< Return to Adherents.com's Guide to Movies
< Return to Famous Catholics
< Return to Famous Freudians
The Religious Affiliation of Director
Bernardo Bertolucci was raised as a Catholic (although his family does not appear to have been particularly devout), but was not a practicing churchgoer as an adult.
Bertolucci is well known to fans of Buddhist films (and spiritual/religious films in general) as the director of the extremely pro-Buddhist film Little Buddha. Viewers of the movie may legitimately question whether Bertolucci is himself is a Buddhist may be unsettled. (Although, from a Buddhist perspective, this may not even be the right question.) In a 1993 interview with Ruth Sullivan of The Guardian, Bertolucci said, "It's not that I have become a Buddhist, but I wanted to make a simple film that children would understand." Yet during the interview, Bertolucci was twisting Tibetan Buddhist coral beads that he wore around his neck. Tonetti, in her book Bernardo Bertolucci: The Cinema of Ambiguity, makes it clear that Bertolucci was deeply involved in the study of Buddhism prior to and during the filming of Little Buddha, made the movie from a Buddhist perspective, and even attached a little statue of the Buddha to his movie camera for good luck. Bertolucci's interest in and study of Buddhism began in 1963, thirty years before the release of Little Buddha. In 1983, Bertolucci had an initiation to the ancient Tibetan Buddhist saint Padmasambhava.
It seems that Freud has been a guru far more important than the Buddha for Bertolucci. Tonetti indicates that throughout his film career Bertolucci has held strong Freudian beliefs, and that the religion of Freudianism has been strongly manifest in Bertolucci's films. (See: Bernardo Bertolucci: The Cinema of Ambiguity, pages 41, 56, 67, 101-102, 130, 151, 184, 185-186.) Tonetti refers to Bertolucci's "Freudian outlook on life in general" (page xi). A number of quotes from Bertolucci himself show that he was indeed an avid reader of Freud, and that he intentionally incorporated Freudian tenets into his worldview as well as his filmmaking.
While growing up, Bertolucci had close friends who were peasant Communists, and the Communism he encountered as a child was an important inspiration in the films he later made, such as 1900 (source: Tonetti, page 3).
From: Jeremy Isaacs, "Face to Face: Bernardo Bertolucci" (interview), conducted for the BBC (British Broadcasting Channel), September 1989, on "Industry Central: The Motion Picture & Television Industry Professional's First Stop" website (http://industrycentral.net/director_interviews/BB02.HTM; viewed 1 July 2005):
INT: Which of your movies is the most important to you?
Bilge Ebiri, "Bernardo Bertolucci" on "Senses of Cinema" website (http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/directors/04/bertolucci.html; viewed 1 July 2005):
BERNARDO: You know I used to think in the past that the last one is the most important: in general is the one that you feel more connected to, or tied to. But now that I have done quite a lot, and now that I have been a director such a long time, I think - okay I will be completely sincere, and maybe this is something shameful to say- the movies I like the best is the successful ones! And then, even if for me being successful sometimes means to pay a great price. Because very often after a big success I have a terrible period of anguish; then also it comes to me as kind of psychosomatic symptoms after a success. But this is the conflict you know. Obviously you know, my origin is Catholic, and you have to pay for what you earn. And so you started talking about the Last Tango, which was this quite amazing success. I was used in some way, because I could handle it better; because with Last Tango in Paris it was the first time it was really maybe too much. Because the movie was incredibly seen in the world and everywhere...
With their exotic locales and high production values, The Last Emperor, The Sheltering Sky (1990), and Little Buddha (1993) can collectively be considered an Eastern Trilogy, with all three films aiming for a wide international market...
