Besieged by the Past 
The return of Bernardo Bertolucci
By John W. Whitehead

From Gadfly August 1999


This attitude of great wonder, the same among children and primitive spectators, is the first memory that I have of cinema. This memory is the birthplace of a vice that took root in me: the vice of thinking too much about cinema.
Bernardo Bertolucci, on the memory of seeing his first movie at age six

Bernardo Bertolucci is a cinéphile. By the time he was fifteen, he had made his first 16-mm film; by twenty, he had debuted in the film world as an assistant to the legendary Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini. Pasolini, an active member of the Communist Party and an overt homosexual, was an innovative, driving filmmaker. Pasolini became Bertolucci's first mentor; he taught young Bernardo the film business and served as a father figure to him. When Pasolini was offered the chance to direct The Grim Reaper, he turned it down but suggested Bertolucci. This, in 1962, became Bertolucci's first film.

Bertolucci made three other films, Before the Revolution (1964), Partner (1968) and The Spider's Stratagem (1970), before he hit his stride with The Conformist in 1970.

Godard and the Revolution
By the time he was thirty, Bertolucci had caught the cinematic eyes of a handful of young American directors who were destined to alter film history. Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, William Friedkin and others had fallen under his influence. "Everyone," according to Peter Biskind in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, "was under the sway of Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist." With this film, Bertolucci showed that he had mastered a unique and experimental narrative technique with lavish design, a style that would be copied in Hollywood films of the 1970s. The Conformist was a critical and commercial success.

Several factors brought Bertolucci to this phase in his life, among them Jean-Luc Godard, Freud and Marx. Godard, one of the key components of the French Nouvelle Vague, or New Wave, broke with cinematic conventions, abandoning the fictional coherence of plot that is so fundamental to traditional cinema and turning to the film essay. In his first feature film, Breathless (1959), Godard aimed a hand-held camera and used a semi-documentary approach to convey candid scenes from everyday life, introducing stylistic devices that became the vogue of the Nouvelle Vague. He became Bertolucci's new mentor and father figure. Although Bertolucci would abandon Godard's methods in The Conformist, in Besieged he comes home to Papa Godard, reinserting the jump-cut style with great effectiveness.

The events of May and June 1968 were a turning point for both Bertolucci and Godard. It was a year of revolt. Students in Paris nearly brought President Charles de Gaulle's Fifth Republic to its knees. In May, police in Nanterre crushed a student strike over antiquated facilities and curricula. The protest spread to the Sorbonne in Paris and then into the streets. With bricks and barricades, thirty thousand New Leftists battled fifty thousand police. Sympathetic workers seized factories nationwide. Many French were radicalized, and some saw the protests as the end of civilization.

Godard was thoroughly radicalized. He rejected all the films he had made between 1959 and 1968 as bourgeois. During this period, he showed an increased affinity to Marxist thought and was influenced by the teachings of Mao Tse-tung. Bertolucci, on the other hand, joined the Italian Communist Party in reaction to the growth of militant Maoism in the European Left. Thus he broke philosophically with the more militant Godard and the excessively theoretical orientation typical of French filmmaking.

Whereas Godard externalized his beliefs about revolution, Bertolucci, by the time of The Spider's Stratagem, had moved toward a more internal view of film. With The Conformist, a character study of Marcello Clerici, an Italian Fascist plagued by guilt over his latent homosexual feelings, Bertolucci began internalizing what the revolution or change in society should be. As he would later say, "I think the most important discovery I made after the events of May 1968 was that I wanted the revolution not to help the poor but for myself. I wanted the world to change for me. I discovered the individual level in political revolution."

The Primal Scene
In his search for individual revolution, Bertolucci began synthesizing the philosophies of Freud and Marx. Marx came into Bertolucci's life early and would help drive his political thinking. Freud came to Bertolucci by way of psychoanalysis and had a profound influence on his cinematic philosophy. During the late 1960s, when Bertolucci underwent extensive psychoanalysis, Freud, with his dazzling pseudo-science, was all the rage. Bertolucci even defined his cinéphilia in terms of the Freudian theory of scoptophilia, or the pleasure of looking. Scoptophilia, in Freudian thought, is derived from the "primal scene," in which the child observes or imagines his or her parents making love. "The reason why I make movies," Bertolucci once revealed, "is a voyeuristic impulse. The voyeur is condemned to reexperience the terror of the child looking at the parents who are making love." This concept provided what may be the pivotal scene in The Conformist, a film that hit a lot of thinking people right between their eyes.

