A retrospective (of new prints!) traces Bernardo Bertolucci's 50-year career
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Cannes International Film Festival and begin work on his first film in nearly a decade, a claustrophobic drama about a withdrawn teen who secretly sequesters himself in the family basement.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.
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.
The curio in the PFA's series is 1967's The Path of Oil — a three-part Italian documentary about petroleum production, apparently undertaken in a funk when two failed first features had temporarily reduced his career prospects. It's handsome, if clearly less than a labor of love. But for the Bertolucci fetishist, no film is so impersonal or underwhelming (or on the other hand beloved) that it might not yet spring surprises, whether on a first viewing or an umpteenth.
BERNARDO BERTOLUCCI: IN SEARCH OF MYSTERY
July 8–Aug. 18, $5.50–$9.50
Pacific Film Archive
2575 Bancroft, Berk.