Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
By Roderick Heath
Bernardo Bertolucci’s career took some peculiar turns in the 1970s and 80s, after the tremendous international success of The Conformist (1970) and Last Tango in Paris (1973) made him a cinema artist of worldwide reputation. He courted an international audience and utilised Hollywood money and stars whilst avoiding becoming a Hollywood director, producing ambitious oddities like 1900 (1976) and La Luna, one of his least-known and -regarded films. The fact that Bertolucci came from a cross-cultural background—his father was Italian, and his mother Australian—perhaps indicates why he was increasingly eager to portray characters trapped between two worlds, feeling like strangers within their own milieu, and meeting other lost souls across great divides. Simultaneously, his recurring obsessions with sexuality and family dynamics dovetailed in La Luna, a rich, intriguing, but also sprawling and diffuse film.
One of Bertolucci’s core gifts is his ability to take on seamy and taboo subjects whilst not making a show of his own daring; instead, he conjures an intelligent, muted beauty, as if to say, “This, too, is humanity.” He was, therefore, primed to find rich expression in the tale of a mother who, eager to save her son from drug addiction and eddying in a vague space of grief after the death of her husband and his adopted father, distracts him with incestuous grappling. The mother, Caterina Silveri (Jill Clayburgh), is an American opera star with roots in Italy, where she had an affair with a young man, Giuseppe (Tomas Milian), that produced her son Joe (Matthew Barry). At the very opening, she’s playing with her young son, but then distresses him by leaving him aside to dance to sugary pop music with Giuseppe, while Giuseppe’s mother (Alida Valli) idly bangs away on the piano in their seaside house. Later, Caterina travels the deserted road back to Rome under the moonlight with her son perched in the handlebar basket.
Some 15 years later, Caterina’s living in New York with her manager husband Douglas (Fred Gwynne). As Caterina and Douglas prepare to go to Italy for a series of engagements, Joe doesn’t want to be left alone, first pleading with his mother to come with her, and then with Douglas to stay behind. Douglas, however, dies from ambiguous causes just before departure, and both Caterina and Joe attempt to put the death behind them immediately. Joe accompanies her to Italy, where she throws herself into her singing, achieving new heights of acclaim for her performance in Il Trovatore. Joe, on the other hand, spirals downward, hanging about with a motley collection of school friends; at his birthday party, Caterina comes across him shooting up heroin with the aid of his girlfriend Arianna (Elisabetta Campeti). Joe and Caterina have an explosive argument, and he leaves to wander about Rome purposelessly, only to then collapse in sickness when he returns home. Caterina, deciding to save her son by any means necessary, tracks down Joe’s supplier, a young, disarmingly philosophical Muslim boy, named Mustafa (Stéphane Barat), to buy some heroin and tend to Joe as he recovers at home.
Caterina travels to Parma to seek the advice of her former mentor, now that Joe’s addiction has made her want to give up singing, but she finds him decrepit and senile. Joe follows her to Parma. Caterina is inspired to try to find a house where she and Douglas once lived, and also shows Giuseppe Verdi’s house to an uninterested Joe. After a spat and a busted tyre, Joe drives off with the car and leaves Caterina stranded, but she soon gets a lift from a good-natured, self-declared Communist (Renato Salvatori). She has him stop at a small inn when she spies her car parked out front, and she and her benefactor lunch and flirt as a glowering, pensive Joe looks on. But she quickly rids herself of her new friend to resume her efforts to keep Joe on a hook, renting a room where they have a brief, violent clinch before he loses his temper at her and goes to shoot up instead. Caterina eventually seems to determine that the best way to help Joe is to fill the hole left by the loss of Douglas by offering him the chance to see his true father, Giuseppe.
Bertolucci essays the incestuous encounters not so much as manifesting true sexual desire, as much as a plunge back into the infantile physical intimacy of mother and son. He depicts that kind of intimacy in the opening when Caterina playfully smears honey over baby Joe and herself (one of their later, frantic encounters sees Joe licking his mother’s face). The instinct toward such physical communion is the only tool Caterina has for helping Joe through a calamitous phase in his life: she, in essence, endeavours to raise him again by reverting their relationship back to basics, as Caterina tries to obey her best intuitions after a life of being coddled and rewarded for childish behaviour. Bertolucci had explored the same idea through different motifs in Last Tango in Paris, with the womb of the apartment, lack of names, and sexual communion a rejection of adult identity and attempt through regressive states to reconstitute the self following calamity. On the other hand, Caterina theorises that Giuseppe’s inability to support her wish for singing career and adapt to her character was due to his actually being in love with his mother.
