Bernardo Bertolucci on being burned by Hollywood

Outside Bernardo Bertolucci’s apartment in Rome there is a large goods lift. Once it carried supplies and shopping from floor to floor but now the goods it carries are Bertolucci and one of his three wheelchairs.

Ten years ago, Bertolucci had what he was told would be routine back surgery on a herniated disc. After the first operation, he was told that there had been a bit of a problem but this could easily be sorted out by another operation. He was told exactly the same thing after his second operation. After his third, he realised he would never walk again.

Since then he has become a recluse – at least that’s how he describes himself. He seldom goes out, and hardly ever to the cinema, where he once spent almost all his free time. Instead, one wall of his living room is taken up with an enormous white screen. Right now it’s showing a live broadcast of the Papal enthronement taking place half a mile away. Every so often snatches of the Pope’s voice drift in through the open window from one of the PA systems that have been set up all over the city.

Bernardo Bertolucci Photo: Rex Features
Bernardo Bertolucci Photo: Rex Features

After a few minutes Bertolucci appears, carefully manoeuvring his wheelchair around the furniture. He was always an imposing man: as a teenager I remember seeing photos of him when Last Tango in Paris came out in 1972 and thinking that’s exactly how a film director should look. At 73, he may have thickened out and lost some hair but he’s still imposing, even if, as he observes drily, he’s half the height he once was.

However grim the past few years have been, he is, he insists, feeling a lot better these days. Having been told that he would almost certainly spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair, Bertolucci plunged into deep depression, convinced that his career as a director was over.

“For a long time I was very negative,” he says in thickly impasted English. “The total frustration of not being able to move. Not being able to do anything for myself. As far as I was concerned, I was finished.”

But then, in the midst of his depression, he was sent a copy of a novel by Niccolò Ammaniti called – in English – Me and You. As soon as he read the book, Bertolucci decided he wanted to make a film of it.

“Immediately, it awoke… my desire, you know. I soaked it up like a sponge,” he says. “At that moment, it really felt as if my life depended on that book. And the whole process of making the film was the most fantastic therapy for me. I directed this film with the same passion I’ve directed all my other films. The only difference was that I was sitting down the whole time so my eye line was lower.”

Me and You is hardly an obviously cinematic novel – it’s set almost entirely in a very gloomy basement. But all the things that might have put someone else off made it ideal for Bertolucci.

“There was just one room, only two main characters. I could direct it from my wheelchair without having to move about much. It was perfect.”

In fact, he’s always been drawn to enclosed spaces as a director, most famously in Last Tango where Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider seldom ventured outside, mainly because they were far too busy having sexual intercourse.

Me and You is about a teenage boy who’s supposed to be going on a school skiing trip but who bunks off and spends a week living in the basement of his mother’s apartment building. Although it’s a simple enough story, you don’t have to peer too closely to unearth a metaphor about Bertolucci’s own life. The boy goes down into the depths, essentially puts himself back together again and emerges a lot happier.

“I really didn’t think about it like that at the time,” he says. “It was only afterwards that I realised that maybe there’s a kind of similarity.”

As he always does, Bertolucci encouraged his actors to improvise a good deal, something he learnt from the great French director Jean Renoir, whom Bertolucci met in Los Angeles in the early Seventies.

“My wife [the screenwriter, Clare Peploe] and I went round for dinner and there he was in a wheelchair, surrounded by flowers.”

Nearly 40 years on and it’s Bertolucci who’s sitting in a wheelchair surrounded by flowers. It was his 73rd birthday two days earlier and a lot of his friends seem to have sent vast bouquets.

Jacopo Olmo Antinori as Lorenzo and Tea Falco as Olivia in 'Me and You'
Jacopo Olmo Antinori as Lorenzo and Tea Falco as Olivia in ‘Me and You’

“I know, I know,” he sighs. “It’s very strange, isn’t it? I remember Renoir gave me this fantastic piece of advice. He said that when you direct you should always leave the door open because unexpected things can come in. In other words, don’t structure everything too rigidly because then there won’t be room to experiment.”

It’s advice that has sometimes got him into hot water, most notably in Last Tango when he failed to inform Schneider beforehand that Brando was going to be anally raping her.

The scene, in which Brando anointed himself with butter, caused a sensation when the film came out. It was also cited by Schneider as the main reason why her life fell apart. She went to her death in 2011 still furious about what she saw as appalling exploitation on Bertolucci’s part.

Schneider may well have had a legitimate beef. But having interviewed her not that long before she died, I got the feeling that she’d lit on Last Tango as the source of all her woes because it enabled her to shift the blame for the appalling mess she’d made of her life on to someone else.

When I ask  if he thinks he exploited her, he gives another, even longer, sigh. “Did Manet exploit the model for Olympia?” he asks rhetorically. “Did Courbet exploit the model for L’Origine du Monde?” (The painting shows a close-up of a woman’s vagina.) I’m not entirely sure if these are appropriate analogies as neither model was painted being anally raped, but Bertolucci plainly thinks so.

