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NY Times, Nov. 27, 2018
Bernardo Bertolucci, Director of ‘Last Tango in Paris,’ Dies at 77
By Dennis Lim
Bernardo Bertolucci, the Italian filmmaker whose sensual and visually
stylistic movies ranged from intense chamber dramas to panoramic
historical epics, died on 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.
Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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.
“Last Tango” received an X rating, landed on the covers of Time and
Newsweek, and earned $36 million at the United States 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
Mr. Bertolucci a four-month suspended sentence.
Son of a Literary Family
Bernardo Bertolucci was born on March 16, 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-millimeter camera.
When he was 20, Mr. Bertolucci dropped out of the University of Rome
when the opportunity arose to assist a neighbor and family friend, Pier
Paolo Pasolini, on the set of Mr. Pasolini’s first feature, “Accattone”
Despite early success as a poet — a collection of his poetry won the
prestigious Viareggio Prize in 1962 — Mr. Bertolucci chose to devote
himself to film. His directing debut, “The Grim Reaper,” about the
murder of a prostitute in a Roman park, from a story treatment by Mr.
Pasolini, had its premiere at the Venice Film Festival in 1962.
If his first feature carried inevitable shades of Pasolini, Mr.
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.
For Mr. Bertolucci, the character’s conflict mirrored his own. “I was a
Marxist with all the love, all the passion and all the despair one can
expect from a bourgeois who chooses Marxism,” he said in a 1965
interview with the magazine Cahiers du Cinéma.
“Before the Revolution” anticipated his interest in exploring the
intersections of the personal and the political, while establishing his
knack for inscribing autobiographical references in films based on
literary sources. While the Italian reviews were mostly negative, the
film was championed by French critics, who identified Mr. Bertolucci as
a fellow traveler of the French New Wave.
The love was mutual. Mr. Bertolucci, who spent a month in Paris
attending screenings at the Cinémathèque Française as a high school
graduation gift, insisted on doing early interviews in French, which he
called “the language of cinema.”
Even more than Mr. Pasolini, Jean-Luc Godard was an important early
influence. Mr. Godard looms large over Mr. Bertolucci’s third, and most
experimental, feature, “Partner” (1968), a reworking of Dostoevsky’s
“Double” in which a young man encounters his revolutionary doppelgänger.
In what he described as a pivotal moment in his creative life, Mr.
Bertolucci began Freudian analysis in 1969. He spoke often and openly
about the process, describing himself in a 1977 interview with The
Washington Post as “a repressed person” who “can express my energy, my
libido, my aggression, only in my work.”
The Psyche Explored
Many of Mr. Bertolucci’s films — which abound with father figures,
Oedipal conflicts, identity confusion and dream logic — are ripe for
psychoanalytic readings. The two films that he made in quick succession
after entering analysis, both tackling Italy’s Fascist history, were
breakthrough works that are often ranked among his most enduring
In “The Spider’s Stratagem” (1970), adapted from a story by Jorge Luis
Borges, 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 mind-set 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 Mr. Bertolucci’s reputation as a visual stylist.
A lifelong leftist and a member of the Italian Communist Party in his
20s and 30s, Mr. 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
“Last Tango in Paris” premiered at the New York Film Festival in October
1972, and immediately rose to the status of a cultural event. The critic
Pauline Kael proclaimed it “the most powerfully erotic movie ever made”
and likened its premiere to the first performance of Stravinsky’s “Rite
Other reviewers were more skeptical. 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.”
For Mr. Bertolucci, the film was less about liberation than regression.
“At the end he’s a fetus,” he said of the Brando character in an
interview with Rolling Stone magazine.
Although its shock value has faded, “Last Tango in Paris” retained its
capacity for controversy long after its release. Ms. Schneider, who was
19 during the shoot, later described the filming of the notorious rape
scene — in which Mr. Brando’s character sodomizes her character — as a
Mr. Bertolucci came under fire for comments in a 2013 interview in which
he revealed that Ms. Schneider, who died in 2011, was not told that Mr.
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.”
The success of “The Conformist” and “Last Tango” allowed Mr. Bertolucci
to embark on his most ambitious film, “1900,” a multigenerational family
saga about the class struggle with a large international cast that
included 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.
‘1900’ in 5½ Hours
Mr. Bertolucci unveiled a five-and-a-half-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, he relented and produced a four-hour version for American
release the next year.
In 1978, Mr. Bertolucci married Ms. 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 Ms.
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
Capitalizing on the vogue for historical prestige pictures, Mr.
Bertolucci shifted back into epic mode with “The Last Emperor,” the
first Western feature granted permission to film within the Forbidden
City in Beijing.
While the film plays out against China’s tumultuous passage from
feudalism to communism, Mr. 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.
Mr. Bertolucci’s next two films came to be bracketed with “The Last
Emperor” as his “Eastern trilogy.” (All three were written with the
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
Most of Mr. Bertolucci’s later films concerned characters who have shut
out the world around them, as foreshadowed by the lost souls of “Last
Tango in Paris.”
“Stealing Beauty” (1996), about the sexual awakening of an American
teenager, was set among the artistic habitués of a Tuscan villa. The
action in “Besieged” (1998) was confined mainly to the Roman home where
a refugee from an unnamed African country works as a maid for a
In “The Dreamers” (2003), based on a novel by Gilbert Adair, Mr.
Bertolucci returned to the revolutionary politics and Paris cinephilia
of his youth. But the story unfolded from the point of view of
characters who have sealed themselves off in an erotic idyll, oblivious
to the student riots in the streets outside.
Slowed by poor health and back problems, Mr. 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.
Ms. Peploe is his only immediate survivor.
For Mr. 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
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