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Bernardo Bertolucci: The Last Taboo

The director confronts the incestuous feelings he says we all have

Bernardo Bertolucci

Italian film director Bernardo Bertolucci, February 21st, 1978

Chris Moorhouse/Evening Standard/Getty Images)

It is a commonplace that movies aren’t what they used to be. “I’ll tell you what I see here in the heart of the Empire, in Hollywood,” says the 38-year-old Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci in the following interview.” There’s a lot of energy, a lot of money…But I really think that there aren’t a lot of ideas and not a lot of good movies around. There’s an inverse proportion between the excitement and the result, money and ideas.”

The often-repeated explanations for this decline-blockbuster mentality on the part of producers, a failure of creative will on the part of writers and directors, a lack of interest in serious and experimental films on the part of a television-brainwashed audience–are probably true. And aside from certain films from Germany. Soviet Georgia and Australia, the Seventies–not only in Hollywood but throughout most of the world–have been a lean period for original and risk-taking motion pictures.

But Bertolucci’s eighth and newest film, Luna, is a work of such intensity and cinematic brilliance that, watching it, one feels that one is witnessing a reawakening of the possibilities of cinema. Simply, the story concerns a world-famous opera star named Caterina (Jill Clayburgh) who, after the death of her husband, moves with her 15-year-old son, Joe (Matthew Barry), from their Brooklyn Heights home to Rome, where he gets hooked on heroin.

Once Caterina accidentally discovers Joe shooting up, they become entangled in a series of lacerating, incestuous confrontations as they rediscover each other and recover their pasts. And in the final scene, a rehearsal of Verdi’s ‘The Masked Ball’ on the open-air stage of Caracalla, Joe, his mother and his real father are brought together in a dramatic restitution–a kind of sacred marriage–that reunites son and parents, anima and animus, art and life.

Luna, however, hardly obeys classical unities, for it is, in a sense, a dream about a dream (the original dream being the first few minutes of the film–a remembrance of the sun and the moon, the son and the mother). Bertolucci uses the camera as an unconscious dream observer that spies as it travels in and out of the events and lives of the film (ravishingly photographed by Vittorio Storaro).

But it is a dream based on certain realities. “The virgin and the whore!” Bertolucci exclaims. “For Italian Catholics, all women are whores except the mother and the sister. It’s a fait accompli in Italian culture.”

And with intuition, passion, outrage and irony, Bertolucci takes the cultural clichés of films like Marriage Italian Style and Wifemistress and turns them inside out. Avoiding the nostalgic reverie of D.H. Lawrence’s poem “Piano,” the subversive, guilt haunted elaboration of Georges Bataille’s novel Ma Mere’ or the elegance and delicacy of Louis Malle’s film Murmur of the Heart, Bertolucci in ‘Luna‘ confronts the incest taboo–as do all the above works–in order to explore and explode it. At the same time, he has taken his obsessions about sexuality–especially the ambiguous attractions of homosexuality–and the family, which he had previously explored in Before the Revolution, The Spider’s Stratagem, The Conformist and Last Tango in Paris, and pushed them very far and courageously down the line in his newest work.

“I don’t know what the movie is all about,” Bertolucci told me when I visited him one mid-August afternoon in Los Angeles. “Maybe we should talk about it and I’ll find out.”

Let’s begin at the beginning of the film, with the first two little scenes–a memory of the sun, a memory of the moon.
The point of departure is the prologue, when Joey’s a baby and Caterina’s a young woman. To me, it’s like a dream, which is later forgotten by the characters and the audience. There are just these few minutes in the life of a 14-month-old baby. We see his mother feeding him with honey. He nearly suffocates, the honey is so sweet, and then we see the shadow of a man. Caterina puts a record on the phonograph, and she and this man dance.

The baby can’t attract her attention–it’s as if she’s forgotten him. He’s crying, and he doesn’t see the dancers very well because they’re a silhouette against the sun. They’re dancing, but it’s really the primal scene. And for the baby it’s like a war dance–the mother is shouting, the man has a knife in one hand and a fish in the other. And they don’t look at him.

