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THE DAY BERTOLUCCI FELT ALL TANGOED OUT

Back in 1973, Bernardo Bertolucci gave new meaning to the word "hot" with his steamy "Last Tango in Paris." But when I interviewed him for The New York Times on the day after the movie's premiere, he seemed to be coming down with a big chill. Could it have been something I said? --GUY FLATLEY

"I am more than bored," says Bernardo Bertolucci. "I’ve been taking all this as a game, and now I am tired of playing the game."

It’s the morning after the New York opening of "Last Tango in Paris," and the game which bores the Italian director is the frantic game which began last October, on the final evening of the New York Film Festival.That was the night pent-up passions were unleashed in Philharmonic Hall –- the night Bertolucci buffs went berserk bellowing "Bravo," the night open-mouthed matrons did their weak-kneed best to stagger out in a huff, and the night Pauline Kael stayed behind to confess for all to hear that Bertolucci’s "breakthrough" movie had impressed her as no other movie had in the last 20 years.

The rules of this new-fangled "Tango" game were not always easy to grasp. For reasons that remain obscure, United Artists, the film’s distributor, insisted that "Tango" could have only one public exposure in this country before being whisked back to Rome, where it quickly proved the biggest sensation since pizza.

But in Bologna, where not quite everything is up to date, one incensed citizen whizzed his way to court and filed an obscenity charge against the movie. Specifically, "Tango" was said to be "permeated by scurrilous language –- with crude, repulsive, naturalistic and even unnatural representation of carnal union, with continued and complacent scenes, descriptions and exhibitions of masturbation, libidinous acts and lewd nudity." That did it: the film was withdrawn throughout Italy –- though it sizzled on and on in Paris theaters –- and Bertolucci and his stars Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider teetered on the precipice of an eight-month prison sentence.

Last week, the court in Bologna acquitted the defendants, and "Tango" was once again free to do its daredevil dance for the benefit of liberated Italians. Meanwhile, back in Manhattan, the film had unfurled at the Trans-Lux East, where overflow crowds of curious cineastes were plopping down the porno price of five bucks per ticket. And, in a suite at the Sherry-Netherland, Bertolucci was cautiously meeting one of the most bewildering challenges of the "Tango" game: The Interview.

"I’m not sure what my film says," he begins, running his fingers through his thick black hair and frowning. A 31-year-old bachelor, Bertolucci is broodingly handsome enough to star in one of his own films, and camera-shy enough to have turned down the part of Dominique Sanda’s lover in "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis." "One never knows what his film is about until much later, but I think that one of the things 'Tango' is saying is that relationships no longer exist, that people in our society can no longer communicate with each other."

Bertolucci lights one of his frequent cigarettes. "The only thing that still seems true is sex, so Paul and Jeanne –- the characters played by Marlon and Maria –- try to find a common language through sex. But their attempt is a romantic attempt, and the reason they fail is that they want to isolate themselves, to close reality and history outside of their apartment. But you cannot forget the past, just as you cannot ignore the future. This concept, of course, is political."

Bertolucci, a fervent communist, has often been classed as a political moviemaker and his Marxist motivation is easily discernible in such films as "Partner," "Before the Revolution," "The Spider’s Strategem" and "The Conformist." But, with "Tango," dogmatists are liable to be frustrated in their pursuit of politics. While "Tango" may deal peripherally with the class struggle, what it’s really dealing with is the age-old, tension-fraught struggle between man and woman. And nobody will faint to hear that feminists are infuriated by what they consider the obnoxious, sex-object treatment of Maria Schneider in the movie. They protest the fact that she is frequently –- and frontally –- nude, while male-chauvinist-prude Brando manages to perform his erotic exploits without baring so much as a belly button.

"I consider myself a member of Women’s Lib," says Bertolucci, half piqued and half bored, "but I don’t want to talk with women who believe my film is misogynistic. That is too narrow a vision. It’s like in the early films of Lumiere –- when the train arrived in the station, the audience began fleeing because they thought the train was going right through them. Those who find my film anti-feminist are as naïve as the very first spectators of Lumiere, because they make this equation: Marlon brutalizes Maria, therefore the film is against women. It’s a very simplistic interpretation that confuses the material being narrated with the film’s ideology."

Still, there are those who feel that it is more artistic to suggest crudity than to magnify it. "In the beginning, I was uncertain. I could not decide if I should show the erotic scenes or not. Finally, I concluded that it would be morbid not to show them."

