Bernardo Bertolucci Bertolucci, Bernardo (Vol. 16) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bernardo Bertolucci 1940–

Italian poet and filmmaker.

In Bertolucci's films there is constant concern with the bourgeois life-style and its anaesthetic, smothering effect on the characters's potential. Some critics believe this is a response to his own childhood, although Bertolucci himself recalls this time fondly. Raised in the luxuries of an upper middle-class family, Bertolucci was encouraged intellectually. His father was a famous poet and film critic. Accompanying him in his frequent visits to the theater, the young Bertolucci often saw two or three films a day. His first interest, however, was poetry. A collection of his poems, published while he was still an undergraduate, won the Prix Viareggio. But in 1961, when he began to work as an assistant to Pier Paolo Pasolini on Accattone!, he stopped writing poetry. In filmmaking he found his primary mode of expression. Now he sees each of his films as a poem, or an attempt at poetry.

Bertolucci made his first feature at the age of twenty. And by the time Before the Revolution was released in 1964, his reputation was established. Many critics considered this film a brilliant piece of work from such a young and inexperienced artist. Like most of his later films, it concentrates on the hero's struggle against his middle-class background and his eventual submission to its tenets. Whether they are political, social, or psychological, Bertolucci's films are always lyrical. He has called them poetry, critics have called them choreography. And, indeed, dance imagery abounds. So do lush coloration and visual references to paintings. His work is often called beautiful. Critical response to other aspects has been mixed. He is not favorably received in Italy, by either critics or his fellow filmmakers.

Bertolucci's best known and most controversial film is Last Tango in Paris. In an early, laudatory review, Pauline Kael termed the film a landmark in movie history, comparable to the importance of Le Sacre du Printemps in music history. Other critics, equally impassioned, have termed the film pornographic for its explicit, often brutal, eroticism.

Probably one of the most important aspects of the film is the manner in which it took form. Much of the script, and therefore the characterization, was improvised. This flexible, organic quality is part of Bertolucci's cinematic vision. In an interview during the filming of 1900, he said: "All the films I have made seemed desperately autobiographical to me,… but the autobiographical dimension has been completely decanted and consumed in the act of becoming film…. The film exists for itself." On the same subject, he has also said: "Films are animal events." Some critics and viewers, who respond negatively to the violence and explicitness of his work, would probably agree.

Eugene Archer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Before the Revolution" is] a poignant love story epitomizing a young man's growth through the dense, chaotic jungle of contemporary civilization. Like many of the best modern films, the drama is difficult, subtle and extraordinarily complex in its imagery.

Mr. Bertolucci, who is nothing if not ambitious, has attempted a symbolic autobiography that is classical in its construction. Fabrizio, the protagonist, is a Stendhal character, residing in Parma and ultimately marrying a bourgeois girl named Clélia. Hs is also an Italian Holden Caulfield, flailing his adolescent limbs and querying intellect against the social structures of 1962.

The title derives from Talleyrand—"Only those who lived before the revolution knew how sweet life could be." In a typical gesture of searching youth, the boy revolts against everything in his surroundings—his respectable middle-class family, his lovely but dull childhood sweetheart, the political climate in his provincial town. He dallies with Communism, with abstract philosophy, with art, and, most meaningfully, with his striking, unhappy young aunt, who falls hopelessly in love while realizing she is only filling an adolescent's temporary need.

It is a moving story on the most immediate level, and the director has given it sweeping connotations. When the boy, unable to cope with the extraordinary young woman, abandons his struggles and lets her drift away, the drama reverberates with evocations of loss. His failure at love symbolizes a death of the past, an angst-ridden sense of futility in any kind of revolutionary striving, whether emotional, political or merely intellectual, amid the defeat of contemporary society.

Viewing life in such romantic terms is the special province of a very young director, but Mr. Bertolucci has approached his story with such deep feeling that its full implications are communicated. This is a young man's film, but it has large social references.

Cinematically, it is also filled with references, to the best modern directors in Italy and France. Knowledgeable viewers can detect strong influences from Roberto Rossellini and Alain Resnais in Mr. Bertolucci's sophisticated style.

Astonishingly, he has managed to assimilate a high degree of filmic and literary erudition into a distinctively personal visual approach. Technically, he displays authoritative control. Here is a new talent of outstanding promise.

