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With a title that harks back to British publisher Faber and Faber’s sadly discontinued series of books on filmmakers (Scorsese on Scorsese, et al), dense, intimate documentary Bertolucci on Bertolucci feels squarely aimed at serious film buffs and scholars. Co-directed by Walter Fasano (best known as an editor) and Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love), the duo have compiled their tribute almost entirely from rare archive clips and interviews from the 1950s to the present. The result is a rich, thematically structured essay film covering both the highlights of Bernardo Bertolucci’s venerable career (The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris, The Last Emperor) and the less celebrated works with equal seriousness.
After its debut at the Venice film festival, Bertolucci on Bertolucci is now making the inevitable further rounds of the festival circuit, stopping off first in London. Upmarket broadcast channels and DVD box sets, however, represent the film’s most natural habitat.
Essentially, the documentary methodically works through the course of Bertolucci’s career, from his beginnings as a poet and later Pier Paolo Pasolini’s assistant, to his most recent feature, Me and You. Nevertheless, Fasano and Guadagnino ambitiously, and successfully, make things a little harder for themselves by adding in a thematic baseline that’s, pleasingly, just slightly out of synch with the chronological story.
With editorial sleight of hand, they contrive to have questions posed by interviewers in one clip seemingly answered in another excerpt, so as address, for instance, Bertolucci’s thoughtful musings on Freud and his own experience of decades of psychoanalysis. Likewise, a stretch of juxtaposed clips covers his shifting political views, from his days as a young Marxist firebrand while promoting Before the Revolution (1964), to the time-mellowed reflections, prompted by the making of The Dreamers (2003), on the meaning of the events of May ’68. Other strands that crop up throughout include the director’s love of opera, particularly Verdi, his intense on- and off-set relationships with actors, such as Marlon Brando, and his love-hate relationship with Hollywood studios and their financial muscle.
Although Bertolucci isn’t given an onscreen credit beyond the title itself, it’s obvious the film wouldn’t have been made without his direct collaboration, and thus no surprise it completely eschews any critical assessment of his work. His is practically the only voice heard aside from the occasional, barely visible interviewer, like Jeremy Isaacs or Mark Cousins. Even so, there are moments when the director’s usual mask of self-assured confidence slips, especially when discussing the less successful or more controversial features (1979’s Luna, for example). Whatever viewers might feel about the individual films themselves, it’s hard not to warm to the erudite, forceful and self-critical man seen here, especially in the last hour where he discusses overcoming physical disability (he’s largely wheelchair-bound now) to continue making films in the present.
Even though beautifully grainy black & white footage from the early 1960s rubs up against scuzzy-looking 80s-era footage shot on old video formats, Fasano’s elegant editing creates a remarkable fluidity. Meanwhile, a score that overlays snatches from soundtracks on Bertolucci’s film scores creates a further sense of cohesion and flow. Fans of I Am Love who are drawn to the film on the strength of Guadagnino’s name alone might struggle to see his directorial hand at work here directly, but Bertolucci on Bertolucci will do nothing to damage Guadagnino’s solid reputation as a documentarian, established well before Love became an arthouse hit.
Production companies: Frenesy Film in association with Kimerafilm
Producer: Luca Guadagnino
Executive producers: Sila Berruti
Associate producers: Simone Isola, Ermanno Guida, Paola Bogna, Laura Tosti, Simona Giacci
Starring: Bernardo Bertolucci, Marlon Brando, Michael Pitt, Louis Garrel, Eva Green
Directors: Walter Fasano, Luca Guadagnino
Cinematographer: Davide Manca
Editors: Walter Fasano
Archive research: Gianna Franceschini, Sila Berruti
Unrated, 102 minutes
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Santa Barbara International Film Festival