The last stop on our journey to discover the origins of Emilia-Romagna’s best-known filmmakers is in Parma. Whereas Rimini and Ferrara are closely related to the figures of Fellini and Antonioni, respectively, this beautiful city in the northwestern part of the region – famous for its Prosciutto and Parmigiano-Reggiano, but also as the birthplace of Giuseppe Verdi and Arturo Toscanini – is the hometown of yet another great director: the Academy Award winner Bernardo Bertolucci, author of so many memorable movies like The Last Emperor (L’ultimo imperatore), Last Tango in Paris (Ultimo tango a Parigi), 1900 (Novecento), The Conformist (Il conformista), and The Dreamers.
Born in Parma in the year 1940 to the prominent poet Attilio Bertolucci, the future filmmaker began in fact his career by following in his father’s footsteps as a poet. Soon enough, though, the young Bernardo decided to move to Rome, where he attended the university for three years, until he had the occasion to become assistant director to Pier Paolo Pasolini and to pursue his own career in the film industry. However it may be, the city of Parma surely played a key role in the shaping of Bertolucci’s artistic interests. As a matter of fact, the place appears to have a very long cinematic tradition: according to an unconfirmed local legend, it was right here that the Lumière brothers arranged their second public film screening after the one in Paris.
The same story has recently been reported in the documentary Poltrone rosse: Parma e il cinema (Red Chairs: Parma and Cinema) by Francesco Barilli, a friend of Bertolucci who had acted as the main character of his second film, Before the Revolution (Prima della rivoluzione, 1964). After all, it is not surprising that Bertolucci – as well as his late brother Giuseppe, who was a director himself – is so important in Barilli’s exploration of the city’s glorious cinematic past.
Before the Revolution, in particular, was also Bertolucci’s first film to be set entirely in Parma. In it, the protagonists borrow their names from those of Stendhal’s novel The Charterhouse of Parma, while the city’s most iconic landmarks appear one after another on the silver screen: the Romanesque Cathedral with its bell-tower, the nearby Baptistery, and the Church of St. John the Evangelist (San Giovanni Evangelista), but also the Piazza Garibaldi main square, the central Palazzo della Pillotta and Palazzo Dalla Rosa Prati, as well as the Ducal Park (Parco Ducale) and the streets along the Parma River. In addition, the colorful scene seen from the “optical chamber” takes place in the moated Rocca Sanvitale (Sanvitale Castle) of Fontanellato, while a crucial episode from the very last part of the film – occurring during a performance of Verdi’s Macbeth – was shot at Parma’s Teatro Regio (Royal Theater).
Bertolucci would turn again to Parma and its surroundings, as well as to Verdi’s operas, in some of his next films. In The Spider’s Stratagem (Strategia del ragno, 1970), for example, the director included another homage to the great composer in the scene where Rigoletto is performed in Fidenza’s local theater. Alternatively, one can also look at the two-part epic 1900 (1976), whose main set – a farm known as Corte delle Piacentine – is precisely in Roncole Verdi, the village (in the town of Busseto) where Verdi was born.
The same farm near Parma also appeared in the controversial La Luna (1979), for which the director returned to his hometown as well, after 15 years: as the film’s main character, Caterina, goes back to city of her childhood, Bertolucci takes the opportunity to show us once again – but this time in full color – the itinerary through Parma which had emerged in Before the Revolution, to begin with the Duomo and the Pillotta palace. Needless to say, this was also Bertolucci’s attempt to reflect on his own origins, now that he was an internationally acclaimed filmmaker.
The last time Parma was featured in one of Bertolucci’s works was in 1981 for Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man (La tragedia di un uomo ridicolo), which offers additional views of the city’s bridges, squares, and streets, such as Vicolo del Vescovado, Piazzale San Francesco and Strada Farini. In 1987, however, the director stopped in the nearby spa town of Salsomaggiore, where he had already shot an episode of 1900 at the Terme Berzieri: here, inside the town’s majestic Congress Center (Palazzo dei Congressi), he would direct a scene for The Last Emperor, the masterpiece which would win him as much as nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.
In the end, even though Bertolucci has long left his hometown in Emilia-Romagna for the studios in Rome’s Cinecittà (just like Fellini and Antonioni did), his co-citizens have not forgotten where he comes from and where he still belongs to: in 2014, for example, on the fiftieth anniversary of Before the Revolution, the University of Parma decided to grant him a honorary degree in History and Criticism of Performing Arts during a ceremony held at the Teatro Regio, while a two-month festival titled “Parma per Bertolucci” was taking place.