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8/12/2012 Houston—Continuing a tradition of Italian film retrospectives from the archives of the legendary Cinecittà Luce in Rome, this year MFAH Films spotlights the prolific, often-controversial Bernardo Bertolucci (b. 1940) with the series The Nonconformist: A Bernardo Bertolucci Retrospective. A dozen Bertolucci films will screen in the MFAH Brown Auditorium Theater throughout four weekends in September.

After pursuing a career as a poet—a background that contributed to his later proclivity for literary references— Bertolucci turned to filmmaking in the 1960s. Initially influenced by Pasolini and Godard, Bertolucci’s early films evince a preoccupation with politics, followed by historical narratives, sensual explorations and nuanced character studies. While many of his films are familiar to American audiences (The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris, 1900, The Last Emperor), this career survey provides an occasion for a timely re-appreciation.
“An internationally renowned, Oscar-winning filmmaker, Bertolucci was recently celebrated with a major retrospective at BFI Southbank in London and with a tribute at the MoMA in New York; was awarded an honorary Palme d’Or for his life’s work at the 2011 Cannes festival in France; and premiered his latest film, Me and You–his first in Italian in 25 years–at the 2012 Cannes festival,” said Marian Luntz, MFAH curator of film and video. “The MFAH retrospective provides Houston audiences with a month’s worth of screenings to appreciate Bertolucci’s work.”

On the opening night–Friday, September 7–welcoming remarks will be made by MFAH director Gary Tinterow, followed by a brief overview of Bertolucci by Professor Alessandro Carrera of the University of Houston.

Past Italian film retrospectives at the MFAH have included popular directorial tributes to filmmakers Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Pupi Avati, and Marco Bellocchio; a series featuring influential performances by Italian actresses; and last year’s survey of the influential Neorealist period of Italian cinema.

Film Schedule
September 7 Fri. 6 p.m. The Grim Reaper
8:15 p.m. Before the Revolution
September 8 Sat. 7 p.m. The Spider’s Stratagem
September 9 Sun. 5 p.m. Partner
September 14 Fri. 7 p.m. The Conformist
September 15 Sat. 7 p.m. 1900 (Part I)
September 16 Sun. 1 p.m. 1900 (Part II)
September 21 Fri. 7 p.m. Last Tango in Paris
September 22 Sat. 7 p.m. Little Buddha
September 23 Sun. 6 p.m. Besieged
September 28 Fri. 7 p.m. The Dreamers
September 29 Sat. 6 p.m. The Last Emperor
September 30 Sun. 5 p.m. The Sheltering Sky

Film Descriptions
The Grim Reaper (La commare secca)
(Italy, 1962, 88 min., in Italian with English subtitles)
Friday, September 7, 6 p.m.; Introductory remarks by Professor Alessandro Carrera, the University of Houston. Based on a story by Pier Paolo Pasolini—for whom Bertolucci had worked as assistant director—The Grim Reaper announced Bertolucci as a unique visual talent. The murder of a prostitute prompts the police to question a range of petty thieves, lowlifes, and people living on society’s edges, and their “testimonies,” shown in extended flashbacks, create a narrative of multiple viewpoints. This web of coincidences and murder is also an investigation of the nature of truth itself—an elegantly woven net of social misery and stark emotional distress.

Before the Revolution (Prima della rivoluzione)
(Italy, 1964, 115 min., in Italian with English subtitles)
Friday, September 7, 8:15 p.m. Bertolucci’s paean to unhinged passion references Stendhal, Godard, Rossellini, Chekhov, and others as it follows a young bourgeois reinventing himself as a progressive Marxist—and embarking on an affair with his aunt.
The Spider’s Stratagem (Strategia del ragno) (Italy, 1970, 100 min., in Italian with English subtitles)
Saturday, September 8, 7 p.m. A young man arrives in the village where a bust of his father, a local anti-Fascist hero, holds pride of place in the town square. Yet this is also a town with secrets, and as the young man attempts to unravel the mystery of his father’s 30-year-old murder, he is met by resistance and growing hostility. Based on a short story outline by Jorge Luis Borges, the film is an elaborate web of friendship and betrayal, past and present.

(Italy, 1968, 105 min., in Italian with English subtitles)
Sunday, September 9, 5 p.m. Devastated by an unrequited love, unassuming drama teacher Giacobbe considers suicide but instead embraces his alter ego, a wild revolutionary. As their roles are gradually reversed—the entire world of the film plays with notions of duality and reproduction—Jacob (Pierre Clémenti, in a bravura double performance) indulges his anarchic and creative doppelganger. Bertolucci’s exuberant jeu d’esprit is also an engaging experimental investigation into the nature of cinema, performance, and the artist, and uses Dostoyevsky’s novella The Double as a springboard for what the director himself has called “my most surreal film.”

