ROME — This year marks several returns for Bernardo Bertolucci. On May 11, he will be honored at the Cannes Film Festival, the site of his first international triumph in 1964. His upcoming film, “Io e Te,” will be the first time in decades that he has filmed in Italian. And the pic’s theme offers parallels to his career-altering “The Conformist” of 1970.
But make no mistake, the 70-year-old helmer is not repeating himself. He takes pride in the fact that his career is marked by constant reinvention, as he touches upon recurring themes but explodes them, with new esthetics, ideology, geography and technology — including the fact that “Io e Te” marks his debut in 3D.
“Thank God there is this project,” Bertolucci tells Variety about the contempo coming-of-age drama about a Roman adolescent and his heroin-addicted half-sister. The pic, which starts shooting in September, marks Bertolucci’s return behind camera after an eight-year hiatus.
At Cannes, he will receive an honorary Palme d’Or, marking the first year the fest plans to bestow the award annually.
This follows recent retrospectives at MoMA and the BFI, “and all these things force you to look back,” he says with a twinkle in his eye, laying on a chaise lounge in his Rome apartment. He appreciates the honors, but he’s grateful that he’s got a new movie in the works because he wants to look ahead.
Bertolucci sees some similarity between “Io e Te” and “The Conformist,” his classic 1970 political drama.
“It’s a similar dynamic,” he says, “because ultimately both protagonists, while aged differently, feel an urge to conform.”
“The Conformist” will unspool in Cannes on a freshly restored copy in tandem with his honorary Palme.
After back trouble kept him off the radar, the helmer is eager to move on. But in a wide-ranging interview with Variety he was happy to touch on his cinematic influences, his trials and triumphs, and his relationship with icons including Sergio Leone, Burt Lancaster, Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro, whowill present Bertolucci with the prize in Cannes.
After Bertolucci’s filmmaking bow at age 21 with the stunning 1962 “The Grim Reaper,” his assured second feature, “Before the Revolution,” screened in Cannes Critics’ Week two years later. And in 1976, Gilles Jacob dedicated an entire day to the five-and-a-half-hour version of “1900” (Novecento), Bertolucci’s incredibly ambitious political epic that screened out of competition.
When he made “1900,” which followed his first worldwide triumph, “Last Tango in Paris,” Bertolucci says he had a sense of omnipotence. “One of those passing, perhaps necessary, phases in life,” he adds.
Such was his fame and vision that he was able to get Burt Lancaster — who was so eager to be in “1900” that, to avoid hassles with his agent, he worked for free — Donald Sutherland, and Robert De Niro to make the movie, about communism in the Italian region of Emilia told in the fashion of a Hollywood epic.
Bertolucci recalls that “putting together peasants from Emilia with Hollywood actors was the height of transgression at that time.”
Paramount, however, seemed to care less about Bertolucci’s breaking taboos than about the length of the film, which soon became part of an acrimonious battle. In solidarity, he jokingly recounts, Francis Ford Coppola promised to make “Apocalypse Now” one-minute longer than “1900,” which, of course, he did not manage to do; not even in the redux version.
About 10 years later, the Academy embraced Bertolucci with nine Oscars for “The Last Emperor,” which, the director calls “perhaps my most curious Hollywood moment.” One of his goals in the pic, he says, was to reveal a world totally unknown in the West, “reconnecting myself with an epic quality present in the Hollywood cinema that I loved very much, but making constant fusions.”
By then, Bertolucci had come a long way in a film career that saw him make his start in 1961 as an assistant to Pier Paolo Pasolini on “Accattone.” At the time, both were published poets but neither had filmmaking experience, though Bertolucci remembers in awe that Pasolini — a literary powerhouse — seemed to know instinctively what to do.
“It was a miracle for me to see Pasolini, a great poet, a great figure like him, say: ‘OK: here we’ll do a long shot, here a close-up,’ ” Bertolucci recounts.
But it was Bertolucci’s love of early Hollywood movies, alongside his veneration for the French Nouvelle Vague and Italian greats like Rossellini and Antonioni, that came into play when, at age, 26, having made three decidedly arthouse works, he was summoned by Sergio Leone, and asked to work on the screenplay for “Once Upon a Time in the West.”
” ‘Why do you like my movies?’ Leone asked me. I said: ‘Because horses are usually shot in profile; instead you know how to shoot a horse’s ass,’ ” Bertolucci recalls. “So he looked at me and said: ‘You will write my next movie!’ ”
“Once Upon a Time in The West” — on which Bertolucci shares story credit with Dario Argento — is “full of references from the great American Westerns” of the past, Bertolucci says. “There was on my part a great will and desire to do something that wasn’t being done anymore in Hollywood.”
His relationship with America took a more personal turn in “Last Tango in Paris,” with Marlon Brando as his first American protagonist. For that film, the helmer was able to coax Brando to strip away his Hollywood persona.
“It’s as though he (Brando) did not realize, while we were working, how much of his depth, of his deep inner-self, he had been giving to the film,” Bertolucci says. “After the movie, for years, Marlon would not talk to me.”
They had a reconciliation of sorts many years later when Bertolucci was in Los Angeles. He called Brando, who invited him for a visit.
“And so I drove up toward Marlon’s house on Mulholland Drive and I stopped in the driveway, and I’m so emotional I think I’m going to vomit,” he recalls. “And then I hear Marlon’s laughter, and he came out from behind a tree with a huge belly, and he said, ‘We have to talk.’ And we talked for hours.”
“Tango,” released in 1972, became a worldwide sensation, and with it, mainstream auds came to know his name.
“I think ‘Last Tango’s’ success was in part due to the scandal, the sodomy, the butter; but in truth, it’s a tremendously desperate movie,” Bertolucci says. “It’s very rare that such a desperate movie manages to have such a widespread audience.”
Despite its worldwide notoriety, “Tango” earned the director infamy at home. The Italian judiciary put him up on charges of obscenity, which caused him to lose his civil rights for five years.
“I could not vote, and that was the punishing part; I felt like: ‘I’m not Italian anymore,’ ” he laments.
This exile of sorts played a part in Bertolucci making his so-called “faraway movies” which, besides “Emperor,” in China, include “Little Buddha” (Nepal and Bhutan) and “The Sheltering Sky” (North Africa).
By then, making movies with American characters, albeit set outside the U.S., had become the norm for him.
Even when, after 15 years, Bertolucci returned to Italy to make “Stealing Beauty,” he did so with an English-language pic set in Tuscany amid a group of Anglo-saxon ex-pats.
“I have come to realize that dialogue in English — I don’t know why — is always more effective — more immediate, and has more urgency,” he says. “That’s why for many years I haven’t made movies in Italian.”
Indeed, Bertolucci says he has always had “a sort of omnivorous career,” one that favors “all kinds of movies, especially when they are in total contradiction with what I think, or what I thought up until then.”
So it makes perfect sense that his upcoming “Io e Te” will be in Italian — his first Italo-language movie in 30 years.
Throughout his career, he says, he has had a “fear of repeating myself, because I’ve seen many great directors that at a certain point start making the same movie all over again.”
It would seem Bertolucci has little to worry a
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