Bertolucci the film buff

James Oliver

James Oliver on how the great director fell in love with the movies

28 November 2018 14:25

He was a titan, of course, Bernardo Bertolucci. A director who conquered first the art houses – he had a defining influence on the Easy Riders/ Raging Bulls generation in America – and then the mainstream: the average film goer might not have heard of Before the Revolution (2008), but they’d know The Last Emperor (1988), the film for which Bertolucci won his Oscar.

Now he’s gone, we’re being reminded just how much there was of him – a Freudian, a Marxist and, of course, provocateur: the obituarists are going big on his misuse of butter while making Last Tango in Paris (1973) – somewhat to the detriment of the rest of his work, it must be said. He was, above all, a man of the cinema – and not just as practitioner; he was a critic before he was a director, and a passionate enthusiast before then.

He was born in 1941, which might have been the best time for any film fan to be born, the inconvenience of war not withstanding; cinema was still unchallenged as the main source of entertainment – and young Bernardo was an avid fan since he was a tot. Better yet, he got to see the films for free at previews: Papa Atillo Bertolucci was a poet and, more importantly, a film critic. His son often accompanied him, absorbing the images into the private memory-cinema which he would then invite others to visit.

‘My friends didn’t come to the cinema as often as I did,’ he once explained of his early experience as a showman. ‘They were the sons of workers, or peasants […] So I had to tell them the stories of the films I had seen in order to reconstruct them. We each took a part with the names of the characters in the movies. I was fond of Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939) and naturally took the part of Ringo, the outlaw played by John Wayne for myself. I identified totally with John Wayne between the ages of seven and ten. I tried to imitate him in his walk and in his half smile.’

And as Bertolucci grew up, so did the movies; while Italy was slow to embrace television, they still received the films from America, which had become more grown-up in response to the challenge from the idiot box. What’s more, Italian filmmakers were becoming more adventurous too – if Bertolucci had been too young to fully appreciate the Neo-Realists on their first release in the 1940s, he was the perfect age for the great art movies of the 1950s, when the likes of Fellini and Visconti began to make their major works, movies like I Vittelloni (Federico Fellini, 1953) or Senso (Luchino Visconti, 1954).

‘The Last Emperor’ (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1988)

He began writing about cinema around this time and, soon enough, even started to make movies of his own, amateur efforts on 16mm, enough to convince him that he simply had to turn pro. Not a few film fans have the same dream, but Bertolucci had the advantage of connections; his father was friendly with a fellow poet called Pier Paolo Pasolini who – as luck would have it – was preparing his first feature; nepotism was all it took for the young Bernardo to be hired as the director’s assistant on Accatone (1962), a tale of a low-life Roman pimp that was a world away from Hollywood. A year or so later, he made his own feature, La commare secca (‘The Grim reaper’, 1962] from a script by Pasolini – he was twenty (twenty!). By then, however, he was moving out from Pasolini’s wing; he had discovered some new gurus.

The French Nouvelle vague – the ‘New Wave’ – was a seismic event in cinema history. The old rules about well-crafted, polished entertainment went out of the window. What mattered now was passion and inspiration, and if it didn’t appeal to a mass audience, then so what? Personal filmmaking was far more important than anything so old fashioned as pleasing the crowds. Films like Les 400 coups (‘The 400 Blows’, Francois Truffaut, 1959) and, above all, A bout de souffle (‘Breathless’, Jean-Luc Godard, 1960) showed an entirely new way of making movies, one that utterly floored the younger generation of cineastes.

Bertolucci was 19 in 1960, an age when impatient young men are most receptive to calls for revolution. What’s more, he was well placed to do something about it. Prima della rivoluzione (‘Before the Revolution’, 1964) is the film that established the still-wet-behind-the-ears tyro as a force in international cinema. Taking to heart the lessons about personal filmmaking, it is the story of a young man caught between the obligations of bourgeois life and his own radical political inclinations, with a healthy splash of cinephilia on the side – at one point a character wonders how one can live without Roberto Rossellini’s films, boasting of how many times he’s seen Viaggio in Italia (‘Journey to Italy’, Roberto Rossellini, 1954).

Like his main character, Bertolucci professed to be a Marxist now, but Before The Revolution shows where his affiliations really lay. Italy’s communist party was deeply entwined with its film industry and, at this time, they were obsessed with making popular movies – most especially the Spaghetti Westerns – to radicalise the common man. But here was Bertolucci, strutting about like he was Jean-Luc Godard on the Tiber; ‘cinema’ was obviously more important to him than anything The Party wanted.

‘Before the Revolution’ (Bernardo Bertolucci, 2008)

In fact, Bertolucci’s Francophile tendencies were close to becoming a running joke in his home land. At one point, he convened a press conference of (exclusively Italian) journalists and insisted on conducting it in French (‘because French is the language of cinema’). This stage of his career culminated with his third film, Partner (1968). A story of doubles – Bertolucci was as fond of psychoanalysis as he was Marxism – it is so comprehensively indebted to Godard that there’s almost no trace of Bertolucci to be found, somewhat ironic given the themes of identity it plays with.

He was rescued from this cul-de-sac by the same thing that always saved him, cinema. One day, he went to the pictures, as was his wont. He picked an Italian production, Il Buono, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo (‘The Good, The Bad and the Ugly’, Sergio Leone, 1966). And, as luck would have it, the film’s director was at the screening, checking the projection.

Introduced by a mutual friend, Dario Argento (later a filmmaker himself), they talked movies. Bertolucci praised Leone’s films; he liked the way Leone ‘filmed horse’s arses’ (most directors shot the beasts from the front and the sides. Not Sergio Leone!). As it so happened, Leone was starting work on a new film. Impressed by his new acquaintances, he invited Bertolucci and Argento to help him on what would become C’era una volta il west (‘Once Upon A Time in the West’, Sergio Leone, 1968). This became a self-conscious homage to the American westerns they all loved; Bertolucci was playing cowboys once again.

The experience re-connected Bertolucci to other forms of cinema, something that enabled him finally to start making films with his own accent. Il Conformista (‘The Conformist, 1970) contains traces of the Nouvelle vague, but they have finally been fully digested and synthesised. It’s the story of a weaselly little Fascist in the 1930s, sent on a mission to kill his one-time mentor, and the film draws its visual styles, in part, from Italian cinema of the time. Shot by cameraman Vittorio Storaro, Bertolucci’s most important collaborator, it is as a fluent and seductive film as ever there’s been, one that became (almost) as important to younger filmmakers, like Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader, as Godard had been to Bertolucci.

‘The Last Tango in Paris’ (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1973)

More than anything, it was Il Conformista that established Bertolucci as a titan. But while he became ensconced in the cinematic pantheon, the director himself never forgot his roots. In 2003, he made The Dreamers. Based on a novel by Gilbert Adair (1988), it’s about revolutions, sexual and political, but it’s also very much about movies: Adair’s novel may centre on the protests of May 1968, when French students took to the streets, but it’s set in and around the Cinémathèque Française, spiritual home to the Nouvelle vague, where its characters soak up everything on show.

The resultant film is very much an elegy (or at least an encomium) for those times and, every bit as importantly for its director, those films; not only does he include a generous selection of clips, he even re-stages some of the most celebrated moments from his favourite films, such as the dash through the Louvre in Bande à part (Jean-Luc Godard, 1964).

And now he’s gone; he didn’t work much in the last two decades, what with injury and illness. We must hope that such things did not prevent him from indulging his love of cinema. Of course, ‘the movies’ of 2018 are a very different thing to what they were in his young adulthood, when it was still possible to believe that they could change the world. Or at least that they mattered.