“Fucking God!,” screams an aging Marlon Brando in the 1972 film, “Last Tango in Paris.” Ragged and wilting, this certainly isn’t the virile Brando of “Julius Caesar” or “On the Waterfront.” He’s weaker here, more vulnerable and intimate. And by the end of the film, he’s cradled, dead, in a fetal position — broken. This is the world of Bernardo Bertolucci. For more than 50 years, the innovative Italian director has, more than any other filmmaker, crafted a cinematic landscape of physical rawness and psychological intensity that continually re-defines the boundaries of what film can do or be. From the politically radical to the sexually graphic, Bertolucci’s films are epic, rebellious and, above all, enigmatic. Starting on Friday, July 8, the Pacific Film Archive will explore the maestro’s dynamic canon with new prints of thirteen of his most notable films in their latest showcase, “Bernardo Bertolucci: In Search of Mystery.”
Born in 1941 to the poet and film critic Attilio Bertolucci, young Bernardo was raised in a world of lyrical expression. By the age of 21, he was already an award-winning novelist with a burgeoning film career on the horizon. Released in 1962, his first feature, “The Grim Reaper” (“La commare secca”) explored the criminal undercurrent of human behavior with a Rashomon-esque tale centered around the murder of a prostitute. Though perhaps derivative in plot, the combination of blunt brutality and overt sexuality in “The Grim Reaper” forged what would become the definitive style of Bertolucci’s early career — violent sensuality. Working within the contemporary framework of Italian Neorealism and the emergent French New Wave, Bertolucci’s films focus on the moral and emotional dilemmas of individuals within a turbulent society.
Films like 1964’s “Before the Revolution” combines these threads of unfettered cruelty and individual attention within a larger historical and political consciousness. After WWII, with the fall of Fascism and Mussolini, the state of personal and national identity was in flux. Likewise, characters in Bertolucci’s earlier films encapsulate this conflicted complex. They are personal stories that mirror the deep-set fears and ambiguities of the postwar, modern world. In “Before the Revolution,” upper class Fabrizio struggles between his old world, bourgeois origins and his progressive, idealist views of the new as he embarks upon an affair with a sultry, older woman. For Fabrizio, his story becomes as ambiguous and difficult to define as Bertolucci’s career.
Though they contain those trademark traits of unabashed sexuality, politics and ferocity, Bertolucci’s films are as varied in their genre as they are in style. From a documentary on the distribution of Middle Eastern oil (1967’s “The Path of Oil) to a sumptuous biopic of Pu Yi, China’s last emperor, Bertolucci’s range proves that the only consistency in his career as in life is uncertainty. In his latest feature, 2004’s “The Dreamers,” the almost incestuous twins, Isabelle and Theo (Eva Green and Louis Garrel) indulge in the hedonistic pleasures of film and sex only to have their innocent world destroyed by the social revolutions of May 1968 in France. The camera observes and invades their personal lives as the world outside them comes crashing down. Their future is unknown and their past is puzzling, but this is the way film works for Bertolucci ― mysterious and seductive.