it's strange to think of bernardo bertolucci as a World Leader, if only because he seems more and more like a reminder of a past age, someone at the end of an extremely distinguished line of directors. If you look at his four decades of filmmaking, from the intimacy of Last Tango In Paris and Besieged to the epic spectacle of 1900 and The Last Emperor, you see an artist in the world-historical mode exemplified by, among living directors, Jean-Luc Godard, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman and Bertolucci's compatriot Francesco Rosi.
Like Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Kenji Mizoguchi and Orson Welles, these directors attempt to reproduce on film their interpretation of the whole world and the sweep of history. It's hard to find many directors younger than 50 with that combination of ambition and talent. (One thinks of Norma Desmond's line, "It's the pictures that have gotten small.")
Bertolucci, the son of a poet and critic, began his career early. He made his first feature, La Commare Secca (The Grim Reaper) at 22, and burst onto the world film scene with his second, Before The Revolution, when he was 24. The early 60s were an explosive period for young European directors; Before The Revolution is contemporary with the early films of the French New Wave, though Bertolucci is a decade younger than Godard or most of those artists.
Of course, when we think of Bertolucci, we're actually thinking of two men, the director and his greatest collaborator, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who shot all of Bertolucci's films from The Spider's Stratagem in 1970 to Little Buddha in 1993.
In the early 80s, Bertolucci confessed that he knew nothing about lighting, that he left it all to Storaro. So it is Storaro who is responsible for the rococo lighting scheme of The Conformist, the climactic riot of red flags at the end of 1900, the astonishingly subtle interior light in The Last Emperor.
But the Freudian fixations are Bertolucci's own. The central murder in The Conformist is an act of symbolic patricide, as is the climax of Last Tango In Paris. And then there's the mother-son incest in Luna, his worst film.
Bertolucci's fascination with the individual in the landscape of history is uniquely his. It's not just that the personal is political, but that the dreams, fears and ambitions of his characters are as important as the great events that surround them. Is there any film of The Last Emperor's size that has such an insignificant central character? Any film as passionate as The Conformist whose protagonist so utterly rejects passion? Any film that, like Besieged, imagines the cultural collision of Europe and Africa as the puzzled interpenetration of two psyches in a Roman apartment?
Bertolucci's genius is that his characters' relative insignificance compels our attention despite the history that surrounds and overwhelms them.
Speaking with Bertolucci by telephone -- he was in Rome -- I ask him about the future of film, him being a World Leader and all, and in particular about the spread of digital video, which Storaro denounced at a Cannes press conference last year.
"I think that one cannot refuse the new technologies," he says. "Cinema sometimes has these mutations -- from silent to the sound, or when they went to colour. For me, everything new is welcome. I have nothing against digital. There'll be a new distribution of cinema, in the sense that you can make a movie in such a cheap way that new talent is coming out that would never get the chance (before). I'm very positive on this. It's a different conception of light from one Vittorio uses -- but he's a great artist."
What other director has shown himself so drawn to spectacle as Bertolucci in 1900 and The Last Emperor, yet has then made films so private that the landscape is virtually unrecognizable? The only familiar landmark in Last Tango's Paris is the Bir-Hakim bridge, and you have to check the end credits of Besieged to be sure it was filmed in Rome at all.
Remarking on the range of his work, Bertolucci describes himself as an artist who works instinctively.
"When I chose to do 1900, it was a moment where I had more power, after the success of Last Tango, and I felt like doing this big adventure. I like to go to the opposite. And after 1900 I did La Luna. It was the same when I returned to Italy for Stealing Beauty. I had such an overdose of big production, I thought it was interesting to go to something different. I don't like to repeat myself -- the time of big spectacular movies for me was finished, and I went back to more intimate things."
After a 40-year career, with more to come -- Bertolucci has a project ready to shoot in the spring -- he cites Besieged as his personal favourite among his films. It's his most intimate work since Last Tango and one of his most recent.
"I'm kind of slow; it takes two or three years. When I'm asked, the movie I like is the last one -- at the moment, Besieged, because it talks about different cultures. When I went to China or Nepal, I was fascinated by these cultures I didn't know. In some ways, the meeting between the man and the woman is the meeting between two cultures, and more and more, cultures are refusing each other. They fall in love because they are different, which is too often the reason people can't fall in love."
Harbourfront's World Leaders series features both deluxe and accessible events for its honourees, including these Bernardo Bertolucci happenings.
bernardo bertolucci Harbourfront's Reel Leaders Film Series presents a panel discussion featuring Bart Testa and NOW's John Harkness, Friday (October 12) at 7 pm, followed by screenings of The Critic (1963) D: Ernie Pintoff, and Bernardo Bertolucci And The Last Emperor (1988) D: David Hinton, at 8 pm. Free. Studio Theatre, York Quay Gallery, York Quay Centre, 235 Queen's Quay West. 416-973-3000.
bernardo bertolucci Harbourfront's World Leaders series presents a dinner and homage to filmmaker Bertolucci, Saturday (October 13) at 6 pm, followed by a talk by him at 8:30 pm. $175, talk $85. Liberty Grand, Exhibition Place. 416-973-4000.
bertolucci film by film
David Thewlis stars as an English pianist and composer who falls in love with his African housekeeper (Thandie Newton). Indirect, ambiguous, uncertain of its path and relying on the delicate improvisatory skills of its stars, Besieged makes an intriguing double bill with Bertolucci's other one-room masterpiece, Last Tango In Paris, replacing the latter's explosive emotionalism and Freudian melodrama with cryptic tentativeness.
1995 Stealing Beauty
Two hours of close-ups of Liv Tyler and Tuscany. Yum.
1990 The Sheltering Sky
Bertolucci adapts Paul Bowles's novel, with Debra Winger and John Malkovich as American tourists in North Africa. Staggeringly atmospheric, and Winger is great, but Bertolucci botches the ending.
1987 The Last Emperor
This epic won eight Academy Awards, including best picture and best director. It's a monumental exercise in art direction to create a sense of the hollow shell of power around Pu Yi, the last Chinese emperor, who wound up in a communist re-education camp. You wonder if the Academy was indifferent to its theme of enigmatic emptiness, or unusually attuned to it. As with the director's 1900, the longer version is the one to have.
Running more than five hours, this is a history of Italy from the death of Verdi to the death of Fascism, with Robert De Niro as an attenuated nobleman, Gérard Depardieu as a son of the soil and Ennio Morricone's greatest score. Grandly silly, with heart-stopping sequences.
1972 Last Tango in Paris
A middle-aged film by a young director. Marlon Brando, in his last great performance, is an American in Paris engaged in a "no names" relationship with the much younger Maria Schneider. Pauline Kael compared it to The Rite Of Spring, but that assessment hasn't held up.
1969 The Conformist
This is Bertolucci's most astonishing achievement, perhaps the finest film of the 70s. It's an investigation of the meaning of normalcy amidst the deformed world of Fascism, a romantic melodrama and a film about the eroticism of light. Jean-Louis Trintignant gives his most interior performance as a man hiding inside the clothes of a Fascist assassin, and Dominique Sanda and Stefania Sandrelli's encounter sets a rarely equalled standard for cinematic lesbianism.
1970 The Spider's Stratagem
This short feature made for Italian TV is based on a Borges story about a son investigating his father's death. Longer on atmosphere than narrative.
1964 Before The Revolution
A perfect expression of romantic disillusion, as only a very young director could manage. The characters are Stendahl's, but the northern Italian setting and poetic feeling are purely Bertolucci's.