The nonconformist - Page 2

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

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

Inspired by Dostoyevsky, 1968's Partner was a transitional work, straddling Godardian dialecticism and pure extravagance. When 1970's Jorge Luis Borges-drawn puzzle The Spider's Strategem found Bertolucci discovering his sumptuous mature style (as well as Storaro's rapturous lighting and camera movement), Godard denounced him as a sellout. The international breakthrough was that same year's The Conformist, a Moravia story about the individual surrender to fascism — passivity turning to criminality being a frequent Bertolucci subject — that somehow became a baroque tone poem of saturated color, hedonistic suggestion, and damp paranoia. It announced the arrival of a great artist, albeit one for whom style would always trump political content, and whose literary sources were often twisted nearly past recognition by his own overwhelming authorial stamp.

The 1970s were a dazzling high-wire decade for Bertolucci. Last Tango was an X-rated scandal and sensation, an experience so psychologically (and literally) naked for Marlon Brando that he didn't speak to the director for years afterward. Bertolucci explained: "He felt that I stole something from him, that he didn't know what he was doing ... I like to have very famous, important actors because it is a challenge to find out what they are hiding.") Its tale of two people with only compulsive coitus in common is still berserk, implausible, off-putting, and completely enveloping.

The epic, multinational cast (Robert De Niro, Gerard Depardieu, Donald Sutherland, Dominique Sanda, Burt Lancaster, even some Italians) 1900, a film originally over five hours long, offered the first half of Italy's 20th century as a class struggle, as well as a conceptual one, between idealism and decadent pageantry — Pasolini wrestling with Luchino Visconti. Few knew what to make of the contrastingly intimate (yet, again, stylistically gaga) 1979 La Luna, an Oedipal drama based on a dream Bertolucci had about Maria Callas. Fervently loved by a slim cult following, it was otherwise so ridiculed and loathed that 32 years later 20th Century Fox still hasn't coughed up a U.S. home-format release.

With the new decade, the limbs Bertolucci went out on became less reliably inspirational, perhaps partly because Storaro had developed conflicting allegiances to other directors (Francis Ford Coppola, Carlos Saura, Warren Beatty). Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man (1981) is dispirited and dull. Little Buddha (1993) was a silly idea nonetheless spiked by enchanted storybook scenes with Keanu Reeves as Siddhartha — ludicrous-sounding stunt casting that is somehow perfect. Stealing Beauty and The Dreamers found this uneasily homophilic director reduced to ogling young bodies of both sexes like a dirty old professor.

On the other hand, 1990's The Sheltering Sky was difficult, ravishing, another masterpiece if a great commercial disappointment. Another leap into exotica, 1987's The Last Emperor had the opposite fate — winning all nine of its nominated Oscars in a slow year, a staggering spectacle widely admired yet loved by few (least of all the Chinese), elephantine yet wry, and closer to David Lean respectability than auteurist idiosyncrasy. Then after all this 1998's Besieged, a tiny story of unrequited love and noble sacrifice shot with two actors and hand-held camera, felt rejuvenative — as if the increasingly burdened composer of massive symphonies had discovered the joy in a piano miniature.

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