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MOVIES : His Just Desert : Director Bernardo Bertolucci turned from the epic sweep of ‘The Last Emperor’ to the arid alienation of ‘The Sheltering Sky’

It’s fair to say that if Bernardo Bertolucci believed in omens, he would never have embarked on “The Sheltering Sky,” his $22-million epic film adaptation of the 1949 Paul Bowles novel.

The Italian director, unquestionably one of the world’s few great filmmakers, was of two minds about making “The Sheltering Sky” when he went to visit Bowles in Tangier. He was preoccupied by his wish to follow the astonishing success of his previous movie, “The Last Emperor,” which became both a commercial and critical hit, sweeping the board at the 1988 Academy Awards with nine Oscars.

“I was mugged by a guy with a knife in Tangier,” says Bertolucci, shrugging casually. “I saw an incredible fear in him. I really saw death in his eyes.

“That was when I decided to do this movie.”

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Excuse me? “Well,” says Bertolucci, “it was like a sign to me that there was something wrong going on here. It was like . . . a challenge. And the film has been a challenge.”

Indeed. After Bertolucci committed to filming “The Sheltering Sky,” he auditioned almost every bankable actor and actress of the right age in Hollywood before choosing his two leads--William Hurt and Melanie Griffith. “And then,” he says picturesquely, “they both got pregnant. They asked me to delay the picture for six months because we were shooting in the North African desert, and they didn’t want the babies to be born there. But it wasn’t possible.” Another bad omen.

Still, Debra Winger and John Malkovich were recruited to step into the breach, and shooting started. After a spell in Tangier, the crew moved inland to Erfoud, an oasis town. “It hadn’t rained for seven years,” Bertolucci recalls dolefully. “The day we arrived, it rained an incredible amount.”

It rained so hard that roads and bridges were swept away, leaving cast and crew members stranded in three groups, unable to communicate with each other. More bad omens.

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In Niger, where the crew was due to fly for the last three weeks of production, a government minister denied their plane permission to land, insisting that they use an aircraft of Air Niger. “It was hard , but I shot “The Last Emperor” in China and Manchuria, which was hard too. Exciting, though,” Bertolucci says.

The great man has come bounding from producer Jeremy Thomas’ small office, smiling, ebullient and eager to talk. At 49, he looks mellower and less wild-eyed than in days gone by. Word is that Bertolucci--Marxist, Freudian, Verdi fanatic, art lover and unreconstructed egoist--can still rant and rave in interviews if he dislikes the tone of questions. But today, in a navy blue sweater and corduroy shirt, he is casual and relaxed.

He throws out his arms wildly in a gesture of greeting--and knocks a cup of black coffee being brought to him by one of Thomas’ assistants over her white blouse. But enough of omens.

“Friends of mine like Mark Peploe (his co-writer) had talked to me about ‘The Sheltering Sky’ for years,” he says, settling at last and sucking on tiny licorice pellets he shakes from a small ornate tin. “They spoke of the book with all the arrogance of the members of a secret society, and I was irritated by that. When I did the Chinese movie (“The Last Emperor”) I took the book with me. And I was haunted.”

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But the rights to the book belonged to the estate of the late director Robert Aldrich (“The Dirty Dozen,” “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”). After completing “The Last Emperor,” says Bertolucci, “there was the usual question-- quoi faire ? What to do next?”

He met with Aldrich’s son Bill, “and in a very short time we decided we could do it together. I conceived of ‘The Sheltering Sky’ as a kind of anti-'Last Emperor,’ as a completely private project. This is a story about two people in the desert, instead of a movie with 20,000 extras. ‘The Last Emperor’ was talking about history in capital letters. This was a film about intimate, private destinies.”

“The Sheltering Sky” is the story of two Manhattan sophisticates, Port Moresby (Malkovich) and his wife, Kit (Winger). He is a blocked composer; she is obsessed

by omens. Their 10-year marriage is at a low ebb, and they undertake a journey into the desert wilderness in an attempt to rekindle their passion. But their reconciliation is thwarted, first by sexual dalliances, then by harsh physical conditions as they travel inland from Tangier, and lastly by despair and sickness.

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When he got mugged in Tangier, Bertolucci was on his way to ask Bowles the extent to which the story was about him and his novelist wife, Jane. “Paul refused to admit any coincidence between their lives and the book,” he says. “I didn’t believe him then, and I don’t believe him today.”