From: Terrance Gillum, "Hollywood heavyweight directors star in Buddhism documentary" (press release), 14 October 2004, on The Buddhist Channel website (http://www.buddhistchannel.tv/index.php?id=00000000012,00000000013,0,0,1,0; viewed 1 July 2005):
If The Sheltering Sky is a cry of hopelessness, then what to make of Little Buddha, which was marketed as a sweet-natured family-friendly epic about Buddhism? Like several of Bertolucci's earlier works, it tells two stories -- one a modern day tale about Jesse, a Seattle boy who might be the incarnation of a major Tibetan lama, and the other a colourful storybook recreation of the life of Prince Siddhartha (Keanu Reeves), the founder of Buddhism, who rebels against his father's authority, walks away from his empire, and becomes an ascetic, before achieving Enlightenment and establishing a religion.
Although Bertolucci is not a Buddhist, it's easy to see why the story of Siddhartha appealed to him at this stage in his life. For at the heart of Siddhartha's journey is a dark existentialist realisation that would have done Camus proud: sheltered by his father from the agony of the world, the Prince sneaks away and discovers poverty, disease, and finally death. Bertolucci's representation of Siddhartha's visually violent introduction to mortality is one of the most powerful moments in all of the director's films, all the more so when one sees it in relation to the hopelessness expressed in The Sheltering Sky. Again, Bertolucci depicts a character whose entire belief system is destroyed, and who has to negate, and then rebuild, his identity -- a very strong theme running through all three films in the Eastern Trilogy.
Little Buddha ends on an optimistic note, but it's a curious one to find coming from this director. The nuclear family is kept intact, a religious reincarnation effected, with another one perhaps on the horizon. (One of the final shots implies that Jesse's mom might be pregnant with another lama's reincarnation.) In other words, life goes on -- perhaps the only time in Bertolucci's body of work that this is seen as a remotely satisfying conclusion, and an intriguing finale to an epic trilogy of alienated characters seeking psychological oblivion.
Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese, Bernardo Bertolucci, and the Dalai Lama star in the Refuge the John Halpern documentary that will compete in the inaugural Century City Film Festival, benefiting the Minorities In Broadcasting Training Program charity...
From: Ruth Sullivan, "Cinema's Tolerant Titan" in The Guardian, 17 December 1993 (http://www.tibet.ca/en/wtnarchive/1993/12/22-2_3.html; viewed 25 August 2005):
The Century City Film Festival will host the West Coast premiere screening of the John Halpern documentary Refuge, the true story about Buddhism today, as told by Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, the Dalai Lama, Bernardo Bertolucci and others.
Film makers Oliver Stone, (Alexander, Nixon, JFK), Martin Scorsese (The Aviator, Gangs of New York, Casino), Italian Director Bernardo Bertolucci (The Dreamers, Stealing Beauty, Little Buddha) and spiritual leaders such as the Dalai Lama discuss controversial issues concerning Buddhism in the West. "Refuge offers insight into Tibetan culture and Buddhism beyond Icons and Misconceptions," says Director, John Halpern.
Refuge includes controversial subjects like: the distinction between Buddhism and Tibetan culture, Exploitation in the West in the name of Buddhism, Spiritual voyeurism and Can Buddhism survive without Tibet? Refuge blends the humor and charm of its story tellers with the beauty of India, Tibet, Nepal and the United States.
Refuge is a refreshing and revitalizing experience of Buddhism and the spiritual developments in the West since the fall of Tibet in 1959. It is testimony to the vigor of spiritual pursuit and peace in times of religious turbulence and fear.
Burly communist Bernardo Bertolucci has become surprisingly serene since making
his latest film, Little Buddha, in Tibet.
From: Claretta Micheletti Tonetti, Bernardo Bertolucci: The Cinema of Ambiguity, Twayne Publishers: New York, NY (1995), page x:
Sitting in the lounge of an elegant Milan hotel, Italian film-maker Bernardo Bertolucci twists a single strand of Tibetan coral beads around his neck and smiles. "It's not that I have become a Buddhist, but I wanted to make a simple film that children would understand," says the burly 52-year-old communist and poet from Parma.
