The John Tusa Interviews
Transcript of the John Tusa Interview with film maker Bernardo Bertolucci
In one sense, Bernardo Bertolucci's creative journey is simply expressed, from Last Tango to Last Emperor. The former, one of the most notorious films of it's time, a deeply personal exploration of human despair, still a byword for a certain kind of cinematic sex, that has become a classic. This was Bertolucci as a leading exponent of European art house cinema. The Last Emperor, made in 1987 just 25 years later, showed him making an epic film but with an intimate core. This has many admirers too and of course, many awards. But the stylistic and aesthetic distance Bertolucci has travelled, raises questions and for some, problems. For one school of critics, it was the early art house director, most famously with movies such as The Spider's Stratagem and The Conformist, who is the master to be revered. For others, his later films, including Little Buddha or Sheltering Sky or the sentimental Tuscan bitter-sweet romance Stealing Beauty, show a resort to international values, a revelling in sheer texture and mood for their own sake, which are seen as less interesting than what he did earlier. Others though disagree. Still admiring Bertolucci's sensuous composition, his subtle direction of actors, his creation of ambiguous atmospheres. Above all, they like his fierce, personal independence, all seen as consistently admirable.
Bertolucci's 62-year journey is not a straight line. Rather, it's marked by a series of major diversions, changes of direction, often involving rejections of his own previous experience. He rejected writing poetry because his father was a poet. He rejected his mentor, Jean Luc Godard for being too theoretical and dogmatic. Bertolucci wanted to communicate with his audience. He rejected Marxism and took to Buddhism. He seemed to reject Italy and turned to the international. He is after all the man who credits his analyst with his own creative opening up and put his analyst on the credits of one of his films. Throughout Bertolucci has remained independent. He has refused to get involved in the big studio system and he has veered from the huge to the small canvas as his creative needs have dictated. He retains a capacity to surprise and to make personal films that many other directors' envy.
What sort of films do you think you'd be making now if you had not gone into analysis in your late twenties?
It's a very difficult question because it doesn't involve only the movies that maybe would have been completely different, it involves also my life. My life would have been probably something very, very different. I went first to a Freudian psychoanalyst in 1969, just two or three months before shooting The Spider's Stratagem. I didn't go really because I wanted to make bigger, wider, my perspectives or my horizon. I went because I felt in need of a kind of very intimate dialogue, to be able to speak with somebody about things I wasn't able to speak with anybody else. And that was really the beginning of a great discovery, the discovery that psychoanalysis was like adding a new lens, a new objective to my camera. And maybe, the therapeutical effect of psychoanalysis on me came also through my movies. I was so excited as a neophyte about this discovery of the world of Sigmund Freud for the first six, seven years, I was kind of going around as a PR of psychoanalysis.
And yet Spider's Stratagem and Conformist, the early films, they are not glibly Freudian at all, but they're certainly very free, and was it the freedom, the freedom to explore character which the analysis gave you?
I'm very pleased that you say that because I know how important my shrink was during the preparation of these two movies, but I'm very pleased that it's not too obvious when you see the movies. I don't like to see a movie which is too openly influenced by psychoanalysis. It's always a bit embarrassing. I think that this new language, this new instrument of discovery has to be always very hidden and very discreet. But when you said Spider's Stratagem, yes, Spider's Stratagem comes from a Borges short story called The Theme of the Traitor and The Hero, and in Borges, it's a story of a young Irishman who goes and investigates about his ancestor, somebody who lives in the 19 th Century, who was considered a hero. I moved the story to Italy in the 30's during fascism and I made the story of a man who goes and investigates about whom? Not his ancestor, about his father.
That's the Freudian bit coming out.
But it doesn't seem too heavily Freudian. Same thing with The Conformist. The Italian fascist who goes to France to kill his teacher, his ex university professor who is an anti-fascist militant, it's the story again of a young man who goes to kill his father. But what is more important for me is that analysis... psychoanalysis came in the transition between the 60's and the 70's, in my case, and where I can notice the effects of that is specially that in the 60's, my cinema was very hermetical, very close, very difficult, very few people could go and enjoy it. Just other filmmakers, or critics or maybe my relatives...