One woman who obviously agrees with Bertolucci is Pauline Kael. Presumably she would have traveled to the ends of the earth –- or at least to Bologna –- if any censor dared to scissor "Tango". And, according to Bertolucci, she was not at all pleased about the last-minute cuts he himself made before the Trans-Lux East premiere, particularly the scene in which Brando gets down on all fours and snarls, mongrel-like, at a Bible salesman –- a scene which had caused Miss Kael to comment, "Brando’s barking extends the terms of his character and the movie."

"Pauline said, ‘You shouldn’t have done this to me,’ but I never liked that scene. It was meant to be funny, but it was sad, terribly embarrassing somehow. A little too phony. I’ve never seen a Bible salesman in Paris; that was just a scriptwriter’s perversion."

Speaking of perversion, the scene in which Brando forcibly sodomizes Maria "was a very didactic scene. Marlon was teaching Maria important lessons about social institutions –- about marriage, the family, the church."

And, like a true gentleman, Brando keeps his clothes on throughout the entire lecture. "Marlon’s character in the film had to be a little mysterious, and he felt that to take off his clothes would be to unveil the mystery."

What Brando did unveil in "Tango" –- in keeping with Bertolucci’s belief that the character should become the actor, rather than the other way around –- was a portion of his own soul. This was especially true of the painful monologue in which he recalls his tormented adolescence in the midwest –- his drunken parents, his overwhelming sense of spiritual isolation.

"That scene was completely improvised, and Marlon was truly naked at that moment. I put 900 feet of film in the camera, because I had no idea how long it was going to last. We did it in one take, and when it was over, Marlon looked at me very strangely. I had the feeling that maybe the next day he would not appear on the set. But I knew if he did come back, he would stay on the film until it was completed. I think that what he was feeling was the intense horror –- and fascination –- of the intrusion upon his intimacy."

Bertolucci yields to no one in his veneration of Brando, yet there were nervous-making moments. "Marlon was besieged by death during ‘Tango,’ and when I saw him do his first sequence, looking up at the train and crying out, I was shocked. He started at such a violent pitch that I said to myself, ‘Maybe I cannot work at the level of this actor.' I was very scared. My fear lasted for the first week and then Marlon made me understand that he had the same feeling about me. From that moment on, everything worked very well."

Actually, Brando was not the original choice for "Tango," nor was Maria Schneider. Jean-Louis Trintignant, who had been so impeccably chilling in "The Conformist," as a man who embraces fascism in an effort to sublimate his homosexual tendencies, was to have played Paul, but a conflict in his schedule made it impossible. There was no re-writing done by Bertolucci and his co-author Franco Arcalli, however. All of the changes were improvised before the camera. Brando refused to tell Bertolucci the meaning of his dying word –- spoken in Tahitian –- until recently. And now it’s Bertolucci’s secret, too.

But, basically, the original story of a burnt-out man driven to assert his masculinity through the sexual humiliation of an amoral girl remained the same. Yet there was a shift in emphasis. "I started out to make a film about a couple, but instead I made a film about two lonelinesses. Right from the moment when Maria passes Marlon on the street and looks back at him, I understood that each of them was damned to loneliness. Even in their scenes together, they were always one plus one, never two. And the scene that is most about this loneliness is the scene in which Maria masturbates and Marlon goes into the other room and cries. He cries because at that moment he is sincere about himself; he sees that he is trying to find in sex a lost innocence –- above all, to find through sex an ideal relationship. At that moment, he understands that this is impossible."

For the role of Jeanne –- who, within the span of three days, becomes engaged to one man, plays secret sadomasochistic games with another, and then commits murder –- Bertolucci’s first and second choices were Dominique Sanda and Catherine Deneuve, each of whom became pregnant. "If Deneuve had played the part, I would have pushed Marlon to dirty the kind of bourgeois innocence that she always projects. I wanted him to dirty it in order to show that bourgeois purity does not really exist. The bourgeoisie can’t be innocent, for class reasons."

But doesn’t Bertolucci himself come from a middle-class family?

"That is how I know bourgeois innocence does not exist."

Bertolucci’s early youth was spent in Parma, where his father, Attilio Bertolucci, was a poet and film critic. When Bernardo was 13, the Bertolucci brood –- there is a younger brother, Giusseppe –- moved to Rome, where Bertolucci pursued his education, more in movie houses than in schools. By the time he was 20, he had dropped out of the University of Rome, had published a book of poetry called "In Search of Mystery," and had landed a job with his father’s friend, Pier Paolo Pasolini, as his assistant director on "Accatone."

