Bernardo Bertolucci’s Luna manages the considerable feat of telling the story of an incestuous relationship between opera star Caterina Silveri (Jill Clayburgh) and her heroin addicted 15-year-old son Joe (Matthew Barry) without making the viewer turn away. The fact that Caterina is a narcissistic bitch and Joe a whining pain makes the accomplishment all the greater. You can question whether this material should ever have been filmed, but the results are compelling and the film making extraordinarily confident. It would almost be preferable if it were were not, because then you could feel safely superior. Instead, a good deal of discomfiting material is presented unflinchingly and with considerable, sexy appeal.
The story, such as it is, consists largely of Joe’s efforts to come to terms with his father’s death (Fred Gwynne, in a brief, affecting performance). Caterina all too obviously feels liberated by her husband’s death and can barely find time to be with Joe. So self-absorbed that she has to be the center of attention even at her son’s birthday party, she reacts to his drug habit as if she somehow were the victim. He, on the other hand, prefers to run footloose around Rome rather than respond to his mother’s half-hearted, ineffectual efforts to help him.
The film neither condemns nor shrinks from showing the characters at their worst. While Clayburgh and Barry do not especially look like each other, they convince as mother and son because their scenes are fraught with the tensions, hesitancy, humor and familiarity true of any loving family. Their incest, when it finally occurs, results from genuine affection, twisted and tortured by the failings of both.
Bertolucci grounds the story in a coolly sensuous evocation of life among people whose wealth and privileges do nothing to shield them from their personal shortcomings. His camera glides through the velvety environment in glancing, understated, yet often technically quite complex counterpoint to the actors. When, for example, Joe starts to dance to a Bee Gees song in a corner café, the camera movements back, forward and around him are so apposite, so deceptively simple, yet so richly expressive that they are practically a visual rhyme of the music, traces of a master stylist in peak form.
The creamy execution keeps one step ahead of the repetitive action as Joe struggles with his self-destructive behavior. The threat of tedium always hovers nonetheless, like a storm cloud ready to drench the sunny Italian landscapes. Further, when Joe’s “problem” is finally resolved, the implied happy ending borders on the insulting. The film has been too successful in cracking open the fissures in Joe and Caterina’s psyches for us to believe they can be papered over with good intentions, but then Bertolucci’s thinking has rarely equaled his film making. It is perhaps a backhanded tribute to how much truth Luna reveals, however, that the ending should feel at best hopeful, at worst starry-eyed.