If we are to believe the movies, and I don’t see why we should not, the generational schism between parent and child in the 1960’s was more severe in Western Europe than the United States, as the influence of Marxist ideology was more imposing in the European universities than upon the more individualistic counterculture that was flowering in the New World. Europe’s kids hated the backwards ideas of their parents, and wanted to blow them up along with their factories and dead cultural institutions, while the Stateside kids were indifferent to the “air-conditioned nightmare” in which they were raised, and simply stepped aside into an alternate reality. They felt no need to destroy what was already, to their minds, dead. This view was not shared by the black radicals, who had good reason to tear down the walls of the racist prison in which they struggled for breath, and those few whites who wanted to join their revolution were told to go back to their rich suburban homes.
Of course, things were not as simple as this, but it gives the general idea of the world Bernardo Bertolucci takes us to in his “Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man,” in which a young man conspires in his own kidnapping to trick his father to sell off all the assets of his cheese factory in order to fund the revolution. Or maybe that is not exactly what happens. At the end of the film, the father tells the audience to figure the details out for themselves, as he is too happy to have his son back, alive and well, to try to analyze how and why the events of the movie could have believably occurred.
After the masterpieces that will crown his legacy (The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris, and 1900), Bertolucci returned to the father-son themes of his earlier and lesser work, “The Spider’s Strategem,” in which a young man investigates the life of his deceased father, trying to understand who the man was. In “Tragedy,” the situation is reversed, with the father searching for the son. Such relationships had been more subtly explored in his three masterpieces, so his return to the simplicity of action and identity is somewhat disappointing, but not nearly as disappointing as his post-Marxist work, in which his substitution of Buddhism for a political utopia that failed destroyed him as an artist.
The film’s initial disappointment is the cinematography. With this exception, Vittorio Storaro was director of photography on all Bertolucci’s films from 1970-1993. He would have done this one as well, has Francis Coppola not lured him away with “One from the Heart.” Carlo di Palma was a smart choice for substitution, as he had been DP on Antonioni’s “Red Desert” and “Blow Up,” two of the most influential color films of the sixties. But “Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man.” didn’t look like a Bertolucci film. It looked a lot like “Red Desert.” While Bertolucci isn’t even the same league of genius as Antonioni, he is a far sight better than an imitation of Antonioni, and that is the initial visual impression of “Tragedy.”
But once resolved to the fact that this movie doesn’t look like “The Conformist,” its palette begins to make sense. Di Palma makes excellent use of both the factory interior and the surrounding environs. He also finds the right tones for the rough yet attractive faces. In fact, Anouk Aimee has never looked better. She and Ugo Tognazzi give excellent performances as the parents of the kidnapped boy, and Laura Morante, with her smashed-in resemblance to Juliette Binoche, is a real find as his girlfriend, Morante has been consistently employed for 33 of the 34 years since she was discovered by Bertolucci in 1981, proving herself a true asset to the Italian film industry even through its meager times.
Bertolucci has always been something of a pioneer in the exploration of cross-generation sexual behavior. In “Luna,” Jill Clayburgh played an opera singer who not only had sex with her junkie son, but scored his heroin and even injected it into him. In “Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man,” Ugo Tognazzi’s obsolete industrialist comes very close to raping his son’s girlfriend. Then of course there is Marlon Brando’s grieving widower who does just about everything imaginable to his child lover in “Last Tango in Paris,” who murders him when she realizes he was only a surrogate father in failed disguise. “Tragedy” exists in the gulf between what is expressible in maternal as opposed to paternal love. Since the son is not present, the clash of the parental fantasies between father and mother is free to escalate far beyond normal levels of parental rivalry. And this is where the film finds its reason to exist. It is a blackly comic custody battle for a son who parallels the non-existent son in Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” the purpose of whom is to serve as a beanbag in the beanbag war between feminine men and masculine women, the drag act that has become a sardonic epilog to the human comedy or, if you will, the tragedy of ridiculous men.