Other attempts had been made to write screenplays from “The Sheltering Sky,” but all had met with failure. “The book is very literary,” says Bertolucci. “It is full of interior voices, even interior dialogues. People think one thing, and say something else.”

He and Peploe did seven or eight revisions of their script. “The major effort,” says Bertolucci, “was breaking the veil of literature to see the simple truth of the story. Finally, I was in Tangier two or three weeks before shooting started, and I began to think that we had gone too far. There was no trace of ‘literature’ in the script. This was too much.”

Thus Bertolucci hit upon the device of employing Bowles, now 80 years old, as a physical presence in the movie, observing the story’s beginning and end in a Tangier bar, and doing some narrating in voice-overs. The device is already a major topic of discussion among adherents of the novel who saw “The Sheltering Sky” at the London Film Festival last month.

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How does all this bode for the success of “The Sheltering Sky?” Warner Bros. has a major stake in the film, and the studio hopes Bertolucci and Jeremy Thomas have again spun the same magic that made a risky, unlikely big-budget venture like “The Last Emperor” a crowd-pleasing Oscar winner.

As if to protect himself from these pressures, Bertolucci has reunited all but one of the team that so gratified the Academy voters--himself, Thomas and Peploe; Vittorio Storaro (cinematography); James Acheson (costume design); Gabriella Cristiani (editor); Ryuichi Sakamoto (music), and Ivan Sharrock (sound). The film is remarkably beautiful in certain passages; Storaro and Bertolucci may have done more for desert vistas than any filmmaker since David Lean in “Lawrence of Arabia.”

But “The Sheltering Sky” may be a daunting marketing prospect. For one thing, its tone is resolutely downbeat. “The hardest thing about making this film,” says Bertolucci, “was living with these desperate physical circumstances, and then having actors able to stand the weight of this very painful love story.” Some scenes are also explicitly erotic--a factor which may deter more conservative audiences, not to mention Academy members.

Then again, for what is essentially an intense, private love story, “The Sheltering Sky” is conceived on an epic scale, full of wide-angle shots of the desert landscape. It is also 138 minutes long. “Well, if you say it’s an epic, OK,” says Bertolucci. “I like to think of it maybe as an epic of the sentiments. It took a long time for me to deliver this film, but when I did I was quite satisfied with it.”

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Bertolucci is also buoyant about the relationship he has forged with Jeremy Thomas. “We have found a nice formula,” he says. “We are doing independent movies. That usually means first movies or low-budget films, but we are proving we can make big-budget movies and be competitive with Hollywood.

“When we did ‘The Last Emperor,’ Jeremy had to go to banks to raise money, because no one believed in the project. But at least it means I don’t have to go through the sometimes painful process of discussing the screenplay or the casting with the big brains in the studios.” He winces a little.

Speaking later by phone, Thomas confirmed that “The Last Emperor” had been hard to sell. “Bernardo had not made a film for quite a few years, I hadn’t had a big success, there was the problem of shooting in China. We suffered from a big credibility gap.”

Thomas describes “The Sheltering Sky” as “quasi-independent” because of Warner Bros.’ financial stake, adding that the studio’s backing and the success of “The Last Emperor” made money-raising a simpler prospect. “We discussed the material,” he says of Warner Bros., “and they left us alone to make the movie.”

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The studio did not ask for the movie to be shortened, said Thomas, who also denied reported speculation that Warner Bros. had forced Debra Winger on him and his director.

In fact, Bertolucci is highly enthusiastic about his leading lady--if a little concerned. “I have never seen an actor so obsessed with her character,” he says. “She steals from her life to make a character richer. But then she steals from her characters for her life. There’s a confusion between her and her character.” After the 17-week shoot, Bertolucci says, Winger was unable to come out of character, pack up and go home to America. Instead she spent a week with Tuaregs, nomadic tribesmen who live in Niger, and actually ventured into even more remote desert regions.

He shakes his head in bewilderment. “But she has the strength of intelligence.”

For once, it seems that Bertolucci, who derisively and memorably referred to Hollywood as “the big nipple” during his Oscar acceptance speech, has avoided a brush with a studio.