Next, the reason for the film’s title: you see the baby in a basket on a bicycle. It’s night, and his mother is riding the bicycle, and he looks up at her, sees her face and the full moon in the sky, and he confuses the two. The face of the mother is young, the face of the moon is ageless…This is one of my first memories–the bicycle and the moon–and I wanted to find out why I remembered it, and to discover something about the relationship between the son and the mother.

Maybe that’s why I made Luna. The prologue is extremely important for the rest of the movie because it contains all of its elements. And afterward, it’s as if the film is trying to analyze the dream…But actually, I feel very split about this idea. I believe that psychoanalysis is important to Luna, but at the same time, I don’t think it’s a psychological movie. The movie gravitates between melodrama and psychoanalysis. By that I mean that the characters are either epical-lyrical or are determined by their subconsciouses.

Perhaps this is what gives the effect of watching someone’s dreams…
Yes, without knowing who’s dreaming. Luna is just a word, a magic one, by means of which everyone can project his or her own dream. The moon, of course, is a very rich symbol, but the only reference to it I’d accept is the simplest one: just as the moon has two faces, so every character and situation in the film has two faces–that which appears and that which is hidden.

There seems to be an obsession in your films with what Freud called the “family romance”–father, daughter, mother, son.
You mean I’m a family freak? I think so, in a way. Because it’s hard to grow up, and so one stays in connection with the sweet hell of the family. But the deep reason is…as the Jewish mother says to her son: Oedipus shmoedipus, as long as you love your mother! So there’s that deep, uncontrollable level operating here, but on another level I think that the family is a way of keeping in touch with the past, while our consumer society tries to disconnect us from it in order to sell us more and more stuff.

But by focusing on what is repressed–the early family memories–you discover, or recover, what most families don’t want to confront.
I had a screening in L.A. for people from Twentieth Century-Fox and a few friends. In general, they loved the movie, but when it was over, they found it difficult to say anything–it hit them in the stomach.

In what were supposed to have been matriarchal times, the sun represented the female principle, and the moon the male. With patriarchy, the moon came to represent the passive, mysterious, intuitive principle, and the sun, the rational, objective, analytic side–like the two hemispheres of the brain. At the conclusion of Luna, though, the son brings together and reconciles both of these principles.
So, is it a happy ending? Yes, because the son can bring together the mother and the father, like two halves of an apple. Oedipus kills the father, whereas Joe resuscitates the father. And then he does it like a theater director, since it happens on a stage. It’s his idea to track down his father and say to him: “You remember you had a son? Well, he died of a drug overdose…” It’s like a nineteenth-century melodrama! He accuses his father and incites him to come to the opera stage at Caracalla, thereby reuniting him with Caterina. This is his goal, to bring them together, as they had been in the primal scene. But I don’t know if it’s really a happy ending. Emotionally, you have a very strong feeling of liberation, but rationally there’s really no recomposition of the institution of the family. Caterina is on the stage, the father’s sitting somewhere in the orchestra, and the son is someplace else.

So what we find is the recomposition of the characters as individuals: Joe will perhaps be able to become an adult, and Caterina is able to sing again.

The father slaps his son’s face in the last scene, and that seemed a bit scary, as if that act announced a return to the old patriarchal order.
It’s a kind of initiation. I think Joe really needs the physical proof of the authority of the father; it’s something that will allow him to become an adult. Joe has had the perfect background for becoming a homosexual. But I think he’s not going to because he can put together the two pieces of the primal couple. What he’s trying to do at the end is to re-create the image he had at the beginning–the mother and father dancing. I think that Joe’s happy when his father hits him. Every kid needs the authority of the father, otherwise he’s on a raft.

It sounds as if you’re advocating a new kind of paternalistic system.
The father has to exist in order to be killed. Things have to be changed, but around the nucleus of the family, otherwise, the only values will be those of the market.

