The Death of a Class

Italy's illustrious Marxist filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci died last week. His films explored the death of the bourgeoisie; his legacy points us to the death of the chauvinist male auteur.

Bernardo Bertolucci in 1990. Wikimedia Commons

Bernardo Bertolucci, who died last Monday aged seventy-seven, was the last of the masters of Italian cinema, from an intergenerational group of directors who debuted between the end of World War II and Italy’s economic boom at the beginning of the 1960s. In five decades of filmmaking, Bertolucci weaved a complex nexus between the local (particularly Parma, where he was born, and Rome) and the global and transnational. He made films in different continents, from low-budget productions to Hollywood, gaining a critical and audience success that has little equal in the history of cinema.

But Bertolucci wasn’t a mere observer and narrator of the history unfolding in Italy, or indeed the nation’s past. Rather, at a time when films mattered, he himself influenced history, whether “anticipating” 1968 (with his 1964 film Before the Revolution), analyzing the consequences of a world increasingly dependent on oil (La via del petrolio, The Path of Oil, 1965), or dealing with the complex and unresolved legacy of fascism in Italy (The Conformist and The Spider’s Stratagem, both 1970).

Close to the leftist movements of the 1960s and after 1968 a member of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), Bertolucci could not be defined as a militant director. With a couple of exceptions, he did not so much make films about politics, as make films in a political way. With his passing, the death of one of the last auteurs in film, we can start evaluating with greater critical distance a certain tendency of making, watching, and understanding cinema itself.

An Education

Bertolucci came from a bourgeois background. He was the son of the poet Attilio Bertolucci, and brother of the gifted and yet overlooked filmmaker Giuseppe Bertolucci. In one interview he noted that “like all children, as soon as I learned how to write, I tried to imitate my father. And so, according to ancient rule of the bourgeois for which the son of a lawyer works as a lawyer, the son of an engineer works as an engineer, the son of a poet had to be a poet.”

As a poet, in 1962 he won one of the most important Italian literary awards, the Premio Viareggio, with the book In cerca del mistero (Searching for Mystery). But then, “I stopped writing poetry. I couldn’t continue. It seemed to me I had not found my identity. So I looked for my identity in another area of the sphere of aesthetic expression.” Many of Bertolucci’s films feature symbolic father-killings: his own decision to drop poetry for cinema was in a sense the first of these.

In the 1960s, Bertolucci’s name was strongly linked to two other cinematographic masters of the time, Jean-Luc Godard and Pier Paolo Pasolini, whom he referred as two “putative fathers.” Indeed, his first real on-set experience was as assistant director on Pasolini’s first film, Accattone, and his own debut film, The Grim Reaper, was based on a short script by Pasolini, who was also his neighbor in Rome’s Monteverde district and a close friend of his father. Bertolucci would later claim that the film is “far from those that Pier Paolo made,” but this strong and gloomy debut film about the investigation into the killing of a prostitute, set in the Roman borgate — the growing outskirts of the Italian capital in the middle of the country’s economic boom — can indeed be termed Pasolinian.

As he said in one of his last interviews, “when I directed The Grim Reaper aged twenty-one I was surely the youngest of the troupe. I was sleeping in a room with my brother, he would wake up and go to school, and I would go to the set.” Such a set must have been quite alien to a well-educated intellectual born in a quiet Northern province and raised in Rome; the now-iconic photo of a young Bertolucci in suit and tie, sitting close to a seemingly elegant Pasolini in a Roman suburb seems to testify to this.

Yet Bertolucci managed to realistically portray the borgata, making a surprisingly mature film for an inexperienced twenty-one-year-old director. This first film is part of a small canon of Pasolinian films on the Roman suburbs shot between the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s that are still watched and discussed today, including Pasolini’s own Accattone and Mamma Roma, Mauro Bolognini’s La notte brava (the adaptation of a short story), and Paolo Heusch’s and Brunello Rondi’s Una vita violenta, based on Pasolini’s novel of the same title. With The Grim Reaper Bertolucci’s name and work arrived on the map, joining a new wave of young European directors who were changing the language and style of cinema. The most important of them remains Jean-Luc Godard, Bertolucci’s other putative father.

