You began to express yourself by means of your father’s art. Before turning to film making you were a poet.

I started writing poems to imitate my father and I stopped when I began making movies to take my distance from him. I wrote poems right up to the day I started to make my first professional film. After the first professional shot of my life I ceased writing poetry altogether. When you write a line of poetry you describe metaphorically what you can show with a camera directly. This is what Pasolini meant when he talked about cinema being the language of reality, or “of the real”. To represent a stable you don’t use words, you show it as it is. To show a white rose you go to the bottom of the garden. I think my shift from poetry to cinema was, for me, above all, a return to the emotion I felt when I verified my father’s statements in the real world: when I went to look for the last white rose that was my mother. Only in the cinema would it be possible to continue the excitement of those discoveries. Words were not enough for me and, I guess they did not belong to me, anyway.


Before becoming a film maker, when you were still writing poems, you shot some amateur movies. You were sixteen at the time.

They were like an initiation rite. I was still trying to express myself with words that belonged to my father but I was quite happy not to venture outside their universe. Then I made a 16mm film. There is something quite satisfying about making your first 16mm movie at the age of sixteen… but the momenti of truth came much later when I finally had a producer to deal with.


The Cable Car and Death Of A Pig were the two films you shot as an adolescent. Did they have stories at all?

They are both films about memory. The Cable Car starred three children: my brother Giuseppe, who was nine, and two little girl cousins of ours. After lunch while the adults were taking a nap, the three children take off to look for a cable that Giuseppe remembers having seen sometime before, when he was five. They search and search but never find it because they are always looking up to the sky among the chestnut branches and the other trees. As they look they are also digging through their memories and recalling past events. Many years later I was to understand that the story of this regression in time was influenced by the recurring theme in John Huston’s movies of the search for something that vanishes or becomes unattainable just when you think it is within your grasp. The children don’t realise that the cable car is still there but it’s under their feet because it collapsed and all that can barely be seen now is the iron rope blending in with the grass and the mud. Death of a Pig was shot the following year. It is the story of another boy, son of a peasant family, who goes off to school but on the way he hides himself in a ditch and watches the pork butchers arrive to kill a pig. Seen through the child’s eyes they become like the hired killers in a standard thriller movie. Slowly the subjective point of view becomes objective and we forget that it is a child who is witnessing it all, and his “look” becomes that of the camera.


The killing of the pig was to take on a great significance in Novecento (1900).

This was a remake of the earlier 16mm film. We see the children try to block their ears so as not to hear the pig squealing. I think it was better the first time round.


It’s a very cruel sequence.

I met Julian Beck and Judith Malina again, eleven years after we had worked together on the episode of Amore e rabbia (Love and Anger). Judith told me she had suffered very much watching the animals being butchered in my movie Novecento (1900). I tried to explain to her that it is impossible to talk about peasant cultures without taking in the pagan ritual of killing a pig, with all the blood dripping to the ground. The feverish eyes of the children watch the blood mingle on the ground with the mud and the snow, while the first scraps of pork fat are thrown into the steaming cauldron. You just cannot ignore that cruelty and savagery… Then I discovered that Judith Malina was a vegetarian and so I gave up trying to persuade her.


Do you have a clear idea of what the cinema represented for you at the time!

The films I loved above all were action films full of marines and Japanese soldiers, or cowboys and Indians. I was enraptured by those films and tried to play them out again with my friends in Baccanelli, five kilometres from Parma. Today Baccanelli has been sucked in by the whirlpool of the city, but at that time it seemed so far away. I was always the director when we played those games.

There was a kind of cylinder mounted on four wheels which was normally used to transport fertilizers to the fields. I turned that into our submarine into which we would pile, risking premature death by asphyxia, every time. I was very keen to play the part of the sad hero who always died at the end. My friend didn’t go to the cinema as often as I did. They were sons of workers or peasant or “pendolari”. So I had to tell them the stories of the films I had seen in order to reconstruct them. We each took a part with the names of the characters in the movies. I was fond of Stagecoach by John Ford and naturally chose the part of Ringo for myself. I identified totally with John Wayne between the ages of seven and ten. I tried to imitate him in his walk and in his half smile. I think the relationship a child can have with the movies is exemplary, it’s what we should base our adult responses on. When the child-like desire for identification loses its grip on us, there must be something wrong.


There are many obstacles in the way of the regressive aspect of the cinema.

Cinema is always regressive. I am mortified by a film that does not fill me with a regressive pleasure, it’s as if something is missing. It’s as if I was not allowed to let go, or to attempt to go beyond the pleasure principle. This censorship of pleasure has become far too common, I’m afraid, and the wonderful thing about the cinema is that it can go beyond the normal parameters of pleasure.


Where did you play your re-enactments?

In the countryside around our house.


Was the power structure established through them important to you?

Of course. Behind the house there were cherry trees. It was a little orchard which was the domain of my grandfather who was the real “father figure” because he was the undisputed boss of that territory. He placed a great responsibility on me and every time I led my friends to that enchanted place they would start to misbehave, leaving our games aside for the pleasure of climbing the trees and eating the fruit. I was doubly embarrassed as leader of our cinematic surrogate and keeper of the orchard. As the latter I was filled with remorse because I would allow my team to eat the fruit, and as the former I was frustrated because I didn’t have a crew anymore.


But if we continue the analogy of a film, to say “don’t touch the fruit!” would have been recording a real situation and your film becomes a documentary on the orchard; allowing your friends to eat them was equal to “eating the peach of fiction” and therefore creating a situation of your making.

It was more like apples and apples look beautiful, but above all they are delicious to eat. It’s an irrepressible ambivalence. Olmo and Alfredo in their first stage as children in Novecento (1900) are the incarnation of this ambivalence.


Did the girls take part in your games?

I was afraid of them at that age, and because of that I tended to mythologize them. They were peasant girls, like Carla who had eyes like coals, and they were Communist girl. Party slogans didn’t amount to much with them, they were much closer to the “grass roots”, as it were. To be communists for them didn’t mean to repeat ad nauseam key phrases issued by some central bureaucracy… they were closer to their mothers who were the real core of rural communism. They were hard to handle not only for me but for my friends as well. Maybe it was like that only when I was around. Perhaps in the summer, when it got dark and I went home for supper after having chased bats with our tall sticks, the boys and girls would meet secretly, without me.

None of us, however, would miss for the world the arrival of the bull at the stud farm. They tried to keep it from us and always held it in awkward places behind the haystacks. But we would climb inside the hay and open up little spy holes to see through. The girls were as excited and as curious as the boys. The action was over in a flash. Even if the bull still wanted to continue, at that point the peasants would throw a bucket of ice cold water over him.


[Bertolucci on Bertolucci, edited by Enzo Ungari and Donald Ranvaud, Plexus 1987]