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Home / Film / Home Video / A Hidden Leprosy Gnawing Our Vitals: Transgression, Incest, and Bertolucci’s La Luna

A Hidden Leprosy Gnawing Our Vitals: Transgression, Incest, and Bertolucci’s La Luna

“I found myself lying down in the apartment of my dead mother… [I] remembered that two years before I participated in an orgy in my mother’s absence, exactly in her room and in her bed which was now supporting her corpse. This orgy in the maternal bed took place by chance during my birthday night: my ecstatic motions among my accomplices were interposed between the birth which gave me life and the dead woman for whom I felt then a desperate love… The extreme voluptuousness of my memories prompted me to go to his orgiastic bedroom to masturbate amorously while looking at the corpse.”
— Georges Bataille, Ma mère

Over the many decades of his career, director Bernardo Bertolucci has cultivated a reputation as an arthouse auteur unafraid to explore themes of transgression, excess, and emotional (and sometimes physical) violence. Like his mentor, the great Pier Paolo Pasolini, Bertolucci trafficked in loss, trauma, sex, and death, and though overwhelmingly beautiful and often staggeringly ambitious, his films have not always been exactly commercial. Such is the case with his 1979 film La luna, which has recently been rescued from oblivion (at least for a US home video market) by Kino Lorber, who have lovingly presented it on Blu-ray with a host of excellent special features: interviews with Bertolucci and star Matthew Barry, an audio commentary from Barry and Elijah Drenner, and a second commentary from writers Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson.

These interviews and commentaries assert that Bertolucci made La luna at a difficult time in his life, after the failure of his big budget historical epic 1900 (1976). In The Radical Faces of Godard and Bertolucci, Yosefa Loshitzky wrote, “1979 was neither a year of euphoria nor a year of rebirth, but rather a year of recuperating from the trauma of 1900.” Thus La luna is a deeply personal film, full of uncomfortable intimacy and explorations of grief and betrayal. The film follows Joe (Matthew Barry), the teenage son of an opera singer, Caterina (Jill Clayburgh), who travels with his mother to Italy after the death of his father (Fred Gwynne). It is there that Joe develops a heroin addiction and when his mother tries to help him overcome it, they begin an incestuous relationship. Caterina reveals to Joe that his real father is a poor teacher and artist, Giuseppe (Tomas Milian), and the two embark on a journey of discovery.

As Loshitzy wrote, Bertolucci was “introducing for the first time in his career a woman as a protagonist” — though the film’s first act focuses more on Joe — and Caterina is one of Bertolucci’s most complicated and frenzied characters. Like the glimpses of the moon that come to represent her, she hovers over and occasionally bridges together the four separate worlds of the film: Brooklyn with its neon, pop-culture aesthetic; the performative, dramatic plane of the opera stage; Caterina and Joe’s strangely romantic home in Italy replete with flowing curtains, dressing gowns, and candlelit dinners; and the ancient world of Giuseppe’s Rome. While these conflicting environs — and numerous references to Bertolucci’s other films — sometimes confuses the proceedings, La luna is one of the director’s most underrated films and is an unforgettable journey; like 1972’s Last Tango in Paris and Bertolucci’s best work in general, it lingers in the mind precisely because of its flaws and idiosyncrasies.


It is also one of the most symbolically rich of all Bertolucci’s films: not only does he explore music and dance (which are of vital importance to some of his other films like 1970’s The Conformist and Last Tango in Paris), as well as opera, but visually — with assistance from the great cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, his frequent collaborator — he returns again and again to the moon, dreams, birth, and the sea. In the interview with him in the disc’s special features, Bertolucci says the idea for the film sprang from a powerful childhood memory, where he rode in a basket on his mother’s bicycle and looked up and saw the moon next to her face, and the two began to blur together; his mother as a face in the moon, and her face as a silvery, celestial mirror.

Mythologically speaking, the moon has long been associated with goddess and Great Mother figures, female sexuality, menstruation, fertility, the passage of time, water, dreams, the unconscious, and death and rebirth. In his book The Way of Tarot, Alejandro Jodorowsky describes the Moon Tarot card as “receptive female power.” He wrote, “The moon is one of humanity’s oldest symbols; it represents the maternal feminine archetype par excellence, the Cosmic Mother. [It] is also the world of dreams, the imaginal realm, and the subconscious, traditionally associated with night… [it] symbolizes the mysteries of the soul, the secret process of gestation, everything that is hidden.”

While there are numerous examples of the symbolic function of the moon throughout world mythology — everything from Greek and Egyptian to Sumerian tales — an African myth about the Moon and a wayward hare is a key example of the moon’s connection to death and rebirth, and to blood rituals, even feminine sacrifice. William Bascom wrote,

“Moon sends the message to men that as she ‘dies’ and lives again so will they die and live again, but the message is perverted by Hare and death comes to the world. When Moon learns that Hare has told men that they will not revise after death, she strikes him, splitting his lip, mouth, or nose, causing his harelip; and in some versions Hare scratches, bites, or burns Moon’s face, causing the dark spots that we see on the face of the moon.”

