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Bernardo Bertolucci & Dod Abashidze
Italy, 1981

There's an emotional commitment to cinephilia, in the way you can discover the work of a director early on, follow it film by film as each new one appears, and then all too often feel let-down at a falling-off in the quality of the work. For me, Wim Wenders is a classic example of this. How could someone who seemed so central to my conception of cinema (Kings of the Road, The American Friend, The State of Things) end up as the director of such banalities as Don't Come Knocking and The Palermo Shooting? No surprise, then, that Wenders hasn't made another fiction film since 2008 - though the heart sinks at the news that next year will see a new one, in 3D and starring James Franco. I can't decide which portion of that news is the worst.

Has the problem been the internationalization of his cinema, his transformation from a German-language filmmaker to a predominantly English-language one? Doesn't successful art cinema need that grounding in the local? Which may explain another sad decline, that of Bernardo Bertolucci, through to the vapid Stealing Beauty and the execrable Dreamers, where a European filmmaker views Tuscany or Paris literally through American eyes. And what of Bertolucci's own cinephilia? From the loving referencing of Before the Revolution, mixing Marx and Red River, to The Dreamers—a film that can't even show its extract from Mouchette in the right ratio!

Yet what a surprise, and a pleasure, it's been in 2013 to finally catch up with what has been for me a missing Bertolucci, 1981's Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man. Coming as it does before Bertolucci's touristic wanderings through China, Morocco, and so forth, it marks the end of one kind of filmmaking, an end which now seems quite regrettable. Directly addressing Italian concerns of the day – the "Years of Lead" period of left-wing terrorism – in its story of a factory director whose son appears to be the victim of a political kidnapping, it's also a striking break from the operatic, sometimes ludicrous excess of 1900 and La Luna, and all the better for it. Coolly controlled, with a wry wit that never fully resolves its ambiguous mysteries, Tragedy is a fascinating pointer to a road-not-taken, where Bertolucci might, to the advantage of his art, have continued chronicling his own nation in a career more like that of Marco Bellocchio.