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Orbits: Once Upon A Time In Italy

Author(s): Bernardo Bertolucci

Source: Film Comment, Vol. 25, No. 4 (JULY-AUGUST 1989), pp. 77-78
Published by: Film Society of Lincoln Center
Stable URL:
Accessed: 05-08-2016 10:49 UTC

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Film Comment

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Once Upon A Time
In Italy

by Bernardo Bertolucci

After my first two movies, The Grim

It Reaper After was my 1967. andand
Reaper first BeforeBefore
I two was movies,the
very the Revolution
Revolution frustrated. The Grim,
I'd been inactive for three or four years. I
felt Italian cinema was entering a kind of
degrading phase: the values of neo-real-
ism had been transformed into Comme-
dia d'Italiana, Italian-style comedy.
It was as if neo-realism had lost its
great urge and direct line to life. It was
just a description of Italy during what
was called, in the early Sixties, the eco-
nomic boom. It felt like cinema of the
petite bourgeoisie with values I couldn't
share. I felt estranged, like a foreigner in
my own country.
So I waited anxiously for every new
Sergio Leone movie. He was the only
one, apart from the four big maestri-
Rossellini, Antonioni, Visconti, De Sica
-doing something different. I went to
the afternoon opening of The Good , the
Bad and the Ugly. The day after, he
called me: 'This is Sergio. I would like
to meet you." And so I went to see him.
"You were at the first show of The
Good , the Bad and the Ugly" he said.
"Why do you like my movies?" And I
said, "I like the way you shoot the
horses' asses. Directors always shoot the
horses in profile, where you have this
wonderful line. Very few directors shoot
the back, which is less rhetorical and
romantic. One is John Ford. The other
is you." He was very happy, and said,
"Okay, you should write my next movie."
And so [Italian horror film director]
Dario Argento, who was then a movie
critic, and I went to Leone's house
where he told us the beginning of a
story, a very crude idea that later Director Sergio Leone, once upon a time.
became Once Upon a Time in the West .


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cinema. He was a mixture of incredible rything to Sergio.
Leone withwith
told the the
passion pieces of
of a storyteller of stories,
a storyteller sophistication and... vulgarity is the Coppola, Scorsese, De Palma all
who is also a child. He looked at the wrong word. He grabbed directly from rediscovered American cinema through
American western with the purity of a life. Sometimes his movies looked like European cinema. There was such a
child, that same quality of dreaming. Visconti- he had a very pop elegance. love and reverence in European cinema
Dario and I started to write, and Leone Sometimes he looked for the prosaic but for American cinema in the Sixties. And
would intervene. We worked for three or vulgar moments of the characters. Like the echo went back to the States.
four months and wrote a treatment of only the primitives of cinema, Sergio If you ask why, it's because just in the
three or four hundred pages- very, very believed completely in the story he was look between two of Sergio's characters
long. But then I left to film an episode telling. Like the audience believed. you feel the tension and weight of an
with The Living Theater, and I let And yet the western was in agony in epic. His movies are good directly at the
someone else take over the screenplay. surface level. There are other layers but
Many things remained from my treat- I think Sergio was stronger as a pure
ment in Once Upon a Time in the West : And I said, "Ilike the talent of mise-en-scène- the relation-
the beginning and the family massacre. ship between the camera, the bodies of
There was no dialogue. I wrote it think- way you shoot the the people in front of it, and the land-
ing about The Searchers . I thought it horses ' asses. " He scape-than as a philosopher.
would be great if Sergio shot this quota- After he finished Once Upon a Time
tion without knowing it was a quotation. said, "Okay, you in America he said, 'They cut the mem-
When I saw the movie, these quotations ory of my film." He was talking a bit like
had been done without being perverted should write my a supercritic, almost a philosopher of
by a cinephiles knowledge- reinventing
next movie." the cinema. That was the weaker part
the same thing- an innocent quotation. of him.
Then I teased him and he became furi- He was generous with ideas about
ous, saying, "I knew it was!" "No," I America, more or less dead. And if it the camera and emotions and his
said, "You didn't." Very nice, very funny. revived, in some way it's thanks to Ser- extraordinary tricks. That's why I went
For many years Sergio was unique in gio Leone. Sergio took the American to see The Good , the Bad and the Ugly
Italian cinema. Maybe I should say the western and he gave something back to on the first day at 3 p.m. And that's why
European cinema. Maybe I should say Hollywood. The new westerns owe eve- I had to work with him. ®

Leone directs Claudia Cardinale in Once Upon a Time in the West.


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