Monday, November 11

Bertolucci: reminiscing of times pre-restoration

Wednesday, October 23, 1996


Director recalls the early years before success with ‘The
Conformist’By Brandon Wilson

Daily Bruin Staff

"It’s 50-50" is how Bernardo Bertolucci characterizes the
ambivalence of seeing a retrospective of his work. "(It’s) 50-50 in
the sense that I’m forced to look back because my tendency is to
look ahead, not to look back. When I look back at my movies, I
think I must be ancient. When I look at the credits for ’1900,’
it’s like a cemetery, there are about 15 people who’ve died since
then. It gives me another sense of time."

The 56-year-old director’s body of work stretches back further
than most. His first feature film was done when he was at the ripe
age of 21. But the maturity he displayed artistically in his 20s
has stayed with him throughout his career ­ even his work as a
31-year-old in "Last Tango In Paris" has the mark of an older

So it’s appropriate that the latest retrospective of his work is
entitled "Stealing Time," since in many respects Bernardo
Bertolucci has always stayed a few steps ahead.

A co-production of the UCLA Film and Television Archive and
Cinecitta International, a division of Italy’s Ente Cinema, this
complete retrospective of Bertolucci’s work culminates a full
restoration of all his films, some of which had begun to succumb to
the ravages of time and aging.

With his partner cinematography legend Vittorio Storaro
overseeing the entire restorative effort, Bertolucci was at first
not very interested in seeing his work restored and made new again.
When Cinecitta informed him that his work had been selected for
preservation, (as the complete works of Federico Fellini had
undergone, and later shown in last year’s on-campus "Tutto Fellini"
series) the director was not so sure he wanted the effort made.

The director was no match for the combined pressure of Storaro,
preservation crusader, Martin Scorsese, Cinecitta, and his wife,
director Clare Peploe. With Bertolucci’s blessing having been given
to the preservationist efforts, the films are now part of the UCLA
retrospective which kicked off with a sold-out screening of
Bertolucci’s 1970 "The Conformist." Tomorrow night’s screening
includes the breakthrough effort "The Spider’s Stratagem" (1964)
and his seldom-screened "Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man" (1981).

The director’s filmography reads like a growth chart that step
by step reveals a young man’s journey from first living in the
shadow of a famous father (renowned Italian poet/film critic
Attilio Bertolucci) and then striking out on his own to find his
own medium, his own voice and his own identity.

This process of growth and breaking away from a father would be
repeated twice more by Bertolucci before his own name was firmly

The director, a native of Parma in northern Italy, began his
career as an artist by writing poems throughout his childhood. "I
think the reason I took up film was to escape poetry," says
Bertolucci. "I started to write poems just to be like my father
when I was 7 or 8. Then when I was 15 or 16, I realized that this
was my father’s world, and it didn’t belong to me and I had to find
my own way of expressing myself."

The 16-year-old Bernardo discovered his own medium when he got a
hold of a 16mm wind-up Bolex camera, with which he made two short

"There was a kind of determination and strength in my life at
that time about doing movies, I knew it had to happen, nobody could
stop me; the desire was irresistible," says the director.

As cinema loomed in his life, Bertolucci ended his career as a
poet on a high note when his collection of poems, "In Search of
Mystery" was published, won critical accolades, and a national
poetry prize. At 21, Bertolucci opted to drop out of the University
of Rome when writer (and later one of Italy’s premier filmmakers)
Pier Paolo Pasolini, a friend of Bertolucci’s father, asked the
young cinephile to be his assistant director on his first

After "Accatone," Bertolucci was able to direct his own film,
"The Grim Reaper," a story conceived by Pasolini about a
prostitute’s murder seen from different perspectives (a la
"Rashomon"), which employs elements of both Italian neo-realism and
American film noir.

"It was a story by Pasolini. I’d just been his assistant, and
all my energy went to trying to do a film different from
‘Accatone,’" recalls Bertolucci. "I wanted to see if I had my own
language, my own vision, and I think in fact the film is very
different (from Pasolini). I remember that I was imagining the
shot, then trying to do what I imagined. I wasn’t very clear on the
difference between what you can imagine and what you can
materialize. But what I immediately felt was that the reality in
front of the camera has the priority. You have to find a balance
between what has been thought out and prepared in the screenplay
and the fact that reality proposes all the time things that are
alternative to what you had written."

