How Bernardo Bertolucci Changed My Life
Danny Singh, UK
Danny Singh, born and raised in London, but now based in Rome, gives creative English language lessons and teacher training courses all over Italy and abroad. He also offers stimulating monthly presentations on language related issues at Rome’s biggest international bookshop and is visible on web TV www.inmagicartwebtv.eu with a series of interactive English video lessons. He regularly attends Pilgrims TT summer courses as a Guest Speaker.
My best friend
Your face is perfect
Meeting Mr. Bertolucci
Waiting for a phone call
The Wedding Scene
Shall we dance?
Dancing in the classroom
Ten Minutes Older
The story that you are about to read might seem quite surprising to a large number of you. More than ten years after the events, I still find this whole experience quite incredible, but to me it shows that despite the pains, sorrows and tragedies, the beauty of life is that we never quite know what is around the corner! Life continually throws up challenges. It’s how you deal with them that makes you what you are!
On 2 Nov 2001, my best friend died! He wasn’t just my best friend. He was also a kind of father figure, a person who had helped me get through an enormity of difficult situations, as well as sharing some extremely enjoyable ones. He could read me like a book, so much so, that he knew what mood I was in just by looking at me and would act accordingly! This is a quality that I had never discovered in a person before, nor for that matter, have I known since his untimely departure. Hence, you can imagine the state I was in exactly one month later, 2 Dec 2001.
It was a Sunday afternoon and I was having a coffee with two female friends in the café of a famous exhibition centre in Rome. As we sipped our drinks, the two ladies noticed a smart, casual but well-dressed man staring at us. Being Italian, each naturally assumed that he had his eye on them. After a short time, he began walking towards us. When he reached us, he looked at me and said, You are perfect! This obviously had little effect on me at the time and he went on to say that he was making a film and thought that my face fitted the bill perfectly. My friends who were in a more talkative mood than me asked for details. He mentioned that he was the assistant of Mr. Bernardo Bertolucci, at which point they insisted that I left with the man, which I was not too keen on doing.
There was a mass organised for my friend which I insisted on going to, so the man gave me an address and told me to meet him there later. I arrived late in the evening and as he had promised, he took several photos of me, then reiterated that I was perfect for the main role in this film. I left and thought little more of it.
The next afternoon, while I was preparing to go to a private lesson, I received a phone call. It was Mr. B’s assistant, who insisted that I dropped whatever I was doing and take a taxi to meet Mr. Bertolucci immediately, as he was waiting for me. I tried to explain that I had a private lesson, but he wouldn’t listen. When I phoned my private student to tell her my reason for not coming to the lesson, she burst into a fit of laughter and said, Yes of course, I understand perfectly, while probably thinking that I was still suffering the effects of some amazing hangover or quite simply had other plans.
When I arrived at the required address, I saw Mr. Bertolucci sitting on his chair looking up at me. There were about five hundred people there all waiting to be interviewed. What had I let myself in for I thought, cancelling a lesson to go to an interview with five hundred people for something that didn’t even interest me? I was told that I didn’t have to wait, which was a relief, so I got my interview immediately. He asked me about my interest in cinema. I told him that the greatest film director was Kieslowski, but that I also admired Rohmer. He then asked me if I followed Italian cinema. Yes of course, I replied. Tornatore and Nanni Moretti are my favourites. Have you seen any of my films, he asked? Um, one or two I replied. I was simply being honest. The way I felt in that moment, I didn’t really care what he thought and my opinion of his films was not very high.
Two days later, I got a call from the assistant who told me excitedly that we had been reduced to just two hundred candidates. Two hundred, I thought! What difference does that make? Every two or three days, I received calls from the assistant informing me that the number had been reduced, from the original five hundred to two hundred, then to a hundred, to fifty, to twenty, to ten and finally to two!
Once I was told that we were just two candidates fighting for the main role in this film, something awoke within me and I suddenly became interested for the first time in this role. There is nothing I dislike more than being second. I don’t mind being eliminated at the beginning of a competition, if that is the case, but to get so close and yet, so far, is a tragedy! That fateful call arrived, with an almost tearful assistant insisting that I was the right man for the role, but that Mr. Bertolucci didn’t share his opinion. What a disappointment! However, the assistant said that I could come along for filming, as I would be offered a part, a much smaller role naturally, but that I would be paid for it. I would also get the chance to see who had been selected in front of me!