That's not true of Before The Revolution?
Before The Revolution was a very art movie. It was a kind of - what I would call - a monologue. After the analysis, the cinema that came afterward, which is The Spider, The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris , 1900, La Luna etcetera, there was a real change in my cinema. I became able to go from monologue to dialogue.
Dialogue with the audience ?
With the audience.
And dialogue within the film as well, dialogue between characters?
Especially between the film and the audience. So, I was able to accept feedback. You know, in the 60's we were obsessed with the idea of rigour, severity, and we were thinking that any movie which was successful with the audience, would be a horrible compromise with commercial values etcetera. It was I think also proof of our insecurity. We weren't, or I wasn't, ready to face the audience.
But neither the Spider's Stratagem nor The Conformist are, in many respects, easy movies. They are complex. What the characters do, what the characters say, the creation of them. So, the fact that you make them, that they are popular, that they are both cult and popular, is quite an achievement. You clearly didn't sell your principles in order to make them popular.
Not at all, but I think that in comparison with Before The Revolution and the movies I made before, they are incredibly readable and there weren't this kind of, I must admit, a bit punishing moments in these movies as in my movies before. Anyway, for me the big thing was to be able to have a dialectic moment with the audience, to accept that somebody could have seen the movies.
Did the Freudian analysis help to liberate you from Marxism? I mean was there a straight or a gentle switch from the one to the other?
Here, if I can say, when I was listening to what you were saying, describing a bit my work and my life at the beginning, you were talking about rejecting, rejecting, rejecting, rejecting Marxism, rejecting Godard. I think that is not the right word if I can dare. I think that I didn't reject any of these things, I accepted it, I stored it in myself. They are there. It's a kind of enrichment. I don't think you have to reject if you move ahead. You just move ahead within your knowledge and in your experience...
You've absorbed it and come to terms with it?
Yes. You know it's extremely good that for example what was called real communism in Soviet Union has finished. I think it's very important for millions and millions of people. But, I'm sure that there are major questions that communism asked which had not been answered by capitalism. There are still big, big, unanswered questions.
Absolutely. You were incredibly young, as well, when you started making films. You were incredibly inexperienced. What made you think, given that your first instincts were to write poetry, that you were interested in making films and how did you dare to make a film when you knew nothing about it?
It was the unbearable lightness of the hormones when you are 20, 21.
You can do anything.
You can do anything. I was incredibly determined, nobody could stop me. I didn't know why but there was a kind of call. At that age you feel these calls. There was a call to be a director and to show that I could be as free. As a director I was as free as a poet.
And of course, when you began, one of your earliest experiences was working with Pasolini, and I think you've said that Pasolini himself had never made a film, before. So there were the two of you, you his assistant and he hadn't made a film before, you hadn't made a film before. I mean, this doesn't happen nowadays does it ?
You know Pasolini had such a talent and he was such a competent man about literature and critics and poetry, he was very curious about this new film language.
And you see, what came out was the first Pasolini movie called Accattone which I think is one of his masterpieces, together with I think the Saint Matthew Gospel and Oedipus and... oh, he did so many good movies. But it was an incredible experience because for me, it wasn't just being physically, for the first time, on the set of a movie. But it was physically witnessing the birth of cinema. You rightly said Pasolini hadn't done anything before, and that's why he wasn't following some kind of knowledge, he was just inventing day after day, cinema. It was like being present at the birth of cinema with him.
Let's move on to Last Tango. I think you've probably said most of the things you're ever going to say about it but I wonder, whether it was almost too famous for you. Did you find its success, internationally, a problem and has it ever been a burden to you, because everybody says ah, Bertolucci, The Last Tango man?
Yah, that kind of success, it can be in one hand a kind of overdose, on the other hand a kind of nightmare. I don't want to sound melodramatic or sentimental, but success can be a nightmare. When you are identified always with a certain title, with a certain movie, especially with a certain sequence in that movie, it becomes a kind of a little nightmare. Meantime, when I say it's an overdose, is that I said I wanted to go from monologue to dialogue. With Last Tango in Paris , the dialogue was global, it was wherever I was going. I remember going, I found myself in Singapore and people at the hotel organised a kind of dinner, all based on Last Tango, kind of. And that's why I say it can be a bit of a nightmare also because then you have to really do a big effort to move from there, ahead, forward.