The Conformist (Il conformista)
(Italy/France/West Germany, 1970, 107 min., in Italian with English subtitles)
Friday, September 14, 7 p.m. Bertolucci’s first true masterpiece is the work of a director totally in charge of his medium. The Conformist tells the story of a damaged soul (Jean-Louis Trintignant) whose psychosexual angst translates into political overcompensation and emotional stasis. The protagonist’s quest for “normalcy” is initially set—narratively and visually—within the architecture of Fascism. Vittorio Storaro’s precise, harsh lighting of vast interior spaces and stylized Roman apartments then opens up and acquires a more vivid color scheme as the main character encounters Paris and the possibility of freedom. Dominique Sanda and Stefania Sandrelli give memorable performances, including a riveting tango scene.

1900 (Novecento)
(Italy/France/West Germany, 1976, 245 min., in Italian with English subtitles)
Part I: Saturday, September 15, 7 p.m.; Part II: Sunday, September 16, 1 p.m. Bertolucci’s most ambitious work is a historical epic revolving around two boys born on the same day in 1901: Alfredo (Robert De Niro), the son of a wealthy padrone, and Olmo (Gérard Depardieu), the son of one of the padrone’s day laborers. Their story winds through approximately 50 years of Italian history, with Olmo embracing socialism and Alfredo becoming an unwitting defender of Fascism and an inadvertent propagator of brutal crimes against the laborers for whom he once held much affection.

Last Tango in Paris (Ultimo tango a Parigi)
(France/Italy, 1972, 136 min., in English)
Friday, September 21, 7 p.m.; Recommended only for mature audiences Vast, empty rooms mirror the insular life of Paul (Marlon Brando), a middle-aged American hotel owner mourning his wife’s recent suicide. Paul shuts out the world beyond the doors of his unfurnished apartment, and attempts to smother the emptiness that engulfs him—a desperate blankness that is brilliantly evoked by Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography—by taking up an anonymous sexual relationship with Jeanne (Maria Schneider), a young, hapless Parisienne. Their brutal sexual encounters seem meaningless at first, but Paul’s emotional need and desperation soon rise to the surface. A score by Argentine saxophonist Gato Barbieri punctuates starkly erotic scenes that have lost none of their effect since the film’s controversial debut.

Little Buddha
(Italy/France/Liechtenstein/UK, 1993, 123 min., in English)
Saturday, September 22, 7 p.m.; Introductory remarks by Professor Alessandro Carrera, The University of Houston. Little Buddha weaves a rich tapestry of stories—a boy’s journey of discovery, a lama’s search for his beloved teacher, and the legend of Siddhartha’s path to enlightenment. This exquisitely beautiful film begins when Tibetan monks appear at the Seattle home of an American boy who they believe is their leader reincarnate. In segments that outlinethe life of Buddha (Keanu Reeves), Bertolucci creates stunning, visually rich tableaux and ethereal postcard portraits.

(Italy/UK, 1998, 93 min., in English)
Sunday, September 23, 6 p.m. Excepting a brief prelude in an unidentified African country, the film is set entirely within a large, rambling house, and features a cast of two. Bertolucci’s pet themes of passion and class are stripped to the core as a refugee (Thandie Newton) working her way through medical school and her employer (David Thewlis), a reclusive composer, become entangled in a tangle of attraction and denial. The changing textures of their emotions are reflected in the slow convergence of their musical tastes, and his dedication to her is measured by the gradual removal of the mansion’s furniture.

The Dreamers
(UK/France/Italy, 2003, 115 min., in English)
Friday, September 28, 7 p.m.; Recommended only for mature audiences. Set in Paris in the spring of 1968—the defining moment of Bertolucci’s generation—The Dreamers begins with the firing of the beloved director of Paris’s Cinémathèque Française, and the public uproar that follows. An ode to transgression in cinema, sex, and politics, the film is divided between the insular, claustrophobic world of three attractive young protagonists—who, cloistered inside a huge bourgeois apartment and naked for much of the film, engage in escalating sexual exploration—and masterfully choreographed crowd scenes of demonstrators squaring off with police outside. Bertolucci’s blending of history and fiction mirrors the life-imitating-film games played by his cinema-obsessed protagonists.

The Last Emperor
(China/UK/Italy, 1987, 163 min., in various languages with English subtitles)
Saturday, September 29, 6 p.m. It has been suggested that The Last Emperor made Bertolucci the new Marco Polo, as his film contributed to a renewed cultural interest in China in the late 1980s. The winner of nine Oscars, it is considered one of the director’s near-perfect films. Through a series of flash-forwards and flashbacks, Bertolucci relates the intriguing life of Pu Yi, China’s last emperor, from his lofty birth and brief reign in the Forbidden City through his abdication, decline, and exploitation by the Japanese during World War II, and finally to his obscure existence as a mere peasant worker in the People’s Republic.

The Sheltering Sky
(UK/Italy, 1990, 138 min., in English)
Sunday, September 30, 5 p.m. Based on the novel by Paul Bowles, Bertolucci’s drama sends an American couple deep into the Sahara desert, where they discover the transporting power of landscape and culture and learn the distinction between being a tourist and a traveler. Kit (Debra Winger) and Porter (John Malkovich) put themselves in unknown territory in an attempt to inject passion into their ten-year marriage. Bertolucci’s cinematic preoccupations with travel and sexual pluralism converge in this rich and haunting film, which brings to life the intimate details of longing and loneliness.