Eugene Archer, "'Before the Revolution'," in The New York Times (© 1964 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 25, 1964, p. 32.

John Thomas

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[If Before the Revolution is] a failure, it's a beautiful one; far more exciting than some of the easy successes we applaud and forget each year. [It's often] incoherent, terrifyingly immature, fascinatingly beautiful…. [It] has all the faults you'd expect from a very young director, and all the intensity you'd expect from youth. Before the end it falls to pieces, but how lovely the fragments!

Despite some critical opinion to the contrary, I don't think it's at all a film about the boredom and decay of the middle classes, the alienation of Western man, or anything else that will fit some critical pigeonhole. Like most films, it's "about" the people in it. Its theme is hyperintellectualism, the tendency of many bright young people to make ideas a substitute for feelings…. Fabrizio's ideas about the world prove inadequate to his understanding of it, for understanding demands the emotional involvement he cannot give. He renounces his aunt not because he is engaged in incest, but because she is too complex for him; he gives up the Communist Party not because of lost illusions, but because his illusions will not allow him to consider the complex problems that underlie the Party's relationship to its members….

It's not just that he lets his friends down, but that he never realizes he has done so. (p. 55)

It's claimed that the film is autobiographical, and if so it would seem that Bertolucci has succeeded only partially in detaching himself from his protagonist; many...

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Henry Heifetz

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

La Commare Secca, [which has been translated as The Grim Reaper but] which means literally "The Dry Housewife" or "Housewife Dry" is a Roman-dialect name for death, and Bernardo Bertolucci's film is basically a treatment of death and of processes and conditions which are a part of its nature: solitude, inevitability, ritual…. Compared to Before the Revolution, La Commare Secca tries for much less and comes off much better at it, Bertolucci's weaknesses being more evident in the later film.

A weakness which doesn't have to be one at all in the future unless Bertolucci insists on it is simply that, judging by Before the Revolution and despite the fact that Bertolucci has written and perhaps still writes poetry, he does not seem to be a good writer. Most of the writing in that film is in a very banal Italian tradition of regional sentimentalism and would-be-elegant sentence-making; and Before the Revolution is not the kind of film where weak writing is relatively unimportant, since its basic theme is of the inconsistencies and uncertain relationship of sentiment, action, and statement. Another weakness is a tendency to plunge, all stops loose, into long bravura sequences which are already compromised by a fundamentally sentimental imposition of his theme. In Before the Revolution, where the self-deluding sentimentality of youth forms much of the substance of the film, Bertolucci should have...

(The entire section is 489 words.)

Bill Nichols

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Conformist, like several other recent films, deals with the complex question of the fascist sensibility…. For example, three characteristics of the fascist sensibility that are evident today have figured in films like Z, Joe, The Confession, Patton, Investigation of a Citizen, The Damned, and The Conformist: the tendency to defend established values and myths as inviolable axioms; the tendency to see ideological and even, sometimes, personal conflicts as irresolvable by compromise and, therefore, to accept and apply violent solutions; and the tendency to use allegiance to institutions of power and authority as a psychic crutch. The result is a preoccupation with a hostile, threatening environment in which the hero, by aligning himself for or against the forces of law and order, achieves a sense of purpose. It is, essentially, the quest for identity played out in political terms….

The overall style and structure of these films are the very means by which the director deals with his responses to this phenomenon. In any case, the director's control of his responses—the degree to which they are assimilated into an aesthetic pattern—becomes a vital test of his work's success. That the director can be a 'dictator' is an old cliche with new implications when his subject matter is related, however peripherally, to the stormy issue of fascism….

[Bertolucci's] artistry seems capable of absorbing the most intense emotions and stylizing them into patterns of consummate aesthetic design that, from a Marxist, world-transforming viewpoint, have a strangely self-enclosed feel about them….