Joe and Caterina are a peculiar and far from instantly empathetic pairing. Caterina’s a diva in the technical and familiar senses of the word, not really feeling guilty for finding fresh artistic inspiration after her husband’s death. She takes over Joe’s birthday party as a spectacle for herself, dancing energetically and offering up self-important nostalgia: “Back in the Sixties we believed in…things!” Joe, for his part, seems generally forlorn, needy, and emotionally bereft, but has moments of familiarly noxious junkie self-pity and showy self-destruction. Their battle/affair/treatment begins when she, after trying to be calm and pleasant after discovering his habit, asks him if Arianna, his “fat-assed little hippie friend,” is his supplier, and he, irritated beyond words, struts over to the TV and kicks it in with deliberate fury.
La Luna sports barely any firm narrative, as characters flounder in trying to find a way out of their no-man’s-land. In this way the film is composed like a mosaic of vignettes, some funny, some revealing: Joe catching Douglas drinking in the middle of the day; Caterina rebuking Mustafa for selling “poison” and demanding to know why he doesn’t get a real job, and then snorting in derision when he explains he doesn’t keep any alcohol because it’s against his religion; a junk-addled Joe entering a Roman bar, playing the Bee Gees’ “Night Fever” on the jukebox, and commencing a disco jive, only to be grasped in an enthusiastic embrace by an apparently gay spiv (Franco Citti). The woozy rhythms of the lengthy scene between Caterina and Joe after her discovery of his habit are memorably etched, swinging from moments of nervy companionship, like when he begins to beat out a boogie on her newly delivered piano, to physical brawling.
Likewise, some of Bertolucci’s images are affecting in their almost musical flow, like the surreally beautiful glimpse of the moon through the opening skylight of a movie theatre that reminds Joe to attend his mother’s premiere, or the flotilla of dreamily gliding skateboarders he and his friends pass in their car in the streets of Rome, a moment which anticipates the richly aesthetic visions of youth culture in Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park, a work that shares other affinities with this film. A smart framing early in the film separates Joe and Douglas by the frame of a doorway as the young man appeals for companionship, and Bertolucci conjures a weird moment in which, after Douglas’ funeral, Joe and Caterina, conversing in the back of the limousine that brought them, realise they’re being stared at by onlookers like some starfucking edition of a zombie movie.
Bertolucci often returned to the theme of the peripatetic man at the mercy of wayward sexual and emotional impulses, in desperate search for an effective paternal figure, and the script he wrote here with his brother Giuseppe Bertolucci and Clare Peploe is no exception. The final half-hour portrays Joe’s tentative approach to Giuseppe, who’s now a schoolteacher much beloved of his young pupils: Joe, dissembling, misinforms him and his mother that his son by Caterina has died of an overdose. Giuseppe demands this weird visitor leave, but he follows him to the Baths of Caracalla where Caterina is rehearsing for an outdoor performance, and family—Caterina, Giuseppe, Joe and Arianna—are reunited still sporting bruises real and emotional. Bertolucci’s amused insight into the processes of creation and the solipsism of artists, which he aimed at filmmakers in Last Tango, finds some further scope here in the glimpses of the tack-and-tinsel world of opera, noting the clever illusions used in the staging of Il Trovatore whilst the singers wield their very real talents, and such bizarre moments as when the singers rehearse at Caracalla draped in masking muslin to protect their costumes, and somehow evoking the chrysalis from which the characters must soon rip free.
If La Luna remains a minor film in Bertolucci’s career, finally, it’s because the project as essayed seems somehow misconceived. For all the fascinating elements and moments of marvellous humanity throughout, it never gains shape or compulsive force, as if Bertolucci wanted to tell two different, irreconcilable varieties of story. His expansive, experimental approach to realising this tale, which could too easily turn either sentimental or repulsive, is brave, but the concussive hysteria inherent in the central plot conceit is only occasionally realised. Bertolucci’s desire to contrast the languorous beauty of the Italian campagna and the soaring aspirations of high art against down-and-dirty truths of human existence remain opaque and lack force, in large part because the characters never entirely materialise: what each person means to themselves and to others and what others mean to them remains strangely ill-defined.
Although both Clayburgh, one of the most accomplished actresses of the time, and Barry, an ingénue who did little else, both give fine performances, I could never quite shake the feeling they were miscast in their American niceness. Clayburgh doesn’t suggest the improvisational zeal that might have turned Caterina into as vivid a female counterpart to Brando’s grieving, aging wunderkind in Last Tango, though that’s also because her character just isn’t as detailed. That said, she’s got some terrific moments, her performance full of finite shifts of mood and intent. Barry, too, is terrific in moments like the barroom scene, his shaggy, boyish enthusiasm entirely at odds with his all-too-grown-up vices and eddying pain. The ambling, yearning structure, funnelling finally towards the unification at Caracalla, explains, but doesn’t entirely excuse, the rambling nature of the film. Nonetheless, the staging of the finale is some bravura work on Bertolucci’s part, as the characters meet amidst the flurrying performers, Giuseppe, upon realising that Joe is his son, roundly delivering him a slap in the face that Joe quietly takes as a fatherly beatification, whilst Caterina finds her voice again and the cast of the opera rise in unison. Life and art unite in a moment of fitting fulfilment.