La Commare secca
A long analysis of a murder in Paolino Park, Rome.
Persons in the park at the time are questioned by police, one after another, and this forms a biography of the murderer, with a postscript of common wisdom from the poet Belli.
The structure is of uncommon interest, seemingly straightforward by surreal leaps and then diffracted just before the end, as one interrogation is halted early.
Purse-snatchers raiding lovers, a street madam’s kept man, a lonely soldier on leave, an after-hours gadabout, boys needing money, a queer on the prowl, death of a prostitute.
Hodie mihi cras tibi, against schadenfreude.
Critical incomprehension seems to have been continuous from the start.
Prima della rivoluzione
The material is treated subsequently by Russ Meyer in Vixen and by Bertolucci in Luna.
The anecdote completed by Gina is the basis of Histoire d’eaux (Ten Minutes Older: The Cello).
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof tacitly and Une Femme est une femme at the supercinema orfeo in Parma define the terms (it ends in Verdi’s Macbeth at the Teatro Regio and Moby Dick in Italian for schoolchildren).
A film generally praised by reviewers, “a beauty” (Eugene Archer, New York Times), if imperfectly understood, “between two stools” (Time Out Film Guide).
The always remarkable cinematography is very advanced in its long-lens camera movement to edit a scene, for example.
The pistol in the book. Nosferatu. Vietnam Libero! Debussy preludes.
Petrushka. Artaud. Ghosts. Doinel at the mirror.
Clara and the professor. “Me and My Shadow”. Acting Exercises. Rhymes.
Vincent Canby of the New York Times, “what it’s like to be a romantic in today’s world.”
Michael Atkinson (Village Voice), “high-spirited, subversive... cherry bomb.”
Birth of the drama in the advent of the second actor. Morricone’s doublures of “I Loves You, Porgy” and Dumbarton Oaks. Another of Borges’ observations, this time of Whitman and “what do you see, Walt Whitman?”
That comforting fellow, one’s youth, “reincarnation of Arthur Rimbaud.” Bus ride with la Sandrelli.
Power to the Imagination. The red blindfold. “Redskins... in a scream...”
“Theater is one of the means that lead mankind to reality.”
The detersive muse (Le Sang d’un Poète). “The poison of theater” (Augustine, cf. Rossellini’s Roma—città aperta).
The beginning in lightning and thunder. Gas masks, the Odessa steps.
Persistence of vision. “Distributors have no soul.” A foretaste of Last Tango in Paris, “Splash”, and of course The Dreamers.
Collapse of the show (the hurdy-gurdy man and his monkey). Madame la Guillotine.
Voyage autour de ma chambre...
His condition is simply identified with that of Plato’s enchained prisoners, “normality” is his special illusion, but this analysis comes from an anti-Fascist professor in exile whose wife is a lesbian.
The two wives lead a round-dance in Paris that draws the professor in at the tail and encircles the conformist.
The filming is quite simple, one complex aggregate of rooms and hallway appears at the fiancée’s apartment when she puts on the American gramophone, Magritte apples appear in 1943 (perhaps from the convent school in De Sica’s Teresa Venerdi), the restored dance of the blind has a shot from outside slowly elevating two windows full of dancing feet above the frame and out of sight, but the main effort draws the period in a style comparable to its productions and at the same time more reserved, allowing for the color.
The extraordinary sequence of process shots aboard the train is taken to a point visible in Sidney’s Annie Get Your Gun.
The subdued style allows an unexpected effect, the famous assassination scene with its handheld camera.
Strategia del ragno
Rigoletto is the joke, the disgusting aspects of the plot are confined to the title. Grass and weeds on the railroad that used to run on time.
Mark Twain’s bee-stung bull (Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc) is a German lion escaped, Draifa cannot be dealt with, either.
One chooses not to blow up Il Duce but rather to weep on one’s glorious grave, the “appeal to posterity” (Brecht).
The filming is notably allied to Antonioni’s The Passenger, with much use of the rotating pan, and greatly anticipates the provincialisms of 1900.
Last Tango in Paris
For the ideal of form suiting the subject and material, see Hitchcock. Sweet Bird of Youth will settle analytical concerns as the theme, you can say it’s simply parceled out in two characters who never meet until the one dies and is reborn as the other (but they are one and the same, Paul and Tom).
