The Little Buddha, the third film in Bertolucci's 'oriental trilogy' - which follows The Last Emperor and The Sheltering Sky - is about to open in London. A multi-million pound production, The Little Buddha tells the parallel stories of Buddha, in which role Keanu Reeves is bizarrely cast, and a contemporary lama reincarnated in the United States. It was eagerly awaited at the Berlin Film Festival in February, but was received with emotions that ranged from incredulity to embarrassment. The maestro, said one critic, had lost his bite.
Bertolucci's early work, recently re- released to the acclaim of a new generation of filmgoers, burst upon the cinematic world in 1970. Now, at the age of 53, he might be expected to assume the mantle of the passing generation of great Italian cineastes, but critics have begun to ask if has lost his way.
Perhaps it is an inevitable question about a prodigiously creative man who has reached middle age and has turned from the intricate and complex artefacts of his youth to the alluring spectacle of the big budget movie. The early Bertolucci belongs clearly in Italian culture of the Sixties. He moved, through Last Tango in Paris, on to the stage, not exactly of Hollywood but of what one writer describes as 'post-national cinema'. Have the big budgets overwhelmed him? 'Very National Geographic,' observed a friend, of The Sheltering Sky. 'But not much meaning and weight.'
The judgement is ironic on a man who began by producing films of such dense meaning and weight that the populist Haliwell's Filmgoer's Companion was reduced to splenetic telegraphic description in a caption resume - no easy task - of The Spider's Stratagem, an early Bertolucci masterpiece. 'Elaborately mysterious puzzle play for intellectuals,' it said, 'with infinite shades of meaning few will bother to explore.'
Bernardo Bertolucci was born in 1940, into a cultured, bourgeois family, in Parma, in Italy's Red Belt. His father is a highly respected poet and film critic, who counted some of Italy's foremost intellectuals and writers - including Pasolini and Alberto Moravia - among his friends. Bernardo's grandfather, whom he has described as the 'real father figure', had an orchard next door. 'My father,' Bernardo said, 'didn't only take me to the cinema. He gave me his poems to read, talked to me about literature and introduced me to painting.'
The politics and cultural sensibilities that were to inform Bertolucci's work were all around him in his childhood: the beauty of his films derives partly from his talent, executed through his brilliant cameraman, Vittorio Storari, for finding visual inspiration in painting - Magritte's images and colours in The Spider's Stratagem, Francis Bacon in Last Tango in Paris, Pelliza's The Fourth Estate for 1900.
In politics, his father's friend Alberto Moravia was a Communist and his writing a source of inspiration for Bernardo's film-making. Pier Paolo Pasolini, too, had been in the Communist Party and remained close, even after
his expulsion. 'It is only in Britain,'
observed the British writer Ian McKewan, who collaborated with Bertolucci on an unrealised film adaptation of a Moravia novel, 'that it seems surprising to be both wealthy and left-wing, as though politics can be reduced to mere sectional interest. In Italy, there are circles in which it is almost an obligation of wealth.'
The Italy of Bertolucci's childhood was pre-industrial, a place of declining landed families, where the political memory was raw with the struggle between fascist and Communist. For Bertolucci the child, the local peasant girls, mysterious and powerful, embodied the spirit of peasant politics.
'I was afraid of them at that age,' he later recalled, 'and because of that, I tended to mythologise them. They were peasant girls, like Carla who had eyes like coals, and they were Communist girls. Party slogans didn't amount to much with them . . . they were much closer to their mothers, who were the real core of rural Communism.'
Bertolucci's imagination distilled the atmosphere of his childhood into a world in which the decadence of the gentry was contrasted with the rising political energies of the peasantry. The vision is complicated by the ambivalence of the protagonist who, as the writer Geoffrey Nowell-Smith described it, is frequently 'a member of the declining agrarian class who is attracted to, but not part of, the peasantry in whom the spirit of the people is mysteriously incarnated'.
