Bernardo Bertolucci’s first movie in a decade, Me and You, is an intimate, miniature and subterranean coming-of-age drama, a story of estranged siblings (Jacopo Olmo Antinori and Tea Falco) who find and forgive each other in the dank confines of a Roman basement. Some of this might sound familiar. Since Last Tango in Paris, the legendary Italian director has been fascinated by people sealing themselves away from the external world (Besieged, The Dreamers), and even at his most lavishly expansive, as in The Last Emperor and The Sheltering Sky, he has pursued his characters into ports of private refuge.
He is also a veteran observer, if occasionally voyeuristically so, of precociously curious adolescents, especially if that curiosity is scattered across the moral and psychic minefield of the bourgeois family.
Strange, then, that while the broad thematic strokes in Me and You seem to fit so nicely in his established strike zone, the particulars are such stark departures, almost as if the 73-year-old filmmaker, who now uses a wheelchair, is determined to return to his own artistic refuge to rearrange the furniture and brighten up the colour scheme.
For one thing, Me and You is easily the least erotically-charged movie he has made since Little Buddha, which was concerned with transcendent matters of the spirit.
But this is a movie about an intensely curious, hooky-playing teenager whose game of solo house-playing is wrecked when his older half-sister shows up in the basement determined to kick her heroin habit. It’s a situation as rife for off-the-grid hanky-panky as any Bertolucci has offered. Yet, despite the explicit reference to the young woman’s occasionally compromising means of self-employment, this is a story of sibling love in only the most chaste, honourable and uplifting of terms.
And for all of Bertolucci’s skills at making hermetic circumstances as cinematically dynamic as possible, the movie is dark only in the just-before-dawn sense. It clearly sets about to reach upward and outward, and concludes with a denouement as literally elevating as a crane shot and a Truffaut-copping freeze frame can manage.
After a decade of physical infirmity, the once most provocative of European directors has arrived at a kind of peace with his circumstances and his art. Bertolucci is insistent on telling us he’s not the boat-rocker that he once was.
But while these waters are calm and smooth, you may be left wanting for the waves that few could make as brilliantly as Bernardo Bertolucci.