by Bernardo Bertolucci
I was twenty-one when I made my first movie, The Grim Reaper. Before talking to the journalists for the first time, I asked them if I could speak French. They looked at me quizzically and asked me why. I answered because cinema itself speaks French. I was madly in love with the Nouvelle Vague. In 1959, after my high-school exams, I spent the summer in Paris, where I saw À bout de souffle. When I made my first feature film two or three years later, I felt I belonged much more to French cinema, which I adored, than to Italian cinema. The heroic times of Rossellini, Visconti and De Sica were gone. Antonioni was making magnificent films, but what was prevailing in Italy at the time was the Commedia all’italiana, which I considered, perhaps exaggerating, an extreme degeneration of Neorealism. With its social themes and its characters, it was a kind of schmaltzy Neorealism. So I had chosen my nationality. Deep inside, I felt I was a French film director. I’d seen the films by Godard and Truffaut, I’d met Agnès Varda and Jacques Demy, and most of all I had discovered the Cahiers, a magazine that was sometimes available in Italy, if you went looking for it in the right places. It still had its yellow cover. Those were times of transition: the film critics who wrote in the Cahiers were becoming filmmakers. I would frequently read texts written by my favorite movie directors. The first real meeting took place in 1964 in Cannes, where I was presenting my second film, Before the Revolution, which had been more or less unanimously disparaged by Italian critics. At the end of the screening, Jean-Luc Godard stood up in front of the audience to say how much he liked the film. Later he approached me, and so did two or three your critics of the Cahiers: Jean Narboni, Jacques Bontemps, maybe Comolli too. I felt adopted by the French journal. As someone who was in awe of French cinema, for me it was an unforgettable experience.
Those who weren’t familiar with 1970s cinema ‘don’t know what the sweetness of living is’. Everything began with the opposition to the cinéma du papa, the cinema of the fathers, and gained momentum with the box office success of Jean-Luc’s and François’ first movies. I was a bit younger than them, but in Cannes, in Pesaro and at other smaller festivals we all got together and felt that we were not only contemporaries, but also members of an ideal group, which included some Canadians, Italians, a few young Americans, and Brazilians such as Glauber Rocha, Gustavo Dahl and Paulo César Saraceni. We shared a passion, a state of grace, and were united by the sense that cinema was the center of the world. What I mean to say is that when I made a movie, this was influenced more by cinema than by life, or I should probably say, it was influenced by life through cinema. At the time I used to say provocatively that I would kill or let myself be killed for one of Godard’s sequence shots. Godard made two or three movies a year, and with his streak of Calvinistic austerity and his capacity to hold the world and what flowed around it in the palm of his hands, he was the director that best represented us. Some of Godard’s films are ‘dated’: fall of 1964, spring of 1965. They are films that float on the surface of the present – there is a continuous exchange between Goadard’s cinema and the present. I remember that Le mépris (Contempt) had been released while we were making Before the Revolution, and it was being shown in Milan but not in Parma where we were shooting. One evening, exhausted after a full day’s work, I took a mad dash to Milan to be swept away by the beauty of Le mépris. We were all marked by that period, myself and the friends from my generation – Glauber Rocha, Gianni Amico, Jim McBride and others. Ours was almost a sect.
[In Bernardo Bertolucci, ‘Je me serais fait tuer pour un plan de Godard’, in Cahiers du Cinéma, April 2001, no. 556; later republished in Bernardo Bertolucci, La mia magnifica ossessione. Scritti, ricordi, interventi (1962-2010), Fabio Francione and Piero Spila (eds.), Garzanti 2010]