But how can a woman be independent–Caterina sings better after her husband has died–if she has to be the mother in a strict nuclear family?
Well, the child needs the father more than the mother needs her husband [laughing]. And the child needs to be freed from his mother. In the prologue, the man dancing with Caterina is like a mirror. And when Joe sees the man making love to (dancing with) her, he learns how to identify with the other man in order to detach himself from the mother. At the same time, of course, he feels rejected and unhappy.

Later on in the film, it almost seems as if Joe’s heroin addiction is a substitute for his father’s not being there.
I think it’s a substitute for both mother and father. Let’s go back to the honey of the prologue. By accident–it wasn’t in the script–in the first scene the baby really seems to be suffocating because the honey’s too sweet. And who gives him the honey? Caterina. So the honey’s like a mother-love that can kill. And the heroin reveals the compulsion to repeat the same process.

And later you see her giving him heroin.
Yes, I found out that many mothers of junkies give their children heroin; unconsciously, they don’t really want them to be cured, because in that way they can be in control of the situation. Caterina thinks that giving Joe junk and also her animal comfort will make her feel less guilty. There’s that dichotomy: shouldn’t she, as a great soprano, be able to express herself without feeling guilty as a mother?

On one hand there’s her objective creativity, and on the other there’s her maternity. Joe’s very competitive with her. When he drums on a table in the tavern while his mother is sitting with a man at another table, he’s very jealous, but also very exhibitionistic; he wants the man to look at him, not at his mother.

When Caterina takes Joe on a drive back to Parma to discover her past as a young singer and to show him where she first spent time with her husband, it’s not only a reparation for her, but a reparation for you, since she goes back to places that appear in your previous movies–the barn in ‘1900,’ the train station of The Spider’s Stratagem.
Yes, Caterina’s past is my past. The train station’s not the same, but it’s similar–the same flat landscape. The man with the salami in the tavern is that same man who appears in The Spider’s Stratagem, and he’s also the priest in 1900 shown here again. It’s a real superimposition of my past and her past.

I think that the movie is seen through the eyes of the camera, which is your–the director’s–past. Who is the camera that is weaving in and out, spying, being a voyeur?
I think that for every movie maker–though I’m obviously and particularly talking of myself here–the camera is just reenacting and repeating the look of the baby during the primal scene. As the baby, so every camera is a voyeur. But to come back to what you said about Caterina’s and my past: the first day we were shooting in Parma [where Bertolucci grew up]–Caterina looking for help from her old voice teacher, showing Joe the landscape and the different places–that first day I went out to a newspaper shop, and the headlines read: IL PAPA è MORTO [the pope is dead].

Pope in Italian is written like papa, and a few hours later, when I was looking in my viewfinder, I tripped, fell down and broke both of my elbows. I was in a cast for twenty-five days, and the shooting was postponed for three weeks. So you see what I mean when I say that a movie is at the same time a symptom and the therapy itself! I couldn’t eat by myself, so Claire [People, Bertolucci’s wife] fed me, and I was forced into a regression–I was like a baby…Caterina went back, and I went back.

In Luna there are actors whom one remembers vividly from other Italian films: the man who picks Joe up in the bar (Franco Citti) was in Pasolini’s ‘Accatone,’ for example…
Let me say one thing about the Franco Citti character: after Joe dances with him in the bar, I shot a scene in which Joe falls asleep, and when he wakes up, he sees Franco Citti, as well as close-ups of several actors from such other Pasolini films as Mamma Roma and La Ricotta–each of the actors looking at a TV. And what was on the screen was a news broadcast about Pasolini’s death. But I had to cut this sequence because it was something too important; I couldn’t say it in three minutes. Pasolini’s death was so extraordinary and terrifying and tragic and left such an empty place in Italian culture, in the culture of the world…and my scene was too simple, too quick.

…and the man who picks up Caterina on the road (Renato Salvatori) was in ‘Rocco and His Brothers’ and many Italian comedies; Joe’s real father (Tomas Milian) was in Visconti’s ‘Boccaccio ’70’ and in many spaghetti westerns. So Luna also brings back to consciousness many memories of Italian films.
Yes, but remember that Jill Clayburgh and Matthew Barry are American–in reality and in the movie. I liked having these two Americans parachute into this colony.

