The nonconformist

A retrospective (of new prints!) traces Bernardo Bertolucci's 50-year career

Once upon a time in Italy: Robert De Niro and Dominique Sanda in 1900.

FILM Marxist, aesthete, padrone, Oscar winner, supreme screen sensualist — the list of contradictions goes on, onscreen as well as off, for Bernardo Bertolucci. Earlier this year he emerged from a long creative hibernation (attributable, it turns out, to back pain so severe it prevented any work) to accept an honorary Palme d'Or at the Cannes International Film Festival and begin work on his first film in nearly a decade, a claustrophobic drama about a withdrawn teen who secretly sequesters himself in the family basement. It will be filmed in 3-D — an idea so daft it just might prove brilliant.

Because, after all, it is lunacy and excess as well as intelligence, beauty, instinct, and so forth that have led Bertolucci to some of his most extraordinary as well as dubious achievements, nearly all of them debatable as falling into either category.

Now that he's reaching a half-century spent in the director's chair, it is clear what an unpredictable, erratic, even arbitrary career this has been; the line between the sublime and silly in his films is easily felt but almost impossible to define. What makes 1972's Last Tango in Paris, for instance, a genuine fever dream of mad desire, while two later films equally about eros and yearning — 1996's Stealing Beauty and 2003's The Dreamers — are fussy, false, a little embarrassing? Trained as a poet (whatever that means), he surrenders to cinema time and again as someone intoxicated by images as he once was to words, taking each sustained impulse to its logical (or illogical) endpoint, whether to transcendence or off an artistic cliff.

The Pacific Film Archive's summer retrospective "Bernardo Bertolucci: In Search of Mystery" provides an opportunity to weigh most of the exhilarating highs and a couple of the baffling lows in a wayward trajectory one hopes is nowhere near complete. (Only 71, he can surely spare us another three decades — look at Manoel de Oliveira, wildly prolific at 102, yet without a single film as memorable as a half-dozen or more of Bertolucci's.) All 13 features will be offered in new prints, a big lure for a director whose best movies — particularly those shot by the incomparable cinematographer Vittorio Storaro — it would be criminal to view in any but the most pristine visual condition.

After a promising literary start as a teenager — his father, notably, was a well-regarded poet, art historian, and film critic — Bertolucci apprenticed to family friend Pier Paolo Pasolini on 1961's Accattone!. When Pasolini moved on to another project, Bertolucci made his own directorial debut at age 21 with similarly gritty The Grim Reaper (1962). That tale of a prostitute's murder, cowritten with Pasolini, as well as 1964's Before the Revolution (a presumably somewhat autobiographical mélange about a young bourgeois torn between tentative radicalization and pleasures of the flesh as represented by Bertolucci's then-wife Adriana Asti) reflected his heavy early influencing by the ebbing Italian neorealist movement and still-current French New Wave.

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