Bernardo Bertolucci: Why MoMA Retrospective Makes Me Nervous

Italian director of such films as 'Last Tango in Paris' and 'The Last Emperor' says the two-week event is causing some self-doubt.

NEW YORK -- “Am I an impostor?” So asks Italian master Bernardo Bertolucci, director of a slew of iconic films: The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris, 1900, The Last Emperor

Bertolucci is in New York for a retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art. But the two-week event -- co-produced by Cinecitta Luce and running through Jan. 12 -- has generated a tinge of self-doubt in the 70-year-old director, whose films have influenced everyone from Martin Scorsese to Steven Spielberg.
 
“There’s this inside questioning that comes,” he says. “Isn’t that dangerous to show everything over two weeks? I hope they do not have too many wrinkles or cobwebs.”
 
In fact, the retrospective is made up of all new prints of Bertolucci’s work, including 1967’s Oil, a rare documentary from the director, rediscovered and restored only a few years ago and making its U.S. premiere at MoMA. And while such sweeping retrospectives are generally reserved for artists in the throes or professional retirement, Bertolucci is embarking on a new film project, his first since 2003’s The Dreamers. It is an adaptation of Italian novelist Niccolo Ammaniti’s Io e Te (Me and You). Bertolucci said he is in the process of optioning the book, a coming-of-age story about a solipsistic young man who sequesters himself in a basement during the traditional Italian ski holiday (the settimana bianca, or “white week”). 
 
Sitting in a wheelchair (a necessity of multiple back surgeries) in a suite at New York’s Waldorf Astoria, Bertolucci lamented time wasted on many “absurd operations.” 
 
“For a few years,” he said, “I thought my love affair with cinema was over. So I’m happy to be here confronting this 40 years of work but knowing that the story isn’t finished.
 
“I am still excited about cinema, especially because it’s changing," he said, adding that he's interested in doing a movie in 3D. “But a normal story, using the 3D on the emotions.”
 
Attending the opening-night reception, Vittorio Storaro, Bertolucci’s longtime cinematographer, added: “I have always been impressed with the love affair that Bernardo has for writing with the camera.”
 
The 20-film retrospective opens with 1970’s The Conformist, a psychosexual thriller about a weak man whose overcompensation leads him to become a Fascist assassin. 
 
Bertolucci’s films triangulate the spiritual, political and physical. The theme of displacement is highly resonant for the director. His films are also highly personal; 2003’s The Dreamers is about three young people, an American and a French brother and sister, cloistered in a sprawling Paris apartment where they engage in escalating sexual exploration while the 1968 Paris student riots rage outside. 
 
“I wanted to go back to what for me was ’68,” explained Bertolucci, “the moment when the young people thought they could change the world.”
 
The film stars Eva Green, Louis Garrel and Michael Pitt, who plays Jimmy Darmody in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. But it was difficult to cast. Multiple actors declined, according to Bertolucci. “They were afraid about something that is called in this country 'frontal nudity.' ”
 
Compared to the furor over the carnality -- and one particular sex scene with butter -- in 1972’s Last Tango in Paris, it was a mild brush with the institutional roadblocks of sexual repression. When Tango was released in Italy, all copies of it were destroyed and Bertolucci was put on trial for “obscenity.”
 
“I wasn’t really thinking there was a big scandal,” he said. “In Italy, I was condemned to two months of prison.”
 
The MPAA gave the film an X rating, and in 1997, after some revisions, downgraded it to NC-17, a rating Bertolucci calls “a kind of perversion.”
 
And while directors may not be threatened with prison for crossing perceived lines of decorum, the recent fight over the MPAA’s NC-17 rating for the Ryan Gosling/Michelle Williams film Blue Valentine, for a scene that includes oral sex, underscores the stasis of institutional attitudes toward sex in the culture and in film.
 
Tango also got Bertolucci in trouble with his notoriously temperamental star: Marlon Brando. After the film was done and Brando confronted the raw and highly personal emotionalism of his own performance, said Bertolucci, “He was very upset with me. I said, ‘You are an adult. Didn’t you realize what you were doing?’”
 
Brando did not speak to Bertolucci for 15 years. Then one day, the director phoned Brando at his Mulholland Drive home. “And he picked up the phone,” said Bertolucci. Brando told him to come over. “I was driving there, and I was so emotional, I think I will crash the car,” he said. “But he greeted me like a friend.”
 
Despite the personal upheaval involved inTango, one of the most challenging films to make was The Last Emperor, a biography about the last Emperor of China. Bertolucci and his producer Jeremy Thomas were granted unprecedented access from the Chinese authorities to film in China’s Forbidden City. A coronation scene with 2,000 extras was particularly nerve-racking. There were barbers cutting the extras’ hair in the queue style (shaved in the front with a long braided ponytail in the back).
 
“This barber is cutting fast,” recalled Bertolucci. “And I saw this great mountain of hair. And it gave me some anxiety.”
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