A version of this article appeared in The Age, October 22, 2011.
It's safe to say Bernardo Bertolucci is some kind of master filmmaker – even if over the course of half a century he has not made many wholly satisfying films. Few living directors can match his ability to create sensual excitement through the basic tools of cinema: colour, camera movement, editing, music, gesture.
The subject of a major retrospective at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Bertolucci remains a restless figure, a technical virtuoso who specialises in depicting the eternal quest for identity. Young or middle-aged, his characters ask themselves the same basic questions. Where do I come from? How do I fit into society? Who am I, and who do I want to be?
A poet before he was a filmmaker, Bertolucci began his career as a young intellectual, a reader of Freud and Marx; made when he was just 22, his first characteristic film, Before the Revolution (1962), set the pattern for much that would follow. The protagonist (Francesco Barilli) is an upper-class youth, exercised by radical impulses but reluctant to abandon his social position; he embarks on a secret affair with his aunt (Adriana Asti) as his own private form of revolt.
The challenge of linking the social and the personal – or the public and the private – has remained a preoccupation for Bertolucci all the way to his most recent film, The Dreamers (2003), where the quasi-incestuous games played in seclusion by a youthful brother and sister (Louis Garrel and Eva Green) in their Paris apartment strangely prefigure the city-wide protests of May 1968.
In style, Bertolucci's early films are as thrilling as they are derivative, flaunting their range of influences: zooms from Roberto Rossellini, jump cuts and rapid tracking shots from the French New Wave, deep focus from Orson Welles. It's not surprising that another theme running through his career is the attempt to locate and challenge a father-figure – sometimes a literal father, as in The Spider's Stratagem (1970), a political allegory that flashes back and forth in time, with the same actor, Giulio Brogi, playing both an anti-fascist “hero” of the 1930s and his son.
The fascist era is scrutinised again in The Conformist (1970), where the nondescript protagonist (Jean-Louis Trintignant) strives to overcome his guilty homosexual impulses through marriage, while agreeing to assassinate his old professor (Enzo Tarascio), another symbolic father. The conflation of personal and national “sickness” is not really convincing, though it does provide the basis for some of Bertolucci's most seductively baroque imagery, created with the aid of the great cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who would become a regular collaborator from this point on.
Sexual politics are at the centre of Last Tango in Paris (1974), still Bertolucci's best-known film, though one of his most hermetic. The majority of the key scenes take place in an unfurnished Paris apartment, where a middle-aged American (Marlon Brando) meets a young Frenchwoman (Maria Schneider) and beguiles her into a relationship based on pure existential principles – refusing, for example, to learn her name. A cause célèbre in its day, Last Tango has dated as a statement about men and women, but survives as a documentary on Brando, whose rambling improvisations – earthy, confessional, sometimes comic – blur the line between actor and character to the point where the film appears to refer mainly to itself.
After Last Tango became a hit, Bertolucci took a major gamble with 1900 (1976), a multinational production intended as both a Marxist history of modern Italy and a blockbuster epic on the scale of Gone With The Wind (1939). Five hours long in its "director's cut," the film collapses under the strain of its internal contradictions; nor does it really manage to integrate Bertolucci's sexual obsessions, though Donald Sutherland is memorable as a perverted foreman.
Far more artistically successful – and still underrated – is the cryptic La Luna (1979), perhaps the most beautiful film of Bertolucci's career; the extraordinary opening sequence feels as casual as a home movie, yet as dense with symbolism as a lyric poem. On a balcony by the sea, a young mother (Jill Clayburgh) feeds her little son with honey, which he licks from her fingers; years later, the honey will be replaced by heroin, which he becomes addicted to in adolescence, and which she buys for him to relieve his sickness; this “unhealthy” intimacy, portrayed without judgement, will develop, step-by-step, into an incestuous relationship. Dispensing with the conventions of both morality and dramatic structure, the film is both a cloistered “family romance” and a kind of road movie: here the quest for origins leads past the milestones of Bertolucci's own past, from Rome to the Italian countryside of his childhood.
Bertolucci's films of the 1980s and early 1990s seemed increasingly calculated to win the attention of a large, international market, but this is not to say that his personal concerns were set aside. Indeed The Last Emperor (1987), which won nine Oscars, is more successful than 1900 in mapping large-scale history onto a personal drama. The emperor Puyi (John Lone) functions as a Freudian everyman: treated as a god-king from infancy onward, he gradually emerges from his narcissistic cocoon, finding some kind of peace in late middle-age as a humble gardener.
Bertolucci's more recent films – such as Stealing Beauty (1996) and Besieged (1998) – may be outwardly more modest than some of their predecessors. But they're also among his most formally sophisticated works, where it's rarely possible to guess what will happen from one shot to the next: the relations between the characters are constantly redefined, and so is the attitude of the filmmaker.
At the age of seventy-one, Bertolucci is currently shooting his first film for eight years, Io e Te – originally planned in 3D, and described as another brother-sister story, set in a basement and involving drug addiction. It could be simply a return to old ground, but we'll have to wait and see: for all his uneasy obsession with history, Bertolucci still seems ready to dismiss the past and begin anew.