For his next film, Bertolucci fashioned an autobiographical
story completely on his own about a middle-class young man torn
ideologically between his bourgeois life and his Marxist ideals, as
well as torn emotionally over an illicit affair with his youthful
aunt. "When you’re young, you have to do your autobiographical
piece, and that was my second film, ‘Before the Revolution,’" says
the director. "The protagonist of this film was in fact expressing
the critical tension that students later in 1968 were experiencing
in their dissatisfaction with the Party’s revisionism. The film
opened in the winter of ’67- ’68 and it completely coincided with
what the students were saying at that moment. In the first film, I
completely abandoned myself to the music of camera movement, but
with the second one I made the camera heavy. It was too
autobiographical, I think."

As the pitch of revolution grew louder the world over,
Bertolucci discovered his next mentor in Jean-Luc Godard, a member
of the cinematic avant-garde movement known as the French New Wave.
While getting caught up in Godard’s brand of post-modern cinema,
Bertolucci also became involved in the Living Theater troupe and
the writings of Artaud, avatar of the Theater of Cruelty.

"Of course nothing ages as fast as the avant-garde," remarks
Bertolucci. "But the Living Theater was the first time I’d enjoyed
theater, then came ‘Partner,’ which was very much influenced by the
Living Theater."

Loosely based on Dostoevsky’s novella, "The Double," "Partner"
is a rare instance in the Bertolucci oeuvre where the director
plays with the line between reality and illusion as we experience
the world through the eyes of a character who may have a
doppelganger stalking about, or may just be going mad.

Shot during May 1968, when the apex of student activism and
militancy in Paris was reached, "Partner," Bertolucci’s attempt at
doing a film which was an internal monologue, was shunned by
critics and audiences alike (even last Sunday night at Melnitz the
film sorely tested the endurance of even his most ardent

"I felt like I was at a dead end," says the director of his
post- "Partner" period. "Many of us at the time were unable, really
afraid to communicate with the audience. We were very proud of not
having an audience. But it was so extreme with ‘Partner’ that I
realized I had to change. It was a question of survival, and
survival meant change. The major effort was to accept that someone
would have to see my movies and enjoy them."

Bertolucci got the opportunity to try out a more
audience-friendly style of cinema with "The Spider’s Stratagem" a
1970 film made for Italian television and based on a short story by
Jose Luis Borges. While not a masterpiece, "Spider’s Stratagem" is
a pivotal turning point in Bertolucci filmography: it marks his
first collaboration with Vittorio Storaro as director of
photography (a partnership that ranks as one of cinema’s greatest),
it marks the first appearance of the theme of searching for the
father and the effect a parent has on their child (and vice versa)
which remains constant throughout his films. It is also the first
time Bertolucci’s own sensuality is seen on screen, the result of
freeing himself of the sometimes oppressive weight of a mentor.

"With television, you automatically have a big audience. So far
my films were popular with some critics and won awards, but the
audience never showed up. So to do television was an easy way to
start this new way of talking to somebody in my films, rather than
just talking to myself." Bertolucci says, "I also abandoned the
punishing stiffness with myself, and accepted the idea of pleasure;
for some ludicrous reason we thought of pleasure as some kind of
right-wing idea."

The tranquil set of "Spider’s Stratagem" also played host to the
introduction of Freudianism to Bertolucci’s work. Already very
influenced by Marxist ideology, Bertolucci used Freud and the
concepts of psychoanalysis (which he was introduced to via therapy)
into his narrative, thus developing his characters psychological
identities as sharply as their social identities had been. This
precious balance would also come to be a Bertolucci trademark.

While "Spider’s Stratagem" was the film with which the director
reintroduced himself to his audience, it was his next film that put
him on the map as a world-class filmmaker and elevated him to the
ranks of his idols.

The Daily Bruin’s conversation with Bernardo Bertolucci will
conclude in Thursday’s issue. "Stealing Time" continues tomorrow
night through Oct. 27 at Melnitz Hall.

Nelson Entertainment

Bertolucci’s "The Last Emperor, " starring Richard Vuu as the
young emperor, garnered nine Academy Awards including "Best
Picture."Paramount Pictures

Robert DeNiro, as Alfred Berlinghieri, and Dominique Sanda as
his wife, Ada, starred in Bertolucci’s 1976 epic "1900."

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