Bernardo Bertolucci obituary: Global auteur who was embraced by Hollywood

Italian director’s best-known movies include ‘Last Tango in Paris’ and ‘The Last Emperor’

Bernardo Bertolucci in 2012. Though some of his work proved controversial, “The Last Emperor” (1987) won all nine Academy Awards for which it was nominated, including best picture and best director. Photograph: Ettore Ferrari/ETA

Bernardo Bertolucci in 2012. Though some of his work proved controversial, “The Last Emperor” (1987) won all nine Academy Awards for which it was nominated, including best picture and best director. Photograph: Ettore Ferrari/ETA


Bernardo Bertolucci

Born: March 16, 1941

Died: November 26, 2018

Bernardo Bertolucci, the Italian filmmaker whose sensual and visually stylistic movies ranged from intense chamber dramas to panoramic historical epics, died Monday at his home in Rome. He was 77.

His death was confirmed by his wife, Clare Peploe, in a statement that did not specify the cause.

Bertolucci’s early work reflected the revolutionary spirit of the 1960s and ‘70s, in particular the shifting social and sexual mores of the times. While several of his films delved into the traumas of his country’s recent past, he fashioned himself as a global auteur.

Coming of age as the Italian neorealist movement was on the wane, he drew inspiration from the French new wave and routinely worked across borders and with international casts.

Many of Bertolucci’s films were warmly embraced by Hollywood. The Last Emperor (1987), a lavish biopic of Pu Yi, who became the emperor of China at the age of 3, won all nine Academy Awards for which it was nominated, including best picture and best director.

But Bertolucci’s best-known – and most controversial – film came earlier in his career: Last Tango in Paris (1972), an explicit depiction of the intense sexual relationship between a middle-aged American widower and a young Frenchwoman (played by Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider). A worldwide sensation and instant lightning rod, the film was lauded by some for pushing the boundaries of sexual representation, and denounced by others as misogynistic or pornographic.

X rated

Last Tango received an X rating, landed on the covers of Time and Newsweek, and earned $36 million at the US box office alone. In Italy, the film was the subject of a protracted obscenity trial. In 1976, the Italian supreme court ordered all copies destroyed and handed Bertolucci a four-month suspended sentence.

Bernardo Bertolucci was born on March 16th, 1941, in Parma, Italy, into an affluent, artistically-inclined family. His father, Attilio, was a renowned poet and occasional film critic; his mother, Ninetta, taught literature. As a teenager, after the family had moved to Rome, he started making short films with a borrowed 16-mm camera.

Despite success as a poet – his poetry won the Viareggio Prize in 1962 – Bertolucci chose to devote himself to cinema

At the age of 20, Bertolucci dropped out of the University of Rome when the opportunity arose to assist a family friend, Pier Paolo Pasolini, on the set of Pasolini’s first feature, Accattone (1961).

Despite early success as a poet – a collection of his poetry won the prestigious Viareggio Prize in 1962 – Bertolucci chose to devote himself to cinema. Expanded from a story treatment by Pasolini, his directing debut, The Grim Reaper, about the murder of a prostitute in a Roman park, premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 1962.

Radical aspirations

If his first feature carried inevitable shades of Pasolini, Bertolucci came into his own with his second, Before the Revolution (1964). Loosely based on the Stendhal novel The Charterhouse of Parma, it describes the struggle of a young man torn between his bourgeois background and his radical aspirations.

Even more than Pasolini, Jean-Luc Godard was an important early influence. Godard looms large over Bertolucci’s third – and most experimental – feature, Partner (1968), a reworking of Dostoevsky’s Double, in which a young man encounters his revolutionary doppelgänger.

The Conformist (1970), set during the Mussolini era, connects the fascist mindset with repressed sexuality

In The Spider’s Stratagem (1970), adapted from a Borges story, a young man investigates the death of his father, a resistance leader. Through formal devices – the same actors appear in both past and present-day sequences – the film creates a disorientingly fluid sense of time and underscores the persistence of history.