In La luna, which literally means “the moon,” this symbol is associated with Caterina (whose last name is notably is Silveri) and the moon itself often appears in frame when Joe is reminded of his mother; during a moment in childhood, a scene inspired by Bertolucci’s aforementioned memory, during his first sexual experience in Italy, and during the first opera sequence, when Caterina is performing one of the highlights of her career: Verdi’s Il trovatore (1853), where the protagonist, a Count di Luna, is embroiled in a love triangle.


These connections between lunar symbolism, sexuality, and motherhood create a permanent sense of tension around Caterina herself, where she is an artist, mother, and lover all at once. Carl Jung wrote of the Great Mother figure and her contradictory relationship with the Son-Lover, a partnership that is both creative and destructive, evoking the cycle of life itself. In Carl Jung, Darwin of the Mind, Thomas T. Lawson summarized the great psychiatrist’s thoughts:

“The archetype of the Great Mother, universally associated with the fundamental nature images of earth and water, represents the dark flux of the unconscious. The arrival of her offspring, the Son-Lover, inseparably bound up with the springing to life of new vegetation, is the mark of incipient consciousness. As with the budding plant, which has its roots in the dark soil, the Son-Lover both springs from and is nourished by the Great Mother. Though her lover, he is by no means her equal, and shortly he must be sacrificed to her power. She will then preside over his rebirth, but he remains, for now, a transient thing.”

This state of transience describes Joe himself; as a “budding” adolescent, La luna defines him primarily in the context of his mother. There are no obvious explanations for his trauma — both in an early scene where he is a baby and the first scenes of him as an angsty teenager — other than Caterina herself. Insisting that he should be allowed to come to Italy with her instead of his father, he says, “I can do all the things Dad does… I can do it better.” Though he is referring to his father’s role as her travel agent and assistant, this theme of competition takes on a sexual nature from the opening scene, when a young Caterina sensually drips honey on her fingers and on the infant Joe, accidentally causing him to choke, but then she casts him aside to dance with a man in a bizarrely ritualistic sequence involving a fish, a knife, and the sea as a backdrop.

Taboo sexuality is a recurring theme in Bertolucci’s work, and in a sense defined his career from his early masterpieces: The Conformist makes use of themes of homosexuality, infidelity, and loosely implied incest, as the protagonist’s young wife has had a sexual relationship with her much older “uncle” since she was a teenager and it is he who gives her away at their wedding; Last Tango in Paris is often reductively remembered for its exploration of anal sex; and a later film like 2003’s The Dreamers follows an incestuous threesome between two siblings and a young expatriate. La luna was, at least in part, panned because of its (admittedly mild) depictions incest between mother and son, though Bertolucci was careful never to use these moments gratuitously.


Philosopher Georges Bataille — reflecting on the work of anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss — wrote about the incest prohibition as a civilizing impulse, something that separates humans from animals. Mother and son incest was perhaps fittingly the topic of his final, posthumous novel, Ma mère (1966), which shares a number of themes with La luna: a young man is sucked into his mother’s immorality after the death of his father. Bataille wrote, “I lived with the feeling that a hidden leprosy was gnawing our vitals: of this ill we were never to be cured, by this malady we were both mortally afflicted. My childish imagination dwelled fixedly upon the evidence of a calamity that my mother and I were undergoing jointly.”

While Joe’s “hidden leprosy” is transformed into a more literal ailment — heroin addiction — this malaise spreads to his mother in a more nebulous sense; she becomes languid, irritable, and loses all desire to sing. She realized what’s wrong with him at his birthday party, when she thinks she’s sneaking up on him as he kisses a teenage girl, only to realize their bodies are shielding the injection of a needle into his arm. Caterina becomes nearly hysterical at Joe’s plight and in a later comical sequence attempts to dance off her mania through jazzercise with the unwilling assistance of her elegant (and possibly lesbian) manager, like a medieval dancer afflicted by Tarantism, whose ritualized convulsions — blamed on spider bites — were believed to have a distinctly sexual origin. These gyrations have also been connected by historians to the frenzied lunar rituals of maenads, worshippers of Dionysus; their states of divine inebriation were intended to explore, and shatter, taboo.

Bataille also made the mother’s body the site of psychosexual activity. Susan Rubin Suleiman wrote,

“In Bataille’s fiction it is always a woman (and in the posthumous Ma mère, is the mother herself) in whose body the drama of transgression is played out. For the female body in its duplicity as asexual maternal and sexual feminine, is the very emblem of the contradictory coexistence of transgression and prohibition, purity and defilement, that characterizes both the ‘inner experience’ of eroticism and the textual play of the pornographic narrative.”

