Some years ago I read an article about sociopathy – I don’t remember the author or where it appeared, but I do recall the description of a boy who began to show signs of sociopathy from an early age. Once, as he and his parents gathering with family and friends at a house that had a swimming pool, a younger cousin, a toddler or barely older, fell into the pool at a moment when no one was paying attention – just this boy. As the toddler flailed helplessly in the water, the boy watched. He didn’t try to help, or even call for help; he just watched. Eventually an adult noticed, and rescued the small one. When the boy was asked why he didn’t do anything but watch a child drowning, he replied that he had wanted to see what happened.
I think about that boy when I watch the films of Bernardo Bertolucci. Maybe that’s not fair; it’s hard to say. Dramatic films are just that, dramatic – their makers do not provide authorial commentary on the action. They portray, we judge. So I am not saying that Bertolucci was a sociopath; I am instead saying that his movies feel to me that he’s asking me not to empathize, but to watch. And because his images are so compelling, it’s hard not to watch.
Like Antonioni, Bertolucci tends to make movies about lost souls. But when I’m watching L’Avventura or La Notte, I feel that the director has compassion for these souls in their lostness, and is inviting, even encouraging, me to have compassion for them also. By contrast, Bertolucci seems to be setting up his camera at the end of the pool and simply pointing it at the drowning child.