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Bernardo Bertolucci: The emperor’s new clothier

Bernardo Bertolucci: The emperor’s new clothier
Richard Vuu as Pu Yi in Bernardo Bertolucci's 1987 "The Last Emperor." (Artisan Entertainment)

This interview was originally published in the Los Angeles Times on Dec. 6, 1987. See the obituary of Bernardo Bertolucci.

“I’m not a historian,” Bernardo Bertolucci says. “I’m a storyteller.” Technically, this may well be true. As one of the most successful Italian filmmakers of his time, he has tended to make history rather than document it like a sedate academic compiler.

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But there is a touch of the deliberately ingenuous in what he says. From the beginning, his films have carried a strong and uncommon sense of history and made comments about it.

In his most ambitious film until now, “1900,” Bertolucci follows two families, through a man from each family, one rich, one poor, from birth to old age. It is storytelling both intimate and expansive. But his subject was not less than the history of Italy in the 20th century as he saw it — the division of haves and have-nots, the corrupting and dehumanizing powers of wealth, the latent forces of violent change.

Even in “Last Tango in Paris,” his most controversial and widely known film (banned as obscene in Italy in 1976 and not cleared until February of this year), Bertolucci was looking at something more than one bizarre sexual encounter.

In their anonymous and unsatisfactory couplings, Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider were perfect embodiments of a historic time, the present, in which loving relationships often seem an impossible, death-haunted dream, and existence without love an acrid and sterile desperation.

Cinema will survive if it will be cinema. Once again to be in the cinema must be like being in a cathedral, sharing the collective dream.


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Bertolucci may fairly be called a poet-historian — he is the son of a well-known poet and himself began as a poet, although his films are now his poems — and his vision is unquestionably historical. He has not, he says, written poetry in recent years.

“The Conformist” was a remarkable and high-voltage drama on the early years of Fascism. It also advanced the philosophical view that sexual aberration and Fascism were conjoined, with corruption through wealth and power the unifying factors.

Early on, a critic described Bertolucci as “the gravedigger of the bourgeoisie,” although by now there are signs that he has mellowed or at least become a somewhat more detached senior observer, less dogmatic if not exactly a candidate for enrollment in the GOP. He has an engaging grin, his English is fluent and he resembles not a gravedigger but the shrewd and affable padrone of a very successful restaurant.

Whatever his clarifications about his role, Bertolucci in “The Last Emperor” has come closer than ever before to using film for the revealing of history. But “The Last Emperor” is also a strong and exotic piece of storytelling, as the generally favorable-to-ecstatic reviews have pointed out.

Intrigued by the idea of working in China, Bertolucci went to the authorities there in 1984 with two projects. The first was Andre Malraux's novel "Man's Fate," which both Fred Zinnemann and Costa-Gavras had tried to make at various times. The novel deals with a Communist-led riot in Shanghai in 1927, put down by Chiang Kai-shek with the killing of 1,000 rioters.

“There had been a philosophical quarrel between Mao Tse-tung and Chou En-lai,” Bertolucci said at lunch here a few days ago. “Mao thought the revolution should start in the country with the peasants. Chou thought otherwise.”

The present Chinese leaders turned down the project. “I think they haven’t yet quite decided, officially, how they feel about the 1927 riot. Maybe they didn’t like a film in which so many heroes die.”

The 1987 film "The Last Emperor" won nine Oscars, including best director for Bernardo Bertolucci.
The 1987 film "The Last Emperor" won nine Oscars, including best director for Bernardo Bertolucci. (Los Angeles Times)

The other project was the story of Henry Pu Yi, who was made emperor of China by the Dowager Empress when he was only 3 years old. He reigned a few years, spent several more years under virtual house arrest in the Forbidden City in Beijing, became the puppet emperor of Japanese-occupied Manchuria, was captured by the Russians, imprisoned by the Chinese communists for a decade (a helpful valet was imprisoned with him), was freed to become a city gardener. He died of cancer in 1967 after writing a confessional autobiography that Bertolucci found engrossing.

“I was fascinated by the human parable,” Bertolucci says, “the idea that a man can change. And Pu Yi really did a metamorphosis, from Dragon Emperor into human being.”

Chinese communism is markedly different from Soviet communism, Bertolucci thinks. “There’s quite a lot of Confucianism in it … the Confucian idea that man is born good. The notions of regeneration and redemption when a man falls, that’s also very Confucian. The idea of education is almost excessively present in China and that too is going back to Confucius.”

