January 3, 2011  |  Film
Bertolucci on Bertolucci

Bernardo Bertolucci. Photo by Brad Balfour

In December I had the very amazing opportunity to participate in a roundtable interview with famed Italian director and screenwriter Bernardo Bertolucci, who was in town for the opening of MoMA’s full-career retrospective of his work. I’ll admit I was pretty excited, although somewhat trepidatious, about meeting this legend—he debuted his first film at age 21 and has won nearly every film award and accolade possible since. But Bernardo Bertolucci couldn’t have been more gracious, as well as refreshingly direct, about discussing his films. I hope that you enjoy this interview, and also urge you to see as many Bertolucci films as possible before the retrospective closes on January 12.

Q: Are you working on a new film now? Let’s hear a little bit about the present before we go into the past.

BB: To me it’s very exciting because my last movie was seven years ago, The Dreamers, in 2003. Then after that I had back problems and started to waste time in absurd back operations. For a few years I thought that the love story with cinema was finished. Then in fact, a few months ago, I read a novel, all in Italian by Niccolò Ammaniti and I felt a big desire to go back to shoot. So I’m very excited to be here confronting this panel of many years of work between 1962 and 2000—some 40 years of work. But knowing that the story isn’t finished.

Novecento (1900). 1976. Italy/France/West Germany. Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. Pictured: Robert De Niro, Gérard Depardieu

Q: Where do you find your inspiration for your films?

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. In 1900 (Novecento) (1976) I wanted to do a kind of poem about where I was born, my family, the farmers, the land owners. This universe was very present in my childhood. After I shot The Conformist (1970) in New York an old friend of mine said to me “Why don’t you write a movie for me?” So in one morning I wrote two pages and I gave him these two pages, it was called “One Day and One Night and One Day and One Night,” and it was about a man and a woman meeting and discovering that they both need a strong communication which is physical; they don’t talk about anything else. The Conformist comes from a book by Alberto Moravia. Dreamers was 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 which repeats itself.

The Dreamers. 2003. Italy/France/UK. Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. Pictured: Michael Pitt, Eva Green, Louis Garrel. Courtesy of Fiction Srl

Q: It seems like your films triangulate between the spiritual, the sexual, and the political. Do you find that to be the case?

BB: Life is like that; spiritual, physical, political. I don’t know because I don’t know really when I’m doing a movie what the movie will be. Sometimes I think that I understand my movies after I make them. Really. I go very often off of instinct. Dreamers came from a book by Gilbert Adair called The Holy Innocents. He was so precise about ’68, and because I had this need to go back I decided to make a movie out of it. I found new actors, new people for my movies, which is exciting I think.

Q: Is there any one film in the retrospective that you’re excited about audiences either rediscovering or experiencing 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 maybe sometimes I confuse one for another. I think all movies are like sequences which is the body of my work.

Q: Why don’t you see your movies?

BB: Because I think it’s healthier and safer to keep a bit of distance. I’m afraid to be disappointed.

Last Tango in Paris. 1972. Italy/France. Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. Pictured: Marlon Brando, Maria Schneider. Courtesy of Fiction Srl

Q: The Conformist took many new approaches to things and had lots of sexually controversial aspects to it. When you look back do you find it odd that you broke so many boundaries or rules when you probably weren’t even thinking in those terms?

BB: I wasn’t really thinking about it like that. Last Tango in Paris (1972) was a big scandal and I couldn’t understand it. In Italy I was 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 for me obviously very important. Being quite young, temptation and transgression were very present in my movies.

Q: Have you been following the controversy surrounding the film Blue Valentine? The film got an NC-17 rating recently that was overturned.

BB: Oh yeah, I heard about it. I haven’t seen the film but the story itself gives me a lot of memories. NC-17 is a kind of perversion in itself.

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

BB: Everything seems very, very similar. 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 glass door and he had no way to escape. The TV was filming him and the camera goes closer and closer and closer. And he was waiting and finally, when he felt it was closer, he shot himself. That was kind of an extraordinary example of live television.

