Bernardo Bertolucci is very well known for his sweeping epics such as 1900 and The Last Emperor and for pushing into the mainstream the limits of serious erotic cinema. When his Last Tango in Paris premiered in 1972 it became an event. Pauline Kael, film critic for The New Yorker called it “a landmark in movie history”. The film became a box office success, earned favorable reviews and was nominated for many respectable awards. Bertolucci had turned erotic cinema into a respectable art form.
La Luna was Bertolucci’s attempt to replicate that success while pushing the limits of erotic exploration even further but with very different results. Whereas Last Tango explored the common universal themes of sexual expression, repression and intimacy, Luna focused on the less universal subject of incest. The film was ridiculed almost unanimously by the same folks who previously had supported his bravery with Last Tango and the film sunk into obscurity ever since.
The first half of La Luna is a real pleasure to watch. Jill Clayburgh is Caterina, a New York opera diva who moves to Italy with her teenage son Joe, played by Mathew Barry, after the loss of her husband. Bertolucci working with the amazing cinematographer Vittorio Storaro fills the screen with haunting images. The opening sequence consisting of a flashback with Caterina riding a bike while her baby stares at her lovingly against a moonlit sky is not only poetic but also quickly establishes the powerful bond between mother and son, which will become the focus of the story. The early scenes in Italy are filled with humor and a warm, earthy palette that supports visually the wonderment of exploration of adolescence. Bertolucci intercuts Caterina at work in an opera house with elegant gliding camera moves and Verdi on the soundtrack. So far, so good. But once you get past the glitz and the imagery we get into the real story and La Luna falls apart. Joe falls in with the wrong crowd, becomes addicted to heroin, is seduced in an ice-cream parlor by an older man, while waltzing to the tune of the BeeGees’ song Night Fever and becomes a wreck in the throes of heroin withdrawal. Bertolucci goes as far as including a very ugly scene in which Joe, realizing he is out of syringes desperately tries to shoot up the drug by stabing himself with a fork. In an even more desperate attempt to wean him off the drug, Caterina masturbates Joe into climax (try to justify that to a medical doctor), which leads to a full exploration of her incestuous attraction to him.
This mix of melodramatic spectacle, schocking behavior, Verdian grand opera and Hollywood-style flamboyance results in a highly uneven, unfocused, manic, and bizarre film of muddled intentions. In La Luna, Bertolucci includes characters that break into spontaneous and bizare behaviors similar to the characters on Last Tango in Paris, but he also adds other elements of Hollywood films like Rebel Without a Cause and even Saturday Night Fever. But all of these elements not only not blend well but they literally clash, collide and collapse especially in the last section of the film when Bertolucci attempts to justify his out of control storyline with the most preposterous Oedipal explanation.
The truth is that Bertolucci seems to be pushing the limits with no other purpose than to see how far he can go. There is no attempt to explain why Joe has become addicted to drugs, except when he whines during his heroin withdrawal “I just don’t care about anything!” But the truth is that he cares about a lot of things. We see his genuine interest towards his mother’s singing, exploring sex with his new Italian girlfriend, and caring enough to say no to marijuana when offered to him. If anything, Bertolucci is using the drama of drug addiction as a catalyst for the story of incest. Once again there is no hint on why such a relationship develops. Bertolucci introduces some ridiculous scenarios, as in Caterina scouting heroin from her son's drug dealer, a hysterical scene in which Caterina releases her anxiety in a Jane Fonda-like workout routine with her apparent lesbian friend, and that infamous but also ridiculous mother-son masturbation scene. And then, there is that Oedipal conclusion concerning Joe’s real father written and developed so poorly that it ultimately sinks any credibility left in the film. In short, Bertolucci’s story lacks logic and and credibility due a script weak on character development that ultimately serves as feeble excuse for the gratuitous , laughable and not so erotic set pieces.
La Luna also contains a cameo by a very young Roberto Benigni as a goofy curtain-hanger. When the film was originally released, it was a major box office and critical disappointment but it has gained a cult following and an almost mythic reputation of being a seriously misunderstood film. I disagree and see it more as a badly conceived, but highly entertaining guilty pleasure, produced by a generally brilliant filmmaker, who needed time off from reality.
Is unfortunate that it all works out this way because lost in this mess is a very interesting Jill Clayburg performance which earned her a Golden Globe Best Actress nomination in 1980. Clayburgh plays her character as a not so intelligent or articulate woman that can only express herself either sexually or through her singing. She is a very theatrical person totally in control on stage but not as effective off stage. Her Caterina is both seductive and tragic. Ironically seductive and tragic is also the best way to describe this movie.
This film is available on a multi-region DVD format and can be purchased at: http://www.ioffer.com/i/15264968