That is the shape of it, so you get the late prostitute wife Rose and her rising intellectual lover Marcel before Paul gets wise, simultaneous with the jeux de cinéma of barrel-rolling Tom, who grows up.
Le mariage pop, a ménage à la Orwell, is proposed and rejected.
One has no knowledge, in the end, of all the histoire that is told in this portrait of the artist.
Precisely the model, ground plan and analytical work for The Last Emperor. The failure of critics to grasp the planetary yin and yang of it can nowhere be ascribed to Bertolucci’s exhaustive labors at making it plain in every detail, the Fascisti and Communisti get their show in plenty, nothing is omitted that lends itself to an understanding, even a famous anecdote from Peter Weiss’s The Investigation filmed authoritatively and a comrade’s way with horseshit.
It’s almost enough, in the face of the critics’ default, for one to say that Bertolucci has taken up the theme of 1900 again, in an altogether different form, but with the Wylerian dimensions of his early masterpiece Partner, and a marked resemblance to his still earlier Prima della rivoluzione—almost enough, because the theme runs throughout his work, Last Tango in Paris, Stealing Beauty and so on, furthermore Ebert and Canby couldn’t understand 1900 in the first place, Magoo the film critic.
Bertolucci is most active before the camera starts turning, only slightly less so during a shot, and very reserved in editing. The sumptuousness of his detailed interiors is first of all like the layout of Freud’s office, an expanse for the mind to couch in and roam harbored at every juncture to explore the backcountry (a healer, Freud, not a peeler), as profitably observed by Richter in Dreams That Money Can Buy, and availing itself of De Chirico’s metaphysical interiors as small or large components of the setup.
He needs this so as not to confuse anyone. The camera makes compositions as it moves leisurely throughout almost in a counterpoint to the action, requiring constant attentiveness. Still more, critical plot elements (notably the resolution) are introduced by quick cuts.
The operatic style is itself a thematic element, Bertolucci regards its illusionistic perspective, goes backstage to see how it’s done, shows the artiste as athlete, then (like De Mille in The Greatest Show on Earth) strips the apparatus for a real display of artistry.
The other shoe of his theme isn’t dropped by Bertolucci until far into the second half with a Hitchcockian motorist. This has the formal economy of attributing the link to anecdote, and creates a feint that serves the drama.
He opens with a Minnellian tour de force before the credits, a villa on the sea near Rome, the hero’s childhood, which allows some fairly quiet working subsequently as exposition. Much of this matter is then incorporated as dialogue in the latter scenes.
A great many films are cited for this epic examination of an opera singer and her son, a heroin addict, usually with extreme laconicism to give a tight sense of irony, Bergman’s Autumn Sonata, for example, Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces for the wheelchair-bound maestro, Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm for the “drum solo” in the cafe on the highway, Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai for the boy following his father on the road. Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park is unsurpassable for a direct and forceful statement, Bertolucci builds quite another structure in which the past is recaptured after an interregnum of sorts.
Kafka is very present in the entire analysis of the boy’s perceptions, most visibly at the dress rehearsal, but this is also The World of Henry Orient (George Roy Hill) and “a middle-class drama” subsumed by opera, as Bertolucci describes the ending (Un Ballo in Maschera at Caracalla).
The world of adults is attractive but silly and vain, art is its consolation, heroin its equivalent in the lunar realm of reflection. Having broken down the profession to its mere artificiality and promise, Bertolucci films the dress rehearsal as a daylight exterior, out of nowhere amid the ruins people appear with unimaginable skills in full flight, dancers, singers, musicians, directors, stage crew, all of them knowing what to do at every moment.
The boy’s stepfather dies in New York, the singer’s manager. The real father encourages children at a Roman school to paint a ceiling on the floor, a canvas sky. Evening draws on, he’s in the stalls to reprove his son for a cruel trick, the king dies, the singer performs, the two smile, the moon appears.
La Tragedia di un Uomo Ridicolo
The most delicately sculpted of Bertolucci’s films has a theme that points to The Dreamers, its characteristically subtle precision is all the more pronounced because it reconciles several thematic elements (from Last Tango in Paris and 1900) in preparation for the grand labors of The Last Emperor.