His latest film, Little Buddha, which has just opened in Italy, tells the story of a Tibetan lama's search for the reincarnation of his lama teacher. The film swings from the monasteries and stupas (Buddhist shrines) of the Tibetan monks in Bhutan to the state-of-the-art house of an American yuppie family in Seattle as his search leads him to Jesse, a young American boy.
Little Buddha is the last of three Bertolucci films shot in exotic surroundings. In The Last Emperor (1987) the camera drooled over the sumptuous architectural detail and ceremonial ritual of Peking's Forbidden City as it unfolded the story of China's last dynasty, while in The Sheltering Sky (1990) the colours and moods of rolling North African desert scorch the eye.
It is not difficult to remember that Bertolucci started life as a poet, before writing poetry for the cinema, and was the son of a famous poet and a disciple of the rebel film-maker, Pasolini. But with Fellini dead and the long illness of the ageing Antonioni, is Bertolucci the last surviving maestro of Italian cinema?
"Fellini has been one of the most inspiring events in Italy. In his last days when corruption scandals were erupting throughout the country and this great man was dying alone in his room like a Great Lama, everything fell into true proportion," says Bertolucci.
Sickened by the consumerism and politics of a country that got rich and corrupted quick, and long disillusioned by the Italian legal establishment's decision to destroy the negatives of his acclaimed 1972 film Last Tango In Paris, Bertolucci has had no great desire to return to Italy. He has maintained a self-imposed exile from his homeland and now says "I used to think it was impossible to film in Italy".
Next year, however, he plans to return to Italian cinema by making a low-budget film in Italy before starting on the third part of his epic six-hour masterpiece, 1900 (Novecento).
"Now that it's nearing the end of the century, I want to do something on events in Italy from 1945 onwards," he says. "Buddhism has definitely taught me something about tolerance, about a middle way, and I am changing," he says.
He's eager to maintain the identity of European and Italian cinema and to make it survive economically. He points out that the best way to do this and to protect European cinema against the overwhelming volume of US films and the threat of the Gatt agreement on cinema, is to make more good Italian films. "It's the moment to give a practical answer for European cinema," he adds.
But why choose Seattle and an American child to be the reincarnation of a Tibetan lama? Bertolucci points to several examples of American and European youngsters who in the past have been identified as the reincarnations of great Tibetan teachers.
"We in the West are all like children when it comes to our understanding of Buddhism," he says. "The difference between Buddhism and Christianity is that Christ says 'Love thy neighbour like thyself' but Buddhism teaches 'Love thy neighbour because he is yourself'. People are confused by Little Buddha because it has no conflict, no aggression between male and female as in some of my other films, like Last Tango In Paris and The Sheltering Sky."
It is clear that Bertolucci's heart is in the film and that he has a great affection for the Tibetan monks with whom he worked, both those who appear in the film and those who were his consultants. "I was worried that I would portray Buddhism incorrectly, or make historic or emotional errors," he says.
He rejects the idea of Little Buddha becoming a cult movie, despite the presence of Keanu Reeves. "There is such a tolerance in Buddhism, it is just the media that makes it a trend," he says.
He quotes the Dalai Lama's reaction to the film after he saw it recently in Paris: "There is a little buddha in all of us, which may be asleep and just needs to be awakened." Bertolucci savours the quote as much as the fact that it was the first time the Dalai Lama had been to a cinema.
Little Buddha opens in the UK in April 1994. Bertolucci's 1969 film, The Conformist, based on the novel by Alberto Moravia, is re-released in February.
Bertolucci has defined his love of cinema and his profession as connected with the Freudian theory of scoptophilia, or the pleasure of looking, derived from the primal scene, in which a child observes or imagines his or her parents making love. "The reason why I make movies," Bertolucci revals, "is a voyeuristic impulse. The voyeur is condemned to reeexperience the terror of the child looking at the parents who are making love" (Ungari, 195).
