Bertolucci himself was headed for the first time to his psychoanalyst’s couch.’ — Dennis Grunes
The Conformist (1970)
‘In one of the greatest of all art films comes Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist; a film that combines the controversial topics of politics and sexuality into one of the most fascinating and complex character studies in all of film history. The Conformist tells the story about the rise and fall of Italian Fascism between the years of 1920 until 1943; and it also makes for an interesting contrast with the main character Marcello Clerici who has an obsession with conforming to what he sees is normal and acceptable in Italian society. He joins the Italian Fascist movement not because he necessarily believes in it, and gets engaged to a boring and dull housewife, not necessarily because he is in love with her. He just wants to fit in on what society looks at as acceptable and will live his traditional life not how he truly wants to live it but rather how others think he should. Marcello is a weak and impressionable individual; whose reasoning behind most of his motivations seems to stem from a repressed homosexual experience early on in his childhood. The story of The Conformist was based on a book adaptation by Alberto Moravia, as the structure of the film is shot mostly through several non sequential flashbacks and memories through Marcello all while Marcello and his loyal chauffeur make their drive to commit an assassination on an exiled anti-Fascist who was once Marcello’s college professor. The Conformist is not only brilliant in its mysterious and complex character study of the ordinary man, but of its fascinating Freudian themes of sexuality and politics, showing how a man will mindlessly sacrifice his own individual values just to blend it with society.’ — Classic Art Films
The Spider’s Stratagem (1970)
‘Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Spider’s Stratagem, made in 1970, the same year as his masterpiece The Conformist, is another look at fascism, heroism, betrayal, and the lies and secrets of history. Like Bertolucci’s more famous (and more fully realized) fascist parable, this film examines the deformation of character that occurs under fascist oppression, as well as the ways in which such regimes inevitably prey on the weaknesses and flaws of the people they subjugate. The film opens with a man (Giulio Brogi) arriving in the small country town of Tara. Everywhere he goes through the streets, he finds the name of Athos Magnani, a local hero commemorated with street signs and statues and buildings. This is the name of the man’s father, and his own name as well, a name that’s famous only in this local community, where Athos the father was an anti-fascist hero, a rebel who resisted the fascists and paid for it with his life, assassinated in a theater during an opera performance. Many years later, Athos the son has been invited to visit the town by his father’s mistress Draifa (Alida Valli), because she believes that only the son can uncover the truth about the father’s murder. Once he arrives, this son who looks so much like his father — Brogi plays both generations of Magnani men — wanders through this sleepy town where his father’s life and death still seem so fresh after so long, where the old people (and the town is populated almost exclusively by old people, barring a few children) remember every detail of the now legendary story as though it had happened yesterday.’ — Only the Cinema
the entire film
Last Tango In Paris (1972)
‘Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris is one of the great emotional experiences of our time. It’s a movie that exists so resolutely on the level of emotion, indeed, that possibly only Marlon Brando, of all living actors, could have played its lead. Who else can act so brutally and imply such vulnerability and need? For the movie is about need; about the terrible hunger that its hero, Paul, feels for the touch of another human heart. He is a man whose whole existence has been reduced to a cry for help — and who has been so damaged by life that he can only express that cry in acts of crude sexuality. Bertolucci begins with a story so simple (which is to say, so stripped of any clutter of plot) that there is little room in it for anything but the emotional crisis of his hero. The events that take place in the everyday world are remote to Paul, whose attention is absorbed by the gradual breaking of his heart. The girl, Jeanne, is not a friend and is hardly even a companion; it’s just that because she happens to wander into his life, he uses her as an object of his grief. This movie was the banner for a revolution that never happened. “The movie breakthrough has finally come,” Pauline Kael wrote, in the most famous movie review ever published. “Bertolucci and Brando have altered the face of an art form.” The date of the premiere, she said, would become a landmark in movie history comparable to the night in 1913 when Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” was first performed, and ushered in modern music.’ — Roger Ebert
