NEW YORK -- So, how vast? How huge? Surely, a man who spent two decades in psychoanalysis and has surrounded himself over the past three years with Tibetan holy men of every spiritual magnitude can answer a simple question about his ego.

Bernardo Bertolucci smiles. He rolls his shoulders around inside his blue blazer. He ingests the inquiry, sulks, smiles, sulks, then begins erupting and interrupting.

"Whoever said this -- that I was an egomaniac -- it's not true," he says. "Maybe once. Maybe sometime in the past. But I don't think I am an egomaniac like I was in the '70s."

He's a great director, a poet, an enchanting narcissist, a limousine Marxist, an adorer of Freud and Buddha, a lover of fabulous clothing, rakish hats, cashmere. His fat dark Rolex slips around on his wrist. Even in the Sahara in 1989 for six months of shooting "The Sheltering Sky," he dressed up every day. Making his big new $30 million picture, "Little Buddha," in Nepal and Katmandu (it opens Friday), he was followed around by his own private rinpoche, his own reincarnated saint.

"Maybe there was a moment of megalomania," he says, "but not anymore. I lost it."

There's a smokiness about him, a smoldering of good humor, intense feeling, of a man who has never experienced a dull-hearted moment. He is tall and warm, irresistibly charming, sometimes manipulative -- in the past he has refused invitations to dinner parties unless he was the guest of honor. Actors and actresses who work with him have a tendency to fall in love with him -- and also to get back at him. After making "Last Tango in Paris," Marlon Brando said he felt "completely and utterly violated." John Malkovich -- who got along well with the director during the making of "The Sheltering Sky" (they share a common interest in clothing) -- called him "treacherous as a snake."

"Bernardo's not a true communist," the Chinese actress Joan Chen said after making "The Last Emperor," a movie that won all nine Oscars it was nominated for in 1987. "He's probably a communist for a few seconds a day -- but certainly not at night."

"Everybody jokingly and lovingly says he's a megalomaniac," Debra Winger pronounced after finishing "The Sheltering Sky," "but, my God! {His ego} stretches over oceans ... dunes."

What? Bertolucci does not agree. He is leaning forward and talking in that graceful, intense way it seems only Italians can. No, no, no. He's much better now, he says, nothing like 20 years ago, when he had his big explosion of egotism. That was right after "Last Tango in Paris," when he was just 33. He'd been sentenced to two months in prison in his native Italy -- his movie was declared obscene -- and although the jail time was waived, his voting rights were taken away for five years.

What was so great about that?

"To be a martyr," he says, "is such a good feeling."

Hollywood was at his feet then too, offering him the pick of all the hot properties, hoping especially he'd make another "Last Tango." But Bertolucci defied them, wrote his own screenplay instead, and made "1900": a 5 1/2-hour epic about two friends, played by Robert De Niro and Gerard Depardieu, whose lives take different roads and who, along the way, experience sex and love and death and provide a perfect Marxist/Freudian interpretation of modern history.

Huge subjects have never scared him.

"Right about the time of my moment, I remember having dinner with Francis Coppola," he says. "He was leaving to shoot 'Apocalypse Now' and ... I remember realizing that Francis was about to have his own real, great megalomania trip, and leaving the restaurant, he turned to me and in Italian said: 'Apocalypse' will be one minute longer than '1900.' "

Bertolucci pauses for a chuckle.

"That's what friends are sometimes good for," he says. "Seeing yourself... . And, of course, his movie was shorter!" On location, Bertolucci sometimes comes out of his trailer and sees thousands of extras in costumes and wigs and makeup and his knees buckle. His legs go. He wants to disappear, he says. Sometimes he fantasizes about having an ambulance come take him away. Or, he says, "I want to call the fire brigade."

There were 500 hairpieces flown in from London for "Little Buddha," as much an epic as any of his previous pictures. Loosely based on a true story, it tells of a young boy in modern-day Seattle who is "discovered" by Tibetans -- they believe he might be the reincarnation of a Buddhist lama. Intercut with this tale is the story of how Prince Siddhartha (Keanu Reeves) found enlightenment 2,500 years ago and became Buddha.

To shoot the boy's story, Bertolucci worked briefly in Seattle. But to tell the ancient legend of Prince Siddhartha, he dropped millions of dollars on Nepal, hiring hundreds of drivers, carpenters, interpreters, security guards and caterers. It took two months to transform the medieval city of Bhaktapur into the location of Siddhartha's summer palace. A fleet of trucks shipped in huge quantities of pasta too -- for all the Italians who've been with the director for decades now.