Tonetti, page 1:
Bertolucci is also fond of saying that in Italian camera means bedroom. When he searches for the mystery of life with the camera, he therefore explores an erotic dimension in which we see several primal scenes, some ambiguous and complicated, as in the seduction scene between Anna and Giulia spied by Marcello in The Conformist (1970), others blatant, as when Caterina and her son Joe make love in Luna (1979). In the same context, the frequency of the dancing scenes in Bertolucci's work relates to the theory of the primal scene if dancing is understood as mimesis of love making, expressed in a sublimated and publicly accepted way.
In character with his Freudian outlook on life in general, Bertolucci's representation of love is conflictual. Oedipal situations often develop into murder of the father figure, as happens in The Conformist when Marcello has Professor Quadri murdered and in Last Tango in Paris (1972) when Jeanne shoots and kills her much older over when he dons her father's military hat...
Ambivalence also pervades the notion of sexual identity. Androgyny surfaces in the relationship between Olmo and Alfredo in 1900, in the homosexuality of the double in Partner, in Kit's disguise as a man in The Sheltering Sky (1990), in Eastern Jewel's demeanor in The Last Emperor, in the infatuation of Anna for Giulia in The Conformist.
Fragments of ancient philosophy, existentialism, and mythological references traverse the work of the director from Parma [i.e., Bertolucci], who has also based some of his films on literary works, his interest extending from Alberto Moravia to Fyodor Dostoyevsky, from Paul Bowles to Jorges Louis Borges.
Bernardo Bertolucci was born in Parma, in Northern Italy, on 16 March 1941. His mother is Ninetta Giovanardi, and his father, Attilio Bertolucci, is a well-known poet and cinema critic. Bernardo grew up in a big house n the hills not too far from the city of Parma but at the same tine far enough away to give to the bright and creative child the experience of the countryside, which would permeate his films with a nostalgic and poetic feeling. Two very different cultural environments influenced the future director: one was the intellectual, educated home atmosphere, the other was the more primitive and vital influence of the world of the farmers. Attilio Bertolucci talked to his son about literature and art history, gave him poems to read, and took him to the movies.
Like many film directors, Bertolucci was an avid movie fan from early childhood. (Tonetti, pages 1-7).
Tonetti, page 3:
Though his childhood friends, especially the girls, Bertolucci also came in contact with an earthy and traditional Communism, which inspired his future work (see Chapter 8 on 1900): "They were farmer girls like Carla, whose eyes were black. They were Communist girls. To be Communist for them did not mean to repeat slogans decided by some bureaucrat. The girls were closer to their mothers, and the mothers were the real heart of peasant Communism" (Ungari, 14).
About Bertolucci's film Prima della rivoluzione (Before the Revolution) (1964), from: Tonetti, pages 27-28:
When we first see him, Fabrizio [the protagonist] is walking and then running through the streets of the city while reciting some verses from "La religione del mio tempo" (The religion of my time) by Pier Paolo Pasolini:
Tonetti, pages 45-47:
And yet, Church, I came to you.
I was holding Pascal and The Songs
of the Greek People tightly in my hand.
The Resistance swept away
with new dreams the dream of the regions
federated in Christ and its sweetly burning
nightingale . . .
Woe to him who doesn't know
this Christian faith is bourgeois,
in every privilege, every rendering,
every servitude; that sin is only a crime against offended
daily certitude, is hated because of fear and sterility. (Poems, 64, 68, 70)
Pasolini's verses, adopted by Fabrizio, reflect the disillusionment of seeing the Catholic church as the establishment rather than an instrument of revolution against the oppressors. The church, the real church, should be that of the poor. As ALberto Moravia clearly puts it, it was at the time of Pasolini's arrival in Rome that Pasolini discovered "the subproletariat as an alternative and revolutionary society, analagous to proto-Christian societies that carried an unconscious message of humility and poverty to counterpoise the hedonistic and nihilstic bourgeois message." Pasolini's Communism, continues Moravia, "will not be a Marxist Communism but a populist and romantic one, animated by love for the motherland, philological nostalgia, and anthropological reflection." Pasolini's hope to see salvation in the generous and primitive proto-Christian spirit of the Roman subproletariat was shattered when, after the economic prosperity of the 1960s, the new consumerism transformed his subproletarians into new bourgeoisie.