Bertolucci is both precise and poetic when he gives his reasons for becoming a man of the movies. "It is not I who chooses films; it is films who choose me."

Perhaps he would like to elaborate?

"I like to say things, not elaborate on things."

Shortly after his apprenticeship with Pasolini in 1961, Bertolucci went on to direct his own first feature, "The Grim Reaper." Nevertheless, he has remained close to Pasolini over the years, even though he seems disappointed by the older man’s apparent loss of political passion. " ‘The Decameron’ and ‘Canterbury Tales’ are really not very inspired. Pasolini hates the world of today, so he keeps repeating to himself, ‘How beautiful the world was when poor people were really poor and innocent.’ This is the position of the reactionary poet."

The nearest Bertolucci has come to making a purely political feature was a documentary which he shot last year for the Communist Party and which was subsequently shown in the streets of Rome. "The most important thing about that film was that it was the first time cameras were allowed in an Italian hospital ward. It was all made possible by labor leaders, and it documented the incredible, disastrous conditions in the hospitals, where the sick are put in hallways and bathrooms to sleep. After one hour, we were thrown out by the directors of the hospital."

In spite of Bertolucci’s concern for social reform, some skeptics claim his chief cinematic aim is to flood the screen with a pulsating blend of opulent imagery, perversely appealing characters, exotic sets, bizarre relationships, operatic twists of plot and blunt but ambiguous sex. Bertolucci himself says, "In my films, schizophrenics grow like mushrooms," yet he insists that his cinema contains substantial political content. He does admit, however, to a certain theatrical flourish here and there.

"I attempted in ‘Tango’ to marry Hollywood cinema to European cinema…Brando with Schneider, lighting and precise camera movement with cinema verite, script with improvisation, elaborate décor with a wild way of shooting, a Hitchcock-type soundtrack with Gato Barbieri’s tango. Like most Communist intellectuals in Europe, I am condemned to be divided. I have a split personality and the real contradiction within me is that I cannot quite synchronize my heart and my brain. One of the two is always ahead of the other one. That is my charm."

Bertolucci smiles a charming smile, which vanishes the second he is asked to discuss his reputation as a ladies’ man.

"This is not an interesting question," he points out. "People do not care about such things."

Could it be that he enjoys being a man of mystery?

"What does that mean – a man of mystery?"

It means the sort of man who makes a breakthrough movie about sex and then doesn’t want anybody to break through to the mysteries of his own sex life. To tell the truth, there was not all that much mystery surrounding Bertolucci’s affair with Adriana Asti, the sensuous star of "Before the Revolution."

"Yes, Adriana was my mistress, but I fall in love with all the actors in my films."

"Actresses, Bernardo, not actors," suggests the translator.

"Actresses and actors," says Bertolucci. "I fall in love with them all; they are the prolongations of my penis. Yes, my penis. Like Pinocchio’s nose, my penis grows."

After everyone has chuckled at this slightly puzzling joke, Bertolucci adds, "Please understand, this is not a declaration of my bisexuality."

Not only does Bertolucci fall in love with his actors and actresses, he may fall in love with a set dresser, as well. Take Maria Paola Maino, for example, who worked on "Tango."

"I was married to Maria without being married, but I feel no guilt about it. Her husband knew; Maria and I were living together."

One wonders if there will ever be a marriage that is a marriage –- the kind with children and other family trappings. "I am against the family as a social entity. When you are engaged in a marriage, you are condemned."

What’s the alternative?

"That’s a question I’m asking myself now. It is the great question within me, the question I set forth in ‘Tango,’ the question of the validity of marriage. In our society, even adultery becomes a bourgeois institution."

Occasionally, the questions within Bertolucci have popped up on the analyst’s couch. Is he in analysis now?

"No, I am in the Sherry-Netherland now," he jokes. "But, yes, I am in Freudian analysis. Saint Sigmund."

Brando, too, is no stranger to the analyst’s couch, and Bertolucci says that their analyses were in perfect sync at the time of "Tango." Since Bertolucci had done so much to revitalize the Brando legend, is there a chance that the triumphant pair might synchronize on another film?

"That’s difficult to say. I’ve stolen a lot from Marlon, and since I only use actors for what they are, I’m afraid he may not want to repeat himself. On the other hand," says Bertolucci with a devilish glint in his eye, "maybe he did not really die on that terrace in ‘Tango.’ "