Using an even more intricate flashback structure, The Conformist (1970), set during the Mussolini era and based on a novel by Alberto Moravia, connects the fascist mindset with repressed sexuality. The protagonist (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is a closeted man who, in his desperate bid for normalcy, marries, joins the Fascist Party, and agrees to assassinate a former professor.

The Spider’s Stratagem and The Conformist marked the beginning of a long collaboration with the cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, whose work was notable for its expressive lighting and sinuous camera movement, and who contributed to Bertolucci’s reputation as a visual stylist.

Lifelong leftist

A lifelong leftist and a member of the Italian Communist Party in his 20s and 30s, Bertolucci began to question the viability of political filmmaking as his work grew more popular. “You cannot make political films in a commercial situation,” he said in an interview with the New York Times in 1973. “The more revolutionary the film, the less the public would accept it.”

With Last Tango in Paris, he moved away from the questions of political idealism and guilt that had preoccupied him and toward the sexual revolution then unfolding. In interviews at the time he referred to sex as “the only thing that still seems true” and “a new kind of language”.

Last Tango in Paris premiered at the New York Film Festival in October 1972 and immediately rose to the status of a cultural event. Critic Pauline Kael proclaimed it “the most powerfully erotic movie ever made” and likened its premiere to the first performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

Other reviewers were more sceptical. Citing the abundance of female nudity, Judith Crist, writing in New York magazine, placed it in “the male-chauvinist tradition”. Grace Glueck, in the New York Times, dismissed it as “the perfect macho soap opera”.

Class struggle

The success of The Conformist and Last Tango allowed Bertolucci to embark on his most ambitious film, 1900, a multigenerational family saga about the class struggle with a large international cast including Robert De Niro, Gérard Depardieu, Burt Lancaster, Donald Sutherland and Dominique Sanda.

Tracing the entwined destinies of two men born on the same day at the dawn of the 20th century – one a peasant, the other an aristocrat – the film follows its characters through several decades of Italian political and social upheavals.

Bertolucci unveiled a 5 ½-hour cut at the Cannes Film Festival in 1976 to mixed reviews. After a public dispute with the distributor, Paramount, and his producer, Alberto Grimaldi, over the running time, Bertolucci relented and produced a four-hour version for American release the following year.

In 1978, Bertolucci married Clare Peploe, who had worked with him as an assistant director on 1900. He wrote his next film, Luna (1979) – about an opera singer (Jill Clayburgh) and her teenage son – with Peploe and his brother, Giuseppe. The Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man (1981), about a wealthy man forced to renounce his worldly possessions to recover his kidnapped son, won Ugo Tognazzi the best actor prize at Cannes.

Capitalising on the vogue for historical prestige pictures, Bertolucci shifted back into epic mode with The Last Emperor, the first western feature granted permission to film within the Forbidden City in Beijing.

Primary interest

While the film plays out against China’s tumultuous passage from feudalism to communism, Bertolucci conceded that his primary interest was less in historical events than in the psyche of his passive protagonist, who was re-educated during the Cultural Revolution and died a humble gardener.

Bertolucci’s next two films came to be bracketed with The Last Emperor as his “eastern trilogy”. (All three were co-written with screenwriter Mark Peploe, his brother-in-law.) The Sheltering Sky (1990) was based on a Paul Bowles novel about Americans adrift in north Africa. Little Buddha (1993) told the dual stories of the life of Siddhartha and of an American boy who may be the reincarnation of a Buddhist lama.

Slowed by poor health and back problems, Bertolucci directed his final film, Me and You (2012), from a wheelchair. Another intimate drama, it revolved around a troubled adolescent hiding out in a basement with his half sister.

For Bertolucci the growing insularity of his work was less a result of a narrowing worldview than a reflection of the world he saw around him.

“Politics was part of our life,” he told the Hollywood Reporter in 2014. “People don’t seem involved or passionate anymore; politics is something distant.”