ARTS 'Stealing Beauty' is a refreshing return to form for one of Italy's most controversial film directors. In a rare interview, Bernardo Bertolucci talks to Lee Marshall about the ups and downs of an extraordinary career
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As Oscar Wilde might have said: "To be awarded one Oscar, Mr Bertolucci, may be regarded as a misfortune. To be awarded nine in the same evening looks like carelessness."

Ever since that night in April 1987 when The Last Emperor picked up every one of the Academy Awards for which it had been nominated, Bernardo Bertolucci has had to live with the Curse of the Nine Oscars. The last director to bag nine out of nine was Vincente Minnelli with Gigi in 1958 - and it didn't do much for his career either.

It's a voodoo Bertolucci is quick to shrug off: "For a European director like me, the Oscar doesn't have the same magic aura that it has for the Americans." More than the overdose of the ceremony itself, he remembers the frozen smile of the talk-show host later on that evening, and the sudden hush that descended on the TV studio in Los Angeles when he remarked casually that "if New York is the Big Apple, LA for me tonight is the Big Nipple".

Without the trademark wide-brimmed hat, Bertolucci looks remarkably like a cockney market trader - an impression reinforced by the 55-year- old director's sharp sense of mischief, and his willingness to speak his mind on just about any subject you care to mention. But he's not always an easy interviewee, especially on the home ground of his producer Jeremy Thomas's London office. Bertolucci is what Italians call permaloso - "permeable", ie. touchy and annoyingly good at reading hidden agendas. Before I'd even formulated the question, he was in there with an answer: "No, I don't feel that the Oscars conditioned me in any way. I didn't feel under any obligation to follow The Last Emperor formula, simply because it got results."

Bertolucci wants to talk to me because he has a new film out: Stealing Beauty, which opens in Britain at the end of the month. I want to talk to him because I've seen Stealing Beauty. For all its faults (chief among which is a plot with more holes than a Versace dress), the film is a refreshing return to form after the exotic trilogy which has absorbed the director's energies over the last 12 years.

The distinguishing feature of your average Bertolucci film is that it is totally unlike any of the others. But the last three have shared some common ground: they were all filmed in far-flung locations (The Last Emperor in Beijing, The Sheltering Sky in Morocco and Niger, and Little Buddha in Bhutan), they were all expensive epics, and they were all about the bewilderment of exile. Oh, and they were all, in the opinion of many critics, big, worthy, beautiful and cold.

There is a risk that the kind of very mannered, painterly shots in which Bertolucci specialises can function as cinematic postcards, distracting us from any other points the film is trying to make at the time. I ask him whether he would be capable of making an ugly film. "What do you mean?" he asks, warily. I mean, I explain, a film that is simply not nice to look at, a visually brutal film. He reflects for a while and then starts telling me about his childhood in Parma (his father, Attilio Bertolucci, is one of Italy's leading poets). "Growing up in such a beautiful city is a kind of dolce condanna, a sweet prison sentence. Look at our local painter, Parmigianino: he was the most decorative of all the Mannerists, the least tortured. I think beauty is in my DNA. If I were to film a boy rolling around in a pile of shit it would look like gold."

There is a concensus of opinion that Bertolucci's best period stretched from Before the Revolution (1964) to Last Tango in Paris (1972), taking in those art-house staples The Spider's Stratagem and The Conformist (both made in the annus mirabilis of 1970) along the way. The director may be right in dismissing this judgement as mere critical orthodoxy, and it would be inverted snobbery to suggest that when a director starts winning Oscars his career is finished. But it is tempting, isn't it?

The Last Emperor took on board Hollywood production values and Hollywood scale and was rewarded for it. Those Oscars were the fruit of a $25m budget, a cast of thousands, and the sheer sensual overload you get when you combine China, decadence and the gorgeous camera-angles of the director's long- time collaborator Vittorio Storaro. Bertolucci informs me proudly that more than one movie executive came up to him after the first American screenings and said: "Your film reminds me of why I went into this game in the first place." It's a great anecdote, but one that reflects as much on the tastes of American movie executives as on the undeniable power and artistry of Bertolucci's film. Somehow you can't imagine a Hollywood studio chief saying the same thing to Mike Leigh.

Stealing Beauty is set in a beautiful rustic villa in the heart of Chianti - though Bertolucci is careful to avoid the "Chiantishire" cliche. Granted, the house belongs to an expatriate couple - but he is Irish, not English, an artist, not a stockbroker, and as fond of a smoke of what his wife charmingly calls "pot" as he is of a swig of Chianti classico. Still, this is not a Chianti of coke-fuelled raves, as some hysterical recent press coverage might have led us to believe. However unorthodox the film's expats may appear to disgruntled real-life residents like Lord Lampton, the sculptor (Donal McCann), his wife (Sinead Cusack) and their odd friends and relations are the kind of foreign eccentrics you mind find anywhere from Marbella to Mustique. Among the hangers-on are a dying writer (played with some finesse by Jeremy Irons), a cussed old French art dealer (the redoubtable Jean Marais, Cocteau's muse and companion, still in fine form at the age of 86) who has nothing whatsoever to do with the plot, and an equally pointless agony aunt (Stefania Sandrelli, 25 years after her brilliantly vacuous performance in The Conformist).