The Conformist was also infused with Oedipal conflict. Through the clear narrative style of the film, Bertolucci was making a formal cinematic break with father figure Godard. He even assigned Godard's real-life address in Paris to a character in the film, Quadri, Clerici's former professor and intellectual influence, who is tracked down and killed.

The Conformist announced the arrival of the Italian "dream team," which brought together cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti, editor and cowriter Franco "Kin" Arcalli and their youthful director, Bertolucci. This group melded into a creative unit that would work together well into the 1980s.

Last Tango
Last Tango in Paris (1973) is the pivotal film in Bertolucci's career. Without it, most likely there would be little discussion of the director's work today. Bertolucci became notorious with Last Tango and found himself in trouble with the law. The Italian courts declared the film "obscene, indecent, and catering to the lowest instincts of the libido" and suspended the director's right to vote in political elections. With Last Tango, however, Bertolucci reached his personal creative peak and presented his philosophy in total. For the first time in film, raw sex—with explicit nudity and without romance—was used for more than mere titillation; it became both an artistic and a political device.

The "hero" of Last Tango, Paul (Marlon Brando), is a lonely, agonized, middle-aged American in Paris. His wife has just committed suicide. Jeanne (Maria Schneider) is a luscious young French bride-to-be. The pair meet by chance while apartment hunting and have a short, torrid, anonymous affair in which Paul dominates and degrades Jeanne. Then, when Paul finally desires emotional involvement, she murders him.

Last Tango contains autobiographical elements. The genesis of the film, according to Bertolucci, lay in his desire "to meet a woman in an empty apartment without knowing who she was. I'd like to meet again and again without asking or being asked any questions. Last Tango is the development of this very personal and perhaps banal obsession." Bertolucci communicated this obsession to Brando. As Brando recounted his conversation with the director:

I don't think Bertolucci knew what the film was about. And I didn't know what it was about.... He looks at me one day and he says, you know... something like, "you are the embodiment, or reincarnation... you are the... symbol of my prick." I mean, what the fuck does that mean?

However, as the idea developed, it became something much more. The film created a sensation and had a profound psychological effect on its viewers. If The Conformist was a blast that hit people between the eyes, Last Tango penetrated to the central nervous system. Some were stunned. Critic Pauline Kael called it "the most powerfully erotic movie ever made," a breakthrough work that "altered the face of an art form." Robert Altman, fresh from riding his own wave of triumph with M*A*S*H (1970), was blown away: "I walked out of the screening and said to myself, 'How dare I make another movie?' What it has done is give me a twenty-year jump in my career. The level of honesty it achieved was fantastic—not the sexuality but the emotional honesty. My personal and artistic life will never be the same."

Last Tango opens with a title sequence featuring two paintings by Francis Bacon, a sadomasochistic homosexual who portrayed his anguish and guilt on canvas as if he were carving the paint into his own flesh. The use of Bacon was no afterthought. In October 1971, when Last Tango was in full pre-production, there was a major Bacon exhibition in Paris. Bertolucci, with his crew and Brando, made regular visits. Bertolucci wanted Paul to be the essence of the tortured Bacon paintings he had been studying. "He is like one of those Bacon figures," Bertolucci said, "who show on their faces all that is happening in their guts—he has the same devastated plasticity."

Bertolucci also slapped his neuroses on the screen like Bacon threw his paint at the canvas. Last Tango's raw sexual encounters serve as a grandstand for Bertolucci's political philosophy and his discoveries through psychoanalysis. The anonymous sexual encounters are a form of purgation for Paul. He retaliates against the hypocrisy of cultural institutions such as the family, church and state through the medium of Jeanne's body. Sex is used as a weapon and as a symbolic cure. Paul's libidinal rage is focused on the entire apparatus of social constraints. Last Tango seems to literalize Bertolucci's comment that "films are animal events."

But Last Tango stands for much more than "animal events." A close reading of the film reveals a new element in Bertolucci's work, an attempt in Last Tango to analyze the language of sexuality in revolutionary terms, an approach influenced by Herbert Marcuse's reading of Freud. Bertolucci said that the encounter between Jeanne and Paul "ends up being an encounter of forces pulling in different directions; the kind of encounter of forces which exists at the base of all political clashes." A Marcusian reading of Last Tango makes it possible to view the sexual in the film as essentially political and subversive.

