Italy / USA, 1979
Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 27 July 2011
Source 20th Century Fox 35mm Print
On Thursday, July 28th at 8 PM, Not Coming to a Theater Near You will be hosting a screening of Luna at 92Y Tribeca. For tickets and further information about the screening, please visit 92Y Tribeca’s website.
A drizzle of honey, a tendril of hair, bleeding rays of sunlight, and the brassy shimmer of the Mediterranean: the sensuous, undifferentiated impressions of an infant introduce Bernardo Bertolucci’s Luna, appropriately, as a film of alloyed emotions and confused passions. As mother and father frolic beatifically on an ethereal Italian veranda, the baby son looks on yearningly, jealously, and the grandmother’s delicate piano-playing clashes with bouncy pop clamor of a rock ‘n’ roll record. It is a primal, almost cosmogonic moment, bathed in golden light, anticipating a film about the interconnectedness and discord of family – especially of mother and son – with the overdetermined image of a screaming baby entangled in a white, umbilical thread of yarn.
Such overdetermined symbols of motherhood abound in Bertolucci’s film, continuing with the round, fecund moon that hangs over the film’s title, an emblem of both motherhood and insanity. But Bertolucci is shrewd enough to know that such symbols are insufficient, even misleading: his film subverts Freud just as much as it riffs on him, an upended Totem and Taboo much like The Conformist’s uncanny take on Civilization and Its Discontents and Last Tango in Paris’s tortured, decadent reading of Beyond the Pleasure Principle.
From the start, Bertolucci seems bent on translating the oedipal complex into a dirty joke, with ersatz father-figures (Verdi, Billy Martin) and warped maternal instincts. The film’s present-day finds fifteen-year-old Joe begging to join his mother, the opera singer Caterina Silveri, on her tour of Italy. But the job of tour manager belongs to her husband – whom Joe doesn’t yet know is not his real father – until he collapses dead behind the wheel of his car while driving down their tree-lined Brooklyn Heights street. Banal, bourgeois father-son competition suddenly turns fatal, requiring the son to play man-of-the-family. From gray-green Brooklyn, Caterina and Joe escape to the hot-orange piazze of Rome, where the teenager runs free with Italian skater kids, smokes pot, and loses his virginity in a cinema while a dubbed Marilyn Monroe breathes out “Kiss” in Henry Hathaway’s Niagara.
But these cheap thrills soon give way to higher art and more powerful passions: with a hallucinatory vision of the moon, Joe is drawn back to his mother and to the opera. As Caterina triumphs as Leonora in the duel scene from Verdi’s Il trovatore – a different kind of love triangle – Joe takes in her performance from the stalls to the pit to the stage—a masterful sequence in which Bertolucci captures both the euphoria of opera and the machinery of the theater. This is Caterina’s world, one of glamour and art and grand acclaim, one that keeps her completely ignorant of Joe’s confused, desperate universe of sex and apathy and, most of all, heroin.
Just as in its alchemical, jangling opening sequence, Bertolucci’s film tries to fuse these disparate worlds: Italy, with its opera and gelato and soccer, and America, with its rock music and heroin and baseball (the film’s primary totem, you might say, is an Italian frisbee). And despite their disparate universes, when Caterina discovers Joe’s addiction, she collides desperately with him, merging with him in a literal and metaphoric incest that threatens to blur the distinctions between them. Bertolucci constructs a monstrously uncomfortable set of interlocking physical obsessions: the inextricable, unresolvable link between the bodies of mother and child, and the psychological and corporeal twinning of lovers.
For Joe, Caterina is the mother that has both discarded and tried to repossess him; for Caterina, Joe is a monster birthed from her own body, one that she recklessly wants to reassimilate. In one scene, she demands to see the track-marks on his arm, and he recoils, striking her. Later, in one of the film’s most stomach-churning scenes, she is horrified to see her withdrawing-junkie son stab his brachial artery with a dinner-fork, but mollifies him by sucking at the wound and then jerking him off as he nuzzles at her breast.
Like his characters, Bertolucci is no stranger for going a bit too far, having been widely attacked for Last Tango in Paris earlier in the decade. With the release of that film, the Italian government tried him for blasphemy and denied him the right to vote for five years. Similarly, Luna almost universally appalled audiences, critics, and censors alike, earning pans following its screening at the New York Film Festival and a truncated release in Canada. To call, as critics often do, the intense, paradoxical, and often infuriating performances of its principal actors “brave” is to put it mildly, and yet their careers likely suffered as a result of the film: Jill Clayburgh, a sensation following her appearance in Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman, never maintained the profile of contemporaries like Sally Field and Jane Fonda, and young Matthew Barry subsequently took five years off from acting, until resurfacing in an episode Family Ties (he’s now a fairly busy casting director and still occasionally acts).
But Luna, decidedly shocking, lurid, and unsavory as it can be, is not so easily dismissed as “monstrous, cheap, vulgar rubbish,” as a horrified Andrei Tarkovsky once termed it. Unlike Louis Malle’s Murmur of the Heart, a film that alights on similar themes, incest is not so much a rare, but acceptable fulcrum in the no-less-linear sexual maturation of a young man, but a kind of inflammatory response, an abscess at the site of mother-child separation. This perverse manifestation for each character’s need for love and care also drives them in a literal search for home – the idyllic beachhouse of the film’s prologue – and a reunion of the family. And in this light, Luna could actually be read as quite a conservative film, one about the importance and stability of the father-mother-child triumvirate.
Perhaps this resolution, to which the combined energies of cinema and opera seem to force the film, is not so comforting after all, with its quasi-Freudian neatness which Bertolucci renders with flamboyant, almost derisive stylization. Indeed, it’s this aspect of the film that seems to roil critics: the use of Vittorio Storaro’s gorgeously elaborate visual sense to develop so taboo a theme as incest reminds one of the overbaked soufflé that Joe, in a gallant moment, presents to his mother. But Storaro, a crucial collaborator in all of Bertolucci’s extensions of The Conformist’s baroque, aesthetic play, is perhaps more careful and measured than his director, lending a sort of tangibility to Bertolucci’s often oblique, contradictory emotional ranges with a diurnal, hot/cold vacillation of colors and uncannily precise mise-en-scene.
Storaro’s research into the theory and psychoanalytic symbolism of color, a project he would continue in Coppola’s One from the Heart, creates an odd counterpoint to Bertolucci’s wild, reckless inconsistencies in tone, and indeed the film is not above the occasional crass juxtaposition of tones and temperaments. Defiantly refusing any ponderous, self-serious moralism, Bertolucci is keen to add dashes of incongruous humor, like Caterina’s run-in with a communist who seems to carry a photo of Castro around with him or the scene in which Joe tries to elicit an ice cream from a local gelato vendor, dances to The Bee Gees’ “Night Fever,” while being menaced by a leering Franco Citti.1 Ultimately, while Luna hints at a resolution for its characters that restores the normative balance of the family structure, it also seems to content to keep its vivid beauty and its dark, perverse passions hopelessly entangled.