The counterbalance of The Conformist is given almost at once in the kidnapping of the factory owner’s son (the products are Parmesan and prosciutto, out of milk and pigs). Factory and son were born the same year, sales are down, the owner is buying a yacht nonetheless.
A billion from a baron in a short-term loan liberates the son and saves the factory by a ruse.
The sharp editing of Luna (a few frames state an image) is fairly constant in Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man, if there’s one thing a film critic cannot abide it’s sharp editing.
Ugo Tognazzi got the prize at Cannes for sustaining the role so admirably, but the distribution of parts is equally admirable. An astute score by Ennio Morricone sustains the atmosphere.
The Last Emperor
Three films, before a critical viewpoint. Reviewers beheld the sweep and majesty, sadly lacking in drama. The drama is intuited more or less by one or two, the man’s life as infant emperor (a bath scene alluding to Fellini’s 8½), republican schoolboy and so on. Finally there is Bertolucci’s film, which sadly could not be perceived because critics never really bothered to perceive 1900 in the first place, though some were dimly aware that The Conformist is encapsulated in Manchukuo.
The laboratory distillation of experience comes from the unique circumstances of Pu Yi’s life, his isolation and sudden encounter with Japanese Fascism and Chinese Communism. “Now the centre cannot hold,” and the study is made.
Bertolucci’s structure has the enchanting appearance of ornament in its allusions to such films as Citizen Kane in a fit of pique or Doctor Zhivago at the close. Themes are stated and varied, Pu Yi’s martial exercise, the tennis game, prisoners at T’ai Chi, the gesticulations of marching girls at their choreography in a parade of the Cultural Revolution, these form a sequence of gestures.
The prison governor re-educates Pu Yi and is made to wear a dunce cap in the same parade that exactly resembles a Spanish procession of the Holy Inquisition, down to the sanbenitos worn by the accused.
Pu Yi is the symbol of use to both regimes, an enigma to reviewers, a dramatic emblem, both of these to Bertolucci and something else.
The Sheltering Sky
Critics scurried to their dens to hide behind promotional copies of the novel, pleading innocence. That’s all right, nobody cares.
Nicolas Roeg analyzed half the film quite rapidly as Cold Heaven, the rest was feebly noted by Canby as Melford’s The Sheik, and there is a coda dumping the whole thing in the lap of the author, quite properly.
And so, it is not so mysterious as it first appears to professionals in the field.
The memory of the experience transmuted into art, write that down. Then you can contemplate the bravura of Bertolucci’s performance on location.
Drifty, vague stories amuse the critics, which is why they make them up so often.
The film can very effectively be compared with Brooks’ The Last Time I Saw Paris, which even figures in a joke. “What do you expect,” the French military doctor asks, “this isn’t Paris.”
The imaginary worlds of a teenager at liberty in Italy literally waft on the breezes like alphabet soup in Bertolucci’s variant of A Streetcar Named Desire, something of her acquaintance with the perfect rhyme suggests perhaps Renoir’s Partie de campagne.
Bertolucci’s joke on the vicissitudes of critics who rather liked but couldn’t digest Buñuel’s Cet Obscur Objet du Désir, he provides them with a full and complete analysis.
The cinematography is extremely beautiful, occasionally distressed by “slo-mo”. The direction is wisely foolish, as any joke that has to be explained is no doubt an imposition.
The chambermaid is the wife of an imprisoned African dissident.
The flamenco singer is an African strolling bard.
The master is a pianist, a man of inherited wealth.
This Englishman living in Rome sells all that he hath to fulfill the condition of her love, he must free her husband from the new strongman’s prison.
Jump-cutting, one slow-motion and one fast-motion shot, and the Spanish Steps, lead to the punchline.
Ten Minutes Older: The Cello
Hindoo workers dumped in Italia, one helps a girl with her moped, knocks her up, marries her, takes the family and the mistress on a trip, wrecks the car in a rivulet, and finds wisdom from a Hindoo sage he traveled with (from Prima della rivoluzione).
For whom Chairman Mao is the Happy Buddha, and it all takes place between the Cinémathèque and the parents’ flat, enfin Les Enfants terribles, or nearly.
“Presque tout”, the French ad concluded in Paris theaters once upon a time, as a railroad train ran over a watch placed on the rail, flittered, “résiste tout”.
L’acte tout à fait gratuit.