Bernardo Bertolucci isn’t especially old, not when compared to fellow filmmakers like Clint Eastwood (84) and Manoel de Oliveira (105/deathless), but he is frail. Permanently confined to a wheelchair in the aftermath of several unsuccessful back surgeries, the once-prolific 73-year-old legend no longer resembles the disruptive force of nature who made The Conformist before his 30th birthday, or reinvented butter as a lubricant in Last Tango In Paris. Bertolucci has only directed two films in the last 15 years, and he’s been forced to watch his legacy calcify around him as his defective spine—and its accompanying depression—trapped him within the walls of his Rome apartment. A wealth of recent interviews have candidly confirmed what many had been able to infer from the director’s extended leave of absence: It’s not that he has nothing to say, but that he lacked the strength to say it.
Or so he feared. Me And You is palpably frail cinema, its every movement heavy with its director’s strain and the reluctance of a kid shuffling off to do his chores. And yet it’s also compellingly clear that the movie has restored Bertolucci’s strength, just as it’s easy to see why this particular story was able to reach into the depths and rescue a titan of Italian cinema from his darkness.
Adapted from a Niccolò Ammaniti novel of the same name, and finally hitting American screens more than two years after its Cannes debut, Me And You follows a wayward week in the life of a teenager named Lorenzo (Jacopo Olmo Antinori), a pubescent boy who combats ordinary growing pains with extraordinary measures. Lorenzo is a regular kid, normal in the way movie characters seldom are; this is Antinori’s first film role, and Bertolucci makes the most of his inexperience. His impish face, closed like a broken hand that’s trying to make a fist, is littered with real pimples. He mumbles, he hides in headphones, and he has uncomfortably Oedipal conversations with his young mother (Sonia Bergamasco, so memorable in The Best Of Youth). And when it comes time to go on a weeklong snowboarding trip with his class, Lorenzo only pretends to go, choosing instead to enjoy seven days of glorious solitude in the dank basement of his mom’s apartment building.
No one wants to be alone like a teenage boy wants to be alone. Parents assume a locked bedroom door implies masturbation. (They’re probably right, more often than not.) But for a few years there, it can feel like the world is on the attack, and kids begin to value the world for its hiding places.
Bertolucci never explicitly explains why Lorenzo would rather spend a week in an airless hole with an ant farm and a jar of Nutella than snowboarding with his friends; he isn’t presented as an outcast. But it’s hardly a great mystery to anyone who’s ever been a teenager. It’s not as if Lorenzo himself would even be capable of rationalizing his behavior, and it’s to the film’s great credit that Bertolucci never asks him to.
Unfortunately for Lorenzo, his hormonal staycation is undermined by a surprise guest, his junkie half-sister, Olivia (Tea Falco). A 25-year-old heroin addict who needs a safe place to kick her habit cold turkey, Olivia is far more outgoing and expressive than her half-brother, but she’s wracked with an illness that crystallizes Lorenzo’s growing distrust in the world at large. It’s hardly a surprise that their mutual apathy and annoyance eventually gives way to a begrudging love for each other, but such is the way of so many brother/sister bonds, which are rarely brought to the screen with this degree of truth and nuance. (Or at all.)
While such low-key material is a change of pace for Bertolucci, it becomes increasingly difficult not to compare Me And You to the director’s previous feature, 2003’s The Dreamers, which viewed a similarly confined sibling bond through the lens of incestuous cinephilia. In fact, Bertolucci has always expressed an affinity for stories in which transgressive behavior forces people into their shells. So many of his characters have felt like overgrown kids building forts to protect themselves from the outside world, and in that light, Me And You feels like the quintessential Bertolucci film, with the wheelchair-bound auteur merely having to adjust his perspective. The film, hopefully not his last, finds him looking up at the world for the first time, challenged his characters’ fears, where he used to eroticize them. (Despite a bubbling tension between Lorenzo and Olivia, the former refuses to let his hormones show, as if he knows there’s an audience watching, and he would never be caught dead being a typical teenage boy.)
Me And You is modest and unhurried, at a pace with its ailing director. Bertolucci never feels far out of frame—he and Lorenzo both seem happier isolating themselves from the world rather than adjusting to it, however unsustainable that approach might be. It’s so much harder to be happy than it is to simply accommodate unhappiness, but one of recent cinema’s most cathartic crane shots eventually reminds viewers of Bertolucci’s longstanding argument that people can only breathe the same air for so long. Most of Me And You is ultimately minor and disposable, but it’s still extraordinary to see a film mine such courage from its convictions.