"Ahhh, there are times," Bertolucci says, eyes rolling, huge smile forming, spectacular memories of fear and excitement returning to him, right here in this room. "One day when I did 'The Last Emperor,' we had 20,000 Chinese soldiers show up and we had to cut all their hair off and put on fake pigtails. So all these soldiers are standing, and hundreds of barbers are cutting their hair, and I hear the ch-ch-che of the scissors, cutting, making them all bald. The mountain of hair! The scissors! I wanted to run away!"

Making big lush extravaganzas may be terrifying, but it's also his joy -- and, as he's said before, his way of overcoming Dad. When Bernardo was young, he wanted to be a famous poet like his father, Attilio Bertolucci, and although he won some national poetry prizes in Italy as a boy, the inevitable Oedipal drama kicked in.

"Poetry belonged to my father," he says, "and so I had to find my own language."

At 19, he dropped out of college to assist director Pier Paolo Pasolini on "Accatone" and by three years later, in 1962, he was directing his first film, "The Grim Reaper." His next picture, "Before the Revolution," received critical attention, but it wasn't until he was 30, when he produced two stunning movies in one year -- "The Spider's Stratagem" and "The Conformist" -- that people began to see that Bernardo Bertolucci had all the gifts: the words, the heart, the mind, the eye.

"Last Tango in Paris" (1973) brought him even further. Written and directed when Bertolucci was just 31, it's about a middle-aged American widower in Paris (Brando) who starts up a sexually brutal affair with a young woman (Maria Schneider) who is engaged to another man. Sexually explicit, "Last Tango" was wildly controversial -- and popular. Romantic and intellectual and brilliantly acted, it also satisfied critics and a huge international art film audience. Bertolucci ran with his new success, and broke away from the European ghetto.

His headlong rush to directing bigger and bigger films -- often in English with American movie stars -- seems inevitable in retrospect. By nature, Bertolucci is drawn to the big political story, the big Freudian drama -- the big picture about the big picture -- presented in rich color, warm lighting, stunning loveliness and, apparently, with as many extras as possible, at least until the fantasies about ambulances start getting in the way.

"I am very happy in that kind of chaos," he says, "and I feel alone in it."

And who else, now that David Lean is dead, consistently produces enormous, gorgeous, intellectual epics? Like Lean, Bertolucci is capable of producing real howlers too -- of trying too hard on too huge a scale. When he flops, the result is barely watchable ("The Sheltering Sky"); when he hits, it's unforgettable, a marvel, shocking, exciting, like something you've never seen before: Brando talking to Rosa, his dead wife, in "Last Tango." The coronation of little Pu Yi in "The Last Emperor." Dominique Sanda and Stefania Sandrelli dancing together in "The Conformist."

"It's a kind of old '60s vice that I have," Bertolucci says with a shrug. "Every time I can be a bit outrageous, I don't mind."

"Little Buddha" offers a sleepy sensuality, some magic and grace, and wonderfully kitschy special effects. And like Bertolucci's other pictures, it's the story of a transformation.

"It is my most revolutionary movie," Bertolucci likes to say. And it's true, "Little Buddha" is outrageously uncynical, with a sweetness and passivity that have already infuriated European intellectuals.

"I know this film disconcerted a lot of people," he admits. "How can I do such a spiritual thing after all these political movies? How can I do a movie on Buddha with Keanu Reeves? The English reviews are the worst I've ever had! In France and Italy, they like it, but the British, they're thinking, 'This cost $30 million? Buddha? Keanu Reeves? OH MY GOD!!' "

He is not a true Buddhist, he says, "just an amateur," but he enjoys meditation, the ancient wisdom, the philosophy. With the collapse of socialism and the near-death of the Freudians, Bertolucci says he finds solace in Buddhism. During the premiere in Paris, the Dalai Lama held Bertolucci's hand throughout the movie -- first time His Holiness had been in a movie theater -- and proclaimed it "wonderful, wonderful, wonderful," before, says Bertolucci, "he disappeared in a cloud of bodyguards."

What draws Bertolucci to all this?