‘Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900 is truly what the French call a film maudit , or “cursed” film. The original Italian-language version of the film ran five hours and 11 minutes, but in its 1977 U.S. release, it was in English and cut by more than an hour. Now, Paramount has restored the footage–under the guidance of Bertolucci’s master cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro–and re-recorded the soundtrack in Dolby stereo. But it’s still in English. Only subscribers to the now-defunct Z Channel ever saw the full-length Italian version. It was aired by that innovative L.A. pay-cable service six years ago, using English subtitles, and that is by far the best way to see the movie. Yet even in the full-length Italian version, 1900 is too emotionally extravagant ever to be considered a masterpiece. Rather, it’s a monumental achievement like such original and impassioned but scarcely flawless screen epics as D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Abel Gance’s Napoleon.’ — The LA Times
Behind the scenes
‘The film begins with a typically Bertolucci-esque scene of Oedipal symbolism, and it’s probably a good indication of what to expect from the rest of the film. A young baby is fed honey by his beautiful mother (Jill Clayburgh) in a seaside villa somewhere in Italy. The baby starts to cough, and cries. A man comes by with a crate of fish and begins gutting them. In the background, an elderly woman plays a piano. The mother, seemingly in defiance, puts on a pop record by Peppino di Capri, comes up to the man, and begins to do the twist with him. (The man holds a knife in one hand, and a fish in the other, giving their dance an oddly suspenseful edge.) The baby begins to walk away from this scene, but he gets stuck on some twine, so that as he walks the twine stretches back to the mother, a symbolic umbilical cord. The film then cuts to a twilight bicycle ride between baby and mother in which the baby looks up and sees her face framed with the full moon behind them. The moon (aka, la luna) thus becomes a symbol of the mother — more specifically, of the child’s connection to the mother. After this intro, the film jumps ahead a number of years. The mother, Catherine, is a world-famous soprano living in Brooklyn with her businessman husband and her teenage son Joe (Matthew Barry, making quite an impression in his film debut). After the husband dies suddenly, Catherine takes Joe to Italy, where her neglect and self-absorption help lead him into heroin addiction. When Catherine realizes that her son is spinning out of control, she tries to intervene and to help him. Unfortunately, one of her ideas is to actually buy him heroin and to try to help him administer it. The desperation of this relationship between mother and son, which has always hovered on the edge of taboo, eventually leads to incestuous longings. The scandalous nature of the interaction between Catherine and Joe tends to color most viewers’ reactions to the film. But look closer and you’ll see that Bertolucci creates a very subtle back-and-forth here, where the son’s adolescent desperation helps unravel Catherine’s own feelings of inadequacy and loneliness. Bertolucci’s previous films had focused on father figures; in Luna we see how the absence of a father figure sends the respective parts of this family spinning off in their own directions. The man that died in Brooklyn is eventually revealed to not be Joe’s real father; his real dad is that shadowy figure dancing with Catherine in the opening scene. Luna thus turns into a search for a father figure, an attempt to complete this broken nuclear family.’ — The Live By Night
Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man (1981)
‘Tognazzi plays a rich Parma dairy farmer forced to sell up his greatest love – his material possessions – to meet the ransom demanded by a gang of terrorists who have kidnapped his son. In an attempt to fathom the siege mentality induced in an Italian society which had by then accepted terrorist violence as a commonplace, Bertolucci inverts the son-in-search-of-the-father theme of his most widely admired film, The Spider’s Stratagem, and his small ensemble of lead characters begin to spin webs of deception – on each other, on us. The result is a mordantly witty tragi-comedy which matches the sombre tones of Carlo Di Palma’s cinematography, but the style is no less flamboyant and seductive than that of Bertolucci’s earlier films.’ — Time Out (NY)
The Last Emperor (1987)
