Bertolucci on Bertolucci
Thursday 10th October, 12.15pm – BFI Southbank, NFT1
Sunday 13th October, 3.15pm – Curzon Mayfair
Director Luca Guadagnino is well-versed in finding interest in the seemingly dull. His 2009 film I Am Love finds passion in the decidedly uncinematic world of high gastronomy, the likes of which hasn’t been seen since Peter Greenaway’s decadent The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover back in 1989. Here he splices gobbets of Bertolucci babble together from decades of interviews into a coherent whole.
So coherent is Guadagnino’s project that it leaves the impression of Bertolucci having delivered the same interview all his life. The Italian maestro talks us through politics, philosophy, poetry, psychoanalysis, censorship, family and his own films with a wry humour and fantastic turn of phrase, mostly in French – “the language of cinema” – even though he is decidedly Italian.
And yet, there’s no obvious evolution to Bertolucci’s answers. As a young man and old he appears to toe the same line – one that doesn’t necessarily make sense when considered alongside his filmography. For a film about a man whose work is known for its eroticism and Marxist politics, Bertolucci on Bertolucci is curiously silent on both topics.
There is barely any mention of 1972’s Last Tango in Paris, let alone its controversial butter-smear rape scene, the fallout of which left Bertolucci not only hated by both Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider but with a suspended prison sentence. The only contentious line in this entire documentary stems from La Luna and Bertolucci’s bizarre belief that incest isn’t an act but a fantasy – the act itself being “a violation, a perversion” but not incest.
For cognoscenti of Bertolucci’s films this is a missed beat, and not the only one. The English subtitles are poor both in spelling and interpretation, and for some reason snippets of the Alien soundtrack keep cropping up. But for those unfamiliar with the back catalogue of this prolific poet, screenwriter and director there is plenty to recommend the documentary.
As a subject Bertolucci is wonderfully eccentric and mischievous. In any given question he looks for the humorous first, even referring to his septuagenarian wheelchair-bound self as a human dolly. He’s also a great orator, poetically verbose in three languages about subjects as disparate as Renoir, the horn-inducing aroma of cow dung, and patricide. As he says himself: “It’s very confusing what I have in my head.” If that’s the case, then Guadagnino’s film is a triumph of untangled, if over-simplified, clarity.
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Watch Bernardo Bertolucci talk about his latest movie, Me and You here: