Cinema at the Ash End of the Seventies: Bernardo Bertolucci’s Luna

“Paul Bowles opened the world of Hip.  He let in the murder, the drugs, the incest, the death of the Square...the call of the orgy, the end of civilization...”

Norman Mailer  Advertisements for Myself

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Well...put that way, it sounds kind of fun.  Granted, Mailer had a perverse sense of fun, and Bowles had none at all.  No one ever accused Bernardo Bertolucci of lacking perversity, although his was less likely than Mailer’s to be accompanied by a punch in the mouth.  And while Bertolucci seems not to have been one of the directors (Robert Aldrich and Nicolas Roeg among them) who dreamed of bringing Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky to the screen, the task eventually fell to him.  Aldrich was dead, Roeg washed up , and producer Jeremy Thomas (who’d taken the Best Picture Oscar for Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor) owned the rights to Bowles’ 1949 novel.

Bertolucci had won Best Director, and the honor (which he never would have won for The Conformist, however much he deserved it) seemed to confirm that the way to smuggle “revolutionary” ideas into a Hollywood epic was to stage a grand costume drama in which the decadent but barely conscious “hero” finds redemption away from the Forbidden City and inside the grey walls of Maoist re-education.  Of course the joke was on Bertolucci, because the only revolution happening in China in 1987 marched under the slogan “To Get Rich is Glorious”.

So when Bertolucci filmed The Sheltering Sky, Hollywood’s deadly stamp of approval had combined with middle age and the march of history to drain him of both perversity and revolutionary zeal, and even the pulpier aspects of Bowles’ novel (“At first she was stiff, gasping angrily, grimly trying to fight him...Then she realized her helplessness and accepted it...In his behavior there was a perfect balance between gentleness and violence that gave her particular delight”) were filtered out.

Bertolucci’s perverse and zealous and fractured epic 1900 had ended with a sort of aborted Maoist agrarian revolution, Italian peasants waving bedsheet-sized red banners to mark their liberation in 1945, only to be robbed of their victory.  And the director’s 317-minute cut was reduced to 195, as mandated by Paramount and producer Alberto Grimaldi.  Bertolucci likened the experience to having every bone in his body crushed.  The revolution betrayed again.

Which brings us to Luna.  Exhausted by the heroic but hopeless task of fusing historical epic, revolutionary ideology, and his own violent, flamboyant id, Bertolucci returned to contemporary Italy, probably too wiped out to confront the debased “revolutionary” violence of the Red Brigades, which had nearly undone Italy’s always tenuous social order.  (Imagine the film he might have made had he devoted 1900’s resources of mind and energy and vision - and financing - to a film about Italy’s crises of the late Seventies; Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man is a poor and exhausted substitute.)  Instead, he gave us the intimate chamber drama of opera singer Caterina Silveri (Jill Clayburgh) who moves to Italy with her teenage son Joe (Matthew Barry) after the death of her husband.  The self-absorbed diva (is there another kind?) is oblivious to her son’s restlessness and unhappiness, until he becomes a heroin addict.

The film that follows is as confused and heated and desperate and beautiful as the Oedipal drama Caterina and Joe play out.  Luna has been described as surrealist, not in the Bretonian sense of horses galloping on tomatoes, but in the (late) Buñuelian sense of sudden eruptions of irrational behavior, played with a straight face.  Clayburgh, whose stock was unjustly devalued after she semi-retired in the mid-eighties (a time when the country was doing its best to wipe out all memories of the previous decade, except in the service of overhyped cautionary tales) gives a startling and passionate performance, managing to hold audience sympathy even when giving Barry a (highly unlikely) hand job to ease his heroin withdrawal.  Barry, apparently not a professional, brings the non-actor’s combination of naturalness and clumsiness to the role, most lyrically when he is picked up by Pasolini fixture Franco Citti and taken to a neon dive café in the garbage outskirts of Rome.  Citti offers him a beer (the junkie would prefer ice cream), and he breaks into a lovely mock-Travolta dance when “Night Fever” comes on the jukebox.  Citti and barman look on, enchanted.

“Style is a moral fact” says a character in Bertolucci’s Before the Revolution.  The crypto-Maoist pageant near the conclusion of 1900 is a grand display of style in the service of ideology, but Bertolucci has always been self-aware enough to know that, like his weak-willed protagonists, he is in love with life before the revolution.  La Luna finds him adrift in a world that has seen a moral revolution, but not the one hoped for by those who waved the red flag.

Seemingly finished with (or at least taking a break from) revolution, still in love with beauty and decadence, but also still looking for the figure of authority who troubles the dreams of revolutionaries, both armchair and active, Bertolucci returns to the very source of authority: the father.  In the end Joe is reunited with the one he never knew, and the two eye each other warily, maybe hopefully, in the empty stands at the Baths of Caracalla, while Caterina rehearses onstage, herself returned to her rightful place after the existential/career crisis brought on by Joe’s addiction.

Was there another way out of the Seventies, for Bertolucci, for the rest of us?  “The call of the orgy, the end of civilization”?  That’s an uneasy destiny for the individual, let alone an entire society.  It’s (perverse) fun, until it isn’t.  But as the counter-revolution threatens to bring civilization to an end (at least if we define civilization as the one the postwar – or even the post-nineteenth century - generations have known, in which the 99% are something more than disposable tools or playthings for the 1%) then maybe it’s worth going back to reconnoiter the other roads out of 1979, the ones that don’t lead to the primal father but to some hazy point on the horizon where an awkward but ecstatic dance is as much order as we need, or at least the humane starting point of a new one.