“No,” he says carefully. “No, I don’t feel guilty, but when she died I thought, God, I’m so sorry that I can’t apologise for what Marlon and I did with that scene and we decided not to tell her. Her sense of humiliation was very real, but I think what really offended her was that she didn’t feel she’d been allowed to prepare for the scene as an actress. But I wanted her reaction as a person, not as an actress.”

Off the set, Bertolucci has a rather courtly, old-fashioned air – he’s charming, considerate, apparently unflappable. As he admits, though, he’s apt to get carried away when he’s directing, sometimes to the point of ruthlessness.

“When you make a movie it’s not always very clear how far you can go. The result is the first thing I am looking for, I have to confess that. I remember when I was directing The Last Emperor, we needed to make the little baby who was playing the emperor cry when he was taken away from the woman playing his mother. We got him to cry in the end” – he gives a throaty chuckle – “but I’m not going to tell you how.”

Strangely, it wasn’t just Schneider who felt she’d been exploited by Bertolucci – Brando did too. For years afterwards, the two men didn’t talk, much to Bertolucci’s distress. “He wouldn’t return my calls or anything. It was very odd because I thought we were really good friends. We really loved each other. All I could think was that he’d revealed much more of himself than he was comfortable with in the film. Then in about 1992 or 1993, I called him up again and this time he did answer. He said, ‘Where are you?’ I told him I was in LA and he said, ‘Come round. Right now.’” Brando told Bertolucci that his life had fallen apart after his son murdered his daughter’s boyfriend. Subsequently, his daughter committed suicide.

“He said, ‘I was dead a few years ago but now I am alive again.’ We ended up talking for hours and hours into the night. After that everything was fine.”

American actor Marlon Brando with actress Marie Schneider and Bernardo Bertolucci in Bertolucci's film 'Last Tango In Paris'. (Getty Images)
American actor Marlon Brando with actress Marie Schneider and Bernardo Bertolucci in Bertolucci’s film ‘Last Tango In Paris’. (Getty Images)

Bertolucci grew up in what he describes as “a universe of poetry”. His father was a poet, art historian and film critic. “My father basically had two ways of judging anything. Either something was poetic or it wasn’t.” Having published a slim volume of verse in his teens, Bertolucci was thinking that he too might devote his life to poetry when one day the doorbell rang at their family home near Parma.

“A very sinister looking man was standing there in a black hat. He asked for Professor Bertolucci. I went and woke up my father who was having a nap and told him there was a man outside who looked like a thief.”

The man, it turned out, was the film director Pier Paolo Pasolini. Bertolucci ended up dropping out of university and going to work for him. At 22, he directed his first feature film. Eight years later he won a Golden Globe for The Conformist, his adaptation of an Alberto Moravia novel about an Italian fascist in the Thirties who is told to kill his former teacher. And then came Last Tango.

“I remember when I showed the film to my parents, at the end my mother was smiling with pride and my father, who was normally very supportive, was looking furious. When I asked him what the matter was, he said, ‘This film is obscene. We’ll all be put in prison for it.’”

He wasn’t far wrong. At an ensuing obscenity trial, an Italian court revoked Bertolucci’s civil rights for five years and gave him a four-month suspended prison sentence. Not that he was too fussed. Last Tango made him the most famous director in the world.

“It was crazy, you know. I remember going to Singapore and they presented me with all this butter. For a while I think it went to my head; I thought I could do anything I wanted.” He was rapidly disabused of this idea after making 1900, a five-hour period epic about struggling farmers in Emilia-Romagna. “I had this dream about bringing this big socialist story with lots of red flags to the United States.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, it wasn’t a vision the film’s US producers shared. After forcing him to make cuts, they gave it a very limited release, leaving Bertolucci “battered and depressed”. However, he bounced back in a big way with what he calls his three “faraway films”: The Sheltering Sky, his adaptation of the Paul Bowles novel, The Last Emperor, which won nine Oscars, and Little Buddha.

These days, inevitably, his horizons have shrunk. Although he still travels – he has a flat in west London – it’s an awkward business.

“I need a little platoon of people to help me.” A lot of the time he stays in his Rome apartment watching box sets on his vast white screen. “The best work being done now is for television,” he says. “Breaking Bad – a masterpiece. House of Cards – very, very good.”

For large chunks of his life, since his mid-twenties, Bertolucci has been in analysis. I ask him what he thought he got out of it.

“I feel it nourished and enriched me as a person. And I feel it nourished and enriched my work. I feel it gave me another lens to my camera, if you know what I mean.” A lens that allowed him to see more deeply into people? Bertolucci smiles. “I think I would feel a bit ridiculous saying that.” He pauses. “But I love that you say it.”

It’s time for me to head back outside, to where the streets are full of ecstatic-looking Roman Catholic priests streaming out of Vatican City. As I go, I see Bertolucci framed in the doorway. He has one arm raised in farewell.

Then he lowers his arm, bends forward and pushes himself away.


The Telegraph 

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