In the first shots of Joe in Rome, you hear Arabic music on the soundtrack.
In Luna, Rome looks like an Arab city, full of palm trees and minarets and pyramids…And Joe is like a paratrooper who’s parachuted into the wrong zone, where there’s no fighting, no war. He’s looking around and he doesn’t really know where he is, why he’s there–he’s very confused and lost and lonely. There’s this wedding between Italian and American culture. And Joe is always looking for somebody.

Yes. His father. After Joe is picked up by the man in the bar, he says: “I miss my father.” And that scene, in which he dances to the Bee Gees’ “Night Fever,” is both menacing and exhilarating.
I used the Bee Gees’ song because, for me, Saturday Night Fever was a real witness to spring 1978. The scene in the bar was also a kind of homage to John Travolta. I thought he was brilliant in Saturday Night Fever. The music in that bar scene is really Joe’s nostalgia for his roots, his background, his country and for New York City.

Early in the film, you have an equally beautiful and haunting scene in which Joe and his girl friend are making love in a movie house. Marilyn Monroe is playing the unfaithful wife of a war veteran, and she sings the song “Kiss,” and then, magically, the roof of the cinema opens–typical of certain Italian cinemas in the summer–the full moon is in the sky, and Joe says: “I must go.”
He’s called by the moon.

And then he goes to the opera house, where he walks through the audience–like a sleepwalker–as his mother is singing a scene from Il Trovatore, which tells of the rivalry of Manrico and, significantly, Count Di Luna.

There are all sorts of duplications and connections in Luna: Joe is picked up by a man in a bar, Caterina is picked up by a driver on the road; Joe’s girlfriend helps him shoot up, saying: “I like to hold your arm,” and a little later Caterina starts caressing Joe’s arm. Did you intend all these mirroring and connections, as if they were part of a dream meant to be seen and interpreted?
I tried to leave in every kind of energy, and I wanted to control as little as possible the creative contributions not only of myself but of Claire, who rewrote the script with me during the shooting. Today we hear about the nouvelle philosophie and the nouvelle cuisine, so why not the nouvelle dramaturgie? I’m making fun of this, of course, but life is based on inconsistencies and contradictions. Traditional dramaturgy is based on continuity and consistency. And in Luna I tried to forget the traditional approach and looked instead for new manifestations…so that, for example, Caterina sings, then can’t sing anymore, then sings again.

There’s a scene that seems to exemplify what you’re talking about: Joe is shown walking along a street in Rome, and he draws a chalk mark on the passing walls. Then you see a young Italian boy noticing this line and, as if in a fairy tale, following it to Joe’s lair in an abandoned factory where he’s shooting up.
Yes, the little boy says something to him about shooting up, and Joe, instead of talking about his trouble or his mother, starts going on about Billy Martin leaving the Yankees, about how great a manager he was. I liked this incident. And the chalk line–it’s like Ariadne’s thread [in Greek mythology, Ariadne gives Theseus a thread to lead him out of the labyrinth], and it’s the same thread that connects Joe and his mother in the first scene, and the father and his mother at the end. (Joe’s girlfriend is called Arianna, which is Ariadne in Italian.)

Where are you when you shoot a film?
I’m near the camera, and I’m really divided. I look at the actors and I look at the camera as if it were another actor. And I look at the harmony between the camera and the actors. But I really don’t know anything about the apertures. I prepare each shot in a very specific way, but I can’t shoot it by myself…just as I can’t shoot a still photograph–it’s always out of focus. That’s why I like to work with the same people, because they know exactly what I want. I like to be alone in a room with a viewfinder and imagine the actors and the shot.

Then I call in the actors and we rehearse, and I try to give them the kind of movements that I imagined before, verifying with the camera what I imagined through the viewfinder. Finally, we shoot. Everything has to be planned, but I really like to be surprised by an actor doing something unexpected. I love surprises, and I always think of them as gifts. To me, Jill Clayburgh is very surprising and very brave. She’s never redundant, she never overacts, and at the same time, the risks she takes as an actress enter into the character of Caterina, so that Caterina becomes someone who takes a lot of risks.

