LOS ANGELES — After a 20-year exile, Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci uses his new film, "Beseiged," as an opportunity to return home.
He left his native land after the Italian government condemned his controversial movie "Last Tango in Paris" (1973) as pornographic, and he was stripped of his right to vote for five years.
Now, after years of filming epics around the world and winning nine Oscars for 1987's "The Last Emperor," he says that his own country interests him again, only this time as a player on a larger stage.
"Italy is like a third character in my film," he says of "Beseiged," a two-character study of an African woman and an Englishman adrift in Rome. "It is very much like a story between two differents who are attracted by each other." The country itself plays an exotic, seductive role that creates a sort of mnage trois between the three, he says.
The first half-hour contains virtually no dialogue (although it is far from silent). The film travels from Africa to Rome, and unfolds with a rich palette of sights and sounds that are like a post-modern version of the old piano accompaniment for silent films. This intimate scale represents a full circle for the man long regarded as one of Italy's finest directors.
"It was like starting again," Bertolucci says. He adds that after the experience of working abroad, and on big Hollywood-style epics, for so many years, he is relieved to be back where he began. "It was like creating the conditions where I could look for cinema like at its origins," he says. "That's why I wanted it to be silent at the beginning."
A passionately political artist from the earliest of his films, Bertolucci has long described his own love of Italy as being a sort of seduction. But he now feels equally passionate about the need to transcend national politics.
"We have to go against nationalism," he says. "You can see what nationalism is causing not far from my country. This is the excesses of nationalism."
He also has been criticized for forsaking an "Italian cinema" in favor of a more international perspective. But he responds with characteristic passion to that criticism. "Being international is not a menace," he says. "Italian cinema can be very provincial."
At the same time, Bertolucci also passionately defends the need for a lively local cinema in countries around the world. "Hollywood has colonized the market all over the world," he says. He regards this as dangerous not just for the local film culture, but for the overall filmmaking industry - Hollywood in particular.
"Hollywood has always absorbed influences in order to balance the industrial attitude that it has," he says. But now, he points out, in most countries Hollywood films make up 90 percent of what plays at the local cinema.
"Historically, all these [locally made] films used to be an injection of different cultures" that sustained and nurtured the larger entertainment machine, he says. Now, "there are less and less movies coming from everywhere because there are too many Hollywood films. This can turn against the industry because it's like cutting a vital pipe of good things that Hollywood needs to survive."
Joan Chen, the Chinese actress who played the favored wife of China's last emperor in Bertolucci's "The Last Emperor," and now a director herself, calls Bertolucci one "of our great film poets." She says he has the ability to see the larger picture of humanity portrayed through the lives of people who interest him.
Does this move to a more poetic perspective mean that Bertolucci, long known for the overt left-wing politics in his films, has forsaken political struggle? "Politics, like cinema, is very connected to a reality," he says. "My movies for a while were very political because politics was the blood in all of our veins."
Now, in the post-cold-war era, he says, "that's not true. There are no more the two political blocs." As a result, he says, the poetry of people rather than politics has become his priority.
1962 The Grim Reaper
1964 After the Revolution
1968 Once upon a Time in the West
1970 The Spider's Strategm
1973 Last Tango in Paris
1979 La Luna
1981 The Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man
1987 The Last Emperor
1990 The Sheltering Sky
1993 Little Buddha
1996 Stealing Beauty