Monday, November 11

A Director’s Strategy

Thursday, October 24, 1996


Bernardo Bertolucci talks about the pivotal turning point in his
career and becoming his own filmmaker"W

By Brandon Wilson

Daily Bruin Staff

ould you like some?" asks Bernardo Bertolucci after room service
has delivered to him the bottle of Evian he ordered earlier. The
Italian director has converted an airy hotel room at the Four
Seasons into his base of operations while he stays in Los Angeles
inaugurating the retrospective of his 35-year career in film

Casually dressed in a blue denim Calvin Klein shirt and blue
chinos, the director reclines in his comfy chair pondering his long
and distinguished career. He is soft-spoken, his voice sometimes
lowering to a whisper. While he’s spoken English for 25 years, his
accent is surprisingly French-sounding, reflecting the years he
spent in Paris and the indelible mark left on him by French

The retrospective has forced a man to look backward, a man who
is more comfortable speculating on the future. And at the moment
our conversation has brought us to the commercial and critical
disappointment of "Partner" (1968).

The avant-garde "Partner" is an anomaly within Bertolucci’s
filmography, which has been restored by Italy’s Cinecitta under the
supervision of cinematographer extraordinaire Vittorio Storaro. The
cinema Bertolucci created, largely in partnership with Storaro, is
typically more concerned with people whose needs are more urgent
and all too real. Bertolucci’s protagonists are searching ­
either to find themselves through their political identity or
through their sexuality and usually by exploring them both. Through
balancing the sociopolitical with the sensual, Bertolucci has
created some of the most exuberantly cinematic, psychologically
probing and shamelessly operatic films of the last 30 years.

But the way the artist as a young man found his voice was a
period of stylistic trial and error in the very experimental

Bertolucci got the chance to try out a less solipsistic brand of
cinema with "The Spider’s Stratagem" (which screens Thursday night
at Melnitz), a 1970 film made for Italian television and based on a
short story by Jose Luis Borges. While "Spider’s Stratagem" was the
film with which the director reintroduced himself to his audience,
it was his next film that proved him to be a world-class

The landmark "The Conformist" (1970), about the plight of a
morally vacuous fascist in 1930s Italy, put Bertolucci on the map
thanks to its elegant, modernist production design, stunning
cinematography and compelling narrative.

"We had great fun," says the director about the making of his
masterpiece. "This new thing of being able to talk to an audience
was such a relief, and also I was feeling great pleasure in
composing shots; there’s a lot of suffering in making a film, but
the love of cinema still pushes you to think that one can go on
creating and never being tired of inventing things."

Landing one of modern filmdom’s best one-two punches, Bertolucci
followed up the successful "Conformist" with "Last Tango in Paris"
(1972), an emotionally searing and provocative yarn about two
people redefining themselves through anonymity and a relationship
built completely on their sexual rapport.

"Every movie I’ve ever done corresponds to a precise moment in
my life," says Bertolucci. "’Last Tango’ was a moment when I was
feeling suffocated by social pressure. So I fantasized about a
meeting some place where a man and a woman don’t have a social
identity; they don’t know each other, not even one another’s names,
it was very kind of romantic idea. To live outside their social
lives and to find a communication based on their bodies’
communication. So in a way the film is actually about the search
for purity."

Purity is the last word people used to describe the film when it
took the world by storm. Most critics were in unanimous awe, but
many of the filmmakers Bertolucci once relied on and idolized
(Pasolini, Godard, Fellini, Antonioni) rejected the film as
excessive and crass. The film was banned in Italy for 15 years, and
Bertolucci’s civil rights as an Italian citizen were temporarily
suspended for being a producer of obscenity. For five years, the
director couldn’t even vote in his own country.

But the experience of having a film be successful
internationally galvanized the director and spurred him to new,
unimagined heights.

"My communication with an audience became universal," says
Bertolucci. "It triggered in me the desire to attempt an epic, so I
went on to ’1900′ (The 5 1/2-hour film details the lifelong
friendship of a socialist and a wealthy land baron against the
backdrop of 45 turbulent years of Italian history).

"Every director I know has gone through a period of megalomania,
and this was mine," the director jokes.

The director cashed in his blank check with the studios (written
because of "Last Tango"’s success) to get his Marxist opera made,
and following "1900," Bertolucci stirred up controversy again with
"Luna" (1979), which featured some unsettling incestuous interplay
between an American opera diva and her teenage son.

Bertolucci’s next triumph came almost 10 years later with the
Oscar-sweeping "The Last Emperor," which came during his 10-year
self-imposed exile from Italy due to the director’s disgust with
Italy’s staggering political corruption in the 1980′s.

And now Bertolucci’s films have become a part of the canon of
film art. The director has a few projects in mind for the future,
such as a film about the explosive student activism of 1968.

"The idea of doing ’68 came to me because when I was shooting
‘Stealing Beauty’ I had the chance to meet many young people,
teenagers, from Liv Tyler and some of her friends. And I discovered
that they were completely ignorant about ’68," says Bertolucci. "So
what I thought of doing was not to do an illustration of ’68 with
nostalgia, but to take kids of today and force them to confront the
ideas we had in ’68. To see if there is a link or continuity
between kids then and now. 1968 was the peak of an era, we truly
wanted to change the world, today kids in general don’t want to
change the world. It may be that today’s kids meeting us then would
laugh at us."

As to the question of how the Bernardo Bertolucci in 1968 would
react to the Bertolucci of today, the director feels he hasn’t
mellowed with age or chosen his sensual side over the

"I’m as political as I ever was," the director insists. "But, I
have to accept that things have changed. I can’t pretend that the
Berlin Wall is still up. I point my camera at the reality, and the
reality is what the camera sees."

FILM: "Stealing Time: The Films of Bernardo Bertolucci"
continues tonight, Saturday night and concludes Sunday at Melnitz

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