Which you did. Do you accept at all though, the idea that your career has a feeling of two halves to it or, are you, as far as you're concerned, there is a linear development, you don't accept it as a sort of early Bertolucci and a late Bertolucci?
I'm not the right person to say there is an itinerary that can be followed, a consistent itinerary. I think that because of this desire to change after I've done a movie, this kind of genre... I don't know. After The Conformist which was a political film about fascism, comes Last Tango in Paris which is really about the most intimate relationship between a man and a woman and it's a film, I think, which now looks to me quite romantic even if then, was considered obscene and I was even condemned to two months of prison in Italy with suspension and then I lost completely my civil rights for five years, and that still hurts. And then after Last Tango in Paris comes 1900, which is a kind of big epic fresco on the birth of socialism, at the beginning of 1900, of 20 th century, in Emilia which is my country in Northern Italy, following the lives of two men born on the same day in the year 1900, the son of the landowners and the son of the peasants. I need all the time to abandon a certain field to go away to try not to repeat myself. I am really obsessed with that. I am afraid of repeating myself. So, that's why I constantly try to find material, which is challenging.
But of course certain things are constant and you create images in a certain sort of way. Now where does your visual instinct come from? I mean the subtlety of the composition, the use of light, the use of shadows. Above all what I love is your cityscapes, your townscapes, long views down receding roads or streets which of course then comes up in The Last Emperor, in the Forbidden City as well. Where does your visual instinct come from?
That's very difficult to tell. I don't know. I have no idea. Maybe, my father was also not only a poet but he was also an art historian and so, since I was a child, I was taken to see art, churches, museums, exhibitions, and I was very familiar with the world of visual art. I think that has a weight in everything. But, you know, when I stopped writing poems and I decided that I wanted to be a film director, there was something, which was, for me, a revelation. I discovered that cinema was able to be together many other languages at the same time. Cinema is theatre of course, music, literature, poetry, painting, sculpture, dance, architecture, even. Some shots, very complicated shots, are built up as something kind of architectural. So, I was feeling that cinema was really the expression of the times I was living in.
And all the things that you were. Because you mentioned music and after all, the sense of the fastidious placing of the music and the way in which for example you use Verdi in both Before The Revolution and in The Spider, they are integral parts of the film. So, I suppose, every Italian knows Verdi........
Yeah, but if you are born in Parma , and Verdi was born in Parma , Verdi is one of our local legends. And in those years, I was listening to Verdi and jazz, a lot, between the ages of 17 and 18, jazz and Verdi, and I was seeing the countryside where Verdi was living and I was imagining his inspiration coming from the same huge corn field, I was seeing, from the Po river which runs slowly, from all the things that I saw in this Po Valley and that then was in 1900, that happens all in that places, I was feeling like identifying with that music, it was something physiological, almost. And there is a book called Il Paese de Melodrama by Bruno Barelli, the Country of Melodrama, about Verdi which is fantastic, which says "in that enormous mosquito net, which is the Po Valley between Parma , Mantova and Cremona ," which for me is the beginning of... I was seeing the epic side of that Po Valley. I was seeing the Po River like if it was... I don't know, the Mississippi . I think that when you are young, you have the capacity to create mythology...
Is that why, in Before the Revolution, there is this... it's not a paean, it's the reverse, this eulogy for how the Po is going to be destroyed by the bankrupt landowner, the dredgers will come, nobody will look after the trees, nobody will fish for the pike and...
... the machines...
...the machines will come. So, even at the age of 23 or 24, you had this incredibly deep identification with what the Po stood for.
Yah, you're right. And I saw that movie Before The Revolution, after I made it, for the first time in Cannes , two or three years ago. And when I saw that sequence you are talking about, the eulogy of the old kind of country aristocrat, it was incredibly pre-ecological. There was a kind of sensibility, like somebody who is in the Green Party today, which I was quite surprised.
Do you feel an exile from Italy ?