Into this scene of summery bohemian complacency steps Lucy, an 18-year- old American girl, who was last here a few years earlier with her mother. The mother, a tortured, fashion-loving poetess in the Sylvia Plath mould, has since committed suicide, and Lucy has come back to find herself, find her real father, and lose her virginity - in more or less that order.

Lucy is played by Liv Tyler, the up-and-coming American actress who is the daughter of Aerosmith's Steve Tyler (and who has since been bagged by Woody Allen for his new film). "I interviewed loads of girls for the part, but none of them was quite right," says Bertolucci. "Then I met Liv in New York. It was impossible to tell how old she was. One moment she was a little girl, the next she was Ava Gardner." Thoroughly besotted, he gave her the part, and when she proved that she could also act, edited the film around her. Francois Truffaut once said that all a film-maker really needs to do is to choose a beautiful woman and keep the camera on her face - and Bertolucci made sure that Darius Khondji, his new cinematographer, did just that. There is some justification in the plot for such voyeurism: like all artists, the inmates of the villa love to watch, almost as much as they love to talk. And the intense, lugubrious sculptor played by McCann has his own reasons for staring: he is taking Lucy's portrait in wood (Bertolucci saw McCann in The Steward of Christendom at the Royal Court and, in the usual blazing epiphany, "knew he had to be my sculptor"). But mostly, the camera looks at Liv Tyler because Liv Tyler looks good.

The sculptor is based on the director's close friend Matthew Spender, the sculptor son of Stephen Spender ("I wanted to get the artist right," says Bertolucci. "Most screen portrayals of artists are just pathetic"). Spender's wife Maro (daughter of painter Arshile Gorky) went to school with Bertolucci's wife, Clare Peploe (herself a director), and Mr and Mrs B often go to stay with Mr and Mrs S in their house near the village of San Sano in Chianti. Spender believes that one of his friend's most important qualities as a director is his ability to deal with people: "He's great at dealing with bad moods and tantrums, he never bears a grudge, and he's very paternal towards everyone on the set. He desperately wants them all to love each other." But he is also an incorrigible romantic, Spender adds. "His rose-tinted view of what really motivates the young people of today has little bearing on reality."

Bertolucci, however, believes that virginity is coming back into fashion. "Faced with a desert of political and moral values, young people are coming to place more emphasis on their sexual identity. For my generation, virginity was something you got rid of as soon as possible so you could get on with the glorious revolution. Today's youngsters are more thoughtful, more cautious."

The new film marks two significant returns. The first is Bertolucci's rediscovery of the domestic backdrop after the epic excesses of his last three films. When he began shooting Beauty last summer, he declared that he wanted to make "a very light film, a film that weighs no more than a few grams". A secretary at the Brolio wine estate where the film was shot, who had been seconded to work on the film, confided: "If that was light, I'd like to see what he means by heavy." The Spenders, too, were amazed by the size of the operation: it was only when she realised that she would have around 200 people romping through her living-room that Maro refused permission for Bertolucci to use casa Spender as his set. But the result certainly has a new lightness of touch. Asking his cast to think Chekhov and his cameraman to think Mozart and the Fauvist painters may come across as the height of pretentiousness, but it seems to have paid off.

The second significant return is the return to Italy. Bertolucci is a man of the Left, formerly a committed Marxist (reviewing Stealing Beauty in the New York Times, Janet Maslin pointed out that "in the early impassioned stage of his career ... [Bertolucci] might have preferred to see such characters lined up against a wall and shot"). He has not made a film in his native country since 1980. This is partly out of disgust at what he calls "the smell of corruption" exuded by Italy in the 1980s. "I'm an idealist," he says, "and cynicism floors me. I had to get as far away from it as possible - so I went to China."

But there was another, more personal reason for the director's disillusionment. After the Italian release of Last Tango in Paris, Bertolucci was tried for blasphemy in an Italian criminal court. In defiance of the critical opinion mobilised in support of the film's "artistic qualities", the judges gave Bertolucci a suspended sentence - something he still finds difficult to believe. "That was a very painful experience. First because Tango was treated as a porn film, and secondly because of the seriousness of the punishment - though the pleasure of being a martyr to the cause of free speech was some compensation. But the worst of it came a couple of years later, when I went along to ask why I hadn't received my voting certificate. The clerk at the records office took down a huge dusty register, found my name, and said: 'I'm terribly sorry, Mr Bertolucci, but you can't vote - you've been deprived of your civil rights.' I felt so humiliated."

