Legendary Oscar-Winner Bernardo Bertolucci's Career Celebrated at MoMA

If there was any director that deserved a retrospective it is Italy's Bernardo Bertolucci. And if any film in his canon should be celebrated it should be.
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If there was any director that deserved a retrospective it is Italy's Bernardo Bertolucci. And if any film in his canon should be celebrated it should be The Conformist. His 1970 film tackled big questions in deeply personal ways and did with a range of deep emotions. But then he deserves the attention as well for his gorgeous The Last Emperor, his epic 1900 and his spiritually enlightening Little Buddha.

At 21, Bertolucci debuted his first film, The Grim Reaper, at 1962's Venice Film Festiva. Since then, the now 70-year-old auteur has earned nearly every award or accolade a filmmaker aspires to. While he has experimented with form and content, he consistently has enjoyed mainstream audiences worldwide. By viewing this career-spanning series one can appreciate this balance he has struck.

Running from mid-December, 2010 to January 12th, 2011, the series highlights several of his greatest films including The Sheltering Sky and Last Tango in Paris and in particular, The Conformist, which kicked off the series and can still be seen on January 2nd, 2011, at 5 pm in MoMa's Titus 1 Theater.

Now confined to a wheelchair due to back surgery, the Parma-born filmmaker did this small roundtable interview just as the MoMA series began and a show of 140 photographs shot on his various sets debuted at The Art Director's Club on December 17th and continues until January 10th, 2011.

Q: What was your initial reaction when you were approached about this retrospective? Did you think it was the right time?

BB: Because the Museum of Modern Art is kind of mythic [to me], I felt it was extraordinary. I felt so honored and gratified. When I see these things that's all about my life, there is this question inside that comes [forward], "Am I an impostor? Isn't it dangerous to show all of yourself in the same moment?"

Q: Is there one film in the retrospective that you're especially excited about that audiences will either rediscover or experience for the first time?

BB: I don't see my movies. When you ask me about one of my movies, it just goes in my memory because sometimes I confuse one for another one. I think all movies are like sequences of the body of my work -- there isn't really one movie..

Q: Why don't you see your movies?

BB: It's healthier and safer to keep a bit of distance. I'm afraid to be disappointed.

Q: Where did you find inspiration for your films? You cover so many subjects.

BB: Every time is a different way, a different story, a different love story. Sometimes it's a book I read, sometimes it's a story I heard. With 1900, I wanted to do a poem about where I was born -- [the family, the farmers, and the land owners]. This universe was very present in my childhood.

Sometime after I shot The Conformist an old friend of mine in New York asked me, "Why don't you write a movie for me?" So in one morning I wrote two pages and gave him those pages. It was called One Day and One Night and One Day and One Night, about a man and a woman meeting and discovering that they both need a strong physical communication; they don't talk about anything else. So it was an idea really about communicating.

The Conformist came from a book by Alberto Moravia. I made The Dreamers because I really wanted to go back after I heard so much nonsense about '68. I wanted to go back to what for me was '68, when young people thought that they could change the world. There isn't really a single way that repeats itself.

Q: Your films triangulate between the spiritual, the sexual and the political with different levels of emphasis particular to the film; but where do you find the relationship in the triangle?

BB: Life is like that: spiritual, physical, political. Because I'm not sure what the movie will look like when I'm doing it, I don't know. Sometimes I think that I [only] really understand my movies after I make them. I very often go on instinct. The Dreamers comes from a book by Gilbert Adair called The Holy Innocents. He was so precise about '68 that, because I had this need to go back, I decided to make a movie out of it.

I find new actors [and] new people for my movies -- which is exciting. Eva [Green] had never done anything before The Dreamers, except, maybe, once on stage. Because Louis [Garrel's] father is a very good film French film director, I was very familiar [with him].

And Michael [Pitt]... When I came here in 2002 looking for an American kid, I finally found two, and then they withdrew because they were afraid of something that, in this country, is called, "frontal nudity." So this blond guy was in the casting director's office, and he said, "You will choose me" with a smile that was so irritating. In the end I took him. Michael's working. He has worked with Martin Scorsese.

Q: He's a very singular guy.

BB: He's just a street boy. He told me that he ran away from school when he was 15, and came to New York from New Jersey. I can't imagine what a 15, 16-year-old can do in New York alone.

Q: You've several films where you go from the Italian experience to Asia, and you seem to have had a fascination with Asian culture and even Buddhism. Can you talk a little bit about that and what you were going through at the time and what led you to explore that?

BB: There were three movies together. One was The Last Emperor, shot in China, then The Sheltering Sky made in the Sahara desert, then Little Buddha, done in India. In the beginning, when I went to China [for] the first time it was really like going away from a country I didn't like much. There was a feeling of corruption.