I felt a bit like that in the early 80's. I decided that Italy was getting so corrupted and cynical and I wasn't completely wrong because ten years later, you had all these trials in Milano, Manopoli, the clean hands, Tangen Topolis, about the corruption of the political world, so at the beginning of the 80's, feeling that, I said enough with this country, I will go away in a kind of voluntary exile and I found myself in China and I did The Last Emperor. Then I went to the Sahara , when I did The Sheltering Sky, then I had this incredible crush for Buddhism.
You still have it?
Oh yes, but I don't consider myself a Buddhist. I consider myself an amateur Buddhist, a dilettante.
A Catholic who is informed by Buddhism? Still Catholic?
I was born Catholic like every Italian. We are born Catholic. But then when I was twelve, I decided that I couldn't be a religious person anymore and when I think about Buddhism, I don't see it as a religion, I see it more as a vision of the world, as a philosophy.
Was that what the attraction also of working in China, Morocco, and the Himalayas, was, that it's what enabled you to say what I had to say is something about the world, that I don't want to be imprisoned, even in a culture as rich as the Italian culture?
Right, because I felt a bit rejected by the reality of my country at the beginning of the 80's, being in China and then in Africa and then in India, I really discovered that other cultures can be as interesting as your country, even more sometimes, and is exactly the kind of nodal point of our present, now. If only it could, little bit, able to transmit this feeling of love for a different culture, for different values.
Which doesn't threaten your own love of, or connectedness with, your own values.
Of course, not only that, but it makes me more aware of what is my original culture.
And yet, in Besieged, which I think is an extraordinary interesting film where the English protagonist, the young musician, who is desperate to have sex with an African woman, who cannot understand his culture, and in the course of the film, he slowly gets rid of, or sells, all his western cultural objects. Now surely you don't believe that you have to reject your cultural past in order to have a sympathy with world culture?
Not at all. There is a point where, and the point is your mind, your spirit, where completely the values, which are completely in contradiction, opposite, can find a system of being organic to each other. And, the first time I went to Peking, to Beijing, to do the first reccie for The Last Emperor, between the airport and the city of Beijing, there is a flat landscape with poplar trees, exactly like in the Po Valley, and immediately that put me in a kind of good attitude to accept. But this is the beginning, there is a moment when you go on these travels which take you in places completely different from your original places, there is a moment when you do everything to find point of link and point of connection. And then, you understand that you don't have to have the presence, the constant presence of all your education next to you. I mean, you don't have to have all the time to be protected by your father, in a way...
...or to protect what you know and what makes you... you can be free about it.
Yes, because it's exactly in you that everything can be recomposed. If you are reaching a point of really, abandonment, freedom, values, which are completely unknown, and new, your mind and your body can become the place where so different things can meet that movies can be like that.
I think the word freedom is the one, which you have used most consistently and interestingly. Now, as a director, what sort of director are you because, I know that you've rejected the idea and I think Novecento rejected the idea of the Padrone, the boss, and indeed, the very first scene of Besieged, shows a young African teacher saying to his class, what is the difference between the leader and the boss? Now, as a director, I think I know what the answer is. But what sort of director are you?
And I think that is very important that you accept that the film is very, very sensitive, is much more sensitive than what is written on the box, and the box says 400 asa, 1 000 asa. No, the film is much more sensitive than that......
Those are film speeds by the bye.
...... which is that the film is able to catch the creative energy which is on the set, which is not only coming from the director. It comes from the person who moves the dolly, it comes from the person who painted the wall... everybody can be creative. I think that for me, a big part of my energy goes in trying to stimulate the creative energy of the people, which surround the camera. I think a movie is done by the communion of many creativity.
Do you talk to them all, when you're on location and when you're shooting? Do you actually have the whole team in and say this is what I'm looking for, this is the feeling I want?
You know, there is a way of participating with them, of being with them, which is not only talking. There are other ways. Maybe just one phrase without making long speeches, in the right moment, can really explain everybody and reassure everybody on the fact that they are there, not only to do their little piece of job, which is essential, but they are there also to bring their emotions. So it's like becoming a bridge between the film and the crew.
And as you're shooting - and presumably at the same time you are mentally layering in the music as well and beginning to think how it will all cut together - do you have any idea, by the time you've shot a sequence, how it is cut, or how much do you leave for the cutting room itself?
