Bertolucci, Rome, Summer of ‘78
“Bertolucci died,” my wife said, checking the pinging on her smartphone.
Immediately, we were transformed to the Baths of Caracalla, where the grand director was making “La Luna” in the Roman summer of 1978 – with two broken arms.
There was a lot going on in a month when Romans normally head for the countryside during the annual shutdown known as “Ferragosto” – taking one major Roman Catholic holy day and turning it into a one-month holiday.
Pope Paul VI had died on Aug. 6 in the summer retreat of Castel Gandolfo and the Vatican took an ungodly time getting the Pope to St. Peter’s for the funeral.
I was sent there by the Times, as a learn-on-the-spot religion reporter. Pretending I knew something, I speculated on who would be the next Pope. (All wrong, of course.)
Then the Times went on strike, leaving me in Rome with a borrowed friend’s apartment near the Piazza Navona. How sad. I sent for my wife, and we wandered the city.
A friend of ours had a connection to another major event in Rome that summer – the making of a movie by Bernardo Bertolucci, in the Baths of Caracalla – a film called “La Luna” with a theme of incest, starring Jill Clayburgh.
Our friend sent a limo to take us to Caracalla for the day, where Bertolucci was directing with casts on his arms. He had been carrying a camera, peering down into it, and had fallen off a step or a platform, and had broken both arms, but he persevered admirably.
Now he bravely balanced the camera on the two casts, still framing scenes as they would appear through the lens, as directors do. A cadre of assistants hovered around him as he tottered on the steps to the stage, lest he fall again. The whole project was in his broken arms.
My wife and I hung at the edge of the proceedings with our friend, whispering, perhaps even giggling a bit. Nobody seemed to mind except for Jill Clayburgh, who was gearing up for the tangled emotions of the film, wearing elegant high heels on the uneven ancient stones of Caracalla.
She shot us a look or two, and we piped down.
That’s all I remember, except for lurid jokes and set gossip we culled here and there. It was, of course, Rome. Matthew Barry, the young New Yorker who was playing Clayburgh’s son, had to preserve his pasty-white coloration for uniformity during the shooting, so they enticed him indoors, day after day -- no beach, no outdoor trattorias. I wondered how they kept him indoors.
* * *
Our friend called for the limo and a stalwart Roman driver took us toward Centro Storico.
I forgot to say, it was also a dangerous time in Italy, threatened by the Red Brigade.
The former Prime Minister, Aldo Moro, had been kidnapped and murdered in May and more violence was feared.
“Aren’t you afraid of the Red Brigade?” I asked the driver in my minimal Italian.
He tapped the solid dashboard of his limo, to signify protection of some sort, and he said, “The Red Brigade should be afraid of us.”
I took his word for it.
* * *
Several years later, my wife was walking on Madison Ave., looking in shop windows, and she spotted the reflection of an elegant woman a few feet away, looking at her, as if to say, “Who is that?”
Jill Clayburgh could not place her, and kept walking.
I never saw “La Luna,” which did not get great reviews, apparently.
That’s my only memory of Bertolucci – carrying on, with all the force of a great Italian director, in the August heat, in Caracalla.
11/26/2018 11:09:05 am
11/26/2018 02:39:10 pm
Dear Altenir: I also got to watch Karel Reisz directing one tiny moment in "Sweet Dreams." (The producer took me in for an hour of so; he had also done "Coal Miner's Daughter.") Reisz was low-key but kept asking Jessica Lange and Ann Wedgeworth (Patsy Cline and her mom) to do the same two lines over and over:
11/26/2018 04:40:14 pm
Dear George: Wow! I loved this movie made by Karel Reisz. He was a great filmmaker. Very nice to know you were there, too.
11/26/2018 02:42:50 pm
Altenir: I forgot to ask, were you present when they made your lovely movie, "Curitiba Zero Grau?" GV
11/26/2018 04:24:14 pm
11/26/2018 04:27:26 pm
Dear George: Thank you very much for your sweet words about our little movie.
11/26/2018 09:06:57 pm
Happy Thanksgiving, George! A truly great story. I would have loved to meet him. I didn’t, but I have a close connection to one of his works – “Last Tango in Paris.” Here’s that story:
11/27/2018 03:09:10 am
Dear Brian: I think Mr. Bertolucci would have loved it. In Brazil, there’s something very curious about the movie. “Last Tango in Paris” was banned by Federal Censorship. Then, many people that had money, traveled outside the country just to watch the Last Tango in Paris. The movie was released only seven years later. I watched it in 1982, in Curitiba (South of Brazil), but my mind was also blown up with other movies, "In the Realm of the Senses” by Nagisa Ôshima and "A Clockwork Orange” by Stanley Kubrick, both were released after the end of the military dictatorship in Brazil.