‘Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor won nine Academy Awards, unexpectedly sweeping every category in which it was nominated—quite a feat for a challenging, multilayered epic directed by an Italian and starring an international cast. Yet the power and scope of the film was, and remains, undeniable—the life of Emperor Pu Yi, who took the throne at age three, in 1908, before witnessing decades of cultural and political upheaval, within and without the walls of the Forbidden City. Recreating Ching dynasty China with astonishing detail and unparalleled craftsmanship by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti, The Last Emperor is also an intimate character study of one man reconciling personal responsibility and political legacy.’ — The Criterion Collection
The Sheltering Sky (1990)
‘The Long-Awaited Film Version of Paul Bowles’s landmark 1949 novel of an American marriage heading for oblivion in North Africa is a wincing embarrassment. The only thing director Bernardo Bertolucci (The Last Emperor) has gotten right is the atmosphere. Camera whiz Vittorio Storaro conjures up genuine drama out of sand, heat and pestilence, something Bertolucci and co-writer Mark Peploe fail to manage with the film’s three main characters as they set out for the desert. John Malkovich is Port Moresby, and Debra Winger is his wife, Kit, loosely based on Bowles’s wife, Jane. They have come to Algeria with their friend Tunner (Campbell Scott) – a dilettante whom both Port and Kit find alternately attractive and repellent. Tunner intends a short trip; the Moresbys plan to stay indefinitely – they’re drawn to the unknown as a means to discover or lose themselves. On the page, Bowles made something uniquely spare and poetic of the Moresbys’ existential quest. Though Bertolucci has cast the eighty-year-old Bowles in a small role – he sits in a cafe in Tangier and supplies occasional narration – the director hasn’t found a way to reimagine the author’s thoughts in film terms. Endless shots of flies on meat and humans in a sexual fever do little to fill in the blanks.’ — Peter Travers
Little Buddha (1993)
‘Bernardo Bertolucci is still widely perceived as the high priest of Freudianism and Marxism, of an intellectual art cinema rooted firmly in his Italian origins. But he has been steadily edging into the international arena. Since teaming up with the producer Jeremy Thomas, he has gone in for expensive, spectacular extravaganzas: The Last Emperor and The Sheltering Sky. Now he has moved further down the mainstream route with Little Buddha, which he has been calling a children’s film, and also, perhaps as a selling point, the final part of his ‘oriental trilogy’ (although it seems slightly specious to yoke together Morocco, the Himalyas and China into a single geographic entity). So did Bertolucci sell out? I’d say not: this is an audacious project and one which, for all its flaws, has much to commend it. It is refreshing to find a heavy-hitting European auteur telling his story with such directness, and delightful to see a serious, artistically exacting film for children, even if you suspect it will soar over that audience. It’s just at times you feel he’s taken on too much and it flashes through your mind that, if not trod carefully, the Middle Way looks uncomfortably like compromise.’ — The Independent
‘Shandurai (Newton), an African refugee in Rome, pays her way through medical school as a live-in cleaner for English pianist and composer Kinsky (Thewlis). Shy and timid, he woos her with gifts and music, but she rejects his overtures; her husband’s a political prisoner in her homeland, she says. Kinsky responds with an act of love simple, profound and pivotal. Like Welles’ The Immortal Story, this is a beautiful cameo from a mature artist. The scale doesn’t signify a retreat – unless love is counted a minor theme – but it does seem to have had a liberating effect on the director, who embellishes a piquant short story by James Lasdun with dazzling mise en scène: delirious travelling shots, jumpcuts and an innovative soundtrack, all edited with seamless flair. This is cinema with music’s fluid purity of form – indeed, it runs for 15 minutes before Bertolucci has recourse to anything so base as the spoken word. Kinsky plays Bach and Mozart; Shandurai, Salif Keita and Youssou N’dour. Some may find it pretentious, but Thewlis (clumsy, remote, rarefied) and Newton (contained, honestly bewildered) provide innumerable points of entry. It’s a film about the limits of art, about civilization at this moment of flux, and about a gentle connection between a man and a woman.’ — Time Out (London)
the entire film
The Dreamers (2003)