She plays a singer and a mother–an erotic. perplexed, selfish, concerned woman who goes from one role and feeling to another without revealing a break in the performance.
That’s because we found a new kind of continuity based on change. And that’s what I meant before when I talked about the nouvelle dramaturgic. Jill is intelligent, open and full of humor about herself–which is why she can go as far as she does.

Sometimes she’s flat when she responds to something dramatic, or the other way around.
Yes, she screams when she sees the farm from 1900, for example.

And she tells her son, almost offhandedly, something she feels most deeply: “I come from a world in which singing and creating and dreaming mean something.”
That’s my fear–a world in which creating and dreaming won’t mean anything. But I know we have to face the present, just as Caterina has to face the present. Verdi is the family and the past. And Joe is the present: this son of a bitch is the present. She has to face the new generation, and Joe and his friends look neurotic and lonely to her; she’s not moved by them. A day comes when the anguish of her son doesn’t move her at all–that’s the terrible thing.

Caterina lives in the realm of both art and life, going from one to the other all the time.
A soprano is called “prima donna.” And for a son, the mother is the “first woman.”

And yet she takes on the role of the father, too.
Yes, when she’s alone with Joe, she’s both mother and father. She’s a phallic image. The body of Jill is quite phallic.

The Lunar goddesses Ishtar and Artemis were considered to be both female and male.
She brings these two aspects together. And when she finds out that her son is a junkie, she begins to think of him in a new way, wondering what mistakes she’s made. Finally, she’s completely lost, and the only thing she can do is to give him heroin or masturbate him. And I discovered that in fact many nannies once used masturbation as a way of tranquilizing children.

It’s interesting that when Caterina finds out that Joe’s a junkie, she tries to open up to him. Before that, she appeared cold and aloof. And when she first opens up, he abuses her and beats her.
That sequence really frightened everybody on the set. Because it seems to me that there’s a common fantasy of wanting to express anger and even aggression against the mother. I myself never expressed it that far in reality. And I had to sit down after this scene–we shot it only twice–it was too strong. Everybody’s nightmare was represented there I mean, to slap your mother, calling her a fucking whore, a bitch…

That confronts and breaks down the whole virgin-whore syndrome.
Yes. It’s shocking. And it’s also shocking when Caterina kisses Joe as they sit in the car in front of the train station, telling him that this is where she first kissed her husband. There’s no evidence that Joe needs a kiss. And to me, this is much stronger than the earlier sexual encounter between mother and son.

So you show his fantasy (beating up his mother) and then hers (turning her son into her husband).
Yes.

In Luna, scenes mirror each other over and over. At the conclusion of the film, for instance, you see Joe’s real father and the father’s mother, who’s now caught in the skein of wool, just as Joe was as a baby.
The wool, the plane, the piano are things that make the connection between the present and the past. When Joe asks Caterina why she and his father broke up, she says: “He hated my voice, he couldn’t stand me and…he was in love with his mother.” It’s like an illumination. In a way, every man has this incest fantasy–not necessarily as it manifests itself in Luna, of course–but it’s a passaggio obligato and a kind of archaic taboo. The act of incest is actually a fantasy of incest, as in the film.

There’s no sexual penetration. Just the other day, I was at the supermarket here in L.A., and at the cash register I saw this newspaper called the National Enquirer. And in it was a big story about a U.S. marine marrying his mother. He was put into a foster home when he was a week old, saw his mother two times during his childhood and adolescence, and later they both fell in love with each other. Just look at this article: Couple tell their own story that no law can destroy! A woman I know, who has a six-year-old child, told me, after seeing Luna, that just a couple of months ago her child said that he didn’t see anything strange in the fact that he was going to marry her.

And when she said that they couldn’t because of the law, he replied: “Je trouve ce loi imbecile!”

I’m grateful to Jill Clayburgh and Claire Peploe, who both insisted on the necessity for humor in this film, especially a film about a mother and son made by an Italian Catholic! In that scene where the man in the car picks Caterina up on the road, I was making fun of this man–he’s a rich Italian Communist like me. Humor, of course, is also a way of protecting oneself. I wanted to destroy the cultural filters. But there’s always a price to pay when you break through a taboo–a sense of anxiety. And I think I paid that.

