Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Forgotten Arm Of Bernardo Bertolucci

Looking at Bernardo Bertolucci’s career has always reminded me a bit of The Rolling Stones. Starting off strong and quickly progressing into a period of awe inspiring brilliance that no-one, especially himself, could top; and then finally the aftermath of continually attempting to live up to the standard he had set so high for himself.
From his first feature, 1962’s The Grim Reaper through his third, 1968’s Partner, Bertolucci would show himself as an amazingly assured and inventive director who had obviously taken a lot from Pasolini, whom he had assisted, and Godard, whom he idolized.
1970’s Spider Stratagem would prove the major turning point, his Beggar’s Banquet if you like, marking a turning away from the overtly Godardian Partner. It would begin an five year-three film run that would perfect and alter the cinematic landscape in a way that few films, and filmmakers, ever had.
The Conformist is one of the great films, viewing the recent Paramount DVD release it is hard for me to think of a more perfectly structured and layered film. Everything from the lovely Vittorio Storaro cinematography to George Delerue’s haunting score to the iconic casting is as good as cinema can possibly get. The film has moments like the first close up of Dominique Sanda and the chilling last shot of Trintignant that cause an almost physical reaction in me everytime I watch the film. I’m jolted by it, in the way that I wish more horror films would. I appreciate the film and how unique it is more and more as we get further away from it. It is one of those films, like Citizen Kane or Three Colors Red, that while watching it I have hard time convincing myself that it’s not the greatest film ever made.
Bertolucci would follow this impossible to top film with a second masterpiece that would immortalize and crush Bertolucci at the same time. Much has been written about Last Tango In Paris and I think that the film’s notoriety has taken away from just how powerful an experience it actually is. I will write more on this film that I revisit at least once a year at a later date. Watching it today is, to continue my Stones comparison, at bit like listening to Sticky Fingers, It is the work of someone in complete and total control of his craft, a virtual greatest hits film marriage of direction, cinematography, music, editing and of course acting. Much liked The Conformist where Bertolucci symbolically killed off Godard this film would do the same to Truffaut, and Bertolucci would no longer be compared to anyone else. So much has been written about Brando’s monumental performance that the work of Maria Schneider has long been overlooked. The recent re-releasing of Antonioni’s The Passenger restores her as one of the great figures of seventies cinema. Her Jeanne, form Tango, is a performance that has long been unfairly ignored but it is impossible to think of a more luminous and troubling presence in cinema.
Something happened to Bertolucci after Last Tango In Paris, something changed in him and his films. Certainly the storm that greeted Tango, getting arrested for obscenity and realizing that he had made not one but two of the greatest films ever in a row all had to weigh on him.
It would take him nearly five years to get another film in theaters but 1900 would turn out to be his Exile On Main Street, a sprawling five hour epic that veers on the edge of disaster but somehow works. In scene after scene Bertolucci delivers a film as large and bold as it’s subject. Nothing about it worked as well as The Conformist and Last Tango In Paris though. The stitches were really coming apart through it and it’s noticeable. Everything from the look of the film to the casting choices would fall just short of the standards he had set earlier. Still, at it’s most hypnotic and audacious, it is one of the great films of the seventies and one that most directors wouldn’t have even attempted.
The film would immediately be subjected to cuts and censorship problems. Much like Sergio Leone’s equally epic Once Upon A Time In America it would be a film many would see first in a compromised and raped version.
Bertolucci’s next two films, Luna and Tragedy Of A Ridiculous Man, were both much smaller scaled and had more in common with his early films rather than his seventies masterworks.
He would again enter epic territory and sweep the Oscars with The Last Emperor but I don’t feel that this film has the power of his greatest work. It is a film made of great parts but it is Bertolucci himself that seems missing. Suddenly a wild visionary revolutionizing cinema was just a great craftsman. The Last Emperor is a fine film that deserved the acclaim it received but I don’t think of it as a great Bernardo Bertolucci film.
The Sheltering Sky seemed to be an attempt to return to the more personal feel of his early seventies work but poor casting and studio interference hurt the film.
The critics would turn on Bertolucci after The Sheltering Sky and suddenly one of cinema’s great masters would be treated with disdain. I found this particularly distasteful. Little Buddha and Stealing Beauty might have been flawed works by an aging master but they both have moments that are sublime and powerful. Stealing Beauty especially, with it’s subversive take on class warfare and repressed sexuality, is worth another look. Still one has to wonder if working with a leading actress, talented Liv Tyler, who was unaware of his past work made Bertolucci feel a little out of time.
Besieged would find him continuing trying to channel his early groundbreaking work on sexuality but it would prove to be possibly his weakest and least ambitious film since Luna.
It felt like the work of a man who was at the end of his creative rope and after seeing it I had a doubt Bertolucci would return.

I remember very clearly the first trailer I saw for 2003’s The Dreamers. To say I was excited about the film is a bit of an understatement. The idea of Bertolucci making a film about the French Student riots of 1968 and paying tribute to the original New Wave heroes of his youth got me more excited about a film than I had been in a long time.
I had bad timing with The Dreamers, it was released the same week I had a bad car accident and it took me several weeks to see it. My mental state really affected how I felt about the film and I came out incredibly disappointed. I wanted to see something that would kick start a revolution, if not in cinema at least in me, but all I could think about in the theater was how worried I was about driving home. The beauty and power of The Dreamers alluded me on that first viewing. Even something as obvious like Bertolucci finding someone as mesmerizing and interesting as Maria Schneider, in young Eva Green, went past me.
I would wait well over a year to revisit The Dreamers, it would be an eye opening and exhilarating experience the second time though. In repeated viewings it becomes a more and more powerful film about what it is to be young and alive. It is a film about ideas, sex and ultimately a passionate love of cinema. It might not be one of Bertolucci's greatest works but certain scenes, from the kids running through the museum intercut with Godard's Bande A Part to Eva Green channeling Garbo, have a magnificently redemptive quality about them. The Dreamers isn't the work of an old man trying to just relive old glories, but one of our last masters regaining his power.
Watching The Dreamers is a bit like watching that last Ali fight where he suddenly starts dancing in that 8th round. Just in that moment when you think everything is just a shadow and a memory, something remarkable suddenly happens and that forgotten arm comes out of nowhere and delivers a near knock out blow.
Bertolucci is planning his follow up to The Dreamers with Bel Canto, an adaptation of Ann Patchett's novel about a South American gorilla group. I believe Bertolucci has at least one more great masterpiece left in him. The Dreamers seemed to remind people and critics of his power and the last 2 years have been filled with incredible special edition DVDS of some of his finest work. There may never be another film made as perfect as The Conformist, but isn't it great to realize the one person who might be able to deliver it is still trying?

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