Bertolucci, honored with a tribute at the SFIFF in 1979, defends his controversial Luna and offers his thoughts on the American cinema.
by Barbara Alexandra Szerlip
Bernardo Bertolucci’s press conference at the 1979 San Francisco International Film Festival got off to a rocky start. The Italian director’s most recent offering, Luna, had been receiving unfavorable reviews, including one by Chronicle critic Judy Stone, published just the day before.
Newspapers, the Italian director noted, “should help an audience that has had its sensibilities destroyed by TV to understand that films are different. Critics should offer analysis and see the films within a cultural perspective. But in America, there isn’t much sensitivity or a political vision of culture.”
“Here, critics say, ‘I like. I don’t like.’ That’s not the point. It’s quite irresponsible, sitting in this ivory tower.”
His first English-language feature, Luna, featured Jill Clayburgh as a widowed opera diva in an emotionally complex relationship with her teenage son (Matthew Barry). The film opens with Clayburgh licking honey from her baby son’s limbs and later, when the son is 15 (and hooked on heroin), includes a masturbation scene. The back page of the Festival’s program featured a full-page Luna ad with Clayburgh, in a black negligee, holding the head of bare-chested Matthew Barry against her breasts.
Stone (who sat directly in front of the director in the press room) had described Bertolucci in print as “the man who introduced Marlon Brando to the erotic potentialities of butter,” a reference to the infamous sex scene in Last Tango in Paris. She’d also noted that Bertolucci’s native Parma is a region famous for its hams.
Luna may be outrageous, Bertolucci admitted, but it’s “not ashamed of emotion.” Cinema, he added, “is the language of reality, reflecting the way people live.” He was trying to make films that are “dialogues with the audience. Before, we were making monologues.”
Controversy was nothing new to the then 38-year-old director, whose previous films had portrayed emotional detachment, repressed homoerotic desire, misanthropy, passivity, cowardice, the seduction of fascism and sexual games between strangers as symptomatic of the modern world.
Bertolucci’s second film, Before the Revolution (1964), concerned a young protagonist who has an affair with his aunt. Still, after Luna’s release, Bertolucci was apparently surprised to discover that incest “is still a real taboo, even for intellectuals.”
But he did concede that casting an American was motivated by fear. “I couldn’t stand the idea of an Italian mother and an Italian son, with the Pope and the Church and all the Italian implications…. It would have been too much for me. I had to keep some distance.” In response to criticism that Clayburgh had been miscast, Bertolucci called the actress “a natural woman” who has “great allure.” A lot of people, he added, think an opera star must have big breasts and be fat.
In defense of the film’s apparent disjointedness, its shifts from the son’s perspective to the mother’s and back again without ever saying who was looking, he explained, “I’m trying to deal with the inconsistencies of life, the incoherence of life, the confusion that’s around us and within us. In the ’60s, I was more attracted to revolution; in the ’70s, I started to follow my own language. Luna, in its increased experimentation, is a return to my past.”
The press conference was followed by two hours of clips that included Before the Revolution (loosely based on Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma); The Spider’s Strategem (based on a story by Jorge Luis Borges); The Conformist (an adaptation of Alberto Moravia’s novel and the director’s most critically lauded film); Last Tango in Paris; Partner (loosely based on a Dostoyevsky story); and 1900 (a five-hour historical epic).
Bolstered by an audience of adoring fans, the Italian director appeared to have recovered from the Stone controversy.
During the question-and-answer session, he mentioned Apocalyse Now as an audacious, experimental film he admired, crediting Bay Area director Francis Ford Coppola with having tried to “construct something different,” to “go further.”
Bertolucci also spoke of the importance of spontaneity and the element of surprise. “I went to see [Jean] Renoir in Los Angeles five years ago,“ he recalled. “And he told me, ‘You must always leave one door open on the set.’ Because someone you weren’t expecting can come into the shot. And that’s the greatest thing [that can happen] in making a movie.”
In retrospect, the critical fire directed at Luna was a minor blip in the internationally lauded career of a man who dreamt of reaching a point where he could “eat [and sleep] cinematographically, as a painter, lives, eats and sleeps painting.” In subsequent years, he went on to direct The Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man (1981), the ambitious and lavish The Last Emperor (1987), The Sheltering Sky (1990, based on the Paul Bowles novel), Little Buddha (1993), Stealing Beauty (1996), Besieged (1998) and The Dreamers (2003).