“This is something that I dream about: to live films,” Bernardo Bertolucci once said. “I want to arrive at the point at which one can live for films, can think cinematographically, eat cinematographically, sleep cinematographically, as a painter lives, eats and sleeps painting.”
Indeed, Bertolucci was a filmmaker whose work was always marked by an intensely personal nature. Whether a sweeping epic or intimate tale, his films reveal distinct connections to their creator’s private dilemmas and the vagaries of his creative and intellectual life, revealing a filmmaker truly dedicated to his craft. Very few international directors in the latter half of the twentieth century have managed to remain consistently as critically successful as this Italian filmmaker, whose career has spanned four decades and several continents. While many of his films may be remembered for their bold and provocative explorations of ideology and sexuality, Bertolucci’s innovative visual style –characterised by elaborate camera moves, a symbolic use of colour, and inventive editing – has also influenced several generations of filmmakers.
The son of poet and film critic, Attilio Bertolucci, Bernardo Bertolucci was born in 1940 in Parma, Italy. Surrounded by an atmosphere of comfort and intellectualism, which he eventually came to rebel against in his films, Bertolucci began making short films as a teenager. His first real taste of movie making came when he scored a job as the assistant director on family friend Pier Paolo Pasolini’s first film, Accattone (1961). Bertolucci said the experience of being on a film set for the first time was incredibly inspiring. “Pasolini hadn’t done anything before,” Bertolucci said. “That’s why he wasn’t following some kind of knowledge; he was just inventing day after day. It was like being present at the birth of cinema.”
Bertolucci made his directing debut the following year with The Grim Reaper, a stark murder mystery filmed in Rome. While the film largely went unseen, it revealed early signs of Bertolucci’s distinctive personal style, particularly its time-hopping narrative structure. His second film, 1964’s semi-autobiographical Before The Revolution, was also a commercial disappointment, but won the filmmaker recognition at the 1964 Cannes Film Festival.
The early seventies arguably proved to be the most significant period for Bertolucci, with the director producing a number of his most highly regarded works. There was 1970’s moody detective story, The Spider’s Stratagem, but Bertolucci’s breakthrough film came with the haunting political thriller, The Conformist, released the same year. Considered by many to be his masterpiece, the film explores the conflicted mindset of a man who carries out Mussolini’s fascist ideology.
For a rising generation of filmmakers, The Conformist was a revelation. “What always made me proud – almost blushing with pride – is that Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg all told me that The Conformist is their first modern influence,” Bertolucci has said. Having acquired substantial credibility as a director, Bertolucci went on to explore sexual politics and societal hypocrisy with his infamous Last Tango In Paris in 1972. Packed with explicit, de-glamorised sex scenes, the film sparked no small degree of controversy when it was released.
It was eventually recognised as an extraordinary, if polarising, work, earning Bertolucci a Best Director Oscar nomination and a Best Actor Oscar nomination for its star, Marlon Brando. This extraordinary film, however, is now even more difficult to watch, with its female star, Maria Schneider, claiming that she was violated, manipulated and humiliated by her much older director and co-star during one of the film’s most notorious sex scenes. “I was so angry,” the actress famously said many, many years later. “I felt humiliated and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci.” In this era of #metoo and Harvey Weinstein, the reputation of the late Bernardo Bertolucci has undergone a major overhaul, with the director another example of the transgressions often made by men with too much power in the name of art.
In 1976, Bertolucci co-wrote and directed 1900, a towering international epic with a once-in-a-lifetime cast – Gerard Depardieu, Robert De Niro, Donald Sutherland, Burt Lancaster – and a story focusing on a recurring theme in Bertolucci’s films: the conflict between communism and fascism. Its epic scope was repeated eleven years later in Bertolucci’s most expensive film, The Last Emperor. A decades-spanning tale about the deposed last emperor of China, the film went on to win nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.
Following a comparatively unsuccessful 1990 adaptation of Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky, Bertolucci returned to Asia in 1994 to make Little Buddha, which also received a lukewarm audience response. The director rebounded in 1996 with Stealing Beauty, a lush and measured work which also served as Liv Tyler’s breakthrough film. In 1998, Bertolucci took another look at the politics of love and desire with Besieged. In 2003, he revisited the sixties with The Dreamers, a film which captured the thrill of three spirited youths discovering culture, sex and politics. “It gave me the chance to visit a moment that I really loved a lot,” Bertolucci said of the film at the time. “I remember being young in the sixties. We had a great sense of the future. This kind of hope is missing in the youth of today. This sense of being able to dream and to change the world.”
Bernardo Bertolucci’s final film was 2012’s Me And You, which saw him make a return to the director’s chair after a ten year break, during which he had battled a number of health issues. In a now strangely fitting twist, it was Bertolucci’s first Italian language film in over three decades. “I hadn’t been active for a long time because of personal health problems with my back,” Bertolucci told Film Comment. “A few years ago I was sure that it was the end of my career as a director. But one day after the MoMA homage – the [2010-11] retrospective I had in New York – Niccolò Ammaniti sent me his novella.”
The pungent tale of an awkward boy who hides out in a basement to get away from the world – only to be interrupted by his heroin addicted half-sister – the film is Bertolucci in truly intimate mode, and its themes of youthful desperation and difficult connection make for an appropriate close-out on a career built on stories of outsiders and taboo sexuality. “Cinema is reinventing itself, and continuously changing all the time,” Bertolucci replied while doing interviews for Me And You when asked about the current state of film. Sadly – despite the controversy that dogged his final years – this great master’s medium will now continue to change and reinvent itself in his absence.
BERNARDO BERTOLUCCI’S BEST
THE CONFORMIST (1970) Considered by many to be Bertolucci’s masterpiece, The Conformist is a non-linear exploration of Mussolini’s Fascist Italy and a character study of an individual (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who conforms to the era’s ideological conventions. Unsettling and visually compelling, the film is regarded as one of the finest sex-and-politics thrillers ever made.
LAST TANGO IN PARIS (1972) The story of an American widower (Marlon Brando) and a young French woman (Maria Schneider) engaging in anonymous, emotionally raw sexual games inside a Paris apartment has been deemed the most controversial film of its era. While some considered the film obscene, others saw it as a breakthrough in its potent depiction of sexual politics.
1900 (1976) Massive in scope, exorbitant in running time (the uncut version clocks in at 315 minutes), and uncompromising in its depictions of the more base elements of human nature, Bertolucci’s political epic traces the very different lives of an upper class aristocrat (Robert De Niro) and a poor-born peasant (Gerard Depardieu).
THE LAST EMPEROR (1987) Bertolucci’s cinematic biography of the Chinese Emperor Pu Yi won nine Oscars, unexpectedly sweeping every category in which it was nominated. The film’s biggest accomplishment was its ability to simultaneously work as a sweeping epic and an intimate portrait of one man reconciling personal responsibility and political legacy.
THE DREAMERS (2003) Set in Paris against the student uprisings of 1968, an American student (Michael Pitt) is seduced by a pair of enigmatic siblings (Eva Green, Louis Garrel) and moves into their Paris apartment. Infused with Bertolucci’s trademark intensity and melancholy, the film perfectly captures the indeterminacy of youth and a culture on the verge of transition.