“You are your mother’s masterpiece,” the desperate man (Marlon Brando) tells his dead wife as she lies before him in a coffin. We’re midway through Last Tango in Paris as he tears these words out of his heart.
This moment arguably constitutes the moral nucleus not only of Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1972 film, but the whole of his work. His central characters are either struggling to free themselves of a heritage, or creating in sex and politics a nurturing family they’ve never had. Pu Yi may rule China in The Last Emperor (1987), but he’s as much a slave to his infantile longings as any peasant. The hero of The Conformist makes a father of fascism, to such a degree that he betrays the flesh-and-blood men who love him. Brando’s Paul, in Last Tango, psychologically strips himself in the arms of a young and unknown woman he’s met, purely by chance, following his wife’s suicide — and in improvising the capture of this man’s torment, Brando speaks nakedly of his actual mother. As Bertolucci sees it, we create each other — constantly. He himself was created as a public figure at age 12, in the image of his poet father, Attilio, publishing juvenile verse in periodicals and eventually, at 20, his own volume of poetry. (He has never ceased to be a poet.) Later, as if overthrowing the regime of that natural father for a second one, Bertolucci became the protégé of poet-novelist-filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, who produced Bertolucci’s first film, The Grim Reaper (1962).
Bertolucci was nothing if not fortunate in his own upbringing, and his greatness is that he so envisions the circumstances into which each of us is born (wealth or poverty, beauty or its lack, brains or their lack, masculinity, femininity, blind luck, bad luck or sheer discipline) as a maddening riddle at the hearts of our lives, especially when we’re young. Bertolucci so storms our hearts and our youth in film after film, in such varied ways (often in the guise of historic epics), that the tricky, often incestuous links he traces between private sexual politics and the fates of civilizations become all the more meaningful the more of his films we see in close proximity.
With the exception of Little Buddha (1993), for which a 70mm print could not be found, Bertolucci’s entire body of work will show at LACMA over the next five weeks. What emerges most lucidly is a continuous meditation on the mysteries of parents and children. The son of a dead resistance hero in The Spider’s Stratagem (1970) comes full circle in his quest to know his father, to the point where he doubts his own and everybody else’s loyalty to this unknown, perhaps imaginary being. The tough, life-loving capitalist (the wonderful Ugo Tognazzi) in Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man (1981) so competes, emotionally, with his ethereal Marxist son that he refuses to take it seriously when the young man is kidnapped, choosing instead to treat the demands for ransom as a game of economic hardball. “Primo,” as the father is so aptly named, is a robust, classically attractive bastard whose “tragedy” is that life has forced him to be his own father. His very vitality is the nightmare from which his son is so desperate to awake. Even as unlikely a couple as the lovers in Besieged (1998) are acting out a parental dynamic. He, a reclusive artist, falls in love with his cleaning lady because her care for him is so genuine. She, in secret a revolutionary who fled Africa for her life, is for her part simply being humane, not motherly (she already has a child). Yet their affair hints that all nurturing is revolutionary.
This is to say nothing of the intricate pleasures there to be rediscovered in the rest of Bertolucci’s acknowledged masterworks — in Before the Revolution (1964), in 1900 (1976). We’re always on solid moral and aesthetic ground with Bertolucci. Even when he is at his most hell-bent, in search of insights that feel self-indulgent at first blush — as in Luna (1979) or Stealing Beauty (1996) — his great work so spectacularly lights the way that you may find yourself rethinking films you thought you’d dismissed. The “self” Bertolucci’s indulging in the end may not be his alone, but everybody’s.
“Dreaming Cinema: The Films of Bernardo Bertolucci” screens Fridays and Saturdays, July 16–August 14, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Leo S. Bing Theater. Call (323) 857-6000 for information, or visit www.lacma.org.