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.
The longtime Freud devotee Bertolucci has said, "films are a way to kill my father." In his 1970 breakthrough, The Conformist, he killed his cinematic father, Godard, giving the murdered mentor-professor character the same phone number and address as Jean-Luc. More importantly, the film heralded an embrace of high, decadent style and a move away from communist wiseguy effrontery toward more classical storytelling in the manner of von Sternberg, Ophüls, and Welles (like the latter's The Trial, it was shot in Rome, Paris, and Munich, with characters dwarfed by looming, uncaring structures). As the Fascist assassin obsessed with embodying (and enforcing) "normalcy," Jean-Louis Trintignant is icy, but his "man without qualities" blankness is often overstated: he's whimsical as he springs about, returns cats' meows, and does his best to appear sporting as a dancehall circle closes in around him. Dreams, both discussed and played out, pervade all of Bertolucci's films, and much of this disjointed, flashback-heavy bellwether film plays like one—a fact which needlessly "justifies" some of the most daring, sensational cinematography (Storaro) and art design (Ferdinando Scarfiotti) in the history of the medium.
"Do you really think an American sitting on the floor in an empty apartment eating cheese and drinking water is interesting?" Maria Schneider asks Marlon Brando in the movie that made its director a celebrity, though it could be Bertolucci asking himself. Of course, the lovers in Last Tango in Paris do more than that on the apartment floor. The film that opens with a descending crane shot of Brando, hands on ears to muffle the squeal of a train passing overhead, howling "Fucking God!", is a classic of anxious miserablism. It is set less in Paris than at the intersection of despair and eroticism, a location Bertolucci would revisit in The Sheltering Sky (1990) and 1998's Besieged.
A seeming trifle, Besieged, with its small scale and return to Last Tango loneliness, is Bertolucci's most satisfying 90s work. It's about a pianist (David Thewlis) living in an inherited baroque walk-up near Rome's Spanish Steps, who rents out a room to an African medical student Shandurai (Thandie Newton). When he clumsily and loudly declares his love for her one night, screaming "Marry me!" out of nowhere, Shandurai suggests that he prove it by freeing her husband, a political prisoner in Africa. To get the necessary funds, he begins methodically selling his antiques and furniture until his rooms resemble Last Tango's vacant spaces.
Like William Friedkin's excellent Bug, Besieged is an old hand finding success by resisting extravagance and stripping down to the details, like when Shandurai, near the top of the spiral staircase, drops a cloth. It flutters slowly downward, where Thewlis's composer, whom she doesn't want to notice her, is descending—then it lands on his face. A small moment that could work in no other medium, it reminded me of Francois Truffaut's line about a scene in Scarface: "This isn't literature. It may be dance or poetry. It is certainly cinema."
The behemoth at the center of Bertolucci's oeuvre, 1900 is epic in length and its story's timespan, though the action rarely travels beyond the co-operative estate farm at its center. Storaro's typically sophisticated imagery, and great secondary character turns by Dominque Sanda and Burt Lancaster, provide the flashes of brilliance that aren't enough to fulfill Bertolucci's epoch-defining intentions. He makes the farm too rigidly microcosmic. Italian historical events like peasant revolts and the rise of Fascism are stuffed into the story's framework like sausage into casing. In his best films, Bertolucci's didacticism is woven in gracefully, but here it is hammering, which is why Ermanno Olmi's Tree of Wooden Clogs, about a period just prior and also featuring peasant non-actors, is so much more moving.
Bertolucci followed up his draining experience on 1900 with the somewhat tone-deaf Luna, about an opera singer (the late Jill Clayburgh) who attempts a sexual relationship with her young junkie son (Matthew Barry). Like Francis Ford Coppola's Tetro, a similar study of an Art Family in crisis, it never finds its footing. A better option at MoMA's retro is the excellent The Spider's Stratagem, a transitional project commissioned by Italian television made just prior to The Conformist. Based on a Borges story, it follows a man who returns to a Italian village where his anti-fascist hero father was killed under mysterious circumstances. Giulio Brogi plays both the son and, in flashbacks, the father (both named Athos Magnani). Genuinely chilling, it's the closest Bertolucci has come to making a horror movie, with its blue floodlit streets scattered with old men standing around like ghosts or statues, muttering "we're all friends here… all friends…"
Also in the series is Oil, Bertolucci's rare documentary on the oil industry, commissioned by an oil company and made during the period between Before the Revolution and Partner when the director was still figuring out what he had to say and why. There's 1993's Little Buddha, starring a spray-oranged Keanu Reeves as Siddhartha. Philip Lopate correctly called it "profoundly silly," and as a title card hints ("inspired by the true life stories of several children and their extraordinary voyage of discovery"), it's mostly kids stuff. 2003's The Dreamers offers two kinds of pornography for cinephiles. In its fevered nostalgia for the French cultural revolts of 1968 (of which Bertolucci was a participant) and cyclone of movie quotations, it unguardedly celebrates a passion for film that borders on insanity. Among the filmmakers it fails to namecheck is Bertolucci himself. Had it been made by anyone else, the omission would seem criminally unnatural.