Bertolucci's psychoanalysis, by the time of Last Tango, obviously had led him to probe his childhood; the Marcusian influence encouraged him to explore the "polymorphous perversity" of the childhood state in striving for utopia. Marcuse suggested that by going backwards or regressing we can advance to a better state of being. Last Tango would be infused with regression. The lighting underscores what Bertolucci termed the "uterine" or "prenatal state," and the apartment where Paul and Jeanne secretly meet assumes the role of a womb.

Paul and Jeanne retreat from capitalist society into the seclusion of the apartment, where they have savage pleasure. As Jeanne describes their affair, "The workers go to a secret apartment.... They take off their overalls, turn back into men and women and make love." For such a Marcusian order to prevail, existing bourgeois structures must fall. Thus, Last Tango's first image, of Paul screaming "Fucking God!" against the roar of an overhead Metro train, seems to sum up Bacon's frantic cry at the loss of the human soul, and the Marcusian one-dimensional man seeking liberation from bourgeois repression.

Bertolucci's fascination with bisexuality and androgyny is a recurrent motif in his work. Bertolucci observes, "I would say that I like men who have something feminine about them and vice versa. Absolute virility is horrible. Absolute femininity, also." However, gay sexuality has seldom been the central concern of his films. As seen with the casting of Maria Schneider in Last Tango, Bertolucci is more interested in sexual ambivalence than in sexual identity. Schneider claims that, even though she was an unknown, Bertolucci cast her as Jeanne "because I had the body of a man and a woman. You know, big breasts and very skinny from the waist down." This ambiguity was picked up by Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, who believed that Last Tango was really a film about two homosexuals. "If you think about it in those terms, [Last Tango] becomes very, very interesting. Except for the breasts, that girl, Maria Schneider, is just like a young boy. There is much hatred of women in this film, but if you see it as being about a man who loves a boy, you can understand it. It all makes sense this way."

Marking Time
The writing of Bertolucci's next film, 1900 (1976), lasted more than two years, and the filming seemed interminable. Compared to Last Tango, this attempt at creating an epic, a spectacle, was almost anticlimactic.

The history of cinema is full of films that try to resemble life, and 1900 is one of them. "While I was shooting 1900," Bertolucci remarked, "everything was slowly changing: the landscape, the seasons, the actors, the troupe, my force. Life went on and the film continued as it had to continue forever. After a year of shooting, living and filming had become the same thing, and I, without realizing it, did not want the film to stop."

1900 is an impassioned epic about two Italian families, one landowning and the other peasant. The film depicts the cruel historical awakening of the peasant farmers, an entire class that has been regularly brutalized, first by aristocratic landowners and then by the Fascists. Bertolucci localizes the conflict in the twin destinies of two characters born on the same day in 1900; one becomes a peasant leader and the other is the scion of the feudal estate in which the film takes place. The film is controversial, if for nothing else than its six-hour running time. It was shortened to three hours for American release. Bertolucci later said that he preferred the edited version, but the epic sweep of the film remains.

1900 signaled the end of a radical decade in both European and American film. From this point on, Bertolucci seemed to be marking time. Luna (1979) used incest as a central plot feature, and in Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man (1981), Bertolucci continued his inquiry into the relations between family and politics.

Searching for the Other
Bertolucci returned to the wide canvas with The Last Emperor (1987), which detailed the life of Pu Yi, crowned at the age of three as the last emperor of China, before the onset of Communism. The splendor of its scenery, the mastery of its direction, its photography and its all-around artistry impressed the general public and critics alike. In 1988, it won nine Oscars, including one for best direction and one for best film.

The Last Emperor, like all of Bertolucci's films, is about revolution and utopia. It is also laced with sexual indeterminacy. The misogyny implied in Last Tango is taken a step further in The Last Emperor. The film's utopianism implies the expulsion of the feminine from the new and improved society. Toward the end of the film, as Yosefa Loshitzky notes, "no women remain in it. Women (except perhaps in 1900) are excluded from the Communist utopia envisaged in most of Bertolucci's films, but The Last Emperor goes one step further and banishes them from the text." The Last Emperor signaled the beginning of Bertolucci's cinematic search for the Other and presented the East as a potential utopia, in contrast to the materialistic, neurotic West.

Ultimately, Bertolucci's quest for the Other is spiritual, as became evident in The Sheltering Sky (1990). The story, based on the book by Paul Bowles, is of an American couple who make a pilgrimage to the Sahara Desert, where they hope to renew their spirits and rekindle their love. Eventually, the desert devours them. Bertolucci renders an apocalyptic vision of the West being symbolically annihilated by the East.

