I don’t hear much discussion about Bertolucci here, and I’m wondering what others think of his films. Personally, I haven’t been enthusiastic about the films I’ve seen (The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris, The Last Emperor). There are nice moments (particularly on the visual level), but all the films seem lacking to me in some way or another. There definitely an artist’s sensibility to the films—and on the visual level there are nice moments, but otherwise the attempts seem a bit hollow and, at times, emotionally abstract. The word pretentious comes to mind.
Having said that, I haven’t written him off, and i’d really like to hear from fans of his. Consider this an opportunity to win a new convert.
Fascinating. I thought I was the only one who found Bertolucci’s movies pretty, but useless.
Of course my opinion is much more extreme than yours. I’ve seen The Conformist, The Last Emperor, Little Buddha, The Dreamers, and La Commare Secca and I don’t like a single one of those movies. All of them are beautiful to behold, no doubt, but I can never really put my finger on precisely why Bertolucci annoys me in general. In specific, The Dreamers makes me feel like he missed a great opportunity to just film himself masturbating over the film clips he includes, since that is obviously what he’s doing but not cool enough to be direct about it.
I saw his movies when they were first released and they had an extraordinary impact, particularly “Before The Revolution.” They were passionately romantic, visually imaginative and very poetic. When “The Conformist” was released, there was nothing else like it and it was very influential. Coppola thought it was a breakthrough. I think the Japanese admired Bertolucci also because I feel his visual style flowing through some of their films. He loved Godard and, after the release of “Partner,” he was thought of as an Italian offshoot. But he was also influenced by Hollywood directors such as Von Sternberg and William Wyler and Welles and Ford and also by the International master Max Ophuls.
His biggest competition at the time was another Italian—Marco Bellochio, the director of “Fists In The Pocket” and “China Is Near” (Criterion—please release this film). Bellochio’s career lost momentum. Maybe it is harder to maintain that forward motion when you don’t have time to refuel.
Bertolucci made a big splash with “Last Tango” but, for me, that film does not really hold up well. I think it was oversold and it did not help him grow as a director since it was more of a display of Brando’s virtuosity rather than an personal exploration of Bertolucci’s obsessions. He originally wanted to cast Jean-Louis Trintingant, the star of “The Conformist,” and he might have been less intimidating a presence.
“1900” was a remarkably ambitious project and has sequences of great beauty and pageantry, but epics are hard. The film is all-over-the-place and does not really hold together.
Having Vittorio Storaro and Ferdinando Scarfiotti as collaborators does not hurt but he relied so strongly on them that, maybe, they took over the visuals too much.
Of his later films, I like “Besieged.”
I am still a fan, but I wish he made more films that I connected with.
His early work probably represents him at his creative peak. Before the Revolution ( 1964 ), The Conformist (1969 ), The Spider’s Strategem ( 1970 ) and Last Tango in Paris ( 1972 ) should be the starting point for anyone serious about his work.
I love Bertolucci but I should add that it wasn’t always the case. It took a repertory screening of The Last Tango in Paris to convert me. On the big screen, the mastery of his camera becomes apparent. I was stunned, though the film was not new to me at all. I then made sure I saw the Conformist in the theatre as well. I could not believe it was the same film I had seen a few years earlier on my 34 inch telly. The cinematography of Vittorio Storaro is all but distilled to a surface varnish on a tv screen. On the big screen, it perfectly compliments Bertolucci’s gliding camera movments and painterly framing and shot compositions. Anyone seeing his classics on a home screen smaller than 42 inches is at a disadvantage. Once you take out the very thing about his films that hook you in, you’d be hard pressed to fully appreciate his ambition and talent.
I also love Luna ( 1976 ), The Last Emperor ( 1987 ), Sheltering Sky ( 1990 ) and Besieged ( 1999 ). I have seen each of these twice, and they all improved on second viewing. I also enjoyed Stealing Beauty and The Dreamers, though I am not sure how good they really are. I cant really judge them properly until I see them again.
Ultimately though,I admit he is a difficult auteur to get into. Most people will fail to crack the surface gloss. But for those of us who can relate to his troubled characters and admire his visual flair instead of thinking of it as some kind of pretentious mask, his films hold a lot of pleasures.
i know next to nothing about him. the only film of his i’ve actually seen is “the dreamers”, which I liked, but not very passionately.
