For over a quarter century now, when I have been asked the question, "What is your favourite film?", my answer has invariably been, it is Bernardo Bertolucci's Novecento. Of course, the question is a gun to the head; one cannot answer it without immediately starting up with the qualifications and the back-pedalling. There are so many films I love, so many films I admire (not always the same thing), so many films that jostle for primacy in the field of inspiration, imagination, pleasure, challenge and idealism which is what loving cinema is all about. But Novecento, once that trigger on the gun is cocked, always finally comes first, because I have seen it so many times now and it never ceases to amaze, to astonish and to thrill. And in part this is from the audacity of Bertolucci's approach: to film a proletariat history of the European twentieth century, conceived, imagined and presented as a great popular communitarian epic. Novecento is in one sense, the fulfilment and the endpoint of one of the great promises of cinema when it began its emergence from the nickelodeon, vaudevillian and one-reeler primeval ooze of its birth: that here, finally, was the possibility of a great art that can speak across barriers of language, class and caste; an art that can speak to and include all of the world. If the great utopian hopes of socialism, communism and revolution were to flounder and shatter in the face of the reality of twentieth-century totalitarian history, Novecento still remains cinema's greatest realisation of what that impossible dream might look like, what it might have been.
From the beginning Bertolucci's films have been part of an on-going engagement with the intellectual, political and social currents that have dominated the concerns of the Western intelligentsia for the half-century after World War II. To watch Bertolucci's cinema is to immerse oneself in History: the history of the social and of struggle, but also the history of ideas and thoughts. His first films – The Grim Reaper, Before the Revolution, Partner and The Spider's Stratagem – see him exploring and interrogating his debt to the cinema of his mentors, Pasolini and Rossellini, as well as the cinema of his contemporaries, Antonioni and Godard. But it isn't only cinema that is celebrated and placed under questioning in these early films. Before the Revolution acknowledges his debt to Stendhal (let's not forget that the young Bernardo was born and raised in Parma) and The Spider's Stratagem must be viewed through the lens of his engagement with the literature of Borges and Cortázar, particularly the revolutionary reading of Freud and modernism initiated by the Latin Americans. How is it possible for all of us now looking back at this period of cinema to not have envy? In Hollywood, the studio system was imploding, and in Europe and in Japan the catastrophic repercussions and realignments of World War II and then the Cold War allowed a generation of filmmakers to make movies at the speed of thought, to test ideas, to challenge ideals, to imagine possibilities. Before the Revolution is fifty years old now but to see it anew is to be excited anew. It reminds us that if nothing dates as fast as yesterday's news – and yesterday's issues – the philosophical, moral, sexual and political questions raised by this post-World War II generation have not yet been resolved, have still not been settled.
Let me be clear here, not everything works in these films, not all the speculations being worked out in front of the camera are still relevant. Bertolucci's theme is history and history doesn't stand still, and if it repeats, it repeats with different actors, different agents and participants. But what I still take on trust when viewing this early work is the keenness of the intellect and the equivalent keenness of the engagement. Pace postmodernism, immersing oneself in this cinema is to recognise that the philosophical clash between existentialism and materialism can still excite, that the political argument between the rigours of neo-realism and the possibilities of modernist experimentation is still worth having. These films are a reminder that this is how a filmmaker must find her way, through mise-en-scéne, in camera, on the ground, not through the years of purgatory involved in rehashing endless drafts of a script for a funding body. This is how you keep passion alive: you see it, there on the screen, in Bertolucci's early work.
With The Conformist, based on Alberto Moravia's novel, Bertolucci created a work that placed sexuality at the heart of history. The examination of a fascist collaborator, the film follows a man so repressed, so determined in his desire to conform, that he is led to a betrayal of all that is fundamentally important to him: love, family, honour. Jean-Louis Trintignant's passive Marcello is at the centre of the film but all around him is a world of sensuous beauty, a world in which the very architecture and landscapes that he traverses are a reminder of the ordering and danger of lust, sex and desire. The collaboration between Bertolucci and cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro, remains one of the great creative partnerships in film history. The Conformist is where this collaboration starts to sing. The film is ravishing, not only to look at, but to be enfolded within. The experience of seeing it is to literally find one's self having to engage with the powerful aestheticism of fascism. This is not the fetishism of fascism that occurs in Riefenstahl, but a deeply intelligent probing of its attractions. Bertolucci's ethical challenge to Marcello's collaboration and corruption is never in doubt. But it is with The Conformist that Bertolucci clearly breaks with the Christian morality at the heart of neo-realism's aesthetics. It also signals a break with the cerebral puritanism that is part of the Catholic Pasolini and of the Protestant Godard.
When I first saw The Conformist as a late adolescent I responded immediately to both the rigour of its themes and also to the powerful sweep of its eroticism. I remember noting in a journal entry at the time, that it was the first experience of seeing a film that captured the corporeal abandonment of being within a wet-dream, the sense that everything within the frame is bursting with the erotic. It is a work that challenges the sexual moralism that undermines the fundamentalisms of both the left and right. It is why it still resonates so strongly now. It remains breathtaking.
I was too young when I first saw Last Tango in Paris. I think I giggled; I think I dismissed it with easy formulas imbibed through first year gender studies. The formulas were useful at the time because there was something in the film that rankled, that disturbed me and I didn't want to think about it. Only recently, rereading Nabokov's Lolita, I was thinking about this first reaction. I had read that too around the time of seeing the film. I dismissed the book as well, didn't want to countenance where Nabokov's language was taking me. Rereading Lolita was akin to seeing Last Tango in Paris again as an adult. What I rejected as a youth was the danger of sexuality, the trauma of love. What meaning can someone who has never experienced having their heart shattered draw from Last Tango in Paris? What pleasures can someone who has no awareness of the pitiless comedy that is ageing desire draw from Lolita? Some works are not for children, they are for adults and Last Tango in Paris is one of those works. And just as Nabokov played with and subverted the rules of the English language to create his great comedy, Bertolucci subverted and played with pornographic conventions to make his remarkable tragedy.