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“The Last Emperor” is in its own way an essay on the corruptions of power, and one of the amazing tableaux in the film watches the newly crowned emperor, who looks like nothing so much as an impish little boy dressed up for a costume party, running about the courtyard while thousands of subjects kneel and bow before him.

No wonder, Bertolucci says, that Pu Yi could so easily agree to become a puppet emperor. The early taste of power was powerfully addictive, even if his new emperorship proved to be only a different captivity.

Bertolucci also draws a parallel between “The Last Emperor” and “The Conformist.” Pu Yi’s empress tried to warn him that his dalliance with the Japanese will be catastrophic. The Japanese reward her hostility by turning her into an opium addict. (She died insane in 1947, a prisoner of Chiang Kai-shek.) In “The Conformist,” Dominique Sanda tries to warn Jean-Louis Trintignant against cozying up to the Fascists. Ignored, she drifts into a numbing alcoholism.

What the Chinese think of “The Last Emperor” has not yet been said officially, but Bertolucci thinks the indications are that they like it. The Chinese Embassy in Washington gave a party after the premiere there and a leading Chinese official attended the opening gala in Paris.

There has also been no word whether the film will be distributed in China (the government obtained the rights in return for its participation). But Bertolucci thinks those signs look favorable, too.

This appears to suggest that the Chinese are enjoying their own version of glasnost because the film does not gloss over the ideological switchbacks during and after the Cultural Revolution.

In one remarkable scene, Pu Yi, now a gardener in Beijing, discovers his prison warden marching with other dunce-cap-wearing officials, who are out of favor and being jeered at by onlookers while Chairman Mao stares impassively from huge posters.

“It was quite brave of them to allow the sequence of the Red Guards. It's a bad memory. My Chinese collaborators on the film had all been in prison,” says Bertolucci.

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"When I was there in 1984, the people one talked to were not sure the nightmare of the Cultural Revolution was over. They were still cautious. When I went back for the eight months when we were doing the picture, things were completely changed. The caution was gone."

John Lone as the adult Pu Yi in "The Last Emperor."
John Lone as the adult Pu Yi in "The Last Emperor." (Columbia Pictures)

The Chinese, he thinks, “are trying to find a third way between capitalism and socialism. There are special cities where they are trying to develop mixed economies.” The “Last Emperor” project brought several million dollars in hard currency into the Chinese economy, an important factor in the co-production agreement.

Bertolucci took a crew of 100 from Italy to China with him, another 20 from Britain. There were an additional 150 Chinese working on the set with him. “You can imagine the logistics,” he says. “We used 30 to 35 interpreters all the time. One of the things I learned was to be patient. Otherwise you are crushed.”

Yet he found China “a very innocent place, because they're still a pre-consumerist society. But at the same time they're very elegant and sophisticated. They've had 4,000 years of civilization, and that's time enough to become sophisticated.

“I went back to Italy with different eyes. China was so dynamic in its mutation. Italy seemed like a frozen frame, or something in slow motion.”

In times past, Bertolucci has called a script “an outline from which to explode.” But, working so close to history, he and co-author Mark Peploe prepared a detailed script (through something like nine drafts) that was tightly adhered to.

Until the last moment, it looked as if he could not get the one permission he desperately wanted: to show Pu Yi buying a museum ticket like any other tourist and visiting the throne room (the Room of the Supreme Harmony) where he had been crowned.

No camera of any kind had been allowed in the room, Bertolucci thinks, but the minister of culture finally gave his consent, although Bertolucci could take neither tripod nor lights into the room, with its 48 gold-and-lacquer columns.

“Vittorio (Storaro, the cinematographer) threw in as much light as he could from the doorway and we used a Steadicam.” It is an oddly touching moment because Pu Yi at last is simply seen no more. He can, as Bertolucci puts it, be said to have been metabolized into history.

“Doing a man’s life, it is always a question what do you show, how much can you show? Do we need to say he dies of cancer? I think no.’

After his three years with “The Last Emperor,” Bertolucci would not mind doing something a little less epic. He has been to Tangier to talk with the American expatriate author Paul Bowles about doing a film of Bowles’ somewhat autobiographical novel, “The Sheltering Sky.”

“A small movie, I think,” Bertolucci says with a weary sigh. “This has been heavy.” But the next movie will aspire to be an event, whatever it is, because it is a prime truth in his film philosophy that a movie has to be an event.

“It is dangerous in Italy now for film. In five years, the movies have lost 55% or 60% of the audience, because of television. Part of the trouble is that too often now the movies are imitating television. In Europe, they still want to go to see movies.

“Cinema will survive if it will be cinema. Once again to be in the cinema must be like being in a cathedral, sharing the collective dream.”

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