Appearing on the scene as Pier Paolo Pasolini’s assistant on Accattone (61), director Bernardo Bertolucci has been everything from wunderkind (The Grim Reaper, 62) to perverted genius (Last Tango in Paris, 72) to Oscar-winner (The Last Emperor, 87) to critical failure (1900, 76). But for the past decade, the Italian maestro has been sidelined by health problems that have left him heavily reliant on a wheelchair. Me and You marks the end of this long hiatus with his first Italian-language feature in three decades. Adapted from the novella of the same name by Niccolò Ammaniti, the film picks up where he left off with Stealing Beauty (96), Besieged (98), and The Dreamers (03), returning to explore anew the effects of self-induced confinement.

The willing prisoner this time around is Lorenzo (Jacopo Olmo Antinori), an acne-pockmarked 14-year-old boy whose growing antisocial behavior at school concerns his mother (Sonia Bergamasco) much more than it does him. Covertly ditching a weeklong student ski trip, he sets up camp in a dusty basement for some much-needed time away from Mamma and the therapist she insists he see. But his solitude is soon disrupted by a surprise visit from his heroin-addicted half-sister, Olivia (Tea Falco). A whirling dervish in a faux-fur coat, she holes up in his lair while attempting to kick her drug habit cold turkey.

If set alongside the political charge of The Conformist (70) or the raw sexuality of Last Tango in Paris, Me and You would obviously feel slight. But its sumptuous lighting, atmospheric set design, and kinetic camerawork keep the monotonous setting visually engaging throughout, while the soundtrack—particularly David Bowie’s “Ragazzo Sola, Ragazza Sola,” the Italian version of  “Space Oddity”—is perfectly attuned to that awful mix of angst and loneliness that constitutes adolescence.

FILM COMMENT caught up with the husky-voiced Bertolucci by phone to talk about his directorial past and present, why TV is better than the movies these days, and that ever-controversial stick of butter.

Me and You Bernardo Bertolucci

It’s been 10 years since your last film. What was it about this project that spurred you to return to directing?

I hadn’t been active for a long time because of personal health problems with my back. A few years ago I was sure that it was the end of my career as a director. But one day after the MoMA homage—the [2010-11] retrospective I had in New York—Niccolò Ammaniti sent me his novella. I read it very fast—it’s just 100 pages. The film came directly from the book, but in the novella I don’t like the fact that the half-sister dies because she’s a junkie. I couldn’t back that. Every time in a novel, a movie, or a play, when you have a junkie you know already that this person will die before the end. I don’t like this kind of moralistic attitude. I wanted to keep the sister alive, and this is a big change from the novella. I answered very fast that I would do it.

[During shooting] I was in a different POV from my normal POV, but I think one can adapt to something new, and so I adapted. I think I managed to find my balance in a new way.

In nearly all of your films, the characters seem to be in direct conflict in some way with what their society considers “normal.” Is this an experience you feel a personal resonance with?

There is always a kind of identification with the main characters in my movies, and this time I think there was [identification] with both the boy and the girl. It’s ridiculous because I’m 73, and I can show a 14-year-old boy and I can relate to him. [Laughs] By the end of the movie I think you can see a recognition between the two [main characters]—they accept themselves and they recognize themselves, and they love themselves.

Your first experience on a film set was as an assistant to Pasolini on Accattone, something you’ve described as “witnessing the birth of cinema” anew because he had no filmic references. You, by contrast, as a cinephile, have been strongly influenced by other films. Cinema has changed so much since you were first making movies—are you still able to find new inspiration among contemporary filmmakers?

I’d never deny that movies are my daily nourishment, and of course now the scene is quite different. The American TV series—I think I’ve seen them all… One that I enjoy very much is “Rubicon.” I like films that have the timing of the movies of the past—that have the time to record people thinking, or [being] inactive. The camera can be on their face with nothing happening for a long time. Now the editing is different—always cutting as soon as the action ends. In [TV] series, I find the pleasure I used to find in the cinema of the past—they’re not forced to cut. I feel that even in my own movies there’s different timing than in my older work.