I'd like to tell you a bit, because you were mentioning editing, my relationship with cutting. At the beginning, during the 60's, I was considering cutting a kind of moment where this strong material, the rushes that you see the day after you've shot, which contains a kind of wild strength, then goes to the cutting room which makes everything consistent to a story, etcetera, this strength disappears or is contained. So, in the 60's, I was considering the moment of the editing a bit like... let's say the editing room to me looked like a slaughter house, where the best in the material that I've shot, the most wild things, the most unpredictable things were cut off and so you could see the blood on the floor of the cutting room. Then, with The Conformist, I met ???? Kim Argalie, who has been very important in my life. It was between 1970 and 1978 when he died, too early, too young. But anyway, in these eight years, he did the editing of The Conformist with me, he wrote with me Last Tango in Paris and he edited it, and he wrote with me my brother Guiseppe, 1900, Novecento, and he edited it. He made me change my opinion on the editing. In the 60's we are doing long shots, in order also to avoid the editing , we were doing long shots which refused to be cut in order to avoid these moments, which for us, we were also very politically engage, it was like a moment of law and order, a moment of an operation of police...
This is when you impose yourself on the action?
Yeah, in a way. And so, it was like with Kim, I was admiring Kim Argalie a lot, but I said okay show me that the editing can be a moment also as creative as the shooting. Show me that there is something unpredictable in the editing. Okay, and he did. He showed me that he was going into the editing room like going into a mine, like a miner goes into a mine, looking for hidden, precious things, things that I was in fact ignoring, they were there. Things that were existing when you put two shots, that didn't supposed to get together, but you put them together, you discover something new. So I discovered that also, in the editing, there was a completely new thing for me. There was the unpredictability that you can have when you shoot.
And it wasn't just a question of restoring what you call the wilder moments, it was more subtle than that.
No, it was something new. It's like saying that one plus one doesn't make two. One plus one plus one doesn't make three but something else. You have a kind of gestalt effect.
And did that change the way you shot?
Made my way of shooting even more against the editing because I wanted to challenge more the editor, which was extraordinary. You know, if you live for cinema, something like what we are talking about now, it can really fill up your life as an incredible gift. It's like when I say I love directors who are still reinventing cinema, who are still asking the question what is cinema, why do I do cinema?
How do you answer that question, apart from loving doing it and it clearly releases all your creative energies?
Yeah, it's very simple because I didn't know how to do anything else.
So it matters to you that it matters to us, the audience. So, what is the effect that cinema has on audiences, why do we value it as members of the audience?
For many years in the 60's till the late 70's, I thought that cinema could have a kind of didactical effect, a kind of pedagogical effect on the audience. I thought that if you were doing a politically correct, -in that sense of those years- a good political movie, you could really, in some way, change the mentality of many people. I don't think this is true. I think that there was an illusion. I'm afraid that the effect on the audiences of movies seeing it in retrospect, it has been more negative than positive.
Well you can't be Messianic about it, you can't see yourself as a prophet and people will follow you to a new way of life?
No, you maybe thought that, you maybe hoped that when you were young and maybe even too idealistic, but in fact, it's a complete illusion. What I think can change the mentality of big, big audiences, is more television. Television I think is a presence in the life of people and that's why, in our country, the Prime Minister, Berlusconi, has done everything he could to avoid becoming Prime Minister, to give up his own private three national big channels, because he knows the value and importance of television. I think that if in this very moment we have a kind of a big cultural problem in Italy because I think that the fact that the elections last year went as they went, is a cultural problem.
Which reflects television?
Television is the major vehicle for culture, let's say, or sub culture. I think that television has created people, especially young people I'm afraid, who are watching without seeing, who are listening without understanding. Because something has been communicated through television, people are reassured in a way, everything happens in the distance, and everything is handable, [sic] is just in the box and you are safe. Now, this is completely wrong...
It's an illusion?.