Though it takes as its theme questions of sex, love and desire, it would be a mistake to assume that Last Tango in Paris is not also a continuation of Bertolucci's exploration of history. The mistakes arising from such an assumption is one of the key concerns of feminism, and the film is nothing if not an engagement with the political consequences of sexual revolution. Marlon Brando's Paul believes he can sequester love from sex by containing desire within the rites of domination and masochism that are at the centre of pornographic fantasy and the gender assumptions of patriarchy. But love – in its messiness, in its ugliness, in its awful beauty and melancholy sadness – it seeps through, and once again (as happened when his wife suicided) he is torn apart. That it is a heterosexual older man at the centre of this tragedy should not make us think that the film doesn't have a relevance to all and any of us. Maria Schneider's Jeanne escapes the 'tango' less bruised than Paul, partly because she is at the centre of the youth movements that will alter the gender landscape forever, but largely because Paul is not her great love. She hasn't experienced the 'tango' as tragedy yet. I think this is what rankled when I first saw the film: the suggestion that I was not immune, the suggestion that youth was not innocence of power but an ignorance of its own power. Years later, Bertolucci was to return to that theme, this time as a comedy, in the sublime Stealing Beauty. I imagine that film too might offend if your conception of desire and power is partisan and linear. But Bertolucci, the great sensualist of history, understands oppositions are fluid and contingent. History cannot be reduced to simplistic formulae.
Then comes the great utopian feast that is Novecento, the film that marks the apotheosis of the grand communal vision of cinema and also marks the collapse of that project. After Novecento came Jaws and Star Wars and the future no longer belonged to the socialist dreamers. La Luna marks a turn towards Freud and the family: a film about how the Oedipal drama of incest colours our most intimate relationships. The Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man examined the impotence of the old left when it came to the ruthless terror of the Red Brigades. The Last Emperor was both homage and, I think, a parting of ways with the legacy of Maoism on the European left.
And with that goodbye I think a new trajectory becomes evident in Bertolucci's work, one in which the political and cultural upheavals of the 1968 generation were laid aside to examine the erotics of Orientalism in The Sheltering Sky, and the bittersweet acknowledgement of middle age, of the middle passage, that is Stealing Beauty. It is at this period where I think it can be said that his work is now as literary as it is cinematic, as if the return to the word is an attempt to revitalise himself, to feed his intellectual hunger and to find another way to re-engage with the world. In between is the strange, exquisite children's fable, Little Buddha. Greeted with apathy or confusion in the Anglophone critical press, the film makes sense in an Italian film tradition of which Bertolucci is a key figure. After all, Pasolini made his wonderful Gospel; Rossellini's later films are a key legacy in the cinematic exploration of the notion of faith. The subject of faith, after all, is not such an odd subject for a once Marxist director to take on at the end of the Cold War. But I think it interesting that unlike his mentors, Bertolucci's 'faith' film is, if not exactly pagan, unmistakably non-monotheistic. He remains a sensualist, he remains critical of the ideologies that bind and repress and deny the body. The sensual world is celebrated as much as the world of the mind in Little Buddha.
At the end of the twentieth century he directs one of his greatest works, Besieged, the story of an African refugee who becomes a cleaner in the house of an English musician in Rome. Unlike the grand canvases of The Conformist and Novecento, Besieged is largely a two-hander between Thandie Newton and David Thewlis, and the majority of the action occurs in the apartment the woman cleans. Besieged, alive with the power of the cinematic gaze, a chamber piece that rhapsodises in a voice as powerful as the symphonies that are the earlier films, returns Bertolucci to the primacy of cinema and returns him to history. He is still probing, still asking questions. Besieged is an elegy about the central questions of our time: what are now our borders? How is communication possible between what the Italian radical philosopher, Giorgio Agamben, has termed the "homo sacer", the accursed human outside the borders and the law, and those of us within the globalised digital world of consumer possibility?
I have said that Novecento is my favourite film. I have said it is also a dream of utopia, an historic epic that has as its finale a reimagining of the end of World War II, one in where the communist peasants are victorious and the landowners are divested of their wealth and privilege. And because of this, it has often been said of the film that it fails as history. But remember, Novecento is an epic vision of a possible future. We need to come to it, as we need to come to all of Bertolucci's work, acknowledging that we are thinking, active, ethical beings, that we come to cinema with ideas and dreams we seek to explore and to think through and to challenge. In The Dreamers, a trio of young students in Paris spend that revolutionary spring in an apartment, drawn together by desire for each other – of course – and by their shared passion for books, politics and above all, for film. We come to understand that their views and their ideals have been shaped by cinema: to the world outside, to the way they understand their own sexuality and their own desire. Film is everything to them. The final frightening moment of the film is a freeze-frame. Our dreamers are caught by the camera as if it has snapped them within the moment between creation or violence, exhilaration or futility, imagination or destruction, the moment of "the state of emergency", the moment that Walter Benjamin reminds us can be real or fictitious; one containing the possibility of revolution, the other the regression of reaction. That final freeze-frame is literally film stopping. It is a reminder, one that I believe is essential to understanding all of Bertolucci's work, not to confuse the dream with the real; not to confuse the reality of history with the question of history.
Christos Tsiolkas is a fiction writer, playwright, scriptwriter and essayist. His novels include Loaded, Dead Europe, and The Slap. His latest book is Damascus (2019).