R.I.P. Italian auteur Bernardo Bertolucci, director of 1987’s “The Last Emperor” & other epic films

By on November 26, 2018

Those of use here at Night Flight HQ were saddened by the news today that Italian auteur Bernardo Bertolucci — whose incredible, revolutionary films like The Conformist and Last Tango in Paris were influential to the generations of filmmakers who followed, and whose sweeping widescreen epic The Last Emperor won all nine Academy Awards for which it was nominated, including for Best Picture and Best Director — has died at his home in Rome, Italy, age 77.

In December of 1987, Night Flight featured a look at Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, a lavish biopic of Pu Yi, who became the emperor of China at the age of three,the first Western — made Hollywood feature about China made with the cooperation of the Chinese government, allowing him incredible access — in our popular preview “Night Flight Goes To The Movies,” which highlighted some of that year’s best feature films which were sure to receive Oscars.

You can read all about it in our previous blog post from February 2017.

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Bertolucci — whose wife, Clare Peploe, who he had been married to since 1978, confirmed his death in a statement today, Monday, November 26, 2018, following a lengthy battle with cancer — was known for his visually arresting movies, which were mostly dramas.

Many of his films focused on revolutionary changes in how society has dealt with sexual mores (particularly his great films Last Tango in Paris and 1979’s Luna (about an opera singer, played by actress Jill Clayburgh, and her teenage son) and many others were about sweeping political movements, from intense smaller, personal films all the way to historical epics which spanned decades in their biographical storytelling.

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Bertolucci became a major figure in Italian cinema the 1960s and early ’70s, coming of age as a filmmaker just as the Italian neorealist movement was beginning to fade from film theater screens across the globe. His work often featured internationally known actors, which elevated Bertolucci’s status to that of a global auteur.

Bertolucci was awarded with the Locarno Film Festival’s Leopard of Honor, in 1997, and the Venice Film Festival’s Honorary Golden Lion, in 2007, presiding over the Venice jury twice (in 1983 and 2013).

He presided over the Cannes jury in 1990, and was given the Cannes Film Festival’s Honorary Palme d’Or for lifetime achievement in 2011.

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Bernardo Bertolucci was born on March 16, 1941, in Parma, Italy.

As a teenager, now living with his family in Rome, he began making his first films with a borrowed 16-millimeter camera, and by age twenty-one, he’d decided to become a filmmaker.

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After dropping out of the University of Rome at age twenty, 20-year old Bertolucci shifted his focus to working in the Italian film industry, his first job coming along with he was asked to assist a family friend, novelist and poet, Pier Paolo Pasolini, on his first feature film, 1961’s Accattone, which told the story of an Italian pimp.

Bertolucci — who was having some success as a poet, one of his collections of writing winning the prestigious Viareggio Prize in 1962 — made his own debut as a director with a story treatment written by Pasolini called The Grim Reaper (La Commare Seca) that same year.

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The film, which screened at the Venice Film Festival, was told from various points-of-view and followed an investigation into the murder of a Roman prostitute in a park.

Its success led to more opportunities for Bertolucci, who would contribute to the screenplay of Sergio Leone’s epic spaghetti western Once Upon A Time In The West.

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Bertolucci’s second film, 1964’s Before the Revolution (Prima della rivoluzione), was a romantic drama based on The Charterhouse of Parma, a novel by Marie-Henri Beyle, who was better known as Stendhal.

The film allowed for Bertolucci to explore his interests in political and personal stories — about a young man torn between his bourgeois background and his radical aspirations — and was strongly influenced by the French New Wave movement and championed by French critics, who embraced his work.

Bertolucci — who’d upon his graduation from high school had spent a month in Paris attending screenings at the Cinémathèque Française — spoke to French critics in their own tongue, which he called “the language of cinema.”

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1970’s The Conformist (Il conformista) screenplay (for which Bertolucci received his first Academy Award nomination) was adapted on the 1951 novel by Alberto Moravia and set during the era of Mussolini’s fascist regime, telling the tale of a young intellectual who goes to Paris to assassinate an anti-Fascist professor who was once his teacher.

The Conformist marked the first time Bertolucci would work with the great cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, with whom he would also collaborate on 1970’s The Spider’s Stratagem, which Bertolucci adapted from a Borges story about a young man investigating the death of his father.

Bertolucci also worked with Storaro on Last Tango In Paris (1972) and his most ambitious work, the star-studded epic tour-de-force 1900, starring Robert De Niro, Gérard Depardieu, Burt Lancaster, Donald Sutherland and Dominique Sanda in a multi-generational family saga about the class struggle in Italy.

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

“Politics was part of our life,” he told The Hollywood Reporter in 2014, in what now seems a rare moment of wrong-headed thinking on the auteur’s part. “People don’t seem involved or passionate anymore; politics is something distant.”

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Bertolucci’s most controversial film wasn’t focused as much on politics as it was on the politics of sex: Last Tango in Paris, starring Marlon Brando as an American man grieving the death of his wife who takes up with a young French woman (19-year old Maria Schneider), embarking on a very intense sexual relationship which earned the film an X-rating.

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Last Tango in Paris premiered at the New York Film Festival in October 1972, and very quickly became his best known work — it’s the film which most of Mr. Bertolucci’s obituaries seem to be focused on the most.

Last Tango was lauded by critics for its examination of sexual representation and pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable to explore in a feature film depiction of sexual congress, but it was also denounced as misogynistic and, by some repressed critics, labeled pornographic and obscene.

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The film was a huge success — it earned $36 million at the United States box office alone — and was featured on Time and Newsweek covers in America. In Italy, however, the film was subjected to a lengthy obscenity trial, and even though the director was given a four-month suspended sentence in 1976, the Italian Supreme Court ordered all copies of the film destroyed.

The controversy over the film lingered on for decades, and perhaps lingers still.

In 2013, Bertolucci’s drew fire for his comments in an interview in which he revealed that Maria Schneider was not told that Marlon Brando would use butter as a lubricant in that scene of simulated sex, saying he “wanted Maria to feel, not to act, the rage and the humiliation.”

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Schneider, before her death in 2011, described the filming of the notorious anal rape scene — in which Mr. Brando’s character forcibly sodomizes her character — as a traumatic experience. The film, considered one of the most important films of the 20th century, likely still remains controversial.

Bertolucci continued to make important films, often what he called his “faraway movies” because they were set in far-flung locales, like The Sheltering Sky (1990), which based on a Paul Bowles novel set in Morocco, in North Africa; and Little Buddha (1993), in Nepal and Bhutan.

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In 1996, Bertolucci made his first movie in fifteen years to be set and shot in Italy (Tuscany, to be precise), the English-language coming-of-age saga Stealing Beauty, starring lovely 19-year-old Liv Tyler as the lead character.

In 1998, he directed the Rome-set chamber drama Besieged, and in 2004, the Paris-set The Dreamers, starring Eva Green.

Bertolucci’s last film — another intimate coming-of-age drama — was Me and You, his first Italian-language film in 23 years. It played out of competition in Cannes in 2012.

R.I.P. Bernardo Bertolucci.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.