Given the recent success of Bernardo Bertolucci’s latest film, “Me and You,” the story of a bourgeois boy who spends a few days locked away with his gorgeous junkie half-sister while hiding from his overbearing mother in the basement of this condominium, it immediately brought to mind Bernardo’s controversial 1979 film of incest, “Luna.” “Luna” was ripped apart by the critics in 1979 and was even sermonized during a Sunday service at my local church, which, of course, made me want to leave immediately and see the film myself.
I originally didn’t see “Luna” in the most ideal way, with my elderly Italian-Catholic father in a downtown Philadelphia theater. Pa also had it in a bit for Bernardo as my dad was a proud fascist who hated Alberto Moravia, who had written the book that Bertolucci’s “The Conformist” was based on and thus despised the film. Regardless, as Dad was sweet about most things and would on my request see just about anything except for science fiction, we went to see the film at the old Ritz Theater. Let’s just say that when Luna was over, pa was not pleased. Translating from Italian, he called the film “sensationalistic garbage.” With all respect to my father, I didn’t agree with him then, but I’m not sure that it needed to be seen again.
Watching “Luna” again recently, I was immediately struck by the beautiful photography of Vittorio Storaro, who that same year had lensed Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.” Storaro had been working with Bertolucci since they collaborated on the aforementioned “Conformist” and for his time,was the finest cinematographer on earth. Much can also be said for Jill Clayburgh, the star of “Luna,” an exceptional actress throughout the 1970s, who a year earlier had shined in the equally controversial Paul Mazursky film, “An Unmarried Woman.” Clayburgh, it has been rumored, relished the opportunity to work with Bertolucci and truly does the most she can with what was given to her and turns in a fine performance. As for Bertolucci; he was on quite the roll, from his first film in 1962, The Grim Reaper, through the 60s and 1970s, and although he had stumbled a bit in his 1976 film, “1900,” he had won every conceivable accolade possible for “Last Tango In Paris,” “Love and Anger,” and “Partners.”
So, what went wrong?
Let’s start with the story and dialog of the film, co-written by Bertolucci, his brother Giuseppe, and his wife Clare Peploe, which has no desire to either fully ground itself to reality or to allow the operatic style drama of the piece to flourish into a surrealistic experience. The story goes like this; Caterina Silveri (Clayburgh) is a wealthy opera singer who is married Douglas Winter (Fred Gwynne), and they have an erratic bratty teenage son named Joe (Matthew Berry). Together they all live happily in their New York townhouse until dad dies suddenly which makes mom whisks Joe and herself off to Italy to grow her career. Once in Italy, Caterina’s career flourishes in grand opera, while Joe becomes more bitchy, chatty, and erratic. He appears to worship his mother in an almost romantic fashion but of course, treats her like crap whenever he can, which in some ways is very Italian Catholic, but these people are supposed to be Americans, so what gives here? This character flaw is the beginning of the many issues that I have with “Luna” as I am not sure that Bernardo ever wants this to be an American family.
Joe follows this behavior by experimenting with hetero sex, gay sex, and of course heroin, a fact that his mother discovers during a somewhat hedonistic birthday party for Joe. Once Caterina discovers that little Joe is on the horse, she breaks out into full maternal mode, abandoning all and even buying a fix for Joe once his dealer Mustafa leaves town. This culminates in one “key” scene when Joe forks his arm in frustration when he runs out of needles for his fix. Even more bitchy and obnoxious, Joe is inconsolable, so mom kisses and masturbates him to climax, until he falls into a peaceful junkie sleep. This scene provides another moment of frustration for me as Caterina’s somewhat maternal but sexual reaction to Joe’s junkie freak-out is as believable as Joe even being able to get an erection while strung out. If given the stylistic context of an opera, these mistakes would be taken in as operatic license but here they just appear confused as to what they want to portray.
At this point, we aren’t sure where Joe’s addiction stands, but Caterina decides to pull Joe into the country to trace back the time when she met Joe’s father. You see, unknown to Joe, Douglas was not his biological father, so Caterina, after another few rest stops that lead to even more moments of sexual uncertainty, leads Joe to Giuseppe (Tomas Milian), a poor, country elementary school teacher, who is loved but still lives in the town where they met. Perhaps what Bernardo is saying here is that Caterina wanted more than just being a mom, so she was off to America where she has always denied who she really loved and has now brought those hidden desires to her son. Sure, there are moments when we see that Joe and Giuseppe have accidentally dressed the same, but that’s all Bernardo is going to give you to draw that conclusion. Once everything is out in the open, the film bizarrely culminates in an outdoor performance of Verdi’s “Un Balla in Maschera.” If you are looking for a connection between Verdi’s three act opera and the story of “Luna,” I will save you some trouble. There isn’t one, and this pseudo operatic tale of tragedy and regret is now over. Not surprisingly, the critics of that time seemed more concerned with the audacity of the film, but they should have been more upset at its lack of focus.
Watch Joe wander and rant through the streets of Italy in “Luna”
The good news is that with 2014’s “Me and You,” Bertolucci has corrected the mistakes of “Luna” by allowing his characters’ dialog to speak for their broken realities and not by forcing them into constant over the top moments of dire melodramatics. It is a film that is grounded in reality but is no less dramatic (or beautiful for that matter) for its choice of narrative style. Lorenzo, the struggling adolescent in “Me and You,” is selfish and callow in his actions at first, but once he understands the causes of his inner turmoil through the ranting of Olivia, his economically trapped roommate and junkie sister, he is free and able to leave the basement with peace. Though there are suggestions of possible intimacy between Lorenzo and Olivia, Bertolucci sidesteps those moments and does not allow for a physical encounter to happen, which is an excellent decision for a film that has chosen the ground for launching its familial drama. So what if it took 35 years for this to happen, I was thrilled that Bernardo was able to pull it off right this time.