Helmer set to direct 16th-century biopic

Forty-five years after Bernardo Bertolucci’s first feature premiered at the Venice Film Festival, Italy’s most internationally prominent living director is returning to the Lido to receive a special Golden Lion from the Grand Dame at a critical time for them both.

Aside from merely ceremonial considerations, Venice’s nod to Bertolucci could actually be the prelude to a new chapter in his stellar career, which launched from the Lido in 1962. Back then, Bertolucci was the 22-year-old boy wonder who helmed “La commare secca” (The Grim Reaper), a gritty drama about the assassination of a Roman prostitute, based on a story by Pier Paolo Pasolini. Bertolucci had served one year earlier as a.d. on Pasolini’s neorealist portrayal of a Roman pimp, “Accattone,” which also unspooled in Venice.

His many subsequent treks to the Lido include presiding over the 1983 jury, which Lionized Jean-Luc Godard, a highly influential helmer for Bertolucci.

These days, after more than 15 features, including “Last Tango in Paris” and the Oscar-winning “The Last Emperor,” Bertolucci is preparing to return to the director’s chair with a high-profile costumer about the 16th-century Neapolitan composer and murderer Gesualdo da Venosa. Producer Jeremy Thomas says the pic has a thematic similarity to “Emperor” in that both are epic stories about characters hidden from history.

Penned by Bertolucci with “Last Emperor” scribe Marc Peploe, the long-gestating project is about the inner turmoil of the genial Renaissance musician whose creativity soared as he suffered terribly over having killed his first wife and her lover.

Bertolucci was last in Venice in 2003 with “The Dreamers,” and, at age 67, has been keeping a low profile. In part this has been due to back trouble caused by a herniated slipped disc. Earlier this summer, however, he delighted his Italo fans when this elder statesman of world cinema emerged from seclusion by lashing out in a feisty front-page La Repubblica editorial attacking the sorry state of the arts in contempo Italy. In a passionate appeal, he demanded from the current center-left government “a very ambitious, highly diversified and well-endowed cultural project” to make the country’s “creative soil fertile again” after five years of Silvio Berlusconi, whom he blasted as a crass money-minded philistine.

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