The praise accorded [The Conformist] has had an uncommon consistency, suggesting that a major touchstone of the critical sensibility has been courted with deeply resonant overtures…. The film elaborates on Freud to show repressed homosexuality not only as the unfortunate, sometimes damaging, price of civilization but also as the breeding ground for fascism. It is a restricted version, and hence less valid, of Reich's assertion that the authoritarian family in the middle-classes of Germany was the breeding ground for Hitler's power. Bertolucci offers us the reassurance that tyrannical oppressors are sick men whose symptoms we can clearly recognize…. (p. 19)

Bertolucci also paints the anti-fascist forces in a bad light (literally in the ballet studio embrace and an unflattering shot of the herd-like mob celebrating Mussolini's downfall) and makes the black observation that the 'democratic' front features its own brand of sickness (conformity, decadence and 'charming' sentiments). His Marxist inclinations, in fact, may have contributed more directly to this part of the...

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Ruth Kreitzman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

From start to finish [The Conformist] has been immaculately conceived and constructed. Bertolucci's keen eye for architecture here reaches its most perfect synthesis yet, and each shot is constructed as though traced from a drawing-board. He echoes the Thirties designs of Art Deco, those geometrical shapes and angles, by juxtaposing straight lines, parallels, verticals, diagonals, in vivid patterns, parodied by the camera's oblique angle. He creates his atmosphere of anonymity and conformity with a metaphoric use of colour—greys, browns, cool blues and stark white backgrounds. And he succeeds in conveying that heady decadence of pre-war Europe with a meticulous attention to detail, and even in the very rhythm of the film, which captures the staccato-like movement of a Thirties tango, as performed in a highly stylised sequence in a dance-hall, stunningly shot from above, catching the dizzy, infectious atmosphere….

The significance of The Conformist lies not only in its highly individual sense of style, but also in the fact that this individuality is signed with Bertolucci's initial rather than his full name. That is, he has still incorporated personal comments and idiosyncrasies which figure in his earlier films—parodies of Hollywood cinema, parallels with Shakespeare, particularly Caesar and Macbeth, his somewhat extraordinary female types, and a taste for bizarre jokes, but this time with rather less self-indulgence and rather more subtlety. The result combines objective observation with a certain subjective expression, the formula of which hopefully The Conformist is but a precedent. (p. 8)

Ruth Kreitzman, "Bernardo Bertolucci: An Italian Young Master," in Film (reprinted by permission of British Federation of Film Societies), No. 61, Spring, 1971, pp. 4-8.

Richard Roud

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bernardo Bertolucci has described The Spider's Strategy [released in the United States as The Spider's Stratagem], one of the two films he completed in 1970, as 'a sort of psychoanalytical therapy, a journey through the realm of pre-conscious memory.' But even without this hint, and without the knowledge of Bertolucci's recent interest in and exploration of psychoanalysis, it would be evident that both The Spider's Strategy and The Conformist are linked by more than their 1930s settings and their concern with the problem of Fascism.

Since both films are based on literary works, the surest key to Bertolucci's preoccupations is in the changes he has made in his originals....

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Robert Chappetta

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The] elaborate, oblique style of The Spider's Stratagem works better in its parts than as a whole (which is usually true of Bertolucci's films). Like Pasolini's Teorema, which also in its final images goes beyond naturalism into surrealism, its strength lies in its use of metaphoric images rather than in its dramatic power or suspense. (p. 14)

For Bertolucci, the romantic "hero" is more absorbed in giving the appearance of being one than in taking effective action. In a key image of the film, a flashback, the elder Magnani, after having been revealed as an informer, takes his fellow conspirators up to a high place—like Satan tempting Christ—and with his arms outstretched and...

(The entire section is 856 words.)

Pauline Kael

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The movie breakthrough has finally come. Exploitation films have been supplying mechanized sex—sex as physical stimulant but without any passion or emotional violence. The sex in Last Tango in Paris expresses the characters' drives….

Many of us had expected eroticism to come to the movies, and some of us had even guessed that it might come from Bertolucci, because he seemed to have the elegance and the richness and the sensuality to make lushly erotic movies. But I think those of us who had speculated about erotic movies had tended to think of them in terms of Terry Southern's deliriously comic novel on the subject, Blue Movie; we had expected artistic blue movies, talented...

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Stanley Kauffmann

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

And after all the advance fuss, what is [Last Tango in Paris]? Three films. One is new Bertolucci, one is old Bertolucci, and one is old New Wave. The first of these parts is what has been most loudly touted, and, surprisingly enough, this touted part is the best in the picture.