If his first film was Pasolinian, his last film of that decade — Partner, appropriately released in 1968 — is quintessentially Godardian. A bizarre and over the top film, it recounts the routine and frustrated life of Giacobbe (French actor Pierre Clementi) who finds a doppelgänger who gradually takes his place. Bertolucci himself later rejected this film, recognizing the failure of his attempt to make his own style conform too much to that of his French friend and mentor. Seen today, Partner, if dated, seems also an interesting trial run in a year of experiments.

No wonder that in the following film, The Conformist, possibly the first truly Bertoluccian film, he symbolically killed his putative father. In the film Quadri, an antifascist professor exiled in France, is killed thanks to one of his former students now turned fascist — and Bertolucci gave this murdered character Godard’s real home address. If he thus sought to strike out on his own, in 1983 Bertolucci paid an unusual tribute to his mentor, when he was president of the jury of the Venice Film Festival.

Having balanced the jury in Godard’s favor he told his fellow New Wave panelists: “During our first meeting I told them: ‘You are here, with me, to give the Golden Lion to Jean-Luc Godard. It doesn’t matter what his film is like, we will thank him for existing. We will discuss the other awards, but the Golden Lion is already given’ . . . This was a small operation of cultural ‘mafia’ of which I am still very proud.” The misuse of power aside, this episode condensed one of the key components of the cinephile approach: the auteur comes before the single films, and his (it is almost always a “he”) oeuvre ought to be defended and valorized. Prénom Carmen, the Godard film that ended up winning that festival, is hardly the French director’s best.

From Oil to Politics

In between his Pasolinian and his Godardian work Bertolucci shot two films that evidenced his ability to speak to and about different constituencies, worlds, places, and people: Before the Revolution, the 1964 film that really made him known and widely discussed (especially abroad, first and foremost thanks to the influential Cahiers du cinéma), and The Path of Oil, a usually overlooked film that has recently been rediscovered thanks mostly to Petroculture and the environmental humanities. These two films already featured a number of themes that would return throughout his entire career, like the oscillation between a local and global approach to culture and filmmaking that characterized Bertolucci’s cinema.

Before the Revolution is the story of a troubled young man in Parma who has issues reconciling his political militancy and his bourgeois origins. Along with Marco Bellocchio’s Fists in the Pocket (1965) this work is seen as a precursor of 1968. A political film, then — an intervention into the stiff climate of a small Italian province, one with a strong Communist Party. But also a very autobiographical film, as he recounted in an interview for the Cahiers du cinéma:

I needed to exorcise certain fears. I was a Marxist with all the love, all the passion, and all the despair of a bourgeois who chooses Marxism. Naturally in every bourgeois Marxist, who is consciously Marxist, I should say, there is always the fear of being sucked back into the milieu he came out of, because he’s born into it and the roots are so deep that a young bourgeois finds it very hard to be a Marxist.

And a few years later, he recognized in another interview that this theme would run through his films:

The pain and sufferance of being bourgeois. The sentiment of belonging to a moribund class, a guilty one without a tomorrow. Thus, I wanted to get a closure with this subject. But I didn’t succeed, so this subject persecuted me, it continues in Agonia [the episode of the collective film Love and Anger, 1969], in Partners, in The Spider’s Stratagem, and even in The Conformist. They are all films about the death of the bourgeois class.

Conversely, The Path of Oil follows the journey of oil from the drills in the Persian mountains to a large refinery in Germany. The only feature documentary that Bertolucci ever made, the film was sponsored by the state-owned energy company ENI, whose house magazine was edited by his father Attilio. ENI, whose charismatic chairman Enrico Mattei was killed in mysterious circumstances in 1962, was one of the protagonists of the economic boom that transformed Italy from a largely agricultural land into one of the world’s most industrialized countries.

ENI was also very active abroad, and had important interactions with decolonizing or recently decolonized countries, such as Iran and Algeria, in open and direct opposition to the Seven Sisters (the most important oil companies of the time) and therefore to US, French, and British interests in the Middle East and Africa.

When the Bertoluccis — Bernardo and his cousin Giovanni who worked as producer for the film — applied for Iranian visas for ENI, their passports still described them as “students.” Yet they were to play an important role in recounting the work of a public company in transporting oil from Iran to Nasser’s Egypt, across the Mediterranean Sea and to Bavaria, the heart of a unifying Europe.