‘Bertolucci’s engrossing, elegant film is a seductive adaptation by Gilbert Adair of his novel The Holy Innocents. In Paris, as a student in the spring of 1968, Matthew (Pitt) is a young American usually to be found glued to the smoke-stained silver screen at the Palais de Chaillot. There, during a demo against the government’s firing of Henri Langlois as head of the Cinémathèque, he meets and falls in with Isabelle (Green) and Théo (Garrel), a brother and sister as beautiful as they are bent on making their lives resemble the movies they adore – Les Enfants Terribles, perhaps? When they invite him to move into their apartment while their parents are on holiday, the relationship becomes more intimate, and intense. Meanwhile, things are also heating up out on the streets. An evocative reminiscence of an era when cinema and politics could count for as much as carnal passion, this delicious movie is written and directed with feeling and flair, and played to near perfection by its appealing young leads. The film benefits hugely from the fact that Bertolucci and Adair were caught up in the exhilarating mood of change that made ’68 a year to savour. Besides being stylish, sexy and witty, the film feels authentic. The ménage-à-trois and its members are treated sympathetically but never romanticised; the cinéphile allusions are many, correct, illuminating but never overdone; the music is equally well chosen and expressive; the shifts between the erotic hothouse atmosphere of the apartment and the heady air of liberation outside skilfully handled. A real pleasure.’ — Time Out (London)
Moi & Toi (2012)
‘Bertolucci, and his actors Antinori and Falco, sketch out the growing and touching relationship that develops between the pair: not quite friends, not lovers, perhaps not even siblings exactly – but strange allies against all the unhappiness that this world can throw at them. There is a great moment when Olivia starts singing along to David Bowie’s rewritten Italian version of Space Oddity, Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola (Lonely Boy, Lonely Girl), and somehow this music contributes to the sense that, though sharp and lively, this 2012 movie could have been made 40 years ago. The final freezeframe is perhaps a nod to Truffaut, although the ending as a whole is maybe a little rushed. Bertolucci’s witty, potent little film showed Cannes that he is still a force to be reckoned with.’ — The Guardian
ps. Hey. ** David Ehrenstein, The billion dollar question. The ‘editing’ film is quite fascinating, if you get a chance. ** Misanthrope, Hi. I still have a collection hundreds of porn VHS tapes in storage, if you want to get really into impractical hoarding questions. I actually think de-cluttering is fun. It’s like IRL editing, and I love editing. It has been a boon to the escorts and slaves posts ever since I realised, hey, why not use the commenter trolls too? I knew a guy whose given name was Tommy too, and it did seem to have this lifelong slightly infantilising effect on him. Tell your Tommy there’s a brilliant little film in the works in France where he could divert a mere, oh, 200,000 euros of those billions. Damn. ** TheKeatonZone, Your name immediately put that horrible Kenny Loggins song ‘The Danger Zone’ or whatever it was called in my head. Not your fault. Oh, back where you once were and possibly belong? That can work, strangely. Yay, KeatonRapeChain replaces that miserable song in my head with a genius song, thank you! You saved my day. ** Steve Erickson, Hi. Not sure how the ‘editing’ film will show up there. Definitely not something that would get a release. Maybe in a festival or in a non-fiction film series. I dipped into the Billie Eilish album because of the hubbub and no surprise that what it is holds absolutely no interest for me. My vibe on deathfaggot666 was poseur. ** _Black_Acrylic, Yes, he was the crossover, for sure. I can totally see him on a pedestal at the Tate. Still haven’t seen ‘Us’. I thought ‘Get Out’ started really, really well then futzed itself. Seems like that might be Peele’s thing? Maybe he’s the new Shymalan? Great about the check’s arrival. Yes, yes, of course and please about The Call’s birth post! ** Bill, It’s a lucky day when I come across a cryptic slave profile. If you could see the thousands of same-y, boring, ham-fistedly literal profiles I have to trudge through to find those rare odd balls, you would go stark raving mad, I tell you. As I have, clearly. Okay, thanks for the word on the Strickland. Mixed blessing then. Thumbs — and even big toes — way up about your piece’s progress! ** James, I think if you actual murdered someone to get his ass then, yes, that would be wrong. Unless you murdered Trump, Pence, or Mitch McConnell, just off the top my head. I’m fine, thanks. I saw your email, and I will get back to ASAP. At first I thought you were asking if 420 works for me, and I was going to say not since I was 16 years old. ** Okay. I realized the other day how weird it is that I have never done a Bertolucci Day, so I de-weirded that idea. See you tomorrow.