Sex in a Bertolucci film is very rarely romantic, and even less often portrayed with the sentiment that is commonplace in American Dramas. More often than not, Bertolucci colors sex in his films politically, abstracting it from the physical human experience of reality. In his film Partner (1968) sex is a means of stabilizing a psychological imbalance that is a direct result of the Italian Student demonstrations of that year. In The Conformist (1970), sex is what corrupts the youth, providing a blueprint for the violence and order of Fascism. Meanwhile, sex is means of rebuilding and destroying the human spirit in Last Tango In Paris (1972). Finally, in 1900 (1976), sex is first the exploratory right of passage for youth but quickly metamorphoses into a sadistic act equitable to the violence attributed with Fascist oppression.
Of all these instances throughout Bernardo Bertolucci’s career, it is the role of Fascism in his depiction of human sexuality that is the most unsettling and often overlooked by American audiences. In The Conformist, the Fascism of Marcello’s (Jean-Louis Trintignant) sexuality is explained by a homosexual encounter he experienced as a boy in one of the film’s flashbacks. Perhaps a homosexual himself, Marcello relegates sex and any lustful tendencies to his subconscious. Preferring to act only when he is in complete control. To be tempted or aroused by those outside of his “possession”(meaning to whom he is not married), is the equivalent of an act of violence and must not be tolerated. Marcello’s sexual anxieties are precisely why Fascism is a necessity for him. Fascism’s strict rules and controlling nature allow him to control himself and his surroundings.
The Fascistic sexuality of 1900 is much more absurdist in it’s execution. The primary Fascist characters in Bertolucci’s most epic film are husband and wife Attila (Donald Sutherland) and Regina (Laura Betti). Attila is the foreman of the Berlinghieri estate, overseeing the plantation and its peasant workers, while Regina is cousin to the Padrone Alfredo (Robert De Niro). Attila is employed by Alfredo’s father, and begins working while Alfredo is a member of the Italian Army during WWI. However, Alfredo never stands up to Attila, allowing him to run the plantation on his own.
Early on, it is revealed that Attila is a Fascist, and that he intends to bring the methods of Fascism to the plantation. But Fascism does not bring order to Attila as it did Marcello. In fact, it would seem the execution of the most Fascistic notions bring a chaotic sexual exhilaration to Attila. It is as if for Attila to feel fulfilled, he must commit the most heinous acts of violence. There is a scene in which Attila and Regina share an orgasm. This orgasm is shared as they both play a hand in the murder of a small boy. Attila screams in ecstasy, spinning the boy as Regina cheers him on. As the child’s head collides with various objects in the room and shatters, the sexual elation elevates, reaching its climax when there is very little left of the boy’s head.
This treatment of Fascism is heavily rooted in the era in which 1900 was produced. Sensationalist violence was popular in the seventies, and coloring the villains with such cartoonish proportions to their psyches only dehumanizes them. This prevents the audience from associating with the Fascists, but it also deprives Attila and Regina of the depth of character that is so innate in Marcello of The Conformist. As far as I know, Bertolucci has never explained that choice for 1900. Whether it is successful or not is nearly impossible to say. The full-length director’s cut of 1900 is still unavailable in America, though several DVDs have been released claiming that title.
Bertolucci’s career as a filmmaker has been long and varied, with as many failures as successes. And like all Italian filmmakers of his time he has addressed the issue of Fascism in his country. However, his view of Fascism, tainted with his sexual preoccupations, makes his perspective as unique today as it was in the seventies.