A small budget meant freedom

Interview: After epic films like `The Last Emperor,' director Bernardo Bertolucci has enjoyed making `Besieged,' `a little, small film.'

June 11, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

"Besieged," a contemporary romantic drama that opens at the Charles today, is full of such forward-thinking flourishes as a peripatetic, hand-held camera, lots of quick, back-and-forth edits and a setting that captures Rome somewhere between its romantic history and its multi-cultural future. But for director Bernardo Bertolucci, his new film was a return of sorts.

"It was like shooting a movie at the beginning, at the origin of cinema," Bertolucci said in a telephone conversation from his home in Rome last week. The director was recovering from recent back surgery to repair a herniated disc. "After `Stealing Beauty,' `Little Buddha,' `The Last Emperor,' I wanted to do a little, small film, like I was doing it a long, long time ago."

Bertolucci, 59, started making films as an assistant to the legendary radical filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini. Before that, Bertolucci, the son of the poet Attilio, made his name as a poet in his own right.

"Besieged," a romantic drama starring Thandie Newton as an African medical student in Rome and David Thewlis as her British landlord, is virtually dialogue-free, instead telling its curious love story through a gestural visual language more akin to early neo-realist films and poetry than the large-scale epics for which Bertolucci is known.

"When you do a film [on] the smallest budget I have had for a long time, below $3 million, and when you have to shoot it in 28 days, the feeling is like getting back the freedom you used to have when you were writing poetry or when you were doing your first movies," Bertolucci said.

"The freedom you have when you have little money is extraordinary. Many young directors complain, `Oh, if only I had one more week or a bit more money.' But because I did `The Last Emperor' and those big movies, I don't have that kind of need anymore. I can float on the liquid surface of low budget with great joy."

Bertolucci isn't surprised by comparisons to his 1972 film, "Last Tango in Paris." Both that movie, which starred Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider as a couple of strangers who embark on a series of sexual encounters in an empty Paris apartment, and "Besieged" concern themselves with a primal relationship between a man and a woman, and both take place largely in one apartment or house. But there the similarities end, according to Bertolucci.

"Movies are products of their times," he explained. "And `Last Tango' was full of despair and rage and transgression. That was all in '72 -- love and death and sex. This one is more about a sensual tension. It's about being attracted by somebody who is very different from you. Which means, first of all, a lot of tolerance. And second, a real attraction to somebody means not only the color of the skin but it means also the culture of somebody different, and the curiosity that is created by the fact that they are different."

For Bertolucci, "Besieged" is something of a personal stand "at a moment where people are killing themselves in a kind of mad nationalism. Nationalism is the opposite of what I'm talking about. Because nationalism is not accepting the difference. This film is about not only accepting but loving the difference."

Will Bertolucci, who won the Academy Award in 1987 for the lush historical epic "The Last Emperor," stay on the small canvas for his next picture? Or will he return to the larger scale of his best-known films?

"I haven't decided," he said. "I have no idea what I will do next. I'm reading a lot, thinking and doing exercises in the water."

Screenings around town

"Freeda Slave: Mask of a Diva," a one-man show starring Dale Guy Madison and written by Darryl LeMont Wharton ("Detention"), will be shown tonight and tomorrow at the 14-Karat Cabaret in the Maryland Art Place, 208 W. Saratoga St. Saturday's show will be followed by a reception, with drag performers and a DJ. The play will be shown again on June 18 and 19. Shows begin at 9 p.m. Admission is $8 ("drag queens admitted free"). You must be 21 or older, with an I.D., to be admitted. For more information, call 410-752-7191.

"Hyderabad Blues," by Atlanta filmmaker Nagesh Kukunoor, will have a one-time only screening at the Charles Theater on Saturday. The movie chronicles the journey to India of a young Indian-American man who discovers that the 12 years he has spent in the U.S. have profoundly altered his belief system. The film, which is in English with some Hindi and Telugu dialogue, is being presented by Navrang Entertainment. The screening begins at 3 p.m. Admission is $7.

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