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Bertolucci's Next: The Opposite of X

With 'Besieged,' the director makes a love story without the scandal of his 'Last Tango in Paris.'

May 16, 1999|DAVID GRITTEN | David Gritten writes about entertainment from London and is a regular contributor to Calendar

LONDON — Bernardo Bertolucci's new film is an intimate chamber piece, featuring a man and a woman alone in an otherwise empty house. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

So it should. Bertolucci's biggest moment of fame (infamy, some would say) came in 1972 with the release of his steamy, controversial film "Last Tango in Paris," starring Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider. Its explicit sexual content caused an international scandal; even non-moviegoers knew how a simple pat of butter was employed in its story.

In America, "Last Tango" was awarded an X rating, and Bertolucci was nominated for a directing Oscar for the film; in his native Italy, it was branded pornography, he was tried for blasphemy (receiving a suspended sentence) and his right to vote was withdrawn for five years.

How time changes people. Bertolucci's new film "Besieged"--which opens in Los Angeles on Friday--is a far gentler work, virtually guaranteed not to shock or scandalize. Adapted from a short story by James Lasdun, it's a beguiling account of a slow-burning intimacy.

Thandie Newton, who played the ghostly title character in "Beloved," plays a young African woman who flees her unnamed homeland when her heroic husband, a political dissident, is jailed. She moves to Rome, studies to become a doctor and cleans the large house of Kinsky (David Thewlis of "Naked"), a lonely, failed English composer living on an inheritance, in exchange for a room in his basement. He falls in love with her, and to prove it sets out to free her husband while giving up all his possessions: art works, tapestries, his treasured piano.

"It feels in some way," said Bertolucci, "as if I've come full circle."

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For the last three decades Bertolucci has been regarded as one of the great directors in world cinema. He began making films in Italy in the 1960s, and in 1970 attracted international recognition with the now-classic, visually stunning "The Conformist."

True, "Last Tango," chunks of which resemble a play for two characters, was shot on a fairly modest scale. But then Bertolucci's canvas became bigger and bigger, both in terms of subject matter and locations. He had the chutzpah to make "1900," (1976) a five-hour film about 70 years of Italian social conflict viewed through his own Marxist belief system, and persuaded Robert De Niro and Gerard Depardieu to star in it.

He won nine Oscars for "The Last Emperor," (1987) his sumptuous, high-budget masterpiece about China shot partly in Beijing's Forbidden City. His unbridled wide-screen vision led him to film sweeping epics in unlikely places: "The Sheltering Sky" (1990) in Morocco's desert wastes and "Little Buddha" (1993) in the secluded Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.

In his long career, Bertolucci has conjured up images of ravishing beauty and grandeur in films of ever-increasing scope and ambition. Outside Hollywood, nobody's films cost more money--and it is outside Hollywood that he chooses to stay. Despite many lucrative offers, he has never worked for a major American studio. "I am an independent, even when I am making spectacular movies," he said gravely. ("Besieged" is being released by Fine Line.)

Or, at least, as independent as any director can feel with a millstone of a big budget around his neck. "Sheltering Sky" and "Little Buddha" both cost at least $30 million (a lot of money even in the early '90s), yet neither found favor with audiences or critics. Asked about those films, Bertolucci shrugged and sighed. "At that kind of budget you feel responsible and less free," he mused. "I felt that way. Maybe it's even visible in those films."

Maybe it's also why "Besieged" is his most modest film since the small Italian works that kick-started his career in the 1960s. His epics, shot in exotic locations, used to take months to complete; "Besieged" was filmed in 32 days, mainly in a single house in Rome, for less than $4 million.

It is the first feature film he has made in Rome since "Luna" 20 years ago. Perhaps even more surprising, it also lasts a mere 92 minutes, far shorter than Bertolucci's splashier efforts--for example, a recently released director's cut of "Last Emperor" ran well over four hours.

"I was touched by the heart of the story," he said. "The idea that somebody today, in our individualistic society, understands that the only way to make himself happy is to make this woman happy.

"I was looking to make a very little film on a small budget. I'd been asking myself, 'Where is cinema going, what is it becoming?' This felt like I was starting all over again. To shoot 20 scenes a day instead of four or five in the last 15 years--I'd forgotten that kind of joy."

He even found a point of identification with Thewlis' character, Kinsky: "Just as he gave away everything he owns, I felt I was giving away my big production values. It was real luxury. Nothing's as rewarding as shooting a film this way."

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