Bertolucci at 70: MoMA Retrospective–Interview with Oscar-Winning Director

Interview with Bertolucci

By Steve Dollar

Bernardo Bertolucci, absent from the moviemaking world since The Dreamers seven years ago, sounds unexpectedly chipper.  Though he’s been crippled by back problems for years, Bertolucci is optimistic about making Ammaniti’s latest book, Io e te, into a movie. “I sublimated everything about the body so I have more room for the mind,” he says, “and thinking about a new project.”


Career retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, which runs through January 12, with

the 15 features, three documentaries, one short, and a few films made by others about him


It’s a comprehensive tribute to the 69-year-old director of The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris and The Last Emperor, who first made a splash at Cannes with his 1962 debut, The Grim Reaper, when he was 21.

“It’s healthier not to watch your old movies,” he says. “My expectation is always more than what the film gives.” But still…

Films happy to have shown again?

Thinking of New York, yeah, there are two or three movies. One has never been seen in theaters in New York, my first film The Grim Reaper. Or movies that found a bad reaction. I remember very well when I showed La Luna. Vincent Canby, on the day when the movie was shown, had already reviewed it, which was really cruel and bad. I knew that probably most of the people in the theater seeing it for the first time at the New York Film Festival had already read [the review] which took away the mystery of the film. It was so moralistic. Alas, it was quite a typical reaction of an American viewer. The subject of the film, incest between mother and son, was a theme that in the states was not accepted, period. I will see if the movie will have redemption. I’m quoting Vincent Canby. His last line was ‘This film has no redemption.’ So it’s a revenge.


Jill Clayburgh, who you cast as the mother, died recently. So the screening is kind of a memorial.

It was very sad in a quiet way. Years ago, Jill came to Italy and she told me that she was ill. She went on for a long time. So this acceptance that she had of her illness I think gave her the time to make her ending long, and able to go on working. She was an extraordinary character.


Fascinating women: Dominque Sanda in The Conformist to Eva Green in The Dreamers.

Each one is very, very particular and different from the others. Let’s imagine that every time a director has a love story with the actors of his movies, so every time is a love story and sometimes the love has been consumed. So maybe I won’t tell you their names, but there are more memories added to the memories of the movies.


I was reading an interview with Eva Green talking about her experiences in The Dreamers, and there was a discussion of Maria Schneider‘s reaction after Last Tango in Paris, that she had felt taken advantage of. Green had a more mature attitude about the physical exposure and sex scenes.


Every actress, same thing is true of the actors—now you say actor also for the ladies—is there in the movie, and it’s made by what the character is in the film and what the person was in real life during the film… Why are you asking me about the women and not about the men?


Taste in Women

Let’s take the case of Maria. She was wild in the moment. I remember when we opened Last Tango in Paris in New York, she had a page in the New York Times where she was saying, “I slept with 74 men and 55 women,” really talking in a wild way. But then time passes and she starts to complain and to let me know through interviews that I stole her youth. How can you say that to somebody? To a director who went looking into your personality—as I try to do every time with a person in front of my camera. In that particular case, the girl wasn’t mature enough to understand what was going on. 1972 was the beginning of feminism. In Italy, I had a kind of trial made by a group of feminists. It was done as an article for a magazine. There was a journalist and four or five feminist leaders, asking questions and accusing me of things. My advocate was Germaine Greer. That was fantastic.


The Italian government really did want to throw you in jail.


Marlon Brando, the producer Antonio Grimaldi and myself, were sentenced to three months of prison, [suspended] with conditions, which for me was one more gold medal on my jacket. But, then I found out two months later at the moment of voting, that I didn’t receive my electoral certificate. I asked what happened, and they went to look in a big black book. I had lost my civil rights for five years. It was a big humiliation. It was a special case which was collecting the worst old-fashioned old ideas, moralistic and inquisitor-like. After that big case, there was a liberation. The most horrible, obscene porno movies were allowed. But the symbolic film was condemned.


Sex on film to provoke?


I could swear that when I shot Last Tango with this frontal nudity, I never thought that I was doing something provocative. I thought that what was provocative in the film was the despair in the character of Brando. That was the real thing I wanted to talk about. It was this desperate version of An American in Paris. He was old-fashioned macho in a way, but meantime he was wearing despair all the time, like it was his camel-hair coat. I was feeling like I had the key to get Marlon far away from the Brando-esque mannerisms we had seen in all his movies. I wanted to see who was the man behind all these masks, to get to the real man—more than the super actor.


Could you get there in few takes or was it more consuming process?


Brando didn’t speak to me for years after the movie. I couldn’t understand. I was going to LA, calling him, and he wouldn’t answer, and I knew he was sitting by the phone. I was casting 1900, and I called a great friend of his, and she told me that in doing the film he wouldn’t realize how much of his truth was delivered for the camera. He felt tricked. When he saw the movie, he realized he went much further than he thought. I’m not talking about sex. But how much of his real humanity I’d been able, let’s say in quotes, “to steal from him.” I thought, my God, I am 33, he is 50. He is incredibly experienced, more than me. How could I have done that? There were years he disappeared. Years later, I called him. He said, “Oh, why not come to see me?” I drove to Mulholland Drive, and thought I will crash. I will vomit, because the emotion is too strong. I tried to drive so cautiously to his place. We talked for hours and hours. I was forgiven.


1900 was rejected by Hollywood. A decade later, you came back with another epic, The Last Emperor, and it won all the Oscars.


1900 was like an illness, a disease. I invested so much in that film, and my dream was to be able to talk about socialism and farmers where I was born, to the United States. To go with a film that had a definite political position, into the country that was the other part of the Cold War. But I was stopped by Paramount. I fought and fought and at a certain point I give up. I was becoming sick. The president of Paramount was saying, “This film is no good at five hours. It will not be good at four, or at three hours. In this film, simply, there are too many red flags. Period.” I wanted that all these red flags had to be accepted by people in the United States. I had a group of American movie critics creating a manifesto defending 1900. When after months and months of discussions I accepted to make a four-hour version, these people who defended me were very upset. So I even betrayed the ones who believed in me, it was terrible. But I had to do a shorter version.

You’ve been widely quoted as saying “I am no longer interested in making political films.” What changed?

[Bertolucci seems to take issue with the source or accuracy of the exact quote, then continues.] It’s a bit primitive and brutal the way things are said. The fact is, when I was making political films, politics were one of the most important things in the life of a person in Europe. What I meant is that politics is no more a major and burning subject, a passionate subject because young people are so far from politics. In the same country where young people in the ’70s killing—it was terrible, Red Brigades and things like that—politics is simply finished in that way. The investment people had in politics 30 years ago is 100 times bigger than now.

What do you think happened to cause that?

The way the world went, what was called—now it’s a ridiculous term—consumerism. Consumerism made individuals all alike. Where are they today? I would have to invent a situation that is not real anymore. In ’68, is what I tried to say in The Dreamers, young people were really thinking they could change the world. I don’t see many around with this kind of mission, this kind of hope. In my country, you have 20 years of fascism, then you have the war, then you have the Resistance, then you have the liberation from the Nazis. And you have these people who want to create a new country. You can see that in the neo-realistic cinema of Rossellini and De Sica. They took the cameras outside the studios and they started to shoot in the real street. It was the feeling in those years after the war—there was a generation able to create a new Italy. You don’t have these kinds of emotions at the moment.

New Movie


For two years I was really thinking I would never do another film, and accepting that—a bit. Then, maybe the coincidence of the trip to New York, and this retrospective, and to read a book I loved, helped me a lot. Now I am just trying to take it easy, not to be too excited. Too much excitement kills.