After a childhood filled with visits to the cinema, Bernardo decided, at 13, to become a film-maker. At 15, he had acquired a movie camera and made his first short films by 16. His father wrote a poem about his son, the passionate adolescent discovering the world through the lens. But though that was the passion that was to grip him, the young Bernardo also, at first, wrote poetry. 'I started writing poems to imitate my father,' he said later. 'And I stopped when I began making movies to take my distance from him. I wrote poems right up to the day I started to make my first professional film . . . Words were not enough for me, and I guess they did not belong to me anyway.'
The poetry continued until he was 21. When he was 22, he completed The Grim Reaper, a project that Pasolini had accepted but abandoned. Pasolini, who had been Attilio's protege in poetry, had adopted Bernardo as his own protege in cinema. The Italian master directors Fellini, Antonioni and Pasolini had transformed the way cinema was understood. Bertolucci, in his role as prodigy, was to add another dimension.
In 1964, his Before the Revolution, regarded as his real debut, was completed. It is a brilliant, sprawling, autobiographical film in which the twin poles of Freud and Marx are clearly visible: romantic left-wing politics interwoven with Freudian exploration. They were themes that the experience of 1968 - and Bertolucci was supremely a child of 1968 - was to feed.
There is a reading of Bertolucci's work that explains at least the first decade and a half as a creative serial patricide. Though the maternal relationship is explored in such films as Before the Revolution and La Luna, the father remains the dominant concern. Bertolucci himself, who was in intensive analysis for two decades, loves to play with the theme that his cinema is the expression of his hours on the couch: he has joked that his analyst should get a credit.
To return to the landscape of his boyhood to make films, as he did in Before the Revolution was, as he said later, 'to settle all outstanding accounts with a city that I felt to be 'mine', but that belonged, above all, to my father.'
Such accounts are never settled and Bertolucci's characters continued to wrestle with Oedipus, most strikingly, perhaps, in The Spider's Stratagem, one of Bertolucci's best works, in which the central character discovers that his resistance-hero father was a traitor who was executed by his comrades.
Last Tango in Paris (1972) took Bertolucci to commercial success: the film was notorious, shocking, and a hit. It was a time of flirtation between Hollywood and European directors and there followed a courtship between the now bankable Bertolucci and America. In 1975, the relationship bore fruit in 1900, an attempt at a film about Italian socialism on an epic scale. At the Cannes film festival, they saw the five-hour version and loved it. In the US, they hated it: Paramount, the distributors, boycotted the release. For his next two films, Bertolucci returned to Italy.
The Last Emperor saved his commercial reputation, if not, for many, his critical pre-eminence, despite its nine Academy Awards. Is his excursion to the East perhaps a reinvention of 19th-century orientalism, the plundering of exotic images and myths by a creative talent unable to come to terms with the dislocations of his own world?
In the West, he lamented recently, 'There's no more bourgeoisie, no more proletariat. There's our world and the Third World. That's all there is now.' In China, filming The Last Emperor, he talked of finding the innocence of a society still untainted by McDonald's. In the West, he laments a society in which the monoculture of the market is eliminating classes, a corrosive dilemma for a man who says of himself, 'my lexicon . . . is based on many years of believing in a society with ideologies'.
If the image suggests a tortured soul, the human being does not. Bertolucci's friends describe a bear-like man of easy sociability that masks a profound reserve, of enormous charm and intelligence who creates circles around himself - in his houses in London, Rome and at the beach in Italy - filled with conversation and ideas. He has a gift, too, for recreating families: he is married to Claire Peploe, who inhabits smart, well-heeled, intellectual London and whose brother, Mark, has become his scriptwriter. His team is full of loyal and trusted faces.
And though he is undoubtedly in charge of his movies, he has less of the monstrous dictatorial reputation that dogs other great directors. 'He is not,' said McKewan, 'remotely authoritarian, though he exercises such charm that people kill themselves trying to do the right thing for him.'
For two generations of Bertolucci admirers, the question now is, will he find the right thing to do for himself? At the launch of The Little Buddha in Berlin, Bertolucci said he had become an 'amateur Buddhist'. 'Perhaps Buddha has saved him from Freud,' remarked one critic. But whether Buddha will prove to be the rich creative vein that Freud was remains to be seen.
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