The "new Bertolucci" sections have an unexpected strength and engagement. The good scenes in Tango, though never quite free of attitudinizing, strike toward something black and truthful, something deeper than the director's self-licking sleekness in the past (and elsewhere in this film). (p. 173)

[The] atmosphere of hot hard sex is there and—for a time—gives these scenes a feeling of...

(The entire section is 464 words.)

Leo Braudy

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is paradoxical that Last Tango in Paris should have had [so much critical] attention directed at its parts: are its sexy scenes sexy? are Brando's monologues heartfelt or phoney? is the scene beside his wife's coffin the best or the worst in the film? was it a mistake to show her face or a masterful stroke? Paradoxical because the real subject of Last Tango is the elusiveness of objects, images, and characters, the difficulty of making emotional connections, the elements of fraudulence and theatricality in everyone's attempt to create his identity for himself and for the world. In all his films Bertolucci seems drawn to a painter's way of presenting the things of the world—the Vuillard interiors of...

(The entire section is 895 words.)

Julian Jebb

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The confusion of response which [Last Tango in Paris] excites arises, I think, from several sources: the opulent cinematography, Marlon Brando's performance and the sexuality are all accessible, each contributes to the shocking force of the film's impact, but simultaneously they can make one overlook the impenetrable obscurity of some of the imagery. I was sometimes reminded of Auden's early poems, where the force of the ideas and the grace of the language help one to ignore the privacies with which they are spiked. In Auden's case the images and phrases were teases, minute love letters from a subconscious mind to a desired body, perhaps; or snatches of clever dreams given the dignity of poetic utterance. With...

(The entire section is 840 words.)

Norman Mailer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The separate backgrounds of Jeanne and Paul divide Last Tango in Paris] as neatly between biography and fornication as those trick highball glasses which present a drawing of a man or a woman wearing clothes on the outside of the tumbler and nude on the inside. Each time Brando and Schneider leave the room we learn more of their lives beyond the room; each time they come together, we are ready to go further. In addition, as if to enrich his theme for students of film, Bertolucci offers touches from the history of French cinema. The life preserver in Atalante appears by way of homage to Vigo, and Jean-Pierre Léaud of The 400 Blows is the TV director, the boy now fully grown. Something of the...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

One way of understanding [Last Tango in Paris] is to see it in the context of Bertolucci's earlier works. The central conflicts in Last Tango bear close similarities with those in The Conformist (1970), The Spider's Stratagem (1969), and Before the Revolution (1964). In all these films, one of the central characters is a young person trying to escape from his social class and family background, but who inevitably lives out the values from his past. Unconventionality is always associated with left-wing politics. (p. 186)

In Revolution, Conformist and Last Tango, each of these characters chooses between a conventional marriage and a dangerous love affair...

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Stanley Kauffmann

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Already [Partner] is heavily dated. Cinematically it's redolent of high sixties Godard; politically it's full of late sixties rhetoric and gesture. But for all its imitations, its slavish obedience to mode that poses as bravery, it shows some talent and authenticity.

With Bertolucci's later work, The Spider's Stratagem, The Conformist, and much of Last Tango, I felt as if I were walking barefoot over rotten fruit. Here I felt it much less; and felt that, despite the clichés, there was some conviction. Although Bertolucci had enlisted in the Godardian ranks and was snapping to attention and executing orders, he was doing it as a zealous partisan. In later pictures he became an...

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Roger Greenspun

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

For part of its basic situation, and for the names given the central characters, [Before the Revolution] draws directly upon Stendhal's The Charterhouse of Parma; in its mood and tone it draws perhaps as significantly upon Flaubert's Sentimental Education. But in its meaning and its particular kind of appreciation for all the life it observes, Before the Revolution stands by itself, drawing essentially upon the sensibility and gift for understanding of the man who made it. (pp. 22-3)

Especially in its feeling for the lyric potential of each scene, Before the Revolution proceeds not toward one, but through many epiphanies. The film, which in the abstract recounts a...

(The entire section is 354 words.)

Robert Zaller

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

At the climactic moment of Bernardo Bertolucci's Before the Revolution, the film's hero, Fabrizio, confesses he cannot join the revolution because he suffers from "nostalgia for the present"; Paul in Last Tango in Paris closes conversation with: "Everything outside this place is bullshit." This sense of a desperately narrowed world, reduced to near zero both spatially and temporally, is at the heart of Bertolucci's art.