In 1962, however, the time in which Before the Revolution is situated, prosperity had not metamorphosed the lower social stratum, and the river Parma, as Fabrizio informs us, still separated the rich from the poor. Son of the wealthy bourgeoisie, Fabrizio views his social peers with a critical attitude that borders on disdain. Their "hedonistic and nihilstic" lifestyle gives them a smug and comfortable look while they wait outside a church.
But this is not the church in which Fabrizio, with Pasolini's words, had put his hope. This is the church of the people who live on the right side of town. It is the church of Clelia, his fiancee, and it is in keeping with his thoughts at the time that Fabrizio decides to see her for the last time. "We had been engaged forever, predestined for each other," says Fabrizio. "Clelia is the city, th epart of the city that I have refused. Clelia is a sweetness of living that I do not want to accept . . . For a last act of desperate love I searched the churches looking for Clelia. I found her and I wanted to look at her for the last time."
Another intriguing project that was never brought to the screen was called I porci (The pigs). As Bertolucci explains, it was inspired by a story by Anna Banti and was indeed an engaging proposal: "Two young Roman patricians, brother and sister, go to Mantua to escape the Barbarians. The latter have already invaded the countryside and the two young people are forced to mix with them, but react differently. The boy slowly forgets Latin and learns the dialect of the Barbarians, while the girl becomes a priestess dedicated to the previous Roman Catholic cult. Naturally nobody was interested in financing a film in which Latin and a strange invented language was spoken" (Ungari, 45).
About Bertolucci's film 1900 (which was released in 1976), from: Tonetti, pages 152-153:
The view of the two families on economics, domesticity, sexuality, and marriage could not be more polarized. Even religion peeks in, in a rather naive way. In the peasant family, Olmo's future freedom of thought is asserted against the idea of his possible entrance into the seminary ("Dalco Olmo, a peasant; do you hear? No priests in this family"). In the wealthy family, religion is brought in malevolently and childishly by Regina, Alfredo's cousin: "If you do not eat the frogs, you will go to hell." Alfredo's scatological rejoinder to Regina is met by another smack from his father.
Tonetti, pages 184-185:
Luna [i.e., Bertolucci's film La Luna (1979)] is mainly about primal scenes, but another, less evident Freudian theory meanders through the film. Bertolucci makes reference to it when he talks about the technique of filming.
About Bertolucci's film La Tragedia di un uomo ridicolo (Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man) (1981), from: Tonetti, pages 193-194:
In directing Luna I realized that a dolly forward always expresses the motion of the child getting close to the obscure object of desire. A dolly backward expresses the opposite desire, the need not to be too close, the need to get away from it. At the beginning of Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud talks about a child who plays with an object tied to a string. The game consists in hiding the object, simulating its loss, and then in pulling the string to make it reappear. This game, dominated by the compulsion to repeat, expresses the meaning of the camera's movements, which I sensed very intensely in Luna, where they repeat the running of the child toward and away from his mother. (Ungari, 197)
The content of the film also presents a repetitive pattern of getting close and leaving, another illustration of the actions of the child described by Sigmund Freud.
...the reunion between the father and son shows no overwhelming expression of joy. Primo stares, incredulous, and Giovanni kisses him lightly on the cheek. The focus on the bearded faces and one kiss (not two, as is customary in Italy) recalls the religious iconography of Judas's betrayal of Jesus. Yet all this is fragmentary evidence that does not allow the viewer to arrive at an explanation. Bertolucci himself talks about the uncertainy of the ending, the preparation of different epilogues, and his final choice of the dancing scene not for its logic but for its cinematic intensity... Another possible ending was to present the events as Primo's nightmare... An ambiguous end, indeed, in which Primo, by saying "I prefer not to know," makes himself blind, like Oedipus, to the truth. His running toward the house to get champagne to celebrate is the modern equivalent of the final words of Sophocles' Oedipus: "I conclude that all is well."