Q: We have a double standard with our tolerance for sex and our tolerance for violence.

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

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

BB: I felt it was extraordinary. I felt so honored and gratified. In the meantime, when I see these things that are all about all my life there is this inside question that comes: am I an impostor? And I thought, isn’t it dangerous to show all of yourself in the same moment?

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

BB: Yeah. I’m trying to look ahead, even because my past is so full of different adventures.

The Sheltering Sky. 1990. Great Britain/Italy. Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. Pictured: Debra Winger, John Malkovich

Q: You have 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.

BB: There were three movies together. One was The Last Emperor (1987), in China, then The Sheltering Sky (1990) in the Sahara desert, then Little Buddha (1993) in India. I think when I went to China the first time it was really like going away from a country I didn’t like much. There was a feeling of corruption. So somebody gave me the 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 the book was talking about ancient times, because the emperor’s youth in the Forbidden City was like 500 years ago. And then he has to accept the reality. So that was displacement. Then Mark Peploe gave me The Sheltering Sky to read and it was the story of this couple unable to exchange, unable to communicate. I was very fascinated also because it was away, far from my country. Then Little Buddha was because I read about a little boy who was considered the incarnation of an old Lama. 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. I’m very fascinated by different cultures, 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, about a man who feels homosexuality without really knowing it.

Little Buddha. 1993. Italy/France/Liechtenstein/UK. Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. Courtesy of Fiction Srl

Q: Did you 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, oh the Dalai Lama and Freud; strange connection. And when I asked him that 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 said that’s good. And then I said “Can I call it Little Buddha? Because it’s like Buddhism explained to children.” And he said “Yes.” And he said “You know, we all have a little Buddha inside.” And can you believe that he came to the premiere of Little Buddha in Paris? There was a huge screen in the Paris theater. Before he made a little speech, he said “This is the first time I’ve stepped into a movie theater. I saw many movies because I have television in hotel rooms.” Then he sat next to me and the movie started and he took my hand and he said “It’s so big.”

The Last Emperor. 1987. China/Italy/Great Britain/France. Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. Pictured: Richard Vuu

Q: Do you have a movie that stands out as the hardest or most challenging for you to make?

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 in a car and the courtyard was full of soldiers from the People’s Revolution Army. And I remember they were all sitting there and barbers were cutting their hair, and they were cutting fast. And I saw this mountain of hair and it gave me some anxiety.

Q: Starting as a filmmaker so young are you amazed that you continue to do it? Did you know you would have this career?

BB: No, how could I? You live day by day. You can’t build your life.

Q: There’s no part in ambition? A filmmaker has to be ambitious to shape the vision of a film. There’s must be in ambition in your life.

BB: You think when I was 21 shooting a movie I was thinking of the Oscars? No, I wasn’t. And I remember very well my first movie. In 1962 I produced a 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 think 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’s changing technically, there’s a new universe from digital. And I am in love with the idea of doing a movie in 3-D. I think 3-D would be great in the story I want to do, in a realistic, normal story, using the 3-D for the emotions in a kind of intimate story.

Il conformista (The Conformist). 1970. Italy/France/West Germany. Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. Pictured: Jean Louis Trintignant, Dominique Sanda

Q: Do you think it’s possible for filmmakers to experiment artistically and also be successful now?

BB: I think it is a bit like always. I always 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 it’s experimental, it doesn’t mean automatically beautiful or achieved. But when the two things happen together, when somebody’s really inspired and finds 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 is maybe the beginning of my dialogue with them because I didn’t have the need to communicate. I said it before but I think it’s true. I have gone from cinema as a monologue, a form of monologue, to cinema as a form of dialogue, because I found out it is important to feel the feedback from an audience, like going to Lincoln Center for the first show of Last Tango in Paris. The dark sound of people standing up and the seats going back, and there were all these people standing up and leaving the theater.

Q: No one was booing or shouting during the screening?

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