Bertolucci's four major films—Before the Revolution …, The Spider's Stratagem …, The Conformist …, and Last Tango in Paris …—constitute both a moral autobiography and a critique of late capitalist culture, a culture Bertolucci celebrates,...

(The entire section is 3085 words.)

Daniel Lopez

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The premise fundamental to [The Conformist and Last Tango in Paris] is an indictment of one of society's cornerstones, the bourgeois family, all too apt to suppress manifestations of spontaneous feeling in its members, stifling individuality by forcing it into a uniform limbo of bland conformity. The suppression of natural feelings is not, however, tantamount to their elimination, and thus they are destined to resurface in a distorted guise. For the protagonist of The Conformist, Marcello Clerici, and outlet, condoned by his society, is to be found in the potential savagery of Fascism; for the sequestered lovers of Last Tango in Paris, Jeanne and Paul, release is sought in a primeval sexual...

(The entire section is 1760 words.)

Linda L. Williams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Beyond [their] basic theme, the obvious similarities [between Bertolucci's Before the Revolution and The Charterhouse of Parma,] Stendhal's rich and sprawling novel of courtly intrigue, are few. Only the names of the principal characters, the Parmesan locale, and a shadowy outline of the novel's plot remain, primarily in the love of Gina for her young nephew Fabrizio. Yet, it is Bertolucci's willingness to depart from the most familiar elements of this classic novel—the famous Battle of Waterloo, the melodramatic courtly intrigues, the imprisonment in the tower, and even its Nineteenth Century setting—that allows his film to come so close to its literary source. This particular fidelity does not...

(The entire section is 991 words.)

Geoffrey Nowell-Smith

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

At heart 1900 is elegiac, and what it inscribes on its large historical canvas is a lament, in which something akin to a mourning for a lost wholeness plays a dominant role. Consider the temporal unfolding of the film: a world of childhood and unquestioned patriarchy; its interruption by war, class struggle and fascism; and a liberation which is a false dawn. Or the basic dualistic structure: two grandfathers and their two grandchildren (and for one of these grandchildren two 'fathers'), two heroines, two social classes (landowners and peasantry) and two social forces (socialism and fascism)—with the duality becoming more antagonistic as the film proceeds. At the beginning there is harmony; in the centre,...

(The entire section is 388 words.)

Stanley Kauffmann

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The line of Bernardo Bertolucci's career is beginning to look as wretched as Robert Altman's. Bertolucci, too, began with something more than promise (Before the Revolution, even Partner). Very soon he began to swamp that promise with self-intoxicating dexterity and egocentric artiness, which is the only kind of artiness actually (The Spider's Strategy and The Conformist). Then, like Altman, he peaked with a film that was more bulk than weight. (Last Tango in Paris can now be seen as Bertolucci's Nashville.) Not surprisingly, the same critical pumping stations that later inflated Altman also blew Bertolucci. Then, inevitably, came the shrinking into mannerism and derivation...

(The entire section is 471 words.)

John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Luna is a dreadfully poseurish film, whether Caterina, stopping at the gate to the Villa Verdi, improbably apostrophizes the filmmaker's favorite composer, or whether the neurotic homelife of mother and son is shown in the most superficial terms despite all that sensationalistic detail. Human behavior is treated capriciously and mechanistically, so that actions arise not out of psychological necessity or, failing that, some narrative logic, but out of Bertolucci's presumable desire to purge, without in the least clarifying them, his personal problems. We do not learn what the violence and vandalism on screen are really about, and seem to be getting would-be catharsis without confession, coming to terms without...

(The entire section is 234 words.)

Philip French

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bertolucci has the reputation of being one of the great intellectuals of European cinema, making films that transpose Stendhal, Borges and Dostoievsky to modern Italy, forever dropping the names of Freud, Marx and Roland Barthes in interviews. In fact his head is full of Verdi and his heart is buried alongside the stars in the pavement of Hollywood Boulevard: and 'La Luna' is a slick conjunction of Italian opera and Warner Brothers woman's weepies of the Crawford-Davis kind. This spongy encounter between movable object and resistible force is stated directly when Joe goes from watching Marilyn Monroe betraying her husband beside the foaming torrents in 'Niagara' straight to the Rome Opera where his mother is grandly...

(The entire section is 338 words.)