"I found there was no contradiction between this religion and what I already believed in," he says. "It gives me another way to be allowed to have dreams. The dreams you are no longer allowed to have with socialism. Maybe ... I need a utopia. I also like the idea of karma because it is very much Freudian: You know, you are the writer of your own karma. Freud says we are the writers of our destiny too -- anything we do, it's our unconscious which dictates."

Also, he loves "the Tibetans" -- and by this he means the lamas and rinpoches, the monks, the nuns who participated in the movie. All but one of the lamas in "Little Buddha" are the real thing. "They have so much joy," Bertolucci says. "They're so witty. They are such a mixture of sophistication and a kind of mountain, strong, physical approach. The Tibetans were mountaineers originally, and yet were able to invent this school of logic and dialectic and philosophy which is extraordinary."

Does he believe in reincarnation?

"Not in the Tibetan way," he says. "I don't believe you can find a reborn person, with an address and phone number. But I love the idea."

He's heard all the jokes about the casting of Reeves -- perhaps best known for such roles as a suburban mall rat in "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure" -- as Buddha, and Bertolucci anticipates the question by diving right into an explanation. "I was really desperate," he says bluntly. "I couldn't find any Indian actors; I saw tapes of hundreds. I had a casting director looking for two months."

Bertolucci wanted a Prince Siddhartha who looked like a young Satyajit Ray, the legendary Indian director, he says. But these days in India, actors model themselves on Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. "Macho, yes. Not right at all," Bertolucci says, "but then I read somewhere that Keanu Reeves is half Western, half Chinese and Hawaiian, so I met him and decided in three minutes."

How?

"He emanates such innocence! It shines on his face. ... Also, Indian illustrations and Indian epic movies, pop art, the things you see on the walls of the tobacconist of Vishnu and Krishna -- they are all like Keanu! He has a kind of beauty that's not Eastern or Western. You're not sure what it is, except pure kitsch."

Kitsch indeed. Reeves begins his journey toward enlightenment as a glossy, tawny Prince Siddhartha. He's a beautiful girl/boy with long curly hair, made up with thick black eyebrows. As he progresses on his spiritual path, Reeves powers through several wig changes, and for his sequences as an ascetic -- denying himself all comforts and material pleasures -- he fasted for three weeks in order to appear emaciated. "American actors," says Bertolucci, "are so serious!"

Reeves also studied Buddhism and learned to meditate. But there was one thing he couldn't get right:

"He had a big problem sitting in the lotus position," Bertolucci says with a laugh. "I don't know why, but even I can do it easily, even with my bad legs. Sometimes I'd do it right in front of him. He'd say, 'So, you want to be Buddha?' "

" 'No,' I'd say, 'just lotusing.' "

So, after decades of searching and theorizing and political protesting, these days the famous director is older (54), settled, humbler. He is married to an English director, Clare Peploe, whose brother Mark has written Bertolucci's last three films. While he has houses in London and Rome, Bertolucci has worked most of the last decade in Asia, choosing to make an Eastern trilogy because he "hated Italy in the '80s" with its "big economic boom" and "explosion of corruption" and "terrible cynicism." But now he's going back, making his next two pictures there.

The rumor is, also, that he is telling the truth about his megalomania. Egotism, he explains, is "fun, but it can't last. You're smashing everything you love. It's also very childish, really." Years ago, he said his movies were a byproduct of his time on the couch, that psychoanalysis had drawn him to bigger, popular, high-budget movies because he'd been "opened up." But now his tireless campaigning for Freud and Marx is pretty much over -- replaced by a fascination with the Tibetans.

"Buddhism is good therapy, fantastic therapy, for all the monumental egos we have in the West," he says. "In my case, I think I should spend more time with the rinpoches, because they really help me save lots of money in tranquilizers."

Ego in place -- or under new management -- Bertolucci has even decided to direct a "small" picture. After making a sequel to "1900," he's directing a romance set in Tuscany. "It's a little kind of love story," he says. "Very low budget, something I haven't done for years. I feel like doing something small. It's tiring doing these big movies."

At the very end of the interview, the newspaper photographer interrupts. She's taken Bertolucci's picture several times before, she says, going back to the heyday of "Last Tango."

"Oh, really?" he asks. "Do I look ancient now?"

"You seem," she blurts out, "so much happier."

"Really?" Bertolucci smiles. "Well, three years with the rinpoches, you know. It's like 20 more years with a shrink."