Chapter 13 (pages 246-255) in Tonetti's book about Bertolucci's films is dedicated to discussing Bertolucci's film Little Buddha. Some notes are blow. From: Tonetti, page 257:
Bernardo Bertolucci describes himself as a "humble servant of reality" (Buck, 434); years ago, after completing the film Partner, he revealed to Joseph Gelmis his main motivation as a director: "To know. I want to know" (Gelmis, 120). Bertolucci's "servitude" to reality and his generic yet intense curiosity form the basis for the consistency of artistic expression evident in the development of his work...
About Bertolucci's involvement in Buddhism and preparation for making his film Little Buddha, from: Tonetti, page 246:
The youthful search for identity (The Grim Reaper), the exploration of political ideology (Before the Revolution), the discovery of despair (The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris), the psychological colossi (The Last Emperor, The Sheltering Sky), and the oedipal contemporary dramas (Luna, Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man) are not disconnected items of a catalogue. On the contrary; with only one exception--Little Buddha--a distinctive style is recognizable. Bertolucci's signature is unmistakable, its letters always the same building blocks presented from different angles. Reality unfolds in a poetic and ambiguous series of primal scenes from Parma to Tangier, from Rome to Beijing.
Bernardo Bertolucci's interest in exotic stories and locations did not end with The Last Emperor and The Sheltering Sky. In fact, when asked at the time of the release of The Sheltering Sky about his next challenge, he answered: "They say that I will make a film on Buddha and the word itself fills me with joy and makes me smile. I do not know anything [yet] . . . but it is the adventure that I desire to face more than any other" (Porro, 29).
Tonetti, page 248:
Bertolucci became interested in Buddhism in 1963, at the time of Before the Revolution, when writer Elsa Morante gave him a copy of Life of Milarepa. His interest continued to grow. "In 1983, at Brentwood [California]," he revealed to T. Jefferson Kline, "I had an initation to Padma Sembava [i.e., Padmasambhava, or Padma-Sambhava], who is the saint who introduced Buddhism to Tibet (Milarepa came after him), and I met Tibetan Lamas. Then there were some readings, for example, Borges' book on Buddhism, or even a poem by Borges on reincarnation, which says, "The fish lives in the ocean, and the man in Agrigento remembers he was once that fish,' and it goes on like that."
Just as during the preparation of The Last Emperor Bertolucci was reading Paul Bowles and thinking about The Sheltering Sky, during the filming of The Sheltering Sky he was thinking about Buddha and reading texts on Buddhism. His interest was so evident that actor John Malkovich gave the director a little statue of Buddha, which Bertolucci attached to his camera for good luck and out of respect for the philosopher whose ideas are followed by so many people.
The Plot [of Bertolucci's film Little Buddha]
More about Bertolucci's film, Little Buddha from: Tonetti, page 249-251:
Lama Norbu (Ying Ruocheng), Buddhist teacher and holy man, leaves his native Bhutan to go to Seattle, where, he has been informed, there lives a child who could be the reincarnation of Lama Dorge (another Buddhist teacher who died a few years before). The child, Jesse Conrad (Alex Wiesendanger), who was born exactly when Lama Dorge died, was indicated as the posible reincarnation to the other Lamas by a dream. Jesse's parents, Lisa Conrad (Bridget Fonda) and Dean Conrad (Chris Isaak), are hospitable toward the delegation of Buddhist priests (even if Dean is rather skeptical) and allow Lama Norbu to teach their son about Buddhism. The latter tells Jesse the story of Siddhartha (Keanu Reeves).
