December 15-January 12 at MoMA
With its scramble of undisputed classics, pleasure-denying Godard apings, made-for-television triumphs, one incest-opera curio, and an attempted history of an Italian century that runs five hours and change, Bernardo Bertolucci's body of work has been kept alive for almost fifty years by its contradictions. Those, and his insistence on braiding both his on-again off-again Marxist politics and personal hang-ups and traumas, which he's explored over decades of psychoanalysis, into his films. Quality would not have been enough. The Last Emperor is as close as he ever got to "perfection," and it was pelted with Oscars for it, but if his filmography were all Last Emperors, he would not be as cherished as the questing international risk-taker who has so often seemed to be productively at war with his own instincts. The most identifiable aspect of Bertolucci's films, their boldface Style often provided in large part by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, represents his desire, from The Conformist on, to please audiences, while his dedication to personal and off-kilter content supplies the contradictions and friction that have kept his career engaging.
MoMA, collaborating with Cinecittà Luce, are presenting nearly everything from a film career that might not have been—Bertolucci almost became a poet, like his father Attilio. He even had published a poetry collection, but by the time it won Italy's important Viareggio Prize, he had already assisted on Accattone by Pier Paolo Pasolini (a friend of dad's) and entered his directorial debut (The Grim Reaper) into the Venice Film Festival. Bertolucci's early movie love, too, can be traced to his father, who cashed checks as film critic for the family's hometown Gazetta di Parma and took his son to screenings. Bertolucci picked up his communism while being raised on his grandfather's vast farm outside Parma, where he bonded and sympathized with the workers. He went to school as the only well-read student among peasants, and a lifelong landowner's son's guilt was born, an early grappling with oppositions that would mark all his work to come.
The Grim Reaper, based on a story by Pasolini, is justly overshadowed by follow-up Before the Revolution, which with its bursting youthful passions and gleeful adventurousness feels more debut-like. But many of the director's trademarks are alive here. A Rashomon-style whodunit that explores a murder from various suspects' points of view, Grim Reaper has already the careful lateral tracking shots, and girls who spontaneously break into dance, as women will in The Conformist.
Bertolucci has never been shy about declaring his admiration for Godard. He's said that cinema can be divided into halves, before and after JLG. Like his colleagues (some of whom were friends) in the French New Wave, Bernardo, when in Paris, jailed himself in Henri Langlois' Cinémathèque, inundating himself with American and French movies. Like the New Wavers, Bertolucci explores the art and idea of cinema itself in his films, and the probing and often pained way in which he does it most resembles Godard.
Though I find it far more affecting and exciting, Before the Revolution could be called Bertolucci's Breathless, while 1968's Partner, and his short Agony from the portmanteau film Love and Anger, mimic the confrontational, Brechtian Godard of La Chinoise and Week End. Based loosely on Dostoyevsky's The Double, Partner follows Pierre Clémenti as Jacob, a schizophrenic drama teacher who talks to himself in his flat full of books piled to the ceiling (the piles sometimes wander of their own accord). Giving suicide a try one day, Jacob is visited by his doppelganger, who wants to use public "theater of cruelty" (and general loud ranting, and sex) to protest the Vietnam War and foment revolution. Bertolucci has said that he made the "sick" Partner during a period of neurosis. Much of it is irritating nonsense, but as a grab bag of canny visual tricks and Clémenti's convincing mental illness, it's an alarming shriek.