Usually completely overlooked, The Path of Oil is possibly Bertolucci’s most personal film: we repeatedly hear his voice-over, and we travel with him clearly in search for something — not only for oil, but for a cinematic style and for a voice as a filmmaker, experimenting with styles and format. And even abroad, he looks for home: the workers he talks to in far-off Persia came from the Po Valley, his own region, to work for ENI in various locations around the world. He describes the local population with a curious, passionate, but nonetheless Eurocentric eye, one that is also arguably present in his later films in or about Asia and Africa. As he said in a 2000 interview,

Today I am still grateful for that job, as it triggered within me the pleasure of traveling. It was my first real journey. I discovered that other cultures existed and I immediately felt in love with them. This feeling has been with me ever since, in China, the Sahara, India . . . and has been a fundamental element of my artistic production.

Bertolucci as a Marxist

Bertolucci’s relation to the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and to the Left in general is rarely investigated, if mentioned at all. He was a self-declared Marxist, close to leftist movements and for some time also a member of the PCI. He became a card-carrying member after May 1968, in a sense because he felt the failure of 1968: “I became a member because I understood the narrowness of the May events . . . I felt in the intellectuals, filmmakers, in my friends a sort of great anti-Communist wave, masked with an anti-Communism from the Left, but a very dangerous one.”

Such a reaction corresponded to the fact that the PCI did not always take the side of the new movements; many groups and organizations in fact openly contested the party line, its reformist strategy, and its paternalist outlook.

For Bertolucci, this period also brought awareness that cinema is not a revolutionary weapon. He now set to work within the terms of a bourgeois art form, emancipating himself from cinema d’essai (or arthouse cinemas, which became “ghettoes for auteur cinema”) in order to find a “dialectical relation with a wider audience.” This could be seen as a reactionary position, especially in post-1968 Europe, yet we may ask if mainstream cinema had changed the bourgeois Marxist Bertolucci, or if it was he who was changing mainstream cinema.

Bertolucci remained close to the Communist Party. In 1984, when Eurocommunist PCI leader Enrico Berlinguer died, he was among the many filmmakers who shot the homage Addio Berlinguer (Goodbye Berlinguer). Already in 1971 he made two films for party production company Unitelefilm: La salute è malata (Health Is Sick), a film on the conditions of hospitals in Italy, shot in the PCI’s sections and among workers and unionists, and together with his brother, Franco Arcalli, and Marlisa Trombetta, I poveri muiono prima (Poor People Die First), which uses some of the same footage of the former film but focuses on Rome only.

Two typically militant films, of the type that many famous and unknown directors were making at the time, “shown in the streets, using walls as screens,” as he recounted. These were small exceptions in the career of a man that was interested in making films in a political way rather than about politics.

Bertolucci’s relationship with the PCI wasn’t always rosy. The party old guard had a hostile reaction to Novecento (1900) (this Italian word also means “twentieth century”), Bertolucci’s saga on the first half of the last century. Leading PCI cadres like Giorgio Amendola and Gian Carlo Pajetta condemned the film, challenging one of Bertolucci’s most important stylistic features, namely the mixture of realism and ideology with a poetic inspiration. They didn’t like the film’s portrayal of a peasant son being a friend of the master’s son, or indeed the fact that foreign bodies (Robert De Niro, Gérard Depardieu, Burt Lancaster, Donald Sutherland, Dominique Sanda) played Italian peasants.

Though Bertolucci was definitely a narrator, he was not a narrator of working-class experience or a voice of the Left who told the Left’s history. Believing that “the average man is fascistic” he narrated the lives of “average persons who are conscious of being average, and they’re made uncomfortable by being aware of this,” as he told Rolling Stone in a 1973 interview. This is especially true of the two films that deal more directly with Italy’s fascist past, The Conformist and The Spider’s Stratagem, which are both based on literary sources (Moravia and Borges respectively), and each highly influenced by psychoanalysis.

If in The Conformist we see how fascism penetrated into the Italian national soul, identity, and even clothes, in The Spider’s Stratagem we find one of the clearest representations in his films of what he meant with the idea that the average man is fascistic. In a prophetic scene we see a group of local antifascists plotting an improbable attack against Mussolini, who is scheduled to visit the town in the occasion of the opening of the local theater.

