"I don't consider the naked body obscene," says acclaimed Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci, when asked about the frank sexuality that permeates his latest movie, The Dreamers. "When you go and cover part of the naked body — that's when it [becomes] titillating and maybe obscene." As the backlash from Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" indicates, however, there are many who disagree with him.
That's why it's a bold move for Fox Searchlight — the studio overseeing the U.S. release of The Dreamers — to release Bertolucci's original NC-17 cut, instead of the R-rated version they initially planned on shipping to theaters. It's the first studio film since 1998's Orgazmo to be released with an NC-17 — a rating with a history of scaring away advertisers and theater owners.
Bertolucci isn't particularly concerned with that side of the business; he's just pleased American audiences will be able to see the film he intended to make. "It would have sounded strange," he says, "if the only country in the world where the movie was not shown [in its entirety] was the United States — and probably Iran."
Of course, Bertolucci is no stranger to this kind of controversy. His 1972 film Last Tango in Paris created a sensation with sex scenes that were then considered explicit. Although it was released in America with an X rating, it still managed to score two Oscar nods — one for star Marlon Brando and another for Bertolucci (who lost that year, but took home a trophy in 1987 for The Last Emperor).
Surprisingly, the director feels he had less trouble getting Tango released in this country than The Dreamers. "I think I cut maybe five symbolic seconds from Last Tango in Paris," he says. "With The Dreamers, I was asked to deliver an R-rated movie, so I had to make many more cuts. But when I looked at the altered film, I actually found it to be more obscene than the original!"
After he publicly voiced his displeasure with having to reedit Dreamers, Fox Searchlight opted against pushing for an R-rated cut. The decision pleased the director and his stars. By the way, the cast includes Dawson's Creek alum Michael Pitt, whom Bertolucci hired after his original leading man, Jake Gyllenhaal, dropped out due to the extensive nudity. "I don't blame him," says Bertolucci, laughing. "I could never be naked on film."