Review: ‘Absence, Presence More Intense’

As insular and reflective as the family's own poetry, "Absence, Presence More Intense" (whose gentler, rhyming title in Italian is far preferable) explores the influences the great poet Attilio Bertolucci has had on filmmaker sons Bernardo and Giuseppe. The docu struggles to make its point, but this is probably the best record of the Italian clan.

As insular and reflective as the family’s own poetry, “Absence, Presence More Intense” (whose gentler, rhyming title in Italian is far preferable) explores the influences the great poet Attilio Bertolucci has had on filmmaker sons Bernardo and Giuseppe. Although Paolo Brunatto’s docu, produced by Italo media giant RAI, struggles to rise above its fragmented structure and penetrate what it is about poetry that unites father and sons, this is probably the best record available of the fecund and artistically crucial Italian clan. Fest play is a natural, but tube airings will be limited to upscale Italian-lingo centers.

Title cites Attilio’s most famous line — and since his death in 2000, Bernardo and Giuseppe say they have both been feeling its prophetic nature with the “presencc” of their father’s “absence” from their lives. Early minutes of pic shrewdly ground the viewer unfamiliar with Attilio’s highly acclaimed work, and expose layers of his personality. “Anxiety,” he says with typical frankness (in one of several TV interviews culled for the docu), “is a necessary illness for me.”

Brunatto devotes nearly as much time to Bernardo as to the father, with the much lesser-known but extremely creative and cinematic Giuseppe (“Probably Love,” “Luparella”) positioned as third fiddle. To be sure, the link through verse is more explicit in Bernardo’s case, since his artistic debut was as a poet (footage of his Viareggio prize is highlighted by supporter and colleague Pier Paolo Pasolini reading the prize’s citation). Though chopped up by too much cutting, pic’s tracing of Bernardo’s films, from “The Grim Reaper” to his latest, “The Dreamers,” demonstrates how his characters frequently resisted parental dominance, or, in the case of “Last Tango in Paris,” behaved 180 degrees from Attilio’s modesty.

What’s unexplored, except for early passages in “The Bedroom” about a workers’ strike in 1908 that directly inspired “1900,” is whether Attilio or his poetry had any political or thematic sway over Bernardo’s films. Bertolucci’s other main early influence, and a perfect counterpoint to Attilio’s classic voice — Jean-Luc Godard — is barely referenced here.

Viewers less aware of Giuseppe’s work must take it on faith that he’s been equally influenced and affected by poetry’s pull, since none of the clips (starting with his debut 1971 pic, “Andare e venire”) really do justice to the films. Brunatto’s script indicates Giuseppe followed Attilio’s more reclusive lifestyle, in contrast to Bernardo’s more public and even sensational profile. If any of this has caused schisms, it remains a family secret. Befitting her hold on privacy, there’s only one shot here of the brothers’ mother, Ninetta.

Clips appear and vanish so hastily that homevid is probably the best viewing mode, allowing rewinding to those moments easily missed. Attentive eyes will spot the credit for another great Italian helmer, Gianni Amelio, whose making-of pic about “1900” pops up from time to time, while docu provides a delicious chance for non-Italos to watch Brando dubbed into Italian in clips from “Last Tango.”

Luca Ducros’ music is oddly unsuitable, but ample use of a visual motif with talking heads framed by filtered images from films and symbolic images lends docu a painterly texture.

Absence, Presence More Intense

Italy

Production

An RAI Intl. presentation. (International sales: RAI Trade, Rome.) Produced by Franco Porcarelli. Executive producer, Daniela Battaglia. Directed, written by Paolo Brunatto.

Crew

Camera (color, DV), Marco Tani; editor, Giacomo Desideri; music, Luca Ducros, Giuseppe Verdi; sound, Marco Cini; archival research, Francesca F. Fattorini; poetry translation, Charles Tomlinson. Reviewed on videotape, Los Angeles, Oct. 24, 2003. (In Hollywood Film Festival.) Running time: 67 MIN.

With

Narrator: Giuseppe Moretti. With: Attilio Bertolucci, Bernardo Bertolucci, Giuseppe Bertolucci.
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