Me and You Bernardo Bertolucci

The politics of your films have also changed a great deal. Although themes of class are present in the background in this film, compared to your earlier work, which was highly politically charged, politics is virtually non-existent here. What is the relationship between film and politics and how can you contextualize your more recent works within your personal political trajectory?

There was a long period where politics was one of the most important subjects in my movies and that was because in those days in Italy politics was something belonging to everybody—and it was the most exciting thing going on. There were two big parties—the Catholics and the Communists—and they were balancing each other for a long time. When I did 1900, I really believed in a kind of literal victory of the people, of the popular movement. They were just on the verge of winning an election—we’re talking about the 1980s here. So the politics of my movies were parallel to the politics of the reality that was surrounding me—it was the feeling that things could have changed.

As I said before, politics was the main kind of nourishment. We were going to sleep at night thinking that the day after something could change. We believed we were able to change the world and that’s what I was trying to put in my movies. Today, the new generations are not interested [in politics]. We’ve been so full of scandals and corruption and changing of flags that people have abandoned this great thing, which was very much a part of Italian culture. It’s tragic.  

Sex is also central to almost all of your films. There were many parallels in this film to your previous chamber dramas like The Dreamers, Besieged, even Last Tango. But it’s your most sexually tame film. Incest is faintly suggested but never played out. Did the script ever go through racier iterations?

A lot of people told me that when they saw Me and You, at a certain moment they were expecting the brother and sister to have a kind of incestuous relationship. But these characters are very different from The Dreamers. I wanted to suggest that there is always some kind of interest. These moments of incest between brother and sister, mother and son, et cetera, are always incredibly close [to happening], but I never had the desire to go in that direction here. And for me that was new. It was surprising to see in this movie that this doesn’t happen.

Me and You

Even in the absence of sex you still maintain a characteristic attention to the human form. There is that beautiful sequence of Olivia playing dress-up and then dancing to David Bowie. I’m curious to know if the controversy with Maria Schneider that followed Last Tango in Paris has changed your approach toward your portrayal of women on screen or the way you work with your female leads.

Last Tango served a totally different need for me. When I started, I didn’t know where I could go with Marlon Brando and Maria. Because there is something that you can't tell in the screenplays—and it’s exactly what’s missing from screenplays—which is the flesh and blood of the real people in front of the camera. The script describes the characters, but when you go to shoot, you try to invent life in front of the camera. I don’t know… My wife says that I could make a cup of tea look sexy.

The fact that people still argue about that film is a testament to its staying power.

When I did that film, nobody could have stopped me. In Italy it had been banned—it couldn’t be shown for I think 10 years after the opening, and I was condemned for two months in prison with suspension. And what you’re saying [about people still arguing about this film], just a few months ago I was at the Cinémathèque Française for a retrospective and someone asked about shooting that scene in Last Tango. It was Marlon’s idea to use the butter. [Maria] knew there was a sex scene, but she didn’t know about the particulars. She was offended that I didn’t tell her, because I wanted her to react like a girl would react to that surprise. And that became a kind of scandal: “You make actors copulate in front of the camera, shame on you.” [People] thought they were really fucking! This is not the only film that I’ve done, but it’s the one that goes on and on and on.

You originally thought about shooting this film in 3-D but ended up doing it in 35mm. A lot has changed during your 10-year absence. What do you think about these new technologies and how they’re shaping the art form?

We did some tests for the film in 3-D, and I loved the tests that we shot but for me the technology was too slow. To shoot 3-D would take almost double the time of shooting in 35mm so I decided not to. But if I were able to do something else… I’m so curious about this technology. I’m so curious to explore digital filmmaking [just] as I explored what film was. Cinema is always coming up with new things. Sound when it was silent, color after black and white.

So you’re optimistic about the future of cinema?

I don’t know. I think that cinema is reinventing itself, continuously changing all the time.