I was 12 years old when Bozzolo (literally, “Cocoon”), a small town in the Italian region of Lombardy, transformed into Hollywood for a few days: we would leave school only to stumble upon Burt Lancaster, Gèrard Depardieu, or Robert De Niro having coffee at Walter’s, just like our dads. But the name that we would more often hear in whispers, in respectful and deferential tones, was “Bertolucci.” Come evening in the piazza, and the luckier ones, hired as extras, would recount their adventures on set. They said the film would be called “1900,” but it was not certain yet.
One day, my dad brought me and my brother to see the filming of a scene on the bank of the Oglio: there were horses, hundreds of crew and extras, famous actors, fog machines (that day, by chance, there was no real fog), and above all, there was him: Bertolucci. It was like magic for me to see how all those people would move about, following his orders. And even the long breaks between shots, with the horses getting back into line, were thrilling. The women would gather on the riverbank, in front of the soldiers on horseback on their way to evict a family, and they would sing – yell, actually – the song of the Lega, the good Lega (the union that protected its peasants from the abuses of the landowners): “Sebben che siamo donne, paura non abbiamo, abbiam delle belle buone lingue e ben ci difendiamo” (Even if we are women, we have no fear, we have beautiful good tongues and can defend ourselves well).
I did not know that I was witnessing the shooting of one of the most epic scenes in the history of Italian cinema, and I could not have imagined that, one day, I would be explaining Bertolucci and his extraordinary films to my American students; but, perhaps, my passion for cinema began that very day.
I saw the director again, this time from closer up, in New York, when he came for the great retrospective dedicated to him by the MoMA in 2010. He was already sick and had difficulty moving. He did not want to be seen that way, so he preferred to appear in public already seated. We also had lunch at a friend’s house and the Maestro talked with pleasure and without reticence, always speaking with his Parmesan “r,” which is soft and made his speech unmistakably his.
The last time I saw him was four years ago, at the Teatro Regio di Parma, where, 50 years earlier, he had filmed a memorable scene of “Before the Revolution.” It was the ceremony for the conferment of the doctorate honoris causa by the University of Parma. Bertolucci, in fact, had never graduated, and the University, in this way, helped him to fulfil the promise he had made his father, the great poet Attilio Bertolucci. The Maestro, dressed in a scarlet toga and an ermine mozzetta, seemed like a refined, yet good-natured, cardinal. That solemn ceremony, organized and orchestrated by Michele Guerra, reconciled Bertolucci with Parma, the city of his birth with which he always had a complicated relationship. But I felt that it had, above all, allowed him to reconcile with his illness: the newly-minted doctor was no longer ashamed of revealing the consequences of the disease that had limited his movements, and he glided across the stage of the Regio on his wheelchair with a regal nonchalance.
Bertolucci had often claimed that when he shot a film he felt as though he was in a state of obscurity, and Professor Guerra suggested in his laudatio (the official motivations of the degree conferral) that, in those moments, Bertolucci was, perhaps, “in search of mystery.” And I like remembering him like this even today, after his death: a man in search of the Mystery.
Translated by Alyssa Erspamer