At Long Last 'Luna', or, a Boy's Worst Friend Is His Mother
Long missing in action, Bertolucci's alleged "incest" movie is gloriously restored.
LunaDirector: Bernardo Bertolucci
Cast: Jill Clayburgh, Matthew Barry
Distributor: Kino Lorber
Release date: 2016-12-06
Long, melodramatic and brazenly symbolic, La Luna (its onscreen title) is a meditation on art, love, loneliness and addiction. Scene by scene, it's a seductive and dazzling essay in cinema.
Caterina Silveri is played by Jill Clayburgh, giving a poised and unpredictable performance within unbalanced situations. Caterina, whose last name reflects a quality of the moon, is a famous opera diva who spends most of the story in Italy with her thoroughly American 15-year-old son Joe (novice Matthew Barry). Joe's earliest memory of her, mirroring Bernardo Bertolucci's earliest memory of his own mother (according to his bonus interview), is of the moon behind his mother's face. Moonstruck, indeed.
That's the climax of the lyrical opening scene, a Freudian-Oedipal minefield of elements: sexy mother, naked toddler, silhouetted father (Tomas Milian), goddess-grandmother (Alida Valli), mythological symbolism of entwining yarn, Vittorio Storaro's endlessly gliding and roaming camera, and the diaphanous moon. That encapsulates the whole film. Every apparently digressive scene coheres into a dream-state of restlessness, isolation and yearning shaped by art and eros. In other words, it describes Bertolucci's entire output.
Honestly, it's best to know nothing at all going into this film. An early crisis precipitates traveling from New York to Italy, and it involves a scene of beating on a car window that quotes Bertolucci's 1970 film The Conformist. Indeed, he quotes himself throughout this film, such as a visit to the farm of his 1976 epic 1900. For that matter, he quotes his future films too, such as The Dreamers (2003). As Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson declare on the Blu-ray's now-bloviating, now-gushing, now-insightful critical commentary track, you can find references to everything from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and The Exorcist (1974) to Visconti's Conversation Piece (1974) and the films of Pasolini.
That's an extra dimension for film buffs, but surely anyone could see how beautifully constructed and sensually detailed is every scene, and how sometimes unstated and sometimes brash psychology is melded with expressionist melodrama. Art is life transformed, as an opera singer understands. The colorful, larger than life, transcendent constructions, which are the product of behind-the-scenes mechanical work, are elevated reality, also called surreality. The artifice and melodrama aren't false but translated, although this reminds me of a remark by Lynn Redgrave's character in the obscure British comedy Getting It Right (1989), when she states that operas are life-sized but "most people are living too small".
This movie isn't a musical yet it's very musical in structure and content. There are opera segments, a twist, a female folk trio, and a beautiful and disorienting reference to Saturday Night Fever (1977). The colors, visual composition and camera moves function as motifs and counterpoints that turn the film into a visual symphony on top of the literal theatricality of everything.
Notice the self-consciousness of the scene when the camera follows behind Caterina in Parma, and we see the interior of the automobile the camera is in. Is this breaking the fourth wall, or has she asked a taxi driver -- and thus our point of view -- to follow behind her? Notice, too, how what seems to be soundtrack music in the opening scene overlaps with a pop record, until it's revealed that the classical music is being played on a piano. Thus, the war between classical and pop music -- or between "art" and "commerce", and implicitly Europe and Hollywood, and also age and youth -- is acknowledged with a wink.
You might think anyone could get swept up in this ravishing creativity, but perhaps some viewers couldn't get past two surprisingly frank scenes of near-incest that express the characters' frustrations and their highly dysfunctional personalities and relationship. These are two egocentric, addictive personalities, and the whole movie is some kind of passionately operatic therapy for the healing of a family by art and artifice, which they've been living by already. If it helps, the ending is a redemptive epiphany of recuperated characters that rewards the long road of angst and can bring a musical thrill to the spine.
Luna has effectively been missing for decades. This fact, along with some dismissive reviews, encouraged the notion of the picture as a failure when, in fact, it made a lot of money and had its defenders. A game analysis was provided by British fantasy writer Angela Carter, herself a sexual provocateuse who took the film seriously enough to pay attention to its details and find fault with Bertolucci's lack of subversion in its teases and image of motherhood, although she justly praises Clayburgh.
We must admit that, while his films consistently touch on themes of sexual transgression, they tend to pull back into traditional sentiments that mitigate his reputation as a provocateur. Perhaps he doesn't welcome such a reputation as he simply explores his own obsessions. He has stated that his movies of this era are the product of his professional psycho-analysis, which would make them internal statements more than socially directed ones.
You could choose to trace him, for example, in the theme of submerged homoeroticism from Last Tango in Paris (1972) to a couple of implications in Luna to his Oscar-winning The Last Emperor (1987). Again, critics who examine this element tend to be disappointed by the pulling back from the brink of transgression. You can't please everyone, and sometimes not anyone.
Clayburgh's opera performances are dubbed by famous recordings, and it works. Also in the picture are Fred Gwynne (for those who always wanted to see Herman Munster in an art movie), Franco Citti (a Pasolini actor), Veronica Lazar, Peter Eyre, Renato Salvatori and an acrobatic cameo by Roberto Benigni. Additional extras on the DVD include an interview with Barry and a commentary where he reminisces on the film. The optional English subtitles are necessary if you want to translate the brief Italian dialogues and songs.