These words are spoken by a dying novelist to a young admirer in Henry James’s 1893 short story The Middle Years. What makes Bertolucci’s memory of them more touching is that he omitted what the novelist says right before: “A second chance — that’s the delusion. There never was to be but one.”
Was Bertolucci thinking of second chances? He has had a few, having been an Italian bourgeois son in the 1940s, a French New Wave disciple in the 1960s, a venerated European auteur in the 1970s and a global art-house brand in the 1980s. In 1962, at 21, he was an award-winning poet with a first feature, The Grim Reaper, at the Venice Film Festival. Two years later, he was in Cannes with Before the Revolution. There were more successes, including nine Oscars for his 1987 epic The Last Emperor.
Henry James was 50 when The Middle Years was published. Bertolucci was several years older when he quoted the story from memory. He had recently finished his 1996 film, Stealing Beauty, which signalled his return to Italy. But this wasn’t the overtly political and fractious country of his earlier films, as in the startlingly precocious Before the Revolution, which centres on Fabrizio, a tormented, self-lacerating child of the bourgeoisie who struggles to reconcile his Marxism with his “nostalgia for the present.”
The Italy of Stealing Beauty, by contrast, belongs to British writers and artists, and by extension, the Anglophone audience that seemed to be its intended audience.
In age and occupation, Bertolucci came closer to the film’s middle-aged artists who blot out the world much as Marlon Brando’s character does in Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, made more than two decades earlier.
Having shifted from the politically themed films that satisfied a certain demography in the 1960s and ’70s, Bertolucci, now 69, has changed direction again, working on more intimate films rather than the sweeping epics that had satisfied still others in the 1980s and ’90s. Once routinely deemed “one of the most influential filmmakers of our time”, he has been eclipsed by international auteurs like Abbas Kiarostami, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Michael Haneke, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Lars von Trier. Filmmakers that Bertolucci inspired, like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, have become old masters.
One of the pleasures of his work, even when the films are less than agreeable, is that they can be difficult to put into the neat little boxes adored by critics.
Before the Revolution is often described as political because its protagonist struggles to be a Marxist. Certainly the film is about personal struggle. After it opened in Paris in January 1968, Bertolucci described it as the crystallisation of “my own inability to be a Marxist, being a bourgeois”. Four months later, Paris was in flames, galvanising artists and intellectuals. For Bertolucci, however, the eye opener of May 1968 was his realisation “that I wanted the revolution not to help the poor but for myself.” He added, “I wanted the world to change for me.”
This might seem a surprising confession, particularly given that he joined the Italian Communist Party in 1969, the same year he started psychoanalysis, thereby joining Marx with Freud. That same year he shot one of his greatest films, The Spider’s Stratagem, and began shooting one of his most celebrated, The Conformist. Both address Italy’s fascist past through fragmented narratives and striking visual styles, and are based on literary texts.
Set in a cinematic vision of the 1930s and employing hopscotching flashback, The Conformist stars Jean-Louis Trintignant as Marcello, who agrees to assassinate an antifascist professor. His reason: he says he wants to be “normal,” a desire reflected in his plans to marry and in his repression of the memory of a childhood sexual encounter with a male chauffeur whom he mistakenly believes he murdered.
Bertolucci has been criticised for associating homosexuality with fascism, yet it is precisely Marcello’s suppression of his desires, his murderous conformity, which are perverse. By killing the professor, he will prove his normalcy with a death that echoes his violent, contradictory fantasies about his early homosexual encounter.
Bertolucci commits a shadow assassination by associating the professor, whom Marcello calls his spiritual father, with Jean-Luc Godard. As he did with many others in the 1960s, Godard seemed to haunt Bertolucci, who invoked him axiomatically in interviews. A close friend of Bertolucci’s father, Pier Paolo Pasolini, who had made the future director an assistant on his first film, Accattone, was the easier father to kill.
Godard, whose narrative experiments dovetailed with his radical politics, proved harder to exorcise. Absurdly, as if conceding the impossibility of ever being Godard, Bertolucci went so far as to assert: “I am Marcello, and I make fascist films and I want to kill Godard who is a revolutionary.”
Well, that was one way to sell The Conformist. However self-mocking (and self-aggrandising), he was asserting his right to his own cinema, but now more forcefully than he had in Before the Revolution.
Bertolucci elaborated on pre-revolutionary yearning when he spoke about cinema and his childhood, when going to the movies meant you could “lose yourself in the collective dream, the ecstasy of participating in the rite of the film.”
This image invokes what Freud called the oceanic feeling and “of being at one with the external world as whole,” and expressed Bertolucci’s new desire to be embraced by the audience.
To some, his declaration of love for the audience might sound like the rationalisation of a filmmaker who, while hungering for mainstream acceptance, was anxious about being perceived as a sellout. Yet, finding fault with filmmakers for their choices reeks of prescriptive art. The Conformist is political. And so too is Bertolucci’s Little Buddha.
“Every movie becomes, for me, autobiographical,” Bertolucci announced rather gratuitously in 1977, right before the American premiere of his vexed epic 1900. It’s an attempt to grapple with Italian history that, as is true of any work which enters the world, is now part of history. Given this, to ask whether Bertolucci still matters is to miss the irrefutable and obvious point that his films are part of cinema and, in this sense, have never not mattered.