[Originally published in The Weekly (Seattle), October 30, 1979]
Cinema comes so naturally to some filmmakers. Bernardo Bertolucci once revealed that he dreamed camera movements years before laying hands on a camera. But even without this confessional nudge, his aptitude for the medium, his kinesthetic thrall with luminosity, surfaces, colors, trajectories, is apparent in the films he has made. Opera has been a frequent touchstone in his work, existentially and aesthetically, but he doesn’t need it as a brief for grandiosity or vividness of style: it is as natural for Bertolucci to soar as it is for others to walk.
This is as true in Luna, his latest film, as it was in Before the Revolution, Partner, The Spider’s Stratagem, The Conformist, The Last Tango in Paris, or 1900. It may be more necessary to insist upon it here, simply because the present scenario about the Freudian complicity of an American opera singer (Jill Clayburgh) and her pubescent son (Matthew Barry) may strike some as more precious than the overt subjects of the earlier films.
We begin in the sacred past,toward which so many other Bertolucci movies have made their serpentine ways. A baby boy sits in the Mediterranean sun while his beautiful mother lavishes her full attention upon him. He smears his skin with honey; she lovingly licks it away. His bright, variegated ball gets away from him; she scurries on all fours to retrieve it. A man intrudes, dark, not clearly visible against the sun. Music plays, a twist record, and the music and the man lure the mother away. The baby finds something new to smear himself with, but Mother doesn’t notice. He begins to cry, rises precariously, and runs elsewhere for consolation, his foot snagging a ball of yarn and dragging it, unraveling, behind him. Most of the rest of the movie will be devoted to retracing that snarled line as the boy, fifteen years older, gropes for rapprochement with Mother and that male silhouette.
That’s pretty basic stuff, psychologically and narratively. In outline it doesn’t differ radically from the psychological rationales of earlier Bertoluccis. While it wouldn’t be quite accurate to describe the film’s movement as clinical, Bertolucci may have miscalculated in denying the audience the compensatory baroqueness of narrative to be found in, say, his dazzling The Conformist, with its investigation of the protagonist’s psychosexual past strung in flashbacks along the gleaming line of a chase. In the new film there’s a clear prescription: just get this troubled kid a viable father-figure and he won’t have to shoot up anymore, won’t have to resent his mother’s professional commitment to her music, and may even settle down and pay more attention to the cute Italian girl who worships him. And eventually the prescription is filled.
Such straightline development is especially ill-advised with a performer as unappealing as Matthew Barry taking the protagonist’s role. No enigmatic Pierre Clémenti or Jean-Louis Trintignant this kid, and certainly no bearer of mythical charge or behavioral fascination like Marlon Brando. His enthusiasms are as undifferentiatedly hysterical as his despair, which may be to the characterological point but makes for tedious watching and scant empathy, no matter how universal parent-sibling tensions may be. Jill Clayburgh labors mightily to keep those tensions alive and volatile, and succeeds—but against a considerable liability.
Luna remains fairly low-grade Bertolucci, but I like it. I like it best when it unobtrusively reminds us that (as in any good cinema) its true protagonist is the director himself. Like Joe (Barry), Bertolucci has been obsessed with a search for fathers, whether on a plot level (in the Borgesian The Spider’s Stratagem where the same actor plays son and father, and the son retraces the father’s movements) or on the level of cinematic style (it has been persuasively argued that The Conformist is Bertolucci’s effort to kill off, by subsuming and moving beyond, his cinematic fathers). But he is just as surely reflected in Jill Clayburgh’s Caterina, in her vibrant, role-testing acting-out, and in lines like “I come from a world where singing and dreaming and creating, they mean something.”
This is a world Bertolucci puts us in touch with at unexpected moments and places. There is a wonderful scene in a bar to which Joe has been enticed by a fortyish homosexual. Invited to “tell me about yourself,” Joe responds by jumping up and dancing to the BeeGees’ “Night Fever” a girl has just put on the jukebox. His dancing is endearingly graceless, like the saloon itself with its fat bartender who used to work in Brooklyn, a partly burnt-out neon ZANZIBAR sign, and a rectangle of hot sunlight from the offscreen doorway creating an accidental spotlight on the boldly colored back wall. The homosexual (played by Franco Citti, star of Pasolini’s Accattone, on which Bertolucci served as assistant director) lays his head on the table and watches with a sweet, weary yearning, until finally he must get up and hug Joe into immobility. The intersection of human needs and dreams pathetically out of phase with one another is moving and gently comic at the same time.
Elsewhere, Joe shows up late for his mother’s Italian debut and watches the triumphant finale of Il Trovatore. He has just postponed the loss of his virginity because the moon, inextricably associated with the idea of his mother, distracted him at the crucial moment. Now the camera tracks through the frame of a door-window to discover the mother onstage, singing her heart out against a painted firmament more luminous than any conventional reality. Bertolucci takes us up to and behind the illusion, letting us have a good look at Caterina’s makeup and wig, the hilariously functional backstage mechanisms that create the spectacle of a spilling “waterfall,” the stage director eagerly hitting the musical cues an instant before his cast does. It’s a deliciously comic passage—yet so dynamic is Bertolucci’s orchestration of the most preposterous facts of operatic life that the performance takes on a new grandeur: Art is at least as true, and certainly as brave, as Life.
This will also be the rationale of the droll yet emotionally fulfilling finale, as it is—especially through Jill Clayburgh’s gutsy, American-pragmatic, operatically flamboyant persona—the recipe for tortuous interactions between mother and son along the way. The comic is played off against the cosmic, the characters’ unpredictable resiliency against the scenario’s deterministic pathology. Luna may not be another Bertolucci triumph, but it is ultimately compassionate, and winningly self-aware.
Copyright © 1979 Richard T. Jameson