Mommy issues

Matthew Barry and Jill Clayburgh in La Luna (dir. Bernardo Bertolucci, 1979).

In an effort to deepen my knowledge of the films of Bernardo Bertolucci I checked out his debut feature La Commare Secca (1962) earlier this week along with La Luna (1979), a film that has a reputation for being something of a flop.  Watching it I could see why, and yet I liked La Luna quite a bit.  As is the case even with Bertolucci’s masterpieces (The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris), it’s already too much from the start, and then it goes further: the Oedipal saga of a teenage boy and his recently widowed mother (Jill Clayburgh), an American opera singer preparing to appear in an Italian production of Un Ballo in Maschera, the film sports incest, drug addiction, Verdi…and the Bee Gees.  And yet Bertolucci’s investment in this material never seems less than pure; he takes all of it seriously, and I, for one, was willing to accept it on his terms. 

The film opens with Caterina Silveri (Clayburgh) preparing to leave New York for Rome when her husband (played by Fred Gwynne, of all people) dies unexpectedly, under circumstances that are later revealed to be more complicated than they appear.  Still reeling from the shock of her loss, she insists that her son Joe (Matthew Barry) accompany her on the trip, whereupon the two proceed to work through their grief and sexual frustration in every form of pathology Bertolucci can think up: she loses her voice/believes she can’t sing anymore; he becomes a junkie (though apparently he was already using drugs before, or something); she seeks physical comfort from him but he finds her embarrassing and wants to chase after Italian girls, etc.  It’s a variation on Bertolucci’s favorite themes—psychoanalysis, sexual transgression, and emotional conflict, set against an overripe backdrop.  (Subsequent variations include The Sheltering Sky, Stealing Beauty, and The Dreamers.)           

For all of its lurid subject matter, La Luna is basically a comedy; it ends with the tensions between mother and son being resolved peacefully, and it never really goes all the way with the incest plot.  (For a truly great comedy about incest that does go all the way, see Louis Malle’s Murmur of the Heart.)  If the film had opted for a tragic ending that it hadn’t earned, it would really be de trop.  But as it is the film has a gentle hopefulness about it that struck me as honest.  Bertolucci’s films are always a little embarrassing because they are so naked emotionally—but they are almost never dishonest.  The same can be said of Jill Clayburgh’s performance, which doesn’t always work but to which she commits admirably.  In the equally difficult role of Joe newcomer Matthew Barry is impressively open and relaxed.  Bertolucci makes much of his straddling the line between childhood and adulthood; Barry swaggers through the film like a stud, but he has the crooked jack-o'-lantern smile of a kid.  There’s a great scene when, immediately after getting a fix, he wanders into a café and is offered a beer—but what he really wants is an ice cream cone.  And then, in the middle of the floor, he performs a disco routine to “Night Fever” on the jukebox.  It’s a lovely moment in a film that, as it prepares to be released on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber, deserves to be better known and appreciated.          

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