Bernardo Bertolucci on the art and poetry of cinema

Writers & Company revisits Eleanor Wachtel's 2001 conversation with Bernardo Bertolucci, regarded by many as the preeminent Italian filmmaker of his generation.
Film director Bernardo Bertolucci is shown in 2012 in Rome. In a career that stretched five decades, he made films in his native Italy as well as popular Hollywood movies. (Andrew Medichini/Associated Press)
Listen to the full episode52:19

This week, Writers & Company revisits Eleanor Wachtel's 2001 conversation with Bernardo Bertolucci, regarded by many as the preeminent Italian filmmaker of his generation. He died in Rome on Nov. 26, 2018 at the age of 77.

In a career that spanned more than 50 years, Bertolucci's films were provocative, memorable and remarkably different. His 1987 film The Last Emperor won nine Oscars, including best picture and best director, solidifying his status as a Hollywood icon. His 1970 picture The Conformist is a striking exploration of fascism and identity, and is often regarded as his masterpiece.  

But it was Bertolucci's 1972 feature Last Tango in Paris that skyrocketed him to international fame. Starring Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider, the critically acclaimed film also sparked outrage for its graphic depictions of sex, resulting in charges laid against Bertolucci in Italy, where the film was banned until 1987. In 2016, renewed controversy erupted over the extent of Schneider's consent in one of the simulated sex scenes.

Bertolucci was awarded the first-ever Honorary Palme d'Or from the Festival de Cannes in 2011. In 2007, he received the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement from the Venice Film Festival, where he was recognized as "one of the greatest directors of contemporary cinema, whose work, between poetry and history, has left a deep mark."

Eleanor Wachtel spoke to Bertolucci at his apartment in Rome.

Life in the countryside

"I grew up in the countryside. I was a country bumpkin in the sense that I loved the earth where I was raised. I loved the monotonous flatness of the Po Valley and I loved the idea that, only a 30-minute bicycle ride away, there was a city called Parma, which felt like a big city to me at the time yet had no more than 150,000 inhabitants.

"Everything around us, at least to me, was becoming a legend. I started to read the poems of my father. They were all about the world surrounding our house, or the world of the Apennines where we had our summer place in a little village where my father's family was from. When I was 12, we moved to Rome. And that was, I must confess, a big shock. I felt deracinated. I couldn't forget or give up the mythology of the countryside to accept the new mythology of Rome, which was much more conventional and banal."

The director of destiny

"I tried to be a poet, which was a way to imitate my father. So when I first began to write, I was writing poems. But I became myself when I stopped writing poems and started to be a filmmaker. I had an intense feeling that my destiny was to become one, and I immediately felt like a professional film director. I didn't see anything outside of that destiny — it was either filmmaking or nothing. 

"But I use the word 'destiny' in an unconventional way. I believe that destiny is, more or less, what you learn in Freudian analysis: you do your own destiny. You are the writer of the screenplay of your life." 

The language of film

"When I worked on my first film, after I stopped being a poet, it was like switching from one language to another. I needed to see that there was a continuity from writing poetry to shooting movies. I knew that film, for me, was vital and essential.

"Living in the 20th century, we had the privilege of having grown up with cinema. I love to think that cinema is a language that everyone can speak, much like how a newborn baby is born with the ability to learn all languages. So silent cinema couldn't speak, because it was very young like a baby. And like a baby, silent cinema was extremely visionary.

"Then cinema started to speak, and then it became more real when colour film was invented. Because life is in colour, it's not black and white. And then in the '60s, with film directors like Godard, cinema began to think, and to think about itself. This is the moment when I started to make movies."

Bernardo Bertolucci's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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