I got up at 5am to meet the coach that was taking me and several others to a hotel in the middle of nowhere, where we would spend the day being filmed. When I arrived, I had my first big shock of the day! I recognised the main actress in the film. It was Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, a fairly well known Italian actress (though I am certain that none of the other participants there, knew who she was). I had seen more of her films than Mr. Bertolucci’s. She is the sister of the more famous Carla Bruni, who is the current wife of the ex French President Mr. Sarkozy. I then saw the guy who was playing the main role (or the guy who got my role), as I like to describe it. He was ok, but nothing special!
The assistant explained that there was a wedding scene. Some of us would sit around the table looking bored, sleepy and generally disinterested, just like at a normal wedding party. The others would be dancing! Ah, in that case, I’ll sit around the table looking bored. I can do that. The assistant picked us individually pointing out where we should go and to my horror, despite my protestations, I discovered that he wanted me to dance. But I can’t dance, I tried to explain. This is a big mistake. The film will be ruined. Nothing doing! He refused to listen!
I was paired off with a tall, slim, attractive Indian lady, who was wearing a beautiful blue sari. Poor girl, I thought! There were about five couples who would be dancing to this ballroom music. The music played and we began. Cut, Mr. Bertolucci bellowed at the top of his voice. He was following everything from a small TV screen. To cut a long story short, we spent six hours filming this twenty second scene. Mr. Bertolucci spent most of it shouting cut, as different mistakes were being made by everybody at different times. I spent the first two hours continuously apologising to my dance partner for my inadequate performance. After about four hours, I suddenly realised that I had mastered it. Yes, I was dancing as I should. The fact that we went on for another two hours worried me, as there was a risk that I would forget what I’d learned when Mr. Bertolucci eventually stopped shouting cut.
Since I was a child, I have never liked dancing, simply because I thought I couldn’t do it properly. Although I may not be George Clooney or Brad Pitt, I have attracted the attentions of some attractive women. On some occasions, I have even been asked if I’d like to dance. I always replied in the same way. I’m sorry, I’d love to, but I can’t! The look of disappointment on each girl’s face is something that I will never forget. Is being rejected a dance by someone you ask, so painful? I suppose it is, though I rarely asked a lady to dance, so I hadn’t had this atrocious experience. After my Bertolucci experience, I realised something. I had been paid by Mr. Bertolucci, not to act in his film, but to dance! Surely then, I can’t be that bad! Since then, I have been quite happy to dance, readily accepting a dance from anyone who requests it. No woman has stormed off crying embarrassment and humiliation after dancing with me and even more significantly, I now use dance in my lessons, courses, workshops and teacher training sessions.
One of the main reasons I use dance in the classroom is to help the process of group dynamics.
As a result, most of the dances that I introduce are group dances. In 2009, I had my first taste of Scottish dancing on the terrace of the Anglican church in the heart of Rome! What an experience! It seemed so easy that anybody could do it! I immediately introduced the very easy dances to some of my students and they loved it. Despite a few mistakes from time to time, they enjoyed the activity immensely, it strengthened the group rapport and helped to circulate the blood and create endorphins.
I now do Scottish dancing on the terrace quite regularly. The dances that we do and that I have naturally transferred to the classroom are quite similar to the ones I did at school, at that time called, country dancing. It’s a kind of folk dancing. I would recommend using folk dancing with your students, if you are able to do it yourself, of course. Always start with the easy ones and build up to slightly more difficult ones, if you think the group can deal with it.
Another way I use dancing in the classroom is by showing some of the many videos of popular songs that you can find on the internet, preferably ones which contain some form of humour. We then imitate the dancers in the video. It’s hilarious, as we all do it together, so no one is made to feel like an idiot and it reduces inhibitions in almost no time. The videos and songs you select are your personal choice, just as the folk or group dances. You as a teacher, must feel comfortable doing them, in order to be able to transmit that to your students. The language is simple and students learn by doing.
I’ve always believed in fate and destiny. Everything happens for a reason, so I spent a while pondering what all this Bertolucci business meant. This experience hasn’t made me appreciate his films any more than before. Neither did I get the main role in the film, have the chance to be married to Valeria Bruni Tedeschi or become a professional actor. My best friend was a big Bertolucci fan and tried unsuccessfully to encourage me to watch his films!
Only recently have I understood how this experience has indirectly changed my life. From the simple act of being paid to dance, something I believed I was totally incapable of doing, forced out of my comfort zone and being made to face and deal with the fear factor, I have moved on to the point where I enjoy dancing on a regular basis and brought it into my dynamic way of teaching, giving both me and my students an additional tool to use in the process of learning and teaching language.
The short film is called Ten Minutes Older – The Cello. Mr. Bertolucci was commissioned along with another seven or eight film directors to make a ten minute film with this title. The short films made by the various directors have all been put together on one DVD with the same title.
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