Caterina’s body, even more so than Joe’s, becomes the locus of this maternal, sexual contradiction, which is also expressed in their incestuous relationship. Unlike conventional sex scenes, their intimate moments have a nurturing element: when he’s going through withdrawal, she undresses and bathes him; she tries to help him piss; later she allows him to suckle at her breast while jerking him off (over his pants) and bringing him to climax.


This triggers a sort of reversion within her and she reveals that the man Joe knew as his father is not at all; she takes him back to the house by the sea where he lived as a baby and begins to reenact the courtship rituals that led to Joe’s birth. For example, she drives him to a  spot on a country road where she first kissed his birth father and relives the moment with Joe himself. These moments of recurrence result in a dramatic shift in Joe, far more so than the initial incest, inspiring confusion, anger, and even mild acts of violence. Carolyn Bailey Gill wrote, “For Bataille, femininity is a secret or knowledge that threatens untold disaster, the destructive femininity of Pandora’s box. The inside of that box, like the female genitals, is an object of fear — it is an unheimlich place with a frightening, uncanny effect.”

Once Caterina and Joe have opened this box, the film begins to change shape, becoming less of a transgressive exploration of loss and more of an overt (and somewhat confused) psychodrama, in which Joe effectively reclaims the narrative by searching out his biological father and reuniting his family. The performative aspects of sexual and domestic love, motherhood, and family ritual are symbolized through Bertolucci’s use of opera, providing a convenient parallel to the film’s opening. There, after the death of her husband — which she later admits served as a sort of ultimate creative liberation — Caterina receives a rousing standing ovation for her performance as Leonora in Verdi’s Il trovatore, which conveniently parallels much of La luna, at least thematically speaking. The protagonist, Count di Luna, is caught up in a romantic triangle because he loves Leonora, though she herself is in love with a mysterious troubadour. The opera includes themes of martial conflict, but also a gypsy curse, magic, witches being burned at the stake, “the fire of jealous love,” confused patronage, and a son getting revenge on behalf of his mother. A repertory favorite, the opera has also been featured in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera (1935) Visconti’s Senso (1954), but Bertolucci uses it to foreshadow the potential violence of sexual love, obsession, and a doomed love triangle.


La luna’s conclusion also features a performance — this time a rehearsal — of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera (1859), which also has a number of similar themes. In addition to planned battles between nobles (this time in the form of a conspiracy), there is a love triangle, a fortune teller accused of witchcraft, and the protagonist disguises himself as a fisherman. The plot follows Riccardo, who is planning to hold a masked ball at his estate, but is in love with his friend’s wife, Amelia, who is driven to despair because she secretly returns his feelings. In La luna, Caterina has accepted this role with the stipulation that she will speak the part, rather than sing it, because she has not yet reclaimed her voice. The rehearsal takes place at the ancient Baths of Caracalla, a crumbling, second century structure that brings full circle the film’s aquatic themes, while also marking a permanent shift away from the modern world that was the focus of the first two acts.

When Joe confronts his birth father, first at the school where he teaches art to children and later at the man’s seaside home that he shares with his own mother (a grim-faced Alida Valli), the film’s visual world becomes fixated on ancient structures. In addition to the baths, the camera lingers on the Pyramid of Cestius — an unusually well-preserved burial chamber that coincidentally marks the path between an ancient road and a modern one — as Joe follows his father through the city, a journey that seemingly brings him backwards through time and one that he walks in his father’s literal shoes, which he has stolen from the school. Shocked by this visit, and Joe’s false declaration that his son has died, Giuseppe in turn follows Joe to Caterina’s rehearsal, where the family is awkwardly reunited. Caterina passionately kisses Joe under a veil she is wearing for the performance, while Joe’s father slaps him across the face as the soaring opera drowns out his words, though it is clearly that he has finally realized Joe is his son, and is very much alive. Like the later films of Fellini, this strikes a dizzying balance between personal trauma and public excess; comedy and absurdity trickle in at unexpected and even uncomfortable moments, but Bertolucci has seemingly given Joe a chance at reconciliation and even rebirth as he stands by his father’s side, watching his mother reclaim her voice, their collective future uncertain. As Yeats wrote, “Twice born, twice buried, grow he must, / Before the full moon, helpless as a worm.”

About Samm Deighan

Samm Deighan is the Associate Editor of DiaboliqueMagazine.com and hosts their Daughters of Darkness podcast. She's the editor of Satanic Pandemonium, has contributed to Fangoria, Paracinema, and Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s, among others, and she's currently writing a book on WWII and cult cinema.

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