With certain exceptions, people don’t seem to be too interested in serious or risk-taking movies right now.
But they always used to do very entertaining movies here. That was the goal. But something else is happening now that goes beyond show business. The problem is the crisis in values. Think of Apocalypse Now and Luna, among others: these movies are about the decline and fall of the Western empire, of our culture, our values.

The intensity of Luna suggests this erosion.
You can see what the movie is right there, but you’re also forced to think of other things when you watch it. It’s my first film in the present–Last Tango too, perhaps. When you talk about sex, you talk about the present.

Speaking about the political present: aside from the scene with the young Arab boy, you don’t connect the events in the film with the political violence in Italy today.
I didn’t try to face the Italian political present because things are happening and changing so quickly, and because things are so incomprehensible today. It’s quite interesting to look at that reality from Los Angeles. Every time I come here, I feel that people are so isolated and don’t care what’s going on in the rest of the world. And I quite enjoy being here. But this time it’s different; I feel there’s something wrong.

The Empire’s shaking. I mean, the people here are beginning to be aware of the rest of the world. And in Italy a lot of people are, as a kind of response to the violence, talking about and concentrating on their inner worlds.

But Mustafa, the young Arab boy in the film, is the very direct, primary thing. He says: “I sell drugs because I have to eat.” Caterina replies, “Bullshit, you don’t like to work, otherwise you’d get a job.” And he answers. “Yes, I hate to work because there is no work.” It’s very simple. Now we can face the decline and fall. And accept it. The Seventies were “down” in comparison with the Sixties–these have been times of disillusion.

But I think that the early Eighties will be different; it seems as if something is starting again.

Even in the 12th century, a Japanese poet wrote: “Even in an age gone bad, the Lyric’s way stays straight.”
It’s funny how a poet believes in the Lyric, much as a stockbroker believes in IBM going up [laughing]. The stockbroker thinks the truth is the stock market. The poet thinks the truth is the Lyric’s way. Poetry is the only thing that cannot be consumed.

You seem to be going straight ahead.
More and more…But we have to face and accept the symptoms of our neuroses. We have to stop avoiding admitting that we are living in a jungle of symptoms. I know that a movie or a poem or a painting is a symptom. I think the person you love is a symptom. I think you’re a symptom of the person you love. And I think the therapy is within the symptom. So only by eating the symptoms, so to speak, can you hope…not to be cured– that’s a fake, you’re never cured–but to be better. To be in a better harmony with yourself. So Luna is a symptom, but at the same time, it’s a cure.

What is it symptomatic of?
If I have to shoot in the city where I was born and don’t have the courage to shoot about myself, so I invent Jill Clayburgh learning how to sing in Parma…and on the first day of shooting I fall down and break both of my elbows…well, I’d say the film is a symptom. Of what? . . . That’s none of your business! [Laughing.]

The last time you interviewed me, we ended with a quotation from Yeats. “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” And, you know, I made an homage to that in a scene I finally had to cut from Luna. It occurred at the end of the film: Edward, the opera freak, goes under the opera stage with Marina–Caterina’s friend–and they’re arguing. She says: “You don’t understand anything about Caterina.” And he says: “I love her voice.” Marina replies: “What do you mean? I love her.” And Edward says: “You love her. I love her voice. Who can tell the dancer from the dance?”

Who can tell the film from the film? I’m thinking of Joe watching the Marilyn Monroe movie that appears in your movie.
Exactly. It’s a metamovie, a metadream. . . . Let’s end this interview with another quotation, from The Divine Comedy, in which Dante writes: “…come quello the soguando desidera sognaure.

Like the one who is dreaming desires to dream.

Isn’t that beautiful? He desires to dream in a dream…I think movies are made of the same stuff as dreams are made of. And we must express the dream with signs, and there must be pleasure– “the pleasure of the text,” as Roland Barthes says –but pleasure means anguish, too.

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