Little Buddha (1993) completed the Other triad, and with Stealing Beauty (1996), the subjects of pilgrimage and seeking return. Both films, however, strive for big themes but fall short.

Besieged (1999) is Bertolucci's best film in years. It is, at first appearance, a plain but unorthodox love story. However, Bertolucci has said that with Besieged, he has returned to his "origins. In fact, the beginning of the film is silent, like original cinema." This small film, originally made for television, is beautiful.

In an old house in Rome on a narrow street near the mouth of a subway station lives Kinsky (David Thewlis), a painfully introverted pianist who inherited the building, along with its impressive collection of art and antiquities, from a benevolent aunt. The building's only other resident is Shandurai (Thandie Newton), a young African woman. Shandurai has come to Rome to study medicine and work as a housekeeper for Kinsky, who, in addition to paying her, allows her to board in a basement room.

Fragmented and beaten, both are exiles. Shandurai fled her home country after her husband, a schoolteacher suspected of undermining the regime, was thrown in prison. Kinsky is plagued by personal demons, exiled to a mediocre existence. No Atlas he. His problems bring him to his neurotic knees; the weight of the world is too much for him. But Kinsky falls in love with Shandurai. Pent up with anguish and amour, he blurts out that he has passionate feelings for her. Startled by the unexpected gush from the foreign, pale white pianist, she retreats. What will make her love him? "Get my husband out of prison," she mockingly responds.

Kinsky is shocked. He did not know her situation. His infatuation now becomes horror, and he speaks of his feelings no more. But love knows no boundaries, and as objects begin to disappear from the house, gradually it dawns on Shandurai that Kinsky is selling his possessions to finance her husband's freedom. Slowly, Shandurai's emotions turn toward Kinsky, and the love story unfolds.

Besieged is composed in vertical movements—ascents and descents on the building's central spiral staircase and the dumbwaiter that connects Shandurai's room with Kinsky's study. Kinsky's building seems to incorporate its occupants' flesh into its own, appearing like an organic creature, with Kinsky's space as its head and Shandurai's as its heart. Kinsky communicates with Shandurai by placing enigmatic objects in the dumbwaiter. "These up and down movements," notes Dave Kehr in Film Comment (March 3, 1999), "acquire a psychological dimension. Downward and inward movements are associated with dream sequences, in which Shandurai revisits and reinterprets her life." Dreams and the dreamlike quality of film have always fascinated Bertolucci, and he resurrects them in Besieged.

Bertolucci also returns to a look at the Other in Besieged. As Kinsky sells off his possessions in his attempt to free Shandurai's husband, he assumes a religious persona. There is an uncharacteristic bit of Catholic mysticism when Kinsky visits a priest. "He who tries to save his life will lose it," the priest tells Kinsky. "He who gives it away will be saved." Kinsky emerges as a Christ figure.

Bastard Children
Bertolucci's efforts to return to earlier forms in Besieged do not erase the fact that, after Last Tango, there can be no return. Pandora and all of her bastard children are out of the box. Marlon Brando himself went into retreat after Last Tango, bruised by the experience. According to Bertolucci, "At the end of the movie he told me, 'I will never make a film like this one again. I don't like being an actor at the best of times but it's never been this bad. I felt violated from beginning to the end, every day and at every moment.'" Many viewers feel the same way.

A significant heir to Last Tango is David Cronenberg's Crash (1996), an autoerotically themed film about the fusion of human flesh with ever-evolving technology. The film caused a scandal reminiscent of the reception accorded Last Tango. Bertolucci praised the film, and his comments are worth noting:

It's the first one in a long series, I hope, of contes morales pour nous. It is a completely pornographic film because there's no story and the characters are defined not by their psychologies but by their sexualities. But it is done in a kind of really extraordinarily serious way—grave, solennel.

These remarks were made while Besieged, a film that points entirely in the opposite direction, was a work in progress.

Bertolucci, sitting like a spiritually exiled Buddha in London—a citizen of nowhere—appears to be talking about what tired, hard-up businessmen routinely watch in motel rooms—pure, hot, pumping porn. Though Last Tango pushed conventional film in the direction of pornography, Bertolucci apparently hasn't decided to go that far himself.

Instead, he leaves us with his own particular vision of humanity: the anguished and alienated individual, much like Shandurai's husband at the end of Besieged—out on the street, banging at the door, trying to understand what's going on in this crazy world.