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This was not always the case. By his early 30s, Bertolucci was already a director of world repute after two brilliant Italian movies--"The Spider’s Stratagem” (1969) and his adaptation of Alberto Moravia’s “The Conformist” (1970)--and his sensational English language debut, the erotic masterpiece “Last Tango in Paris” (1972). “It was a special period of my life,” he says now. “I could do anything I wanted after ‘Last Tango in Paris.’ Anything.”

So he did. He made a monumental movie for Paramount called “1900,” starring, among others, the young Robert DeNiro and the young Gerard Depardieu. Burt Lancaster joined the cast and worked for expenses simply to be a part of it.

But there were huge problems. Bertolucci’s cut of the movie was 5 1/4 hours long. “I always planned for it to be seen in two parts,” he says now, perfectly deadpan. The fingerprints of his Marxist philosophy were all over the movie; “1900,” in tracing the rise and fall of Italian peasant socialism in the first half of this century, attempted to give communism a humane face. “It was completely killed by the studio,” he says.

Having confronted the Hollywood power structure and lost, Bertolucci seemed to go into a creative slump. His “Luna” (1979), with Jill Clayburgh as an opera singer harboring incestuous desires for her teen-age son, was received coolly. The terrorism theme of “Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man” (1981), proved to be unpalatable for most audiences.

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Amid rumors of artistic burnout and unconventional psychotherapies, Bertolucci retired from the public eye for six years, to mull over making a film from another Moravia novel, and working on a script from Dashiel Hammett’s “Red Harvest.” Neither materialized.

Then he and Thomas agreed to make “The Last Emperor” together. “We had met at film festivals, and we had mutual friends in London,” recalls Thomas. “He asked me to lunch and said, would you do this film with me? I was an enormous fan. I was thrilled and delighted he wanted me.”

In truth, the two men needed each other. Thomas had produced a string of smallish interesting movies, including Nicolas Roeg’s “Bad Timing” and Stephen Frears’ “The Hit.” He wanted to produce more ambitious movies. Bertolucci meanwhile, knew “The Last Emperor” would be hard to make because of its location and sheer scale; Thomas had successfully produced the movie “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” from a remote South Pacific location. Thus the partnership was formed.

However “The Sheltering Sky” fares, Thomas believes Bertolucci has put behind him any suggestion that he is a tempestuous maverick, impossible to work with. “I think he’s completely mainstream,” he says. “The studios want to work with him, I know that for a fact. He’s simply one of the most important directors in the world.”

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And despite Bertolucci’s reputation as being ego-driven, Thomas notes: “He shares the film a lot, which is very unusual. He has his team around him, and they have a shorthand. They can tell what they all want with a simple look. You can work more efficiently like that. He’s enjoyable to work with.”

For his part, Bertolucci admits his past has haunted him. “I felt I was looked at in Hollywood as somebody who was 50-50 risky--but someone who could possibly make a big success, like ‘Last Tango.’

“I was very happy at the first screening of ‘The Last Emperor’ in Hollywood, when several executives came up to me, and said--'thank you, seeing this movie is like going back to why I’m in cinema. Not for the business, not for the money.’ In everything they said, I felt a kind of sincerity.”

Now, ironically, Paramount is talking to Bertolucci about showing his cut of “1900,” all 311 minutes of it. “They are talking about a limited distribution, what they call a classic distribution, in a very few theaters,” he says with a satisfied grin. “It’s strange that it should happen now--now that (communist) red flags have become so unpopular all over the world. Because there are red flags all over that film.”

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These days, Bertolucci lives a varied life, as befits an international director. His base is still Rome, but he also has a home in London, where he stays with his English wife, filmmaker Clare Peploe, Mark’s sister. “It’s not good living in one place all the time,” he notes. “You can get bored.”

He claims to dislike contemporary life. “In China, it felt so good to be away from the West for eight months. In the desert, too. I believe in culture, and I believe it’s made up of a lot of little, ancient cultures which are in the process of being destroyed. I hate this monoculture which is taking over everywhere.”

Thus for his next project he is toying with the idea of a film about Buddha, to be shot in India. Would the project be with Thomas? “Of course. But it’s such a major commitment,” he sighs. “I feel too ignorant in what I could say.”

He is told he sounds tentative. “Yeah, I know,” says Bertolucci. “I don’t do many films, you know. I only do one once every three or four years. So I take a long time to decide.” He spreads his arms wide. “I have a long love affair with my movies.”

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