The handsome prince Siddhartha, whom his mother Maya (Kanika Panday) conceived in a dream with a sacred elephant, lives a splendid life inside his father's palace; the king has in fact ordained that his son must never be confronted with the sight of sickness, pain, or death. But one day the prince insists; he wants to leave the palace and see the outside world. The king agrees, but he also orders the guards to hide any person who could show his son the existence of a sorrowful reality.
During his tour of the city, Siddhartha sees two old men. The sight is shocking to him, and he follows them to a poor section of the city; here the prince not only sees old age but also sickness and death. After the sad experience, Siddhartha leaves the palace and his wealth to initiate a period of fasting and meditation through which he will eventually become the Buddha, the Enlightened One. Jesse is fascinated by the story and, during a visit to the Dharma Center, he recognizes a bowl that belonged to Lama Dorje.
In the meantime, Lama Norbu is told of two other possible reincarnations of Lama Dorje: one is a boy, Raju (Raju Lal), who lives in Kathmandu, and the other is a girl from South Nepal called Gita (Greishma Makar Singh). Anxious to find an answer to his questions about life's meaning after the death of his close business associate, Dean decides to take Jesse to Nepal. Here the child meets Gita and Raju; with them he has a vision in which the Buddha resists the temptations schemed by Mara the evil one (Anupam Shyam). The oracle speaks to Lama Norbu: all three children are reincarnations of Lama Dorje; after this, the holy man dies serenely in the temple. His ashes are given to Jesse, Gita, and Raju, who scatter them, respectively, on the water off Seattle, from the branches of a giant tree, and to the winds of the Himalayas.
Bertolucci had received an offer to finance the film on Buddha from some producers in Hong Kong, but the cooperation was not possible because of "artistic incompatibility," as Christophe D'Yvoire tells us. The idea of a film on Buddha nonetheless "continued . . . its course... It was not a matter of a simple historic biography, as it was originally proposed to him [Bertolucci]. Buddha could become the starting point of a completely original film."
Tonetti, page 252-255:
After seeing Little Buddha, some viewers were perplexed. Howe could the director who loves to be ambiguous and to challenge his audience with philosohpical and psychological intricacies make such a film? In terms of substance, it seems nothing more than a simple illustration of a simple story based on a sophisticated metaphysical outlook, which in the film is also reduced to elementary ideas, too elementary even for the "children of all ages" (Dialogo, 176) whom the director wanted to reach.
Bertolucci, who created some almost incomprehensible scenes in Partner (1968), The Spider's Strategem (1970), and The Conformist (1970) is in Little Buddha almost blunt. He conveys meanings with the help of sensational special effects, especially in the scenes in which Siddhartha, the Buddha, is tempted by Mara, the evil one. Everything is more than clear: Siddhartha is good and Mara is bad. Sitting in the lotus position under a giant tree, the Buddha withstands temptations while Mara, his screaming head emerging from an infernal lake, unleashes storms, tidal waves, and armies whose arrows, aimed at the good one, become, in flight, lotus blossoms...
[page 251] In Little Buddha, in fact, even if the script contains maxims and philosophical teachings, the intellectual approach of parts of the dialogue to feelings and situations... bows to a disarming simplicity.
It is clear from these early images [in Little Buddha] that Bertolucci is already preparing the stage for a challenge to the Western idea of time divided into past, present, and future in favor of an Eastern conception of eternal return and repetition based on the belief in reincarnation. "I think that we can see reincarnation in our society between grandfathers and grandchildren," says Bertolucci. "The grandchildren are the reincarnation of the grandfathers. The Italians know it so well that they call the grandfather by the name of the grandfathers. So my attitude is very simply the following: I believe very much in reincarnation" (Dialogo, 177). Later, in the same interview, Bertolucci qualifies his statement: "I believe in reincarnation but not in the Tibetan way. I believe in the reincarnation of grandfathers and grandchildren, or books are a reincarnation. I think that we reincarnate during our lives; when we change we reincarnate ourselves in some way" (Dialogo, 178).