It's a complete illusion. In The Conformist, at a certain moment, the conformist goes to Paris and he goes to meet his ex teacher of philosophy at the Rome University . In fact, he has been asked to kill him by the Fascist secret service. Anyway, he goes to see him and they reevocate (sic) when the professor was teaching - I think from the Republic of Plato 's - The Myth of the Cave, it's called. When I was shooting The Conformist, I don't know how because I was preparing a dialogue between this professor of philosophy and the conformist, the student, I went to read a bit of philosophy, I read The Myth of The Cave of Plato, and immediately I couldn't help but put it in the movie, because Plato says here you have a cave, you have a group of prisoners in chains sitting at the entrance of the cave, turned towards the bottom of the cave, the interior of the cave. Behind them, there is a fire. People pass with the statues, between the fire and prisoners sitting down and the cave. The fire projects the shadows of the statues on the bottom of the cave. So, I was thinking but this is exactly- Plato's 500 more or less BC,- this is cinema. The fire is the projector with the lamp and the sculpture are like the film passing and the prisoners sitting is the audience and the bottom of the cave is the screen. And what Plato says, the prisoners in this way, they are not seeing the statues, they are seeing the shadow of the statue, and he says like you Italians, he is an Italian exiled in Paris in the late 30's, anti fascist etc. etc., you Italians now, you are not seeing the reality, you are seeing the shadow of the reality.
And that's even truer today, now, than it was when you made the film .
And I think that a period film for me, it's an achievement when it talks not only about that period, but it talks also about the present.
Well having seen a screening, very recently, and the audience, a lot of whom weren't born when The Conformist was made, clearly recognised its topicality and its immediacy. I want to ask you another sort of political question and that is your view of Hollywood because, if you're talking about expression, if you're talking about freedom, if you're talking about giving something to the audience, the Hollywood system doesn't do that, does it?
You know, Hollywood , a long time ago, was a fantastic factory of movies.
A dream factory.
A dream factory. But there were great directors able to find their freedom in Hollywood . There were fantastic movies coming from Hollywood . In the last let's say 10, 15 years, it's like, in my opinion, if Wall Street had taken over Hollywood . I think that what there used to be this kind of sometimes, not very cultivated producers, but great taste, adventurers maybe. Now, they're all these executives, very often like bankers or like businessmen. So, their relationship with the movies they produce, it's kind of purely based on market researchers...
The elimination of risk.
... the complete elimination of risk. That makes Hollywood movies more and more uninteresting.
And what does it do to us, to our culture. I mean you've used a striking phrase, you regard it as like the military occupation of the multiplexes?
Yeah, I'm smiling but there's very little to smile. The situation at the moment is that almost all theatres all over the world, are occupied by Hollywood movies and it's very difficult for independent movies who are not in the chain of Hollywood distributions, to be able to be shown to an audience. A movie, which is not shown, is like a baby who is not born. It does exist but the proof of a movie is to be seen by the eyes of an audience. It's an old terrible question, it goes beyond the Hollywood super power of this moment. I think that half of the masterpieces we love, obviously of cinema, have been seen very, very little. How many people have seen Bresson movies, how many people have seen, in the West at least, Mizoguchi movies or Dreyer movies?
But they're part of the collective sub-conscious, that's the important thing. They are seen and they are shown and they are there. They're an available, imaginative resource.
You're right, it's true. But, in fact, it's a kind of reason of sadness, for a director, the fact that his movie is being seen in a very, very, very reduced milieu.
But your movies are still going to be shown, they are shown, and nothing will stop you, even the power of Hollywood , from making the films you want to make?
So far I was able to... yah. I was able to do more or less what I wanted. Let's see if it goes on like that, now that the cinema is in one of its big moments of mutations. Mutation is what's going on now and that makes me very excited. The new technologies, the digital technologies, and also the chance that you have, that everybody has to do a little movie and to show it through the Net, it's something completely new, something that has not been analysed and studied, but that will change the way of the language of cinema. It will change because it's such a structural mutation that it will have a dramatic effect on style, language structure, the way of telling a plot, the way the actors will act. Everything will, I think, will be very different in 10, 15 years, and thank God for that because there were other big mutations in cinema, from the silent to the sound, from the black and white to the colour and this is another of these great moments. So, I think that we all should be excited about that.
I look forward to your involvement in it. Thank you very much.
Thank you John.
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