How very peculiar to lose two important, influential filmmakers on the same weekend, first Nicolas Roeg and now Bernardo Bertolucci, one so very English and one so essentially Italian. Yikes, they say death comes in threes.
Bertolucci was a director with a painterly eye and a screenwriter who aroused extensive cultural debate. His films include The Conformist (1970), Last Tango In Paris (1972), 1900 (1976), The Last Emperor (1987), The Sheltering Sky (1990), Little Buddha (1993), Stealing Beauty (1996) and The Dreamers (2003).
My favorite of his films is The Last Emperor, an epic biopic about the life of Puyi, the last Emperor of China based on his autobiography. Puyi’s life is depicted from his ascent to the throne as a small boy to his imprisonment and political rehabilitation by the Communist Party of China. Bertolucci secured unprecedented permission to film inside Beijing’s Forbidden City.
At the 60th Academy Awards, The Last Emperor won all nine Oscars for which it was nominated, two for Bertolucci: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Costume Design, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Music, Original Score and Best Sound.
In a precursor to the #MeToo movement, Bertolucci caused crazy controversy in 1972 with Last Tango In Paris, starring Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider. The film presents Brando’s character, Paul, as he copes with his wife’s suicide by emotionally and physically dominating a young woman, Jeane Schneider. The depictions of Schneider, then 19-years-old, were regarded as exploitative. In one scene, Paul anally rapes Jeane using butter as a lube. In 2007, Schneider said that she had cried “real tears” during the scene and had felt humiliated and “a little raped”. In 2013 Bertolucci said that he had withheld the information from Schneider to generate a real “reaction of frustration and rage”. Brando alleged that Bertolucci had wanted the characters to have real sex, but Brando and Schneider both insisted it was simulated. More controversy erupted in 2016 after a three-year-old video resurface in which Bertolucci admitted he and Brando had failed to fully inform her of the details of the proposed scene. Bertolucci released a statement where he clarified that Schneider had known about the violence to be depicted in the scene but had not been told her about the butter. 46 years later, we are still talking about it, and it remains a cultural reference, bringing jokes and outrage.
Schneider was taken by cancer in 2011. She was openly bisexual. Schneider and Brando remained friends until his death, although they did not speak of the movie. She became a women’s rights advocate, fighting for more female film directors, more respect for female actors, and better representation of women in film and media.
Criminal proceedings were brought against Bertolucci in Italy for the anal-sex scene; the film was sequestered by the censorship commission and all copies were ordered destroyed. An Italian court revoked Bertolucci’s civil rights for five years and gave him a four-month suspended prison sentence. In 1978 the Appeals Court of Bologna ordered three copies of the film to be preserved in the national film library with the stipulation that they could not be viewed.
Yet, Last Tango In Paris is regarded as one of the most important films of the 20th century.
In a filmmaking career that stretched back to the early 1960s, Bertolucci became a key figure of the extraordinary Italian new wave, along with, and the equal of, Michelangelo Antonioni, Federico Fellini, and Pier Pasolini, but he was the only one to make a successful transition from European cinema to large-scale Hollywood filmmaking. The boom of Italian filmmaking slowed in the 1970s as directors were forced to co-produce their films with American studios and actors because of the global economic recession on the Italian film industry. Bertolucci:
I thought I couldn’t make any more movies.
Bertolucci was born in Parma in 1941, the son of a poet and teacher, and was raised in a literary and artistic atmosphere. His father was friends with Pasolini, then a novelist and poet, and Pasolini hired the 20-year-old Bertolucci as his assistant on his film Accattone (1961). Pasolini helped him further by recommending him as the scriptwriter for La Commare Secca (The Skinny Gossip), which became Bertolucci’s directorial debut in 1962.
His directorial career really took off with Before The Revolution (1964), about Marxist student’s affair with his aunt, and the highly influential The Conformist (1970), both of which expressed Bertolucci’s commitment to radical leftwing politics. Bertolucci:
I lived in a kind of dream of communism.
The Conformist was the beginning of Bertolucci’s collaboration with the great cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. Together they created a string of visually seductive movies. Last Tango In Paris made Bertolucci internationally renowned, and notorious, and gave him the opportunity to recruit a high-profile actors, including Robert De Niro, Gérard Depardieu Dominique Sanda, Donald Sutherland and Burt Lancaster, for his 300-minute epic 1900.
Bertolucci’s final film is the intimate Me And You (2012). His first Italian-language film in 23 years, it is about a teenage boy who connects with his heroin-addicted older half-sister. It was shot in one room.
Bertolucci’s films are a heady mixture of radical politics and eroticism. Stealing Beauty is about losing your virginity in Tuscany, and who wouldn’t want to do that?
Political exile played a part in his choice to make what he called his “faraway movies” set in distant lands: The Last Emperor in China; The Sheltering Sky (1990), based on a Paul Bowles novel, in North Africa; and Little Buddha (1993), in Nepal and Bhutan.
Bertolucci died at 77-years-old, taken by cancer. He had been confined to a wheelchair for over a decade, after a failed surgery on a herniated disc.
He was married for 40 years to filmmaker Clare Peploe. He had no children.