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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.