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Bertolucci: The Emperor's New Clothier

December 06, 1987|CHARLES CHAMPLIN

"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 film makers of his time, he has tended to make history rather than document it like a sedate academic compiler.

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.

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 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."

"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.

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