Art and Experience: Bernardo Bertolucci is an unlikely director to venture into documentary. In his features, the real world is usually kept at a considerable distance from the hermetic, interior spaces in which his stories take place. The outside reality of May 1968 in The Dreamers (03) or the Japanese invasion of China in The Last Emperor (87) is little more than oblique suggestion, and often the drama of Bertolucci’s films is how little this outer world penetrates the delirious and decadent ones within. History is only a backdrop: what is “forbidden” about the Last Emperor’s Forbidden City is everything that’s outside the palace gates.
Bertolucci made only feature-length documentary, The Path of Oil (La Via del Petrolio) (1967). Its singularity suggests that the director’s foray into non-fiction filmmaking was enough to turn him against the form for the rest of his career. The project was not a total failure, of course. In a 1966 interview, just as he was completing editing on the film, Bertolucci was brimming with enthusiasm for having “[discovered] a way of filmmaking.” He relished the improvisatory freedom he and his small crew enjoyed as they traveled to the locations of the film’s three sections, the first comprising the extraction of oil from the Middle East, the second its transport across the Mediterranean, and the third its pipeline path to Western Europe: “I would shoot whatever hit my eye.” By 1968, Bertolucci had reconsidered his position on the film, which had been commissioned for Italian television and funded by Eni, the national petroleum company of Italy. In an interview for Cinema e film that year, he saw an irresolvable conflict between its commercial demands and his creative instincts. “Pasolini would say that I did an amphibiological film, neither fish nor fowl.”
The Path of Oil is noticeably disjointed, presumably because of the clash between its documentary interest in relaying facts and figures and Bertolucci’s lyrical inclinations. These are not necessarily incompatible elements, and for filmmakers like Rithy Panh, Chris Marker, or countless others, the tension between the two is what makes the work compelling. Bertolucci, however, struggles to resolve their differences, awkwardly imposing overblown prose in the voiceover narration or attempting to fit his dreamy loners to a landscape he’s less concerned with depicting. Of the latter, he searches for them among the mostly Italian workers he interviews. In these men, we see him yearning for stock figures familiar to cinema. As he described in a 1997 interview, “I filmed the drillers as if they were pioneers in an old western movie, the helicopter pilots as anarchistic and individualistic heroes, like the solitary figures of Godard or Only Angels Have Wings.”
More boldly, he invents the character of Mario, an Argentine poet-cum-journalist who leads us through the film’s third section, “Across Europe.” Mario is clearly an avatar for Bertolucci, or someone of his intellectual and artistic milieu. Wearing a fur cap, dark glasses, and a camera around his neck, he’s lost in his thoughts, which, as we hear in his narration, are full of cinematic and literary references. When visiting with an engineer at a pumping station, he remarks that the surge drum reminds him of Antonioni’s Red Desert. Mario, seemingly disinterested in his actual task of reportage, asks him, “you’re not neurotic like the characters in the film?” Later, when Mario falls asleep in a car, he dreams of “cinematomatic images” like those of Cocteau. This interlude, largely recounted in voiceover, and followed by a long indoor scene of Mario in a pub, is more vividly described than Etroubles, the snow-covered mountain town in which he has lost track of his guide, much less the pipeline.
This being a Bertolucci film, the black and white cinematography is visually stunning, at times otherworldly. In a scene that introduces the film’s title, a man stands against an evening desert landscape, his headlamp marking a small point of light in the darkness. He raises a gun and shoots a round of flares into the distance. The voiceover explains that this is a scouting mission, as the flares ignite gasses leaking from untapped oil reserves. A giant blaze suddenly fills the screen: oil has been discovered, and with it a sense of danger and calamity. The film’s most captivating sequence occurs in part two, “The Journey,” as oil tankers glide down the Suez Canal. Bertolucci films one long, uninterrupted take from a town along the slender waterway, watching a massive ship pass silently across the end of an empty, palm-lined street.
Bertolucci’s flair for the exotic is most evident in part one, “Origins,” which was filmed in Iran. The camera scrutinizes the faces of children, old men, and veiled women who scurry through the bazaar or stop to return an accusatory stare. There’s more than a touch of Orientalism, and it doesn’t help that Bertolucci leaves untranslated the speech of the Iranian workers, while all the Italians he encounters are interviewed at length about their hardships, their longings for home, and their (sometimes negative) attitudes toward the Iranians they oversee. Though it’s not mentioned, the rampant European and American incursions into Iran, following the CIA-orchestrated democratic coup in 1953, can be read into the signs of a rapidly industrializing nation. Bertolucci seems to deliberately avoid this show of political force. In one scene, a group of Sudanese laborers are shown singing a work song. The voiceover makes the dubious claim that “the same words, the same musical iteration that accompanied the construction of the pharaoh’s pyramids, today accompanies the first desert power station.” The film is all too eager to cast its “Origins” section in the ancient past, and conveniently renders mute anyone who might argue otherwise. The voluble Mario of the third section, by contrast, is a torrent of high cultural references, existential angst, and, every once in a while, scattered observations about the landscapes he’s been charged to document.
The Path of Oil doesn’t shirk its documentary responsibilities, however conflicted Bertolucci might have been in conveying them. The film marks a booming moment in the developing global oil economy, in advance of the oil shortages and geopolitical entanglements of the decade following the film’s release, and well before the awareness of a climate crisis brought about by the consumption of fossil fuels. Though in the employ of Eni, Bertolucci deftly balances the company’s engineering feats at which we’re supposed to marvel with their profound effects on the land and cultures it touches. There are real and unalterable consequences to the extraction, transportation, and refinement of oil, from the broken fingernails of a drill worker to the graffitied image of an oil tanker scribbled next to the previous era’s symbol of commerce, the camel. In Western Europe, where the wintry streets appear undisturbed by the pipeline burrowed two meters below, the change is nevertheless inevitable. Make no mistake, industry has and continues to transform all aspects of “economic and human geography,” perhaps more than Bertolucci himself realized, and the worst is yet to come. It will rouse even the sleeping Mario, dreaming of Goethe’s footsteps and Mizoguchi’s hand-drawn carts, to its waking, earth-shattering reality.