Bernardo Bertolucci and Luca Guadagnino hail from different generations, but both Italian directors have a bent for making sensual English-language films. And each knows what it’s like to be embraced by critics and audiences abroad but snubbed at home, as Bertolucci tells Variety in a rare interview.
Perhaps that experience has helped fuel the two auteurs’ mutual admiration. Bertolucci, whose 1987 epic “The Last Emperor” scored a historic nine-Oscar sweep, including best director and picture, has long been a champion of Guadagnino’s work, while the younger director spent two years sifting through archives to make “Bertolucci on Bertolucci,” a documentary Guadagnino considers to be his most personal film. Bertolucci, 77, was the first outsider to whom Guadagnino showed a rough cut of his coming-of-age love story “Call Me by Your Name,” which several critics note is reminiscent of the older maestro’s 1996 film “Stealing Beauty.”
Guadagnino has had a fervent fan base in Los Angeles and London since 2009’s “I Am Love,” starring Tilda Swinton, but he has never received much love from his compatriots. Both “I Am Love” and “A Bigger Splash” launched at the Venice Film Festival to stony receptions in Italy; combined, they barely took in more than $500,000 at the Italian box office.
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But attitudes toward Guadagnino in his home country might be changing now with “Call Me by Your Name,” which has grossed more than $3 million in Italy since opening Jan. 25, two days after scoring four Oscar nominations for best picture, actor, adapted screenplay and song. “Italy as a whole, the critics and the audience, always perceived Luca as a foreign body,” says Venice Film Festival artistic director Alberto Barbera. The strong showing of “Call Me” finally “pays him back for all the wrongs he has suffered.”
Bertolucci spoke to Variety about his rapport with Guadagnino, why he thinks the 46-year-old director has been slighted at home and his own experience of failure in Italy.
What’s your opinion of “Call Me by Your Name”?
I think Luca’s latest film is his best one. He has reached such a completeness and creative grace. Probably the theme of this film is one that Luca has felt very intensely, and this has yielded an important result. It’s a love story, but the way that falling in love is represented doesn’t constrain the film. There are many levels to it. It’s a gay movie, but this aspect isn’t too — how can I put it — explicit. It isn’t overstated. The film poses a series of questions, which I think are all prompted by a puritanism that still exists.
Guadagnino often cites you as a reference. He has said he shows you his rough cuts. How close are your respective cinematic visions?
Luca is somewhat similar to me in that he often uses cinema rather than reality as the point of departure for his inspiration. There are many directors who use reality as their basis. Luca’s reality is in the films that precede him, the cinema that he loves. So since he loves my body of work, it’s possible that he has taken it as the basis of his reality. For him, reality is cinema.
“Luca’s reality is in the films that precede him, the cinema that he loves.”
That’s why I feel that “Call Me by Your Name” is very close to me — the atmosphere, his being able to generate an emotion by stimulating your curiosity, his ability to be playful with this curiosity. He doesn’t spell things out for you; you have to get there to understand. In this sense I think that, as he and some critics say, there are some affinities between us.
Luca until recently had not attained the recognition in Italy that he has gained internationally. Why do you think that is?
Because they think he’s a snob. They are irritated because he makes movies with international actors, because he is different from the other Italian directors whom they are used to. His being different creates an aversion and an irritation on the part of the Italian press. It’s as though there has been a prejudice against him. Even his friendship with Tilda Swinton, maybe that irritated Italians a bit.
Can you relate to that?
At the start of my career similar things happened to me. “Before the Revolution,” my second film, went to Cannes Critics’ Week in 1964. It won prizes. Cahiers du Cinéma and various other international publications glorified it. But most Italians were disparaging toward me. They almost insulted me. So I know that type of failure.