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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
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)
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
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
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.
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
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.