While the others fantasize about how to kill the Duce, one of the characters realistically and prophetically says “remember, fascism will continue, fascism is already inside people,” to which Magnani, the protagonist, replies “for this reason, we have to kill him.” Here, Mussolini was yet another father to be killed, though instead (without spoiling the end) it seems that fascism kills Magnani’s own father. Even as he tried to go global, in this period Bertolucci remained a director tied to his own roots.

An Apartment in Paris

From 1972, the year of Last Tango in Paris, Bertolucci became something else: an authentically global auteur, perhaps the only real one. The only auteur that could make films with Hollywood actors, Chinese extras, Tibetan Buddhist monks, camel trains, and then, later in his life and career, go back to the small Roman apartments of Besieged (1998) and Me and You (2012) or 1968 in Paris in The Dreamers.

The story of the encounter between two strangers in the French capital, Last Tango in Paris was an instant cult and instantly caused controversy, with censorship and copies of the films being physically seized and burned. This capacity to shock barely still exists now that much more shocking sequences are freely available online. Yet the film still elicits controversy, and in recent times the lead actress Maria Schneider has described the famous rape scene as a traumatic experience, accusing the lead actor Marlon Brando and Bertolucci himself of complicity.

In a now-famous 2007 interview Schneider explained, “Marlon said to me: ‘Maria, don’t worry, it’s just a movie,’ but during the scene, even though what Marlon was doing wasn’t real, I was crying real tears,” and furthermore, “I felt humiliated and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci. After the scene, Marlon didn’t console me or apologize. Thankfully, there was just one take.”

The director’s responses have been callous. He jokingly recounted how they (two older men) came up with the idea of using butter: “It was in the script that he had to rape her in a way. And we were having breakfast with Marlon on the floor of the flat where we were shooting. And there was a baguette and there was butter, and we looked at each other and without saying anything, we knew what we wanted.”

In 2003 he claimed that he did not tell Schneider “what was going on, because I wanted her reaction as a girl, not as an actress. I wanted her to react humiliated,” and last May (in an interview for the Italian Wired), he defended himself in a bizarre and contorted way:

It’s a sad story, because she is not with us anymore and I still am. One day, perhaps, I will unearth an interview that Maria Schneider gave to The New York Times in 1973, where she talks about herself and said that she is both lesbian and heterosexual, she lists with precision the number of men and women with whom she slept . . . if it will be necessary I will have it published, so they can stop linking me with these fake news.

Of course, Schneider’s interview is readily available on the NYT website; her number of sexual partners is clearly no justification whatsoever for Bertolucci’s actions.

The controversy over this scene is not a consequence of the #MeToo movement, as some critics have implied in attempts to portray this discussion as untimely and disrespectful of the artist’s death. In his obituary for the NYT, Dennis Lim (director of programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, one of the most important cinephile institutions in the world) noted how right after the release of Last Tango in Paris “citing the abundance of female nudity, Judith Crist, writing in New York magazine, placed it in ‘the male-chauvinist tradition.’ Grace Glueck, in The New York Times, dismissed it as ‘the perfect macho soap opera.’” One may agree or not with such statements, but they did exist.

If at the time the film was attacked by conservatives, it can also be criticized today with different tools. As Malvina Giordana writes in Dinamopress, “the issue is not to put the film and its auteur under trial, as in 1973, but to recount the cost silently paid by a young woman who remained oppressed by the weight of her image obtained without permission . . . We learned from the feminist movements that the lack of consent is violence. There should not be really anything to add.”

If it is hardly useful to reduce fifty years of a complex, heterogeneous, and multi-layered career to a single scene, it is nonetheless undeniable that this episode, and Bertolucci’s treatment of Maria Schneider in general, will scar his legacy forever. This legacy — and the legacy of a certain male auteur tendency — is what needs tackling; questioning the “normality” of on-set abuse and indeed the idea that a director should be allowed to do anything he likes (without asking consent) because of his real or supposed genius.

Around the World and Back to Italy

The success of Last Tango in Paris allowed Bertolucci to make an over-five-hour film like 1900, where “the red flags [that feature in the film] were paid by American dollars, an ecstatic situation . . . they allowed me to do anything.” 1900 is a unique epic, where Bertolucci retrieved “the Gone with the Wind type of epic, filtering it through Visconti’s style (The Leopard), [Sergio] Leone’s example, but with an incongruous and odd agit-prop tone (the red flags at the end),” as critic Gabriele Gimmelli writes.

