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More on Bernado Bertolucci [01] [02]

Bernardo Bertolucci: Cinema's Tolerant Titan
By Ruth Sullivan
The Guardian - December 17, 1993

Burly communist Bernardo Bertolucci has become surprisingly serene since making his latest film, Little Buddha, in Tibet.

Sitting in the lounge of an elegant Milan hotel, Italian film-maker Bernardo Bertolucci twists a single strand of Tibetan coral beads around his neck and smiles. "It's not that I have become a Buddhist, but I wanted to make a simple film that children would understand," says the burly 52-year-old communist and poet from Parma.

His latest film, Little Buddha, which has just opened in Italy, tells the story of a Tibetan lama's search for the reincarnation of his lama teacher. The film swings from the monasteries and stupas (Buddhist shrines) of the Tibetan monks in Bhutan to the state-of-the-art house of an American yuppie family in
Seattle as his search leads him to Jesse, a young American boy.

Little Buddha is the last of three Bertolucci films shot in exotic surroundings. In The Last Emperor (1987) the camera drooled over the sumptuous architectural detail and ceremonial ritual of Peking's Forbidden City as it unfolded the story of China's last dynasty, while in The Sheltering Sky (1990)
the colours and moods of rolling North African desert scorch the eye.

It is not difficult to remember that Bertolucci started life as a poet, before writing poetry for the cinema, and was the son of a famous poet and a disciple of the rebel film-maker, Pasolini. But with Fellini dead and the long illness of the ageing Antonioni, is Bertolucci the last surviving maestro of Italian cinema?

"Fellini has been one of the most inspiring events in Italy. In his last days when corruption scandals were erupting throughout the country and this great man was dying alone in his room like a Great Lama, everything fell into true proportion," says Bertolucci.

Sickened by the consumerism and politics of a country that got rich and corrupted quick, and long disillusioned by the Italian legal establishment's decision to destroy the negatives of his acclaimed 1972 film Last Tango In Paris, Bertolucci has had no great desire to return to Italy. He has maintained
a self-imposed exile from his homeland and now says "I used to think it was impossible to film in Italy".

Next year, however, he plans to return to Italian cinema by making a low-budget film in Italy before starting on the third part of his epic six-hour masterpiece, 1900 (Novecento).

"Now that it's nearing the end of the century, I want to do something on events in Italy from 1945 onwards," he says. "Buddhism has definitely taught me something about tolerance, about a middle
way, and I am changing," he says.

He's eager to maintain the identity of European and Italian cinema and to make it survive economically. He points out that the best way to do this and to protect European cinema against the overwhelming volume of US films and the threat of the Gatt agreement on cinema, is to make more good Italian films.
"It's the moment to give a practical answer for European cinema," he adds.

But why choose Seattle and an American child to be the reincarnation of a Tibetan lama? Bertolucci points to several examples of American and European youngsters who in the past have been identified as the reincarnations of great Tibetan teachers.

"We in the West are all like children when it comes to our understanding of Buddhism," he says. "The difference between Buddhism and Christianity is that Christ says 'Love thy neighbour like thyself' but Buddhism teaches 'Love thy neighbour because he is yourself'. People are confused by Little Buddha because it has no conflict, no aggression between male and female as in some of my other
films, like Last Tango In Paris and The Sheltering Sky."

It is clear that Bertolucci's heart is in the film and that he has a great affection for the Tibetan monks with whom he worked, both those who appear in the film and those who were his consultants. "I was worried that I would portray Buddhism incorrectly, or make historic or emotional errors," he says.

He rejects the idea of Little Buddha becoming a cult movie, despite the presence of Keanu Reeves. "There is such a tolerance in Buddhism, it is just the media that makes it a trend," he says.

He quotes the Dalai Lama's reaction to the film after he saw it recently in Paris: "There is a little buddha in all of us, which may be asleep and just needs to be awakened." Bertolucci savours the quote as much as the fact that it was the first time the Dalai Lama had been to a cinema.