Somebody gave me that book, which is the so-called autobiography of the last emperor, and I was fascinated by the story of a man who goes from being king of the world to becoming one of the minions of Mao. His itinerary was extraordinary, and also because it was talking about ancient times, because his youth in the Forbidden City is like 500 years ago. And then he has to accept the reality. So that was displacement.

Then [screenwriter/director] Mark Peploe gave me something to read, The Sheltering Sky, and it was the story of this couple unable to exchange, going so far, unable to communicate. I was very fascinated because it was far away from my country.

Little Buddha was made because I read about a little boy who was considered the incarnation of an old Lama. And also entering into Buddhism was like entering the universe. All these young monks, young lamas, are leaving these monasteries and they are as smart and sophisticated as some of the intellectuals you can meet in New York. Fascinating.

I'm very fascinated by different cultures, [especially when] they are different from my culture. That is the opposite of what many people today are feeling. Some people are so afraid of the difference, and in fact The Conformist is about that -- a man who feels his homosexuality without really knowing it. We discover at the end of the film that he thinks he has killed somebody he didn't kill, and that he is affected by the feeling of being abused, etcetera.

Q: Did you get to meet the Dalai Lama?

BB: Oh yeah. Before even starting to write, I went to see him. He was actually with the government in exile in a hotel in Vienna, and I thought about the Dalai Lama and Freud; strange connection. I [told] him I would like to do a movie explaining Buddhism to the children because in the West we have such a confused idea about Buddhism. He laughed -- and he often does -- and said, "That's good." Then I said, "Can I call it Little Buddha because it's like Buddhism explained to children?" And he said, "Yes... You know, we all have a little Buddha inside."

Then I saw him again. He was traveling a lot and came to the premiere of Little Buddha in Paris -- can you believe that? It was a huge screen in Paris and he sat next to me. Before he when made a little speech, he said, "I've seen many movies because I have television in hotel rooms but this is the first time I've stepped into a movie theater. " Then he sat next to me and the movie started and he took my hand and he said, "It's so big."

He recognized some old lamas that I found, and was recognizing these other people. He's retired -- I don't know if he's really gone -- it was in the press recently. He told me that in '93, "In 20 years I will retire, I will become a single monk, and finally live the life of a single monk."

Q: Do you have a movie that stands out that was the hardest to make or the most challenging in terms of location, actors or subjects?

BB: When you are in the courtyard of the Supreme Army in the Forbidden City with 2,000 extras in costume... I remember the evening before shooting that scene, I passed by with a car and in the courtyard there [were] soldiers all from the People's Revolution Army. I remember they were all sitting there like 10, 15 chairs under the sky, and barbers [were] all cutting the hair, and they were cutting fast. And I saw this mountain of hair and it gave me some anxiety. With actors I don't remember having.

Q: You once said something about Marlon Brando being like, "a monster as an actor and a darling as a human being." You also talked about excavating his emotions.

BB: I was thinking that it was like a dialogue where he was really answering my questions in a way. When at the end of the movie, when he saw it, I discovered that he realized what we were doing, that he was delivering so much of his own experience. And he was very upset with me, and I told him, "Listen, you are a grownup. Older than me. Didn't you realize what you were doing?" And he didn't talk to me for years.

Q: It was like 15 years.

BB: Something like that. I called him one day in '93, I think, I was in LA and my wife was shooting a movie. First of all, he answered the phone, and he was talking to me like we had seen each other a day earlier. He said, "Come here." I said, "When?" He said, "Now." So I remember driving on Mulholland Drive to his home and thinking I think I won't make it, I think I will crash before [I get there]. I was so emotional.

Q: Having started so young as a filmmaker, are you amazed that you continue to make movies? Sometimes people start at 21 and don't know that they're even going to have as a career by the time they're 30.

BB: How could I? You live day by day. You can't build your life.

Q: There's some aspect of ambition in your life -- filmmakers have to be ambitious to shape the vision of a film.

BB: Oh yeah.

Q: Artistic ambition.

BB: When I was 21 shooting a movie was I thinking of the Oscars? No, I wasn't. I remember very well my first movie, '62, I'm producing the movie in the London Film Festival, and Jean-Paul Sartre had just received the Nobel for Literature and refused it. And I hear my voice saying, "If one day I should receive the Oscar I would refuse it." Contradiction.

Q: Did you ever think, "Oh I'm just going to go back to writing poetry?"

BB: If only... Sometimes I think so, but I would be pathetic because finally I found something I know how to do. I feel excited about cinema, especially because it's changing. It is technically changing -- there's a new universe from digital [technology]. Also, I am in love with the idea of doing a movie in 3D. I think 3D would be great [for] the story I want to do, in a realistic, normal story, using 3D on the emotions in a kind of intimate story.