The idea of of reincarnation and eternal return is fundamental in Eastern philosophy. As Carl Jung says: "In India there seems to be nothing that had not been lived before thousand of times. The single individual of today lived innumerable times in the past. Even the greatest Indian personality, Buddha, was preceded by about twenty other Buddhas and he will not be the last." In the same chapter Jung continues: "It is possible that India is the real world and the white man lives in a mad house abstractions . . . Life in India did not concentrate in the head. The entire body is still alive" (Jung, 46).
Bertolucci indeed seems to have espoused Jung's theories when he presents the American culture as cold and spiritually deprived. In Seattle, the mechanization of life is pervasive and skyscrapers look like prisons. Even the apartment of the professionally successful American couple is somewhat dismal. Located in the "in" part of town, replete with glass and geometrical patterns, it is supposed to be posh; in reality it calls forth a feeling of emptiness, sadness, and coldness. In the American scenes, distance and separation are emphasized: Lisa wtches her son play through a metal fence; husband and wife look at the lights of their city not from an open balcony but across what seems to be an enormous barrier of glass (their windows); and Jesse presents himself to his parents and the Lamas, at the time of the latter's first visit, with his face covered by a mask.
By contrast, the scenes played out in the East are emphatically sensuous and colorful. The celebration of the life of Siddhartha is a triumph of sounds and colors. Red, saffron, and gold prevail in majestic scenes reminiscent of the spectacular images of The Last Emperor. Bertolucci is emphatic in this double portrait, which on one side shows industrial wealth camouflaging an impoverished reality and on the other a "primitive" culture in which reality, even when it shows poverty and sickness, is profuse with feeling and sensuality.
...Bertolucci affirms: "When Buddha talks about his millions of previous lives [you know] that he has been a girl, and a tree, a dolphin, and a monkey, so it is more than being male and female. They [the Buddhists] think that everyone and everything has got a mind. Trees have mind, animals have minds" (Dialogo, 180).
While everybody in the East can be anything or everything, in the West people are even alienated from themselves, Bertolucci seems to tell us. The bridge between the two cultures, in Little Buddha, is constructed by Jesse's family and by the astounding easiness with which they accept the idea of reincarnation, which should not only be esoteric to two professional contemporary Americans but also quite upsetting, since it directly involves their son... [The mother] listens politely [to Lama Dorje],and the same night even reads to Jesse from a book on the life of Siddhartha. As for her husband, "the cynical, material engineer"... as Bertolucci calls him, his resistance to the un-Western theories, modest to begin with, is obliterated when a friend dies in tragic circumstances. Won over by Buddhism, he leaves his wife, his job, and his country to take his son to Nepal.
...When Jesse scatters on Puget Sound part of the ashes of Lama Norbu, he repeats his words: "No eye, no ear, no you, no death, no fear." A Hollywood happy ending indeed, as Bertolucci recognizes. In an interview James Greenberg asks Bertolucci if, considering the struggle of sons to liberate themselves from father figures present in his films, "freedom from the hold of his own [Bertolucci's] father" is "a question of spiritual liberation," the director answers: "I thought so much about this problem. I won't go for a big word like 'liberation.' But when I think this is the first time I have a kind of happy ending in one of my films, it is the realization of something that has been coming back obsessively. I always thought a happy ending was Hollywood nonsense, but here it is a very natural thing."
...Lavish in his praise [for Little Buddha] is Richard Corliss when he writes, "After 30 years of making passionately skeptical movies, Bertolucci has made a film of the most sophisticated simplicity. His triumph is to make you see the Buddhist world through his eyes. It shines like innocense reincarnated."
Webpage created 1 July 2005. Last modified 25 August 2005.
We are always striving to increase the accuracy and usefulness of our website. We are happy to hear from you. Please submit questions, suggestions, comments, corrections, etc. to: firstname.lastname@example.org.