But Bertolucci’s investigation into the recent and older history of Italy continued. At the beginning of the 1980s, with the film Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man, Bertolucci was one of very few directors to try to come to terms with the “years of lead,” the political turmoil that lasted from 1969 to the beginning of the 1980s, often described as a low-intensity civil war.

Set close to his native Parma, the film portrays the kidnapping of the son of a cheese factory owner (played by Ugo Tognazzi). Making films on this subject was, indeed, very difficult, for while most of the left-wing cultural world had condemned the violence of groups like the far-left Red Brigades, the issue remained raw. Figures from this milieu — filmmakers included — had been shocked to find out how many of those involved were former comrades of the PCI, people with whom they had shared their lives and struggles — what Rossana Rossanda called “the family album.”

The trilogy that he directed between the end of the 1980s — The Last Emperor, The Sheltering Sky (set in a community of travelers/expats in North Africa after World War II), and Little Buddha — would make him a truly global auteur and star, as testified by the nine Academy Awards obtained by his vast film on the last emperor of China.

Both Stealing Beauty (1996, on an American girl who arrives in a villa populated by a heterogenous group of people in Tuscany) and La Luna (1979, on a mother and son who move from Brooklyn to Rome) are also transnational films with an international cast, while in the little-discussed Besieged (1998) a certain Eurocentric vision emerges more clearly, with Africa appearing centrally in the plot but only as a featureless backdrop.

His experiences with “the other” were not all so clumsy (to use a euphemism). In the last scene of The Last Emperor, for example, he magnificently captures the world that is about to drastically change. For over two hours, we see Pu Yi evolving through the events of the twentieth century, from becoming emperor at age three to dying under Communism as a gardener in 1967.

At the end of the film, shot in the Forbidden City, we see Pu Yi as a gardener tell a Young Pioneer that he, too, used to live in the Forbidden City. The two Chinas, the traditional one and the “new” Communist China, coexist in this scene. But then, with a rapid cut, we are suddenly at the end of the 1980s, and we see a yelling tourist guide: the Forbidden City is commodified, as capitalism is about to sweep away both the Communist world and the old, traditional China.

Goodbye Novecento

After Bertolucci’s death, the historic left-wing daily Il Manifesto published one of its iconic covers with Bertolucci’s face and the words “Goodbye Novecento.” Bertolucci’s own goodbye to the last century was probably The Dreamers, his 2003 film set during one of the century’s key events, May 1968 in Paris. The events unfolding in the streets of the French capital are however the backdrop and not the center of the action, which is instead an erotic pastiche set in an apartment with three young and beautiful protagonists, with a direct and playful citation of Godard and many others.

The final scene of the film is one of the most authentically and genuinely political in Bertolucci’s work, and one that reflects his own political-poetical outlook. At the end the trio finally leave the apartment where we have seen them throughout the entire film, and go down into the streets. The character played by Louis Garrel (the son of Philippe, one of the leading ‘68er French directors) wants to throw a Molotov cocktail at the French police, but his friend tried to stop him, arguing that it is wrong, while Garrel replies “No, this is wonderful! . . . It’s wonderful.” Not right or wrong, but aesthetically beautiful, something to admire — the fleeting Molotov cocktail. For Bertolucci, and possibly for those in theaters who were protesting the global “war on terror” at the time of the film’s release, cinema was finally a weapon again.

With Bertolucci’s death we can say farewell to the Novecento, and also radically question the idea of the auteur in cinema. Only the godfather (Godard) and godmother (Agnès Varda) of those new waves are still with us, surviving across time and changes.

But Bertolucci was truly one of the last auteurs of global cinema. There are still auteurs and books are being published on auteurship in the new century, but they are not expressions the historical moment when the concept of the auteur emerged.

The directors of the films that influenced and generated the cinephile world in postwar Europe (essentially in Italy and France) are now almost dead. Their largely male-centric, Eurocentric understanding of cinema is also under attack. There is no room, here, for denial, or mere nostalgia. A problematization of Bertolucci’s work, and a critical analysis of the role the auteur played, allow us to rediscuss the cultural world of the postwar decades.