The Knotty Legacy of Bernardo Bertolucci

Bernardo Bertolucci

The career of Bernardo Bertolucci, the Italian director and screenwriter who passed away on Monday at the age of seventy-seven, spans half a century, beginning with tightly structured and politically charged stories of violence and unrest before courting scandal, embracing the broad sweep of the historical epic, and scaling back down to the intimacy of chamber pieces. The undeniable power of his cinema might be measured less by the number of directors he influenced than by the lessons he drew from giants to forge his own searing vision. On the occasion of last year’s retrospective in New York, Bilge Ebiri, then at the Village Voice, argued that “Bertolucci’s great achievement was to marry the great formal experiments of his time with a revitalized approach to melodrama and narrative: He understood not just the lessons of Jean-Luc Godard and Pier Paolo Pasolini (his mentors and spiritual fathers) but also of Douglas Sirk and Vincente Minnelli.”

Bertolucci was still a teen when his father Attilio, a renowned poet, moved the family to Rome and befriended Pasolini, the self-described “Catholic Marxist” whose poetry and criticism had already made him a literary sensation in Italy. Bernardo had been shooting short 16 mm films and eagerly joined the crew when Pasolini set out to make his first feature, Accattone, in 1961 “beneath the brooding presence of [producer Federico] Fellini,” as Barth David Schwartz notes in his biography, Pasolini Requiem. Young Bernardo would take the passenger seat as Pasolini raced in his red Alfa Romeo to the set that became for Bertolucci what he’d describe as his film school.

As David Thompson tells the story in the essay that accompanies our release of Bertolucci’s first feature, La commare secca (1962), producer Antonio Cervi held the rights to one of Pasolini’s stories, but Pasolini was determined to follow Accattone with Mamma Roma. So the adaptation of the story of an investigation into the murder of a Roman prostitute more or less fell into Bertolucci’s lap. “The Rashomon structure is a feint,” writes Fernando F. Croce, adding that “the charm” of La commare secca “is that of a young auteur who has a mystery to solve when he’d rather gad about the big city.”

Before the Revolution (1964), in which a group of young friends in Parma read philosophy and fall in and out of love, sees Bertolucci turning to the French New Wave for inspiration. Reviewing the film in 2012, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky suggested that “in its own earnest and unselfconscious way, it represents the clearest expression of the director’s central theme—the intersection of the private erotic and the public political—and the young Bertolucci’s willingness to experiment with and even break form—playing with editing, camera movements, and framing—is bold and ballsy.” And in the New York Times, Dennis Lim notes that 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.” Even so, Tony Ryans, writing for Sight & Sound in 2011, argues that “this is the film in which [Bertolucci] shakes off influences and becomes his own man, however contradictory and divided he may be.”

Bertolucci took on Italy’s fascist past in his next two features, The Spider’s Stratagem and The Conformist, both from 1970 and both “breakthrough works that are often ranked among his most enduring achievements,” as Lim points out. Stratagem, based on a story by Jorge Luis Borges, leaps back and forth between 1936 and 1970 as a man in his thirties arrives in a small town to look into the death of his father, a leader of the resistance. As Neil Young observed in 2001, “Bertolucci uses the Borges story as the starting point for an elegant, enigmatic slice of psychology.” As for The Conformist, Rolling Stone’s David Fear sums up well both the contemporary and current critical assessment: “The idea of a ‘perfect’ film is ridiculous; this tale of a repressed homosexual who embraces fascism, however, comes ridiculously close to achieving that ideal.” As Philip Concannon points out in his obituary for Sight & Sound, Bertolucci, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, and production designer Ferdinando Carfiotti were all in still in their twenties, “and Paul Schrader has said, ‘To my mind, you can speak of pre-Conformist and post-Conformist design.’”

Bertolucci’s breakthrough to international fame and infamy came with Last Tango in Paris (1972), a film that, as the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw puts it, would become “reviled in two different eras, and for different reasons.” The story of a middle-aged man (Marlon Brando) who seeks refuge from his grief over his wife’s suicide in a torrential affair with a young woman (Maria Schneider) was immediately yanked from screens in Italy, where a court deemed it “obscene, indecent, and catering to the lowest instincts of the libido.” Pauline Kael, on the other hand, declared in the New Yorker that the U.S. premiere was “a landmark in movie history” comparable to the first performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in 1913. Last Tango, she argued, “must be the most powerfully erotic movie ever made, and it may turn out to be the most liberating movie ever made.”

That argument would simmer for years, but a far uglier controversy was sparked in 2006 when Schneider told the Telegraph that Bertolucci and Brando had tricked her into taking part in the film’s most notorious scene. Bertolucci claims he wanted to capture Schneider’s genuine shock when Brando’s Paul reaches for a stick of butter and then sodomizes Schneider’s Jeanne. Schneider told the Daily Mail’s Lina Das that “even though what Marlon was doing wasn’t real, I was crying real tears. I felt humiliated, and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci.” As Sam Adams points out at Slate, two years after Schneider’s death in 2011, Bertolucci “admitted he had ‘been, in a way, horrible to Maria,’ although he added, ‘I feel guilty, but I do not regret.’”

As Peter Bradshaw points out, Bertolucci was “not a director who responded to the #MeToo movement with strategic silence or contrition or self-questioning, still less an emollient attempt to reconcile the liberal intentions of his work with interpretations of sexism and arrogance in his career.” While Bertolucci “failed Schneider,” as Time’s Stephanie Zacharek puts it, Last Tango shouldn’t be “blotted out of history . . . To dismiss Last Tango is to devalue Schneider’s superb performance, a perceptive and daring one that’s the necessary twin to Brando’s.” And back in the Guardian, Ryan Gilbey argues that the films by both Bertolucci and the late Nicolas Roeg have to be considered within the context of the times in which they were made, when “explicit depictions of sex and desire were a driving dramatic force.” While transgressions such as the one on the set of Last Tango are unforgivable, Gilbey suggests that we nevertheless keep in mind that the “advances made and taboos busted by Roeg, Bertolucci, and contemporaries such as Walerian Borowczyk and Nagisa Oshima set out a cinematic landscape we now take for granted when we watch the work of Catherine Breillat, Claire Denis, Pedro Almodóvar, or Lars von Trier.” 

The original brouhaha kicked up by Last Tango all but guaranteed that it’d be a box office smash, and with his newfound clout, Bertolucci set out to realize his most ambitious project yet. The original cut of 1900 that premiered in Cannes in 1976 ran nearly five and a half hours to tell a story that sweeps from the dawn of the twentieth century through to the end of the Second World War. Two friends, Alfredo (Robert De Niro), born to a family of wealthy landowners, and Olmo (Gérard Depardieu), a peasant, are tossed between the conflicting forces of fascism and communism. Featuring a starry cast that also included Donald Sutherland, Dominique