By Phil Hall | August 19, 2011

BOOTLEG FILES 389: “Luna” (1979 feature film directed by Bernando Bertolucci.

LAST SEEN: We cannot confirm the last public screening of this film.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Never made available for U.S. home entertainment release.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It is available on a German label, and it may arrive in the U.S. someday.

For many years, I’ve avoided viewing Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1979 feature “Luna.” My reasons are two-fold: I was never a fan of Bertolucci’s work and I had little desire to view a film involving incest.

However, it is difficult to maintain an ongoing series of column regarding bootlegged films and not mention “Luna,” which is among the most prominent titles that can only be viewed in duped DVDs. I will freely admit that I approached the film expecting the worst – and that my expectations were fulfilled several times over.

When “Luna” opened the 1979 New York Film Festival, New York Times critic Vincent Canby wrote that the production was “one of the most sublimely foolish movies ever made by a director of Mr. Bertolucci’s acknowledged talents…the work of a good poet on an absolutely terrible day.”  Prior to the release of “Luna,” Bertolucci was heralded as a creative artist who electrified critics and audiences with such provocative films as “The Conformist,” “Last Tango in Paris” and “1900.” With “Luna,” however, Bertolucci achieved the opposite effect: he alienated viewers with a work of self-indulgence and vulgarity.

At the core of “Luna” is a harsh story of a parent-child relationship in shambles. In this case, the parent is a world famous opera soprano and her son is a teenaged heroin addict. The resolution of troubled relationship requires an outlandish leap of logic – and Bertolucci crashed in trying to achieve this reckless goal.

“Luna” immediately gets off on the wrong foot with the severe miscasting of Jill Clayburgh in the role of Caterina, an American diva preparing for a season performing in Rome. The willowy Clayburgh is no one’s idea of an opera star, despite the flowing gowns and overstated theatricality of her line readings. (Her lip sync efforts in the film’s grand operatic number are simply awful.)

Even more unlikely is the actor playing her husband/manager: Fred Gwynne. Yes, I know it is improper, but I find it impossible not to look at Fred Gwynne without hearing Al Lewis yelling “Herman!” or Joe E. Ross going “Ooo! Ooo!”

Gwynne’s character dies a few minutes after being introduced on screen, which enables Caterina to relocate to Rome with her 15-year-old son, Joe. Matthew Barry, a skinny teenager with a Shemp Howard haircut, plays this role. While Caterina emerges herself in her opera productions, Joe has the good fortune to fall in with a crowd of photogenic, English-speaking Italian skateboarders who indulge in heroin. Joe also entertains himself by dancing for a lascivious homosexual in a dive bar.

Caterina is so self-absorbed that she is initially unaware of Joe’s drug addiction. Indeed, she had her own problems – during a birthday party for Joe, she gets ridiculously drunk and makes a total fool of herself. But one evening, when Joe is in the midst of severe withdrawals, Caterina comforts her ailing son by rubbing her hand across his crotch. Joe pulls through, but the mother-son relation goes into a deeper sexual relationship.

Caterina also has another surprise for Joe: Fred Gwynne’s character is not really his father. Thus, a 15-year-old who already has a ton of problems dumped on him – abrupt relocation to a foreign country, heroin addiction, an incestuous relation with his mother – now has to introduce himself to a birth father who has not seen him since he was an infant.

When Andrei Tarkovsky saw “Luna” during its first release, he wrote in his diary: “Monstrous, cheap, vulgar rubbish.” That’s actually being kind to the film. “Luna” is something you don’t see very often: a purely stupid drama. The characters’ outrageous actions do not correspond to the basic tenets of daily life. I suspect that a great deal of the film’s dialogue was improvised, which could explain inconsistencies in character development and some strangely hammy outbursts by Clayburgh (who was no one’s idea of a scenery chewer).

As for the incestuous sex scenes – once you get beyond the distasteful aspect (and that ain’t easy!), they actually seem like something of a letdown. Clayburgh and Barry go through the motions like dreary wind-up toys, and the viewer is left watching one of the most dreary erotic presentations ever put on camera.

When 20th Century Fox released “Luna” in the U.S., Bertolucci was flabbergasted that critics failed to appreciate his artistic vision. “Critics should offer analysis and see the films within a cultural perspective,” he said during a press conference at the San Francisco Film Festival. “But in America, there isn’t much sensitivity or a political vision of culture. Here, critics say, ‘I like. I don’t like.’ That’s not the point. It’s quite irresponsible, sitting in this ivory tower.”

“Luna” was a commercial flop in its U.S. release, although it turned a decent profit in international markets where Bertolucci’s prestige helped to sell the film. Clayburgh inexplicably received a Golden Globe Award nomination for her performance – she also received a Golden Globe and Oscar nomination the same year for the light comedy “Starting Over.” Barry, who had his first starring role in “Luna,” never achieved lasting film stardom – he appeared in a number of small roles through the 1980s and later withdrew behind the camera, where he became a highly respected Hollywood casting director.

For no clear reason, “Luna” has never been made available in any U.S. home entertainment format. 20th Century Fox still owns the rights to the film and there doesn’t appear to be any legal issues preventing its release – the bootleg DVD I have was taped from a Fox Movie Channel presentation. There has been a German DVD release, but I have yet to hear about any U.S. version. Which is probably just as well – with the sole exception of Bob Dylan’s disastrous “Renaldo and Clara,” “Luna” is the worst bootlegged film I’ve ever seen.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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