A Mixed Bag Tribute to Bernardo Bertolucci

Late last year, Italy lost one of its (and the world’s) most talented filmmakers, Bernardo Bertolucci. Even if you’re not a certified Italophile like myself, chances are you have seen at least one of his films during the course of your life. His star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame and his many international awards are testament to the broad reach of Bertolucci’s work.

Bertolucci was born in in 1941 in Parma, Italy. He longed to be a poet like his father, but ended up pouring his creative juices into movies instead. He made his first film at age 21, and by the time he was in his thirties in the 1970s, he was directing movies with huge stars like Marlon Brando, Robert deNiro, Donald Sutherland and Burt Lancaster.

At the tender age of 29, Bertolucci wrote the adapted screenplay and directed what film buffs believe to be among his best (if not his best) movie, The Conformist. It was filmed largely in Paris and Rome, in Italian language but with a French lead actor who phonetically memorized his lines, and I watched it with English subtitles. I mention all this because I think the internationalism of his films is a big part of Bertolucci’s appeal, at least to me.

The Conformist takes place right before and during World War II, and shows us the life experiences that shape the main character, Marcello, and his overwhelming desire to be “normal.” Fascist Italy is a complicated and dangerous place for a person with such an inclination. Early on you learn what the title of the movie refers to; late in the movie you learn how truly sad, awful, and cowardly conformism can be. Along the way, the characters are strange and delightful, including the giggly and steadfastly devoted wife. The intentions and even the sexuality of characters seem fluid and unclear. Bertolucci had a knack for creating intriguing characters who leave you guessing as to what they are all about. He also liked to show them goofing around or cutting loose, in very real moments. This makes even unlikable characters more human, as is the case with Marlon Brando’s character in Last Tango in Paris.

Another commonality among Bertolucci’s films is their beauty. The Conformist has been compared to a masterpiece of art, like a painting. And it’s true – you can freeze the frame any number of times during the movie and be struck by the detail, everything from how the camera angle catches a room, to how the light falls, to how the character’s clothing mimics the light and shadows. He moves in close to a character’s face for intimate moments, but also likes to pan wide, slow things down and show quiet views of nature or architecture. There are long moments of no dialogue but plenty to look at and think about. He also likes to hit you with a tragic turn at the end of some of his best films. I’ll say no more for fear of giving too much away.

Last Tango in Paris

One cannot talk about Bertolucci without highlighting a disturbing scandal, which landed him in some legal trouble in Italy for a while. In 1972, he released Last Tango in Paris, which was met with mixed reviews to say the least. Marlon Brando broodingly portrayed a middle-aged man who enters into an anonymous, destructive, consensual (?) relationship with a very young woman played by French actress Maria Schneider. When it first opened in Paris, it was universally praised by critics. There was some controversy over the explicit sexual content in the movie, but the stuff didn’t really hit the fan until it was released in the US. The intense controversy over the sexual violence portrayed in the movie served to heighten interest, and landed the movie into simultaneous cover stories in Time and Newsweek. In describing an early scene, the Time article teases, “any moviegoers who are not shocked, titillated, disgusted, fascinated, delighted or angered by this early scene in Bernardo Bertolucci’s new movie, Last Tango in Paris, should be patient. There is more to come. Much more.” The powers that be who rate movies in the US were perplexed. It initially received an X rating, and eventually NC-17. In 1981 a cut version was released with an R rating. I think I saw the NC-17 version, but who knows. Personally I was not offended by the movie so much as what I read afterwards about young Schneider’s experience in making the film. She was 19 at the time and was caught off guard by one of the more intense scenes. It appears that Bertolucci and Brando purposely withheld certain details of the script from her in order to generate a real emotional response during filming. While she remained friends with Brando until his death, she suffered from this trauma and held a life-long grudge against Bertolucci. Shortly following Bertolucci’s death, Vanity Fair published an article in which the writer outlined his complicated feelings of admiration for Bertolucci’s work and the artistic freedom that made it possible, mixed with disdain for what this freedom made him feel he had license to do. The writer’s point is well taken and I hope you, our readers, will give this perspective its due in considering Bertolucci’s legacy. I certainly have done so and am left with a mixed bag.

So, did I like the movie? I’m not sure. I must admit that it appealed to me in the same way as Bertolucci’s other films. It had an international feel. It was shot by an Italian director, filmed almost entirely in French, though Brando’s character was American so the characters would sometimes speak English. This felt authentic of course, as a bilingual relationship would go. But just wait until we get to the language aspects of The Last Emperor below. I appreciate how Bertolucci didn’t shy away from depicting settings, languages and cultures that varied from his own.

The movie is surprising and quirky at times, and even funny. Schneider’s character is engaged to a silly man who follows her around with a rag tag film crew, and in one scene you realize he’s generating the soundtrack only when he switches off a small radio he’s carrying. The story is also painful and tragic, as you see the self-loathing that drives the two main characters to each other. If you like Marlon Brando, you’d like him in this movie. He’s sad, mean and charming, and ultimately completely unhinged.

After his successful string of movies in the 70s, Bertolucci was now solidly an international phenomenon. His star rose even further in 1987 when he co-wrote and directed the biopic The Last Emperor, which won all 9 Oscars for which it was nominated, including Best Picture and Best Director. I’ve always known about this movie but must admit that I finally made myself sit down to watch it in preparation for writing this blog post. I think I was intimidated by the length of the film. Indeed, it was nearly 3 hours long, but well worth my time.

The Last Emperor

The film chronicles the life of Puyi, the last Emperor of China, from his coronation as a toddler in 1908 to his death as a common gardener in Communist China of the 1960s. It is dizzying to consider China’s transformation over the course of those years. Filmed on location on the actual imperial grounds, this was the first Western movie crew allowed into the Forbidden City. Bertolucci had to appeal to the Chinese government for special access. And he did not squander his chance. The sets and costumes were equal parts glorious and bizarre. The grand parades and tiny everyday rituals were presented with such attention to detail, it must have required a herculean effort to pull this off. But pull it off, he did. The film is a moving work of art from start to finish.

Like in Bertolucci’s other films, there are many moments of quiet, where the background sounds and scenery speak for themselves. But when there is dialogue, it is English. That’s right. Bertolucci, the Italian director, filmed the movie on location in a sacred place in China, with a Chinese cast, telling an epic Chinese story, and he decided to do it in English. Of course, this makes sense given that Bertolucci probably wasn’t fluent in Chinese. But again, what he did seem to be fluent in was this concept I keep calling internationalism, or maybe it’s better referred to as freedom from rigid cultural identity. He flowed easily among cultures, languages and vastly diverse settings.

If I tried to summarize the plot of this epic film, this would be by far our longest blog post. I’ll just say that I really enjoyed watching the character of Piyu develop over time and struggle between the desire for freedom and the desire for the comfort of what he’s always known. This second desire led him back to the throne after his time in exile, to rule as a puppet of the occupying Japanese government, and then to Russian and Chinese prisons. What he ultimately achieves is the double-edged sword of freedom as an anonymous, humble, common man. Even if The Last Emperor isn’t my favorite Bertolucci film, it is a staggering achievement that deserved its acclaim.

Stealing Beauty

Later in his career, Bertolucci did find his way back to his nation of birth and was once again making movies in Italy. He released Stealing Beauty in 1996 to mixed reviews. Critics be damned, I loved it. I wrote about this breathtaking and charming movie in a prior post about movies set in Tuscany. Maybe I’m biased because I love Tuscany, but I found the movie and its sweet coming-of-age story quite beautiful and unforgettable. True to form, Bertolucci creates some off-beat characters, and there are scenes that are just strange. But I got sucked right into the drama and, knowing the direction taken by some of Bertolucci’s other films, appreciated the happy ending. This was Liv Tyler’s first leading role, and she was lovely and heartbreaking in her innocence. Jeremy Irons and Rachel Weisz also turn up in this movie as part of a great ensemble cast. Stealing Beauty was not Bertolucci’s last film, but it’s certainly a high note on which to end this review.

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