Last Tango in Paris: the acting, characterizations, the score and atmosphere are sublime – one of the few films I ever owned – I must have watched it 30 times.
Introduced me to Gato Barbieri’s music. I went to see Gato perform in a small club when he came to Boston in the 80’s.
Bertolucci is one of the more erratic directors out there for me. He’s also one of the great precocious geniuses. Few directors made so many brilliant films before the age of 30. The Conformist and The Spider’s Stratagem are his greatest for me. Absolutely brilliant. The Spider’s Stratagem manages to pull off an adaptation of a Borges short story (and actually improve upon the source material!). The Conformist is one of the essential films for understanding the psychology of fascism.
Last Tango in Paris is completely overrated for me. I don’t like the film. The Last Emperor is one of the better Hollywood prestige films of the decade. The Sheltering Sky should have been great and ended up being utterly mediocre. His other works in the 90s are fairly awful. I really hate Stealing Beauty and Little Buddha is one of the biggest embarrassments a great director has ever made. Then again, I thought I was going to hate The Dreamers but I ended up loving it (a complete return to form and one of my top ten of that year). I wish he had gotten his Red Harvest project off the ground (Dashiell Hammett novel that he toyed with adapting in the 1970s, I think Nicholson and Beatty both expressed interest at a time but it never got off the ground – maybe one of the great unmade films, Bertolucci doing noir).
I’m a fan of his earlier films, though I do like The Dreamers and Stealing Beauty. On a visual level, his films are beautifully photographed.
Howard, its interesting you find his early films ‘poetic’, as he was the son of a northern Italian poet. And he was and probably still is a huge Godard fan. He once said " in the sixties I was prepared to die for a shot of Jean-Luc Godard."
Bertolucci broke onto the scene at a time when Italian cinema was at the forefront of international cinema. Imagine following in the footsteps of Visconti, Fellini and Pasolini, who were all a generation older than him. He started out as a screenwriter, like Pasolini. I guess his most famous screenplay is Once Upon A Time In The West for Sergio Leone.
I think one should emphasize the importance of Storaro to Bertolucci’s vision. Storaro was an intelllectual with theories about the meanings of different colours, and became a key collaborator for Bertolucci, much like Raoul Coutard did with Godard and Truffaut a decade earlier.
I think it helps that when you are curious about a film maker, you seek out what some film academics and historians have to say. Here is a passage by the wonderful UK film historian Mark Cousins, which helped me to appreciate the Conformist and its influence on modern cinema:-——————————
Bertolucci’s central character, the repressed fascist, was psychologically as imprisoned as Bresson’s characters. Bertolucci’s and Storaro’s exhilaratingly liberated filming style was the embodiment of what he had lost.
The Conformist was not only a major intellectual and aesthetic achievement, but one of the most influential works of the early part of the decade. The film was widely seen in America and became a touchstone for young directors like Coppola who would later hire Storaro for Apocalypse Now (1979 ). His fellow Italian American Martin Scorsese saw its mix of thematic complexity and visual utopianism as a breakthrough, a double act of seduction and repulsion. This idea that the surface of a film, its form, could express the fascination we feel for brutality and self-destruction became central to his seminal film, Taxi Driver ( 1976 ) . That film’s writer, Paul Schrader, would imitate the Conformist meticulously in American Gigolo ( 1980 ). Two years after the Conformist, the two-way flow between US and European cinema resulted in Last Tango in Paris ( 1972 ). Once more, it was exquisitely photographed by Storaro, who this time took visual cues from the paintings of Francis Bacon.
I’m with Howard Fitzson. Hard to explain the impact of Bertolucci’s films to those who didn’t see them when they first came out. His poetic gifts are unique — even in a mess like “La Luna.”
Sadly he’s been very ill with back ailements for a number of years now and in all liklihood he will never make another film.
Ari : Few directors made so many brilliant films before the age of 30
He was 24 when he directed his second film, Before the Revolution ( 1964 ).