Q: What filmmakers are you following now? What have become your favorite films of the past five years or so?

BB: I very much like David Lynch films. He seems not to be working at the moment.

Q: How about someone like Darren Aronofsky?

BB: I like the intensity. He married an actress that, in fact, I discovered for the first time, Rachel Weisz, and she was in Stealing Beauty.

Q: You certainly brought out things in Eva Green that I don't think have been shown. She was amazing in The Dreamers.

BB: Yes, but she's very cautious about what she does. She's mysterious. The most important thing is for somebody [to be] mysterious; to be somebody with the mystery of intelligence.

Q: Is it possible today for filmmakers to experiment artistically and be successful?

BB: It is a bit like that always. I like to try things which are new. You think that you have done something new, and then find out that nothing is new. When I see something experimental, I rarely ever get pleasure because experimental doesn't mean automatically beautiful or achieved. But when the two things happen together -- when somebody's really inspired, and they find a new way of expression, a new language, a new way of talking, I feel excited. I'm ready to go to very young directors because they have new ideas about how to speak and how to speak to the people.

The Conformist was maybe the beginning of my [diary] with the [audience] because I didn't have the need to communicate. I said it before but it's true. Going from knowing cinema as a form of monologue, to [experience] cinema as a form of dialogue, I found out it is important to feel the feedback from an audience, like when I went to Lincoln Center for the first show of Last Tango in Paris. There is the dark sound of when you stand up and [push] the seat back, [but also] there were all these people standing up and leaving the theater [as well].

Q: No one was booing or shouting during the screening given how provocative the sex scenes were?

BB: Yeah, there was somebody booing, but somebody also defending.

Q: Does it make you look back and think about how you would have done things differently?

BB: I'm trying to look ahead because my past is so full of different adventures. I think of The Conformist, Dominique and Stefania, and then I think of being in the Forbidden City with these extras in front of a little boy. And I was telling the little boy to look at them and he was looking and he'd say, "My mother and my father do it all the time." That was his reaction, more or less. So I like this displacement, I like the kind of little vertigo.

Q: Besides the fact that Dominique Sanda's in it, which is a great highlight, The Conformist also took so many new approaches and had lots of sexually controversial aspects to it. When you look back on it now, do you find it odd that you broke so many boundaries or rules and probably weren't even thinking about it in those terms?

BB: I wasn't really thinking. Last Tango in Paris was a big scandal [because of the sex scenes with Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider], and I couldn't understand it. In Italy I've been condemned to two months of prison. Times were so different. Sometimes you are in sync with the times, sometimes you are in advance, sometimes you are late. These aspects were obviously very important for me. When you're quite young, the temptation of transgression was something very much in my movies.

Q: Are you surprised how times don't seem to have changed in America?

BB: Everything seems very, very similar. I was just depressed; I watched a murder on TV. Big guy in a school shoots. Before that he has a red spray can and on the wall he makes a circle in a V, exactly like the logo in the movie [V For Vendetta]. In this country I've seen extraordinarily strong things.

[Once] in New York I saw a live program -- a man who robbed a bank and held hostages, and then he was closed between the bank door and another door, a glass door -- and he had no way to escape. The TV [crew] was filming him, and then he put the gun there and the camera goes closer and closer and closer. Finally, when he felt it was close enough, he shot himself. That was kind of an [extreme] example of live television.

Q: We have a double standard with our tolerance for sex and our tolerance for violence. We have so much tolerance for violence, but if it's sex, like Last Tango it makes people uncomfortable.

BB: It's a bit like that in other countries too. But in Italy, when I said I was sentenced for Last Tango in Paris, it was a feeling like it was a gesture of honor -- like I bring you the head of Last Tango in Paris to the Vatican, to the moralist part of the church.

Q: The Conformist has that erotic scene with Dominique Sanda and the other actress, and you have that well framed -- then when you show the violence, you pull back and have some of it in the distance. It's so different from the American approach to violence. You took the opposite.

BB: I should see it again.

Q: It's one of the benchmark movies of all time. I saw it 25 years ago, and again more recently.

BB: I know there are new prints of these movies so I hope that they don't have too many wrinkles and spider webs.

Q: And now you're working on a new film.

BB: It's very exciting because my last movie, The Dreamers, was made seven years ago in 2003.After that I had back problems and started to waste time in absurd back operations. For a few years I thought that my love story with cinema was finished.

A few months ago, I read a novel in Italian by Nicolo Ammaniti. In Italian, the book is called Lo e Te. I felt a big desire to go back to shooting. So I'm very excited to be here confronting these many years of work between 1962 and 2000; [almost] 40 years of work but, [at least I] know that the story isn't finished...

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