Interview. On the occasion of a special rescreening of ‘Last Tango in Paris,’ we spoke with the film critic and historian Adriano Apra about Bertolucci classic: ‘Bernardo is not only capable of casting stars, but also of creating stars.’

Mythology of a Movie: Critic Adriano Apra’ discusses ‘Last Tango in Paris’

Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris returns to the screen for a special occasion on May 21-23 in a remastered version. Whoever watched it when it was released in 1972 will remember its magnificent light, barely overshadowed by cigarette smoke. It was the year of Ubalda, All Naked and Warm, of Deep Throat, of the Canterbury Tales, of The Cagna and many political such films as the Mattei Case by Rosi or Slap the Monster on Page One by Bellocchio.

This return to the cinema arouses the same sensations as its original release: the film still has a mythological aura. And perhaps there’s also a desire to watch another film by Bernardo Bertolucci after Io e Te (“Me and You”) of 2012. We discussed it with the film critic and historian Adriano Aprà, a friend of the director, founder of the magazine Cinema e film, which provoked heated debates with other authors during that time.

What kind of memories does this film trigger after so much time from its first projection?

Last tango in Paris has always been a very famous film. First of all, for its quality and then for Marlon Brando, who incredibly accepted to be directed by a director who was still quite young. In addition, Bertolucci was able to create his personal and original character. This was a remarkable feat if we go back to those times. In this perspective, Bertolucci has always been a great director, which is not an easy task because many actors have strong personalities and claim to direct their film. Indeed, Marlon Brando was also a director, in the sense that he made films with minor directors in order to be able to master the scene. In this case, Bernardo was the master of the scene.

Then there’s the scandal, the ban and everything that happened around this film … By the way, I remember Alessandro Blasetti, one of the “old directors” who had not been scandalized by the well-known “butter scene,” and he found it a remarkable thing, authentic. However, the scandal certainly contributed to the film’s celebrity. I believe the film would have gone very well in cinemas anyway, but the scandal and the waiting for the scandal as often happens in censored films has increased its potential. The misfortune of being banned, of being deprived of the right to vote that at the time seemed a defeat, was in fact a victory for Bertolucci. It has contributed to his fame. From that moment on, he became an international star.

Even before that he had already worked with famous actors.

Trintignant is not Marlon Brando. Here we are talking about Hollywood. In addition, next to Marlon Brando was Maria Schneider, a beginner who had an unhappy career because after that and the film The Passenger by Antonioni, it seems to me that she has not done anything relevant anymore.

Another scandal was Schneider’s statements about the trauma she suffered during the making of the movie.

You could say that she has also been ruined by Antonioni. A young girl with such resounding success at her debut was burned down, but not because of the directors. However, on the occasion of Maria Schneider’s death, I remember a very heartfelt statement by Bertolucci. I had the opportunity to watch the film before the ban, the same thing happened with Salò (by Pasolini): I watched it before the ban in a private screening. But Salò is another dimension of outrage: I understand that Salò is a truly shocking film, but for me the censorial problem of Last Tango does not exist.

Then there is another element: Bertolucci launched Gato Barbieri, an Argentinean who was a friend of Gianni Amico. Gato was part of the group of new music that Gianni Amico followed very closely and I think through him Bernardo knew Gato, and entrusted to him, who was almost unknown, with the soundtrack of the film and he launched him internationally and became a star. Bernardo is not only capable of casting stars, but also of creating stars. Then I don’t remember how many films Storaro (photography director) had already made, but he too became a star and I don’t think he was at the time of Last Tango in Paris. This is a film that has transformed the career of Bertolucci, transformed the career of Gato and Storaro, who launched for a short time the career of an actress that Antonioni lost.

I admired the skills he had at the time. Then he changed a lot in a very few years. I met him as a boy, I followed the career of what for me was a brother, until he made Partner and even Spider’s Strategy. Then he had a twitch that I would never have expected, at the time of The Conformist. I was looking for “strange things” like Before the Revolution and it seemed to me that Bertolucci himself was becoming a conformist. Then during the years I changed my mind and personally believe that The Conformist is one of his most beautiful films, superior to Last Tango in Paris in some aspects, which was also a film that I liked at the time.

In the era in which the film came out there was a phenomenon of sexy films in Italy: the loosening of the mesh of censorship as a weapon of distraction of political movements, parallel to the heavier introduction of drugs.

It is possible, and this is a sociological observation. Apart from the fact that we know that censorship does not censor ugly films; on the contrary, censors are repressed people who feel touched when they feel the quality of art. At that time, I never went into a soft porn movie theater. Not because of prejudice, rather when I was to New York I went to the porn cinemas, knowing what I was going to see, not just any porn movie, but because of specific authors like Damiano. All this has nothing to do with Bernardo’s film. From this point of view his film is supersoft.

More than anything else this is a romantic film.

There is much of the Bataille’ idea of love and death. He did not want to make a film to tickle the audience.

I wanted to ask you about the genesis of the film, because you frequented him, so we could understand that rapid transformation.

Yes, but not so much at that time when he was half-unknown. At that time, I spent less time with him. I think it’s a film born as a “petit film,” a romantic story, a love story, basically intimate and that along the way with the arrival of Marlon Brand became an important production. If you took Marlon Brando out and put a minor actor in the film, you’d realize that it’s almost a homemade film. It is the type of cinema that is not a colossal one. Quite the contrary. It became colossal because it had an icon like Marlon Brando.

In the nouvelle vague of all countries, even in independent cinema, there is always the search for the new home, the empty house, the transport of furniture.

The apartments in Godard, especially in the ‘60s, are always apartments in the process of being completed. They are temporary. There is no “home.” This idea in Bertolucci arrives much later. Home also means family, father, mother and possibly children. There are elements of a nouvelle vague, there is Jean-Pierre Léaud as a young filmmaker of the nouvelle vague.

Thus, he refers to the nouvelle vague cinema and Hollywood as a synthesis of cinema that he likes.

We were lucky enough to be 20 years old when we rediscovered Hollywood cinema in Italy and the nouvelle vague, which in Italy did not convince the official critics, except for À bout de souffle and The 400 Blows, just as they had ignored the great classics of American cinema. Thanks to the French, our generation has rediscovered classic Hollywood cinema — Hitchcock, Hawks, Ford — and we understood the nouvelle vague right away. As soon as the films were ready, we went to Paris to see them in their original version because once in Italy they were crippled versions, such as The Contempt by Godard.

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