Adam, Sergio Leones’ Once Upon a Time in the West is from a story by Sergio Leone, Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci. The screenplay itself was written by Sergio Donati and Sergio Leone with the English dialogue written by Mickey Knox.
oops..relying on my ( fading ) memory too much. thanks for the correction Chris
That’s okay, your comments on The Conformist were spot-on.
Nice of you to say that. I am glad there are fans of Bertolucci here.
David, Well I haven’t been fortunate to see any of his film in theatres, but most of the ones I have seen still touch me deeply.
I’m glad you agree La Luna is a mess. I was a bit embarrassed that the film did very little for me.
Is it true that he may never make a film again? I thought he was planning on struggling through the Carlo Gesualdo film.
I love Bertolucci. The Conformist is one of my favorite films. I love the sets, the editing, the cinematography, the music and the acting in that film. It’s a beautiful film. I saw Storaro talk on the disc I believe of his philosophy of shooting film and I believe he has a Caravaggio painting behind him to illustrate his idea of how to light a scene. Something like that. 1900 is a little bit of a mess maybe, but I love the ambition and grandeur that was put in that film. Beautiful cinematography as well. The Dreamers is fairly enjoyable. Maybe not one of his best, but still good. Last Tango In Paris I think has a wonderful jazz score to it and I love to watch Brando in it. Stealing Beauty and Little Buddha I thought were really not that good. I’ve heard that Bertolucci got in an argument over cutting Little Buddha with Harvey Weinstein and that may have hurt the film. I also like the scale of the Last Emperor and a story concerning a man who does not have a choice of how he conducts his life. Everything has been decided for him and I think he is only truly happy at the end of his life when he becomes a common citizen in Communist China and becomes a gardener.
You should watch his best movies to get your advice…
Try “La Strategia del Ragno”
Or perhaps “La Luna”… such a beautiful picture !
I have to admit i’m quite a huge fan of “Il Conformista” and “Novocento” also…
For me he’s one of the most thrilling and vital film-makers of his generation and most of his films are masterpieces, a recent poor form can’t change that.
Favourites are Last Tango in Paris, Il Conformista, Partner, Prima della Rivoluzione
Did anyone see his segment in Ten Minutes Older : The Cello ? I thought it was pretty good.
Its on youtube in two parts if anyone is interested ( the dvd seems to be out of print )
Love: La Commare Secca, Il Conformista, his short film in Ten Minutes Later: The Trumpet (or maybe it was the Cello, it’s been a while… Yes, Lydian, I thought that was The Real Bertolucci for the first time for years), and, yes, Last Tango in Paris
Like: 1900, La Luna (a mess, but a rather interesting mess), Besieged, his short piece in Amore e rabbia
Meh: Stealing Beauty and The Dreamers meh+, The Last Emperor meh-
Hate: The Sheltering Sky, Little Buddha
Can’t remember: Strategia del ragno (to my shame)
Haven’t seen: Prima della rivoluzione, Partner
I think there was a period when his resources, and possibly his self-image, overtook him and he bloated visibly. It was very frustrating, and it’s a great pity if, just as he was coming down to the size that suits him again, he’s unable to make more films.
He’s got a sensible eye for the exterior, it is hard to get behind his eyes. I agree that sometimes he makes some unrational little details, but it is this that personalises his pieces. He kind of follows the contemporary periods each time, but also mixes them up, forming kind of a nostalgia, and a well-defined image of his universe. He is the bigest dreamer I could ever know.
Jeremy Thomas himself told me Bertolucci was much tooill to work, Drew. This was several years ago and as far as I know the situation hasn’t changed.
Ali, you must see Before the Revolution and Partner. They are essential to any understanding of Bertolucci.
Before the Revolution has one of the greats last scenes in the history of the cinema. Truly heartbreaking.
A lot of people seem to forget “The Sheltering Sky”, which is truly amazing and one of his best films. Also one of Malkovich’s best roles in my opinion
The Sheltering Sky is pretty good, but that probably has more to do with the source material than anything else. The Paul Bowles novel is one of the best 20th century American novels I’ve read.
Bertolucci certainly hit the high note with The Conformist, but he has made some truly horrible movies, e.g., Little Buddha and The Dreamers.