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Bernardo Bertolucci, the great Italian film director, once visited the former villa of Giuseppe Verdi as a location for his 1979 film La Luna. He received the unfriendliest of welcomes when Verdi’s nephew stormed on to the set in a car and tried to run him over. “You are a communist pornographer!” he shouted. “You have no right to shoot here!” He continued like a man weirdly obsessed with his cholesterol levels. “The only thing you love is butter! Butter, butter, butter!” Bertolucci retreated to safe ground.

Of course, there was more to it than that. A whole lot more. There was a time when a small packet of butter became a symbol of all that was depraved about western culture, and Bertolucci was the man responsible. It was he, together with his leading man Marlon Brando, who proposed the use of the improbable lubricant when he was shooting what was to become the most notorious scene of his 1972 film Last Tango in Paris.

Neither Brando nor Bertolucci warned the film’s female lead, Maria Schneider, of the imminent appearance of the butter in the scene until the last minute. What was gained in spontaneity was at the expense of both actors’ mental well-being, and both found it hard to forgive the director. Schneider, up to her death in 2011, blamed his manipulative ways in Last Tango for a career that never really took off. Brando did not speak to Bertolucci for 15 years.

In Luca Guadagnino’s Bertolucci On Bertolucci, a classy and utterly compelling new documentary showing at the London Film Festival, based entirely on talking-head interviews with the veteran director, it is hard to equate Bertolucci’s lyrical eloquence with the brutal treatment of his actors. Could it be one and the same man, I asked Guadagnino in a telephone interview this week?

“Yes,” he said emphatically. “To get to the point when you are fully and deeply exploring issues as an artist, there is no nicety involved. It is a matter of total commitment. And sometimes you have to be cruel. There is no way Bertolucci could have made Last Tango without something burning. And burns come from the heat of cinema, when cinema is great.”

Great cinema is what Bertolucci does best, and in a string of films in the 1970s, which included The Conformist and 1900 as well as La Luna and Last Tango, he managed to produce work that was beautiful to look at, unashamedly intellectual in scope, and controversially engaged with the social and political issues of its time. That confluence of qualities seemed normal then but is better appreciated today for its scarcity.

Guadagnino’s loving film shows the director from his earliest days, following the footsteps of his father in winning a prestigious poetry prize at the age of 21 in 1962, to the ailing, wheelchair-bound 73-year-old that he is today. Audaciously, the film includes virtually no footage from Bertolucci’s work, and plays havoc with the narrative, mixing interviews from various periods with dizzying effect. We guess at dates from Bertolucci’s hair length, and the varying degrees of radicalism in his leftist views.

The surprise is that he is as good with words as he is with images. Not many in the film world would reply, during the banality of a snatched post-Oscar interview (for The Last Emperor in 1987), that cinema was “a great cathedral for collective hypnosis”. Few directors in today’s super-controlled movie-making environment would be quite so frank about their anarchic impulses: sometimes it was good, he said, “to see coherence killed by the savage vitality of poetry”. That would play well with the bean-counters.

Guadagnino’s film is a homage, not just to the director (“an incredible role model”) but also to those great monographs that were devoured by cinephiles, such as François Truffaut’s Hitchcock on Hitchcock, which allowed an auteur free rein to describe his ultimate artistic vision. The various Bertoluccis on display here contradict each other but they never evade the difficult questions. Such artistic responsibility feels old-fashioned, and its absence is to be lamented.

Guadagnino said Bertolucci was happy to leave him and co-director Walter Fasano to their own devices in the research. “But when we watched the movie together for the first time, I was so happy to see that he was moved by it,” he said.

I asked after Bertolucci’s health, which did not appear to be so good in the film’s final segment, notwithstanding his recent presidency of the jury of the Venice Film Festival. “He has such a beautiful and strong will, and such a love of life,” he said reassuringly. “I can’t wait to see his next film.”

At one point in the film Bertolucci returns to the Villa Verdi, with which he appears to have developed a Verdian feud to the death, stands outside the gates, and gratuitously blasts “La Donna è Mobile” from Rigoletto to its occupants. There is no reaction. Bertolucci shrugs.

“Provocations are like Molotov cocktails,” he murmurs to the camera. “They only work one time out of 10.”

‘Bertolucci on Bertolucci’ is screened as part of the London Film Festival on October 13, bfi.org.uk/lff


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