La Via del Petrolio is a three-part documentary Bernardo Bertolucci made for the Italian oil giant ENI that aired in 1967. The film was made following Bertolucci’s breakthrough second feature Before the Revolution, and the director has said that it’s a documentary made by a man who is desperate to direct another feature. Although it’s been long-forgotten, it was fairly successful when it aired, and its recent restoration by ENI reveals it to be a remarkably poetic film, full of echoes with Bertolucci’s other work – from a snowbound, dreamlike car journey through Switzerland that recalls The Conformist, to a mesmerizing portrait of the desert that presages The Sheltering Sky, and compelling footage of laborers that foretells 1900. There’s even a Moby Dick reference – right on the heels of a similar reference in Before the Revolution.
The film was presented in three parts:
The Origins – Shot mostly in Iran, this depicts the land where the oil comes from, including portraits of both the Iranians and the Italians who work for the oil company here.
At Sea – The oil is transported by ship through the Suez Canal and the Meditaerranean, as Bertolucci lets us peek into the lives of the sailors, while also showing the effect of the Suez Canal on the lives of the people who live there.
In the Heart of Europe – Following the pipeline that connects Genoa to the Ingolstadt refinery in Bavaria, Bertolucci enlists his friend, the Argentine poet and artists Alberto Ronchey to drive across Europe and make (occasionally hilarious) observations and conduct interviews along the way.