11/27/2018 03:35:26 pm
Hi Altenir. I wonder which version of the Bertolucci movie you eventually saw? After all the trouble another version was released, tamed down a bit, which is the one I believe preserved on DVD. No matter. I always agreed with the Rabbi, I just could never say it.
11/27/2018 11:39:15 am
Brian, regards, great story. It sounds like the start of a joke:a minister and a rabbi were asked to define obscenity....
11/27/2018 03:59:08 pm
George, that's a great article about loitering in Cincinnati. Yes, it is a great town, my very favorite between the two coasts. But your article was brilliant because it looked at all sides of an important issue -- public safety and freedom from worry about crime on your doorstep. A far off judges's opinion leaving a gaping void is just as bad as a written law that can justify prohibiting honest conduct. You can't legislate this kind of thing and a law supporting honest exercise of law enforcement discretion seems the only hope. There's something powerfully appealing to me about the vagueness of the legal definition of pornography....community standards. I wish it were applied elsewhere. If it were, I think we would have a more successful legal and political system.
11/27/2018 10:12:49 am
11/27/2018 11:23:30 am
11/29/2018 04:40:51 am
I am not familiar with Bertolluci's work or character but have read about the infamous rape scene in Last Tango. How do you all reconcile art appreciation when it was created at someone else's expense?
11/29/2018 08:21:04 am
Mendel: It is a fair point. I do not consider this piece to be an "appreciation" or "review" of him and his work -- merely a vignette of seeing him at work, a moment in time, with us dropping in to another world. The only movie I have seen of his is "The Last Emperor," which was quite good, including music by Ryuichi Sakamoto, who also acted in the film. The disgraceful episode from Brando and Bertolucci surely ruined Romy Schneider's life -- I have no excuse or explanation. There were surely sordid elements in "La Luna." How much is validated by movies being an attempt at "art?" A fair question. Perhaps I should have written a sentence or paragraph raising those issues; I was just recreating a sighting. I appreciate your raising the issue. GV
11/29/2018 08:53:48 am
11/29/2018 10:56:55 am
11/29/2018 02:06:26 pm
Brian, thanks. I had looked up Schneider....found the sad life of Romy Schneider...and went with it. But Maria Schneider is the actress in Last Tango -- also had a sad and short life. I appreciate your careful reading. GV
11/30/2018 07:39:41 pm
Thanks, Brian. Of course, Maria Schneider. Romy Schneider is the eternal Sissi, the Empress. It is a nice Saturday movie.
12/1/2018 08:50:23 am
Altenir: Okay, what is a "Saturday movie?"
12/1/2018 10:43:01 am
Dear George: Saturday movies are those movies with an innocence appeal, like, the movies made in the '30s, '40s, '50s. After that, the world lost his innocence and Hollywood, too. It could be watched on TV, movie theatre, tablet, computer, and smartphone. Saturday because it is the weekday where all people are looking for relaxing from the past week and getting ready for a rest on Sunday. Our mind is freer to watch something sweet.
12/1/2018 01:20:45 pm
Altenir: Does that pattern still fit? I notice that Friday night TV movie listings have a lot of ax-murder movies, gore galore -- means the kids are off that night, can sleep in. When I was a kid, they used to have cowboy movies on Saturday afternoon. I remember being taken with a group to a dinosaur horror movie on a Saturday afternoon. I also can remember being taken to movies by my (Irish-born) grandmother who watched melodramas -- we would walk home in the darkness in long winter months. And my parents took me to see The Third Man -- I think on a weekday night, a rite of passage to adult, political world in which they lived. Probably why that is my favorite movie. Nowadays my wife and I go to see National Theatre Live, direct from South Bank, on Thursdays at 2 PM in sleepy little Queens N.Y. community of Kew Gardens. Very London-y. Your Saturday theory is good. Muito obrigado. GV
12/1/2018 08:58:15 pm
Altenir, I understand you completely and I agree. Maybe we should start a new country together and invite our friends and family. I like your weather better. Got any land left? Just found the Hallmark station this weekend on U.S. TV, after a WSJ article on its Friday front page introduced me. Just what you reference!
12/2/2018 05:44:19 am
Dear George: "The Third Man" has one of the smartest quotes from the cinema. I don’t know if it was written by Orson Welles or Graham Greene.
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“I don’t think people understand how Covid affects older Americans,” Mr. Caretti said with frustration. “In 2020, there was this all-in-this-together vibe, and it’s been annihilated. People just need to care about other people, man. That’s my soapbox.”
---Vic Caretti, 47, whose father recently died of Covid at 85.
---From an article by Paula Span, who covers old age for the NYT, which currently has 2646 comments, the majority criticizing the American public – and public officials – for acting as if the pandemic is “over.”
Classic wishful thinking, at a lethal level.