Bernardo Bertolucci’s recent death left us with an unsolvable problem. Over the course of a fifty-year career, he wrestled with ideas both grand and small, from the tragically human to the sublimely divine. His focuses were on sex and growing old, politics and youth, and the ways in which we define ourselves and how systems inevitably try to break those selves. He examined relationships – those between men and women, people and politics, parents and children, and the seemingly unbridgeable gap of class. As is the tendency with art, especially when it’s at its best, it’s never quite clear how we’re supposed to interpret Bertolucci, how we’re supposed to “figure it all out.” His films were critical of oppressive regimes and systems, and yet those regimes and systems were filled with people who were beautifully, messily, sympathetically human. His style was maximalist and loud, and he reveled in the visceral and the glorious and the taboo. His work screamed from the screen even when his characters whispered. His films were always beautiful, even when their subjects weren’t.
Bertolucci, who died on November 26, leaves behind a thorny body of work, one that at times is hard to reconcile, and getting more complicated each year we move away from their historical context. Two works that define Bertolucci as a filmmaker, for better or worse, are both available from SMU’s Fondren, AV Collection.
The first is Bertolucci’s 1970s masterpiece, The Conformist, also available for streaming on Kanopy. Broadly, it’s a film that explores the relationship between sexual repression and the emergence of fascism, a relationship expressed through the story of Jean-Louis Trintignant’s blank-faced Marcelo. Aside from the film’s, let’s say, controversial plotting and themes, it’s simply an outstanding piece of technical filmmaking. It’s filled with these unusual, authorial camera movements that seem antithetical to the story itself. Bertolucci, with a silent pan, editorializes like God. The compositions are breathtaking, and Bertolucci’s dead-eyed protagonist wanders around bizarre and wonderful set designs, like nothing the world had really seen before. Even today, the film still feels like it comes from another planet or, more precisely, comes from another species who’s interpreting something they’ve heard of, something called “The Movies.” It is, without question, a landmark in cinema history. It’s also a film of contradictions, opposing ideas, which are butting heads, even on a formal level. The film is so beautiful and calls so much attention to its own flamboyant beauty, that one can’t help but be acutely aware of how that splendor is in direct conflict with the basic story of the film itself, which lies in a low-level, would-be assassin of the Mussolini regime. Perhaps Bertolucci is suggesting that the world is, in fact, a beautiful place filled with ambiguous people doing questionable, sometimes evil, things. Perhaps not.
The second film would be his most controversial work in an oeuvre full of controversies: the X-rated surprise hit, Last Tango in Paris (1972). Starring a declining Marlon Brando and rising star Maria Schneider, the film tells the story of an American widower (Brando) travelling abroad, who begins an anonymous sexual relationship with a young Parisian woman (Schneider). Is it a film about one’s reconciliation with repressed homosexuality? A metatext on the death of the American movie star? A deconstruction of the Western male archetype? Sex as destructive, as cleansing, as abusive, as freeing? Any and all interpretations are ostensibly valid; the work seems to welcome each and every one of them. It’s a weird film, meticulously crafted and designed around wild improvisations by Brando and Schneider that are both profound and nonsensical. It’s also cold and alienating. It’s outrageous and gross. The film’s problems have multiplied exponentially in recent years with the allegations made by Schneider of abuse on the set, degradation, manipulation and coercion at the hands of Bertolucci and Brando. Bertolucci’s own damning recollection of the events further complicates matters. Today, it’s almost impossible to untangle the film’s production from the film itself, marring the work’s and Bertolucci’s reputation, while, somewhat ironically, strengthening the film’s theme of masculinity and power turning sour and toxic. It would seem that Bertolucci was just as complicit in subjugation, cruelty, and abuse of power as the ideologies he criticized again and again.
Bertolucci was inspired by Roberto Rossellini and Italian Neorealism, Jean-Luc Godard and the French New Wave. He would go on to inspire Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese and all those lionized, New Hollywood directors we talk about and study ad nauseum. And yet from his inspirations, Bertolucci crafted something wholly unique, wholly his own. Those that he inspired could not capture the alchemy or crack the mathematics or find the pitch of his films. That is to say, there is no heir to Bertolucci; he comes from cinema’s history, impacting all that came after, yet remains a singular, odd, untouchable voice. For better or worse, Bertolucci stands alone.
The obituaries in the wake of his death paint a picture of a man and of a body of work that’s still hard to focus. They describe a true artist, a misogynist, an empathetic humanist, and a predator. They talk about films that are beautiful, but unpleasant; dense, but schizophrenic. His work is the very definition of “not for everyone.” However, for those who are interested, these films can be rich with meaning, beauty, and ideas that are insightful and affirming, disgusting and misguided. We can’t excuse the behavior (both inside and outside of the text) or fail to consider the passing of time and all the changes that that entails, but we also can’t ignore the work and what that work has to say.
So, what are we supposed to do? How do we reconcile the man and the film? The ideas and the actions? Who people are and what people do? Below is a brief bibliography of titles in the Hamon Arts Library, which present a selection of books written by a handful of who have tried to solve the riddle of Bertolucci and his films. For the curious, it might shine a light – and who knows, maybe you’ll be the one with the next new insight.
Blog post courtesy of Scott Martin, Curatorial Assistant for the Jones Film & Video Collection, Hamon Arts Library, SMU Libraries.
Featured image: Still from The Conformist, Flickr.com.
Selected Films & Bibliography from Hamon Arts Library
Last Tango in Paris – available as DVD in Fondren, AV.
Bertolucci, B., Gerard, F., Kline, T., & Sklarew, B. (2000). Bernardo Bertolucci : interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. Hamon, General Stacks PN1998.3.B48 A5 2000
Bertolucci, B., Ungari, E., & Ranvaud, D. (1987). Bertolucci by Bertolucci. London: Plexus. Hamon, General Stacks PN1998.A3 B4892 1987
Kolker, R. (1985). Bernardo Bertolucci. New York: Oxford University Press. Hamon, General Stacks PN1998.A3 B48944 1985
Loshitzky, Y. (1995). The radical faces of Godard and Bertolucci. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. Hamon, General Stacks PN1998.3.G63 L67 1995
Sklarew, B. (1998). Bertolucci’s the last emperor : multiple takes. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. Hamon, General Stacks PN1997 .L3353B47 1998
Tonetti, C. (1995). Bernardo Bertolucci : the cinema of ambiguity. New York: Twayne Publishers. Hamon, General Stacks PN1998.3 .B48T66 1995