Film

Bertolucci’s Allusive ‘La Luna’ Returns, Revealing a Director Eager to Connect — and Provoke

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“Jesus Christ, leaves his gum all over the place,” a character mumbles to himself as he removes some chewing gum from a balcony railing early on in Bernardo Bertolucci’s La Luna. It’s a sly in-joke that’s likely lost on today’s audiences: That precise spot was where Marlon Brando’s character left his gum at the climax of Bertolucci’s scandalous 1972 hit Last Tango in Paris, right before getting shot by Maria Schneider’s Jeanne. Maybe “in-joke” isn’t quite the right term, though. La Luna is filled with references to Bertolucci’s earlier films, in part because it was made by a director trying to repair and reinvigorate his high-profile career.

First, some context. After the worldwide success of Last Tango, Bertolucci had embarked on an immense historical epic, 1900 (1976), starring Robert De Niro, Gérard Depardieu, Burt Lancaster, and Donald Sutherland, among many, many others. With its unabashed melodrama, its five-hour-plus running time, and its red-flag-waving Marxist finale, the resulting film terrified its American studio, Paramount, and set off a months-long battle over its fate that played out in the press and in the courts. 1900 has come to be recognized as something of a flawed masterpiece, but the controversy (and the film’s subsequent, abortive release and box office failure) left the director feeling wounded and lost. La Luna was an attempt to reconnect with audiences — a seemingly more modest film, starring Jill Clayburgh as a famous opera singer traveling through Italy with her son.

But if anything, with its scenes of adolescent drug abuse and incest, the finished film wound up being more outrageous than Last Tango. It begins in Brooklyn, at the chilly, elegantly decorated home of American diva Caterina (Clayburgh) and her family. When her husband dies suddenly, Caterina takes her teenage son, Joe, (Matthew Barry) with her to Italy, where she’s preparing for a role in an open-air production of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera. There, left to his own devices while Mom works, Joe becomes distant — and addicted to heroin. In an effort to try and get through to him — to be a “good mother” — Caterina actually winds up procuring his drugs and, at one point, even gets him off.

Bertolucci’s allusiveness picks up as mother and son travel through the beautiful Italian countryside. They pass by places and people from Caterina’s life — and from the director’s: the collectivist farm where much of 1900 took place, and where Depardieu’s bicycle still rests against a wall, or a café where the portly actor Pippo Campanini discourses on the finer points of salami, much as he did in Bertolucci’s The Spider’s Stratagem (1970). The great Franco Citti, a regular of the director’s late mentor Pier Paolo Pasolini, appears as a gay man trying to pick Joe up in an empty, desolate disco — much as he might in one of Pasolini’s stories. “A critic could get breathless with his own pedantry in enumerating Bertolucci’s pedantic allusions in La Luna,” joked Robert Phillip Kolker, no fan of the film, in his book-length study of the director’s work.

But these aren’t references for reference’s sake. With its overt oedipal tensions, its dream-logic narrative, its neurotic characters and eclectic allusions, La Luna is the cinematic equivalent of an extended psychoanalytic session. “All filmmakers are more or less indirectly analysts,” Bertolucci said during the film’s production, and perhaps more than any other director, he has used filmmaking to work out his own psychic demons and torments. Prior to La Luna, the director had made a number of films — including The Conformist (1970) and The Spider’s Stratagem — that dealt overtly with Freudian dynamics between fathers and sons, and which clearly resonated with his own attempts to escape the shadow of his father, a renowned literary critic. For La Luna, he was inspired by a childhood memory of riding in the basket of his mom’s bicycle and seeing her framed against the moon — a moment depicted early in the film.

So it makes sense that the film is shot like a waking dream. The camera moves fluidly, but the story doesn’t. The director mixes tones and continually jars us out of the narrative, highlighting the unreality of what’s happening onscreen. When Joe’s father and Caterina’s husband (played by The Munsters‘ Fred Gwynne!) dies early on, Bertolucci plays the scene in unnerving silence: We see an unidentified car careen out of control on the street, and Caterina hesitantly, quietly walks toward it from her apartment building. From inside the car, we see Joe, his cries muffled, tapping against his dead father’s driver’s-side window. In Italy, Joe gives his mom the silent treatment; later, she refuses to sing during the rehearsal of her opera, instead speaking her lines, to the concern of all around her. The characters often seem to be sleepwalking. But Bertolucci contrasts their submersion and inexpressiveness with moments of howling melodrama and bursts of music. At one point, instead of talking, Joe dances to the Bee Gees’ “Night Fever.” Later, Caterina visits her ancient, invalid music teacher, who can’t speak and doesn’t seem to recognize her — but he can still sing Verdi. This wild imbalance gives Luna its curious rhythm, perched between paralysis and hysteria.

La Luna wasn’t well-liked by critics or audiences. Many of Bertolucci’s admirers were discouraged by the film’s lack of political engagement. Those looking for something more conventional were put off by its strange depiction of deeply unsavory acts (with none of the titillation many found in Last Tango). It remains one of the director’s most elusive films; it’s never been released on video in the U.S. and screens only rarely, despite the lush colors and deep shadows of Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography. But the years have been kind to it. I continue to be struck by its heated, expressive ambition, its willingness to be indulgent and beautiful and deeply, deeply unpleasant. Luna seduces and repels you at the same time. It’s a film about the silences and cruelties between people, but it explodes with color, music, and movement.

La Luna

Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci

Playing April 25, Anthology Archives

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