It was only after Little Buddha (a film which got a frosty reception from both critics and public) that Bertolucci began to get homesick enough to consider "throwing myself back into the Italian fog". Plan A was to produce a third part of Novecento - the director's sprawling cinematic history of the 20th century. But he "couldn't face another epic". So he decided instead to "enter Italy through the back door, to see the country through the eyes of a group of foreigners. I wanted to film Tuscany as if I were filming Bhutan, or Niger." But Bertolucci also used the subject to get to grips with the aftermath of his own political radicalism: "I wanted to chart the lives of a group of Sixties rebels who have watched their utopias gradually fall apart, and have retreated into a sanctuary. They feel protected by all the beauty around them; they feel protected by the fact that the hill they can see from their terrace is the same hill that appears in early Renaissance paintings by Simone Martini or Sassetta. They have created a shield of beauty around themselves, an invisible Great Wall of China."

Bertolucci tells me that sanctuaries are the current thing - sanctuaries like fall-out shelters, just large enough to hold our closest family and friends. He also believes that "we've left behind us, thank God, the kind of moralism that condemns every sanctuary as an ivory tower". But I'm not convinced that Bertolucci the angry young Marxist is quite dead. He still suspects, deep down, that stealing beauty might be a crime.

! 'Stealing Beauty' (18) opens on 30 Aug. Bertolucci will be talking about his work on 21 Aug as part of the Edinburgh Film Festival (information on 0131 229 2550).

A SELECTIVE FILMOGRAPHY La Commare Secca / The Grim Reaper (1962). It was Bertolucci's father, a poet, who introduced him to Pier Paolo Pasolini - at the time, another poet, about to embark at the age of 39 on a career in films. In 1961, he invited the 21-year-old Bernardo to join him as assistant on Accatone, then provided the outline for Bertolucci's own debut film, this story of a slum murder, told through accounts of what each suspect was doing.

Prima della Rivoluzione / Before the Revolution (1964). Those who did not know life before the Revolution, Talleyrand said, could not imagine how sweet it could be. Bertolucci's second film showed that, like Jean- Luc Godard, he is not afraid to leave his audience bemused by historical and cultural references. The most obvious, here, is to Stendhal's novel La Chartreuse de Parme. Bertolucci explores the sexual and political dilemmas of a middle-class youth unable to escape his bourgeois upbringing. The Left found the film confused, the Catholic film office classified it "escluso" (ie. Catholics were forbidden to see it).

Il Conformista / The Conformist (1970). After a couple of documentaries, an episode in a portmanteau film and a tale about a mild student caught up in the events of 1968 (Partner), Bertolucci adapted Alberto Moravia's novel with Jean-Louis Trintingnant as the Fascist haunted by a memory of childhood sexual abuse. Memorable, too, for its loving evocation of the decorative milieu of the snobbish "white telephone" films of the 1930s, and as Bertolucci's first collaboration with cameraman Vittorio Storaro.

Strategia del Regno / The Spider's Strategem (1970). A young man returns home and uncovers the truth about his late father's activities in the Resistance; Giulio Brogi plays both parts. Finely constructed, and visually inspired, Bertolucci says, by the paintings of Magritte.

L'Ultimo Tango a Parigi / Last Tango in Paris (1972). Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider make love in a Paris apartment and the succes de scandale (more than one use for a kilo of butter) overshadowed the film's formal structure, the references to art (Francis Bacon, especially), the director's political concerns, and so on. Is that surprising?

Novecento / 1900 (1976). The full version runs to 320 minutes: Bertolucci's epic ambitions required an international cast (Burt Lancaster, Robert De Niro, Gerard Depardieu, Donald Sutherland). A feudal estate from the turn of the century to the fall of Fascism, with De Niro and Depardieu as boys growing up as friends, then separated by class. Despite length, soap opera and over-simplification, this is not a bad history lesson.

La Tragedia di un Uomo Ridiculo / Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man (1981). After La Luna (1979), in which a drug addict falls in love with his mother, Bertolucci reversed the premise of The Spider's Strategem and made this story about a father (Ugo Tognazzi) searching for his son, kidnapped by terrorists.

The Last Emperor (1987). Told in flashback from the period of the Cultural Revolution, Bertolucci's touching story of Pu Yi (another man trying to escape his class background) was his greatest international success. As in much of his work, however, the splendid settings and photography tend to distract from the message: we expect politics to come in duller wrappings.

The Sheltering Sky (1990). Venturing onto new ground, Bertolucci adapted Paul Bowles's novel about an American couple (Debra Winger and John Malkovich) on a tragic excursion into the North African desert. We have the sex and the psychology, but where are the politics?

Little Buddha (1993). Now the sex has vanished, too, and Bertolucci has clearly got Religion. A lama arrives in Seattle and announces to an ordinary American couple that their son is his old teacher, reincarnate. They are persuaded to take the boy to Bhutan. Lovely photography, as usual, plus a short course in Buddhism, recounted as though the director was discovering it along with his audience. Wherever next? Robin Buss