Big screen Movies

Cinema’s poet, the world created by filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci

Increasingly disillusioned with the West, Bertolucci looked eastwards for artistic renewal. Photo: Getty images

Increasingly disillusioned with the West, Bertolucci looked eastwards for artistic renewal. Photo: Getty images  

Filmmaker Bertolucci who died last month broke the boundaries as he tried to intoxicate and provoke audiences

My romance with Italian maestro Bernardo Bertolucci began with The Sheltering Sky, a 1990 adaptation of Paul Bowles’ metaphysical novel, filmed in Tunisia against the stunning expanse of the Sahara. It tells the story of a bookish and jaded American couple (Debra Winger and John Malkovich) who travel to North Africa with a friend after World War II. The Americans struggle to come to terms with the unfathomable terrain, and end up literally and metaphorically its prisoners.

Kit is spirited away by an Arab and ends up as his concubine, while the men are caught up in their own private neuroses. The protagonists’ certainties about the world and about themselves unravel against the immensity of the primordial landscape captured in all its majesty and terror by legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro.

The Sheltering Sky is part of his ‘eastern trilogy’, a series of lavishly mounted films exploring philosophical themes. The Last Emperor (1987), for which he won nine academy awards, and Little Buddha (1993) about an eight-year-old American boy who could be the reincarnation of a Buddhist master.

Young Bernardo started his career as an assistant to radical filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, whose influence (along with his guru Jean Luc Godard) informed much of his worldview. His early films, especially Before the Revolution (1964) and Partner (1968), reflected his political obsessions as did 1900, the sprawling five-hour epic about class warfare in early 20th century Italy seen through the eyes of two men (Robert De Niro and Gérard Depardieu) born on the same day at opposite ends of the social spectrum.

As a product of the bourgeoisie, Bertolucci identified with characters struggling with ideas of revolution and class warfare, a conflict that played out in many of his films.

He first came to notice with The Spider’s Strategem (1970), adapted from the Jorge Luis Borges novel, The Theme of a Traitor, about a son who goes in search of the truth about his past and discovers that his murdered father whom he looked up to as a hero was, in fact, a traitor. It marked the beginning of a longtime collaboration with Vittorio Storaro.

The Conformist

With The Conformist, the international spotlight came on. Adapted from a novel by Alberto Moravia it tells the story of Marcello, a repressed homosexual (Jean-Louis Trintignant). Traumatised by a childhood sexual encounter and terrified of his bottled-up desires, he joins Mussolini’s fascists hoping it will make him normal again. Subsequently he is recruited to assassinate his former professor, a left-wing intellectual. At one point, he almost shoots himself rather than confront the reality of what he has become. Bertolucci used Storaro’s prodigious talents to the hilt, creating the signature style he is best known for: meticulously composed tracking shots, hypnotic play of light and shadow, a sensuous richness of scenes, an elusive dream logic and narrative disorientation deliberately designed to externalise the inner life of the characters.

The film is a master class in motion picture direction, cinematography, sound design and editing. It yields new gems each time you watch it.

Bertolucci’s next film, Last Tango in Paris (1972), for better or worse played a major role in defining his legacy. The sexually explicit film, about a middle-aged American (Marlon Brando) who embarks on a series of erotic encounters with a 20-year-old French student provoked widely divergent reactions. It was condemned in the Italian courts as “obscene, indecent and catering to the lowest instincts of the libido” while venerable critic Pauline Kael called it “the most liberating movie ever made” prophetically adding that “[Tango] altered the face of an art form. This is a movie people will be arguing about for as long as there are movies.”

Indeed, the film became a lightning rod for controversy when Maria Schneider gave an interview in 2011 saying “she had felt a little raped” while filming the infamous sodomy scene with Marlon Brando. During intercourse, he forces her to recite a litany condemning family values, religion, true love and other bourgeois tropes. Bertolucci admitted he wanted the scene to surprise the actress in order to provoke a visceral reaction, but the sex was entirely simulated and the scene scripted well in advance, as both Brando and Schneider have also said.

For those who have taken the trouble to actually see the film, it is clear the scene in question can’t be viewed in isolation. Psychological and sexual dynamics change so often it is impossible to be sure about who is the real victim. Jeanne is merely participating in a short-lived and inconsequential adventure while for Paul it’s a final attempt at regaining some semblance of a rapidly fading youth. He understands his need for her is far greater. In the apartment, he can temporarily obliterate all vestiges of the outside world with its lurking terrors. When he talks about the future, she reminds him that in 10 years he will be in a wheelchair. The film is far too layered and complex to be reduced to homilies about the ‘male gaze’.

Taboo-breaking sexuality

Bertolucci returned to the theme of taboo-breaking sexuality in 1979’s Luna where a famous opera star (Jill Clayburgh) has an almost incestuous relationship with her teenage son who pines for his missing father. The director’s virtuosity is apparent in every frame of the Freudian opera, designed to provoke, intoxicate and arouse, like a great piece of art.

Increasingly disillusioned with the West, Bertolucci looked eastwards for artistic renewal. “I was living in a country I didn’t like,” he reminisces. “Politically, everything was dissolving, and corrupt. When I went for the first time to China, it was a kind of rebirth of my desire to shoot.” Ironically the film that emerged, The Last Emperor, was his most conservative and sanitised creation, a far cry from the work that established him as enfant terrible of world cinema. Made on a budget of $21 million and filmed in the Forbidden City, the lavishly mounted production tells the story of Pu Yi, China’s last emperor, who is ‘re-educated’ by the Maoists and finally ends his life as an ordinary citizen in Communist China. Though formally uninteresting, stodgy and historically inaccurate, it was the type of film Americans believe embodies the pinnacle of cinema, and rewarded him with nine Oscars.

Towards the end of his career Bertolucci returned to more intimate themes: the perils and pleasures of beauty, sex and youth, and the entanglement of the personal with the political. His penultimate films, Stealing Beauty, Besieged and The Dreamers exemplify these ideas. They were set in enclosed spaces with characters in retreat from the world and marked the auteur’s real-life withdrawal from the public sphere.

He made his last film Me and You (2012) after a decade-long break, consigned to a wheelchair with multiple back injuries. It is the story of a 14-year-old boy who tells his mother that he is going on a school ski trip and then retreats to the building’s basement to hide out with his step-sister, strung out on heroin. The film was the crippled artist’s valiant attempt to regain some of his lustre. Six years later, he breathed his last.

The interviewer is a filmmaker, columnist and scholar. When not travelling, he hangs out with his cats, toucans and pet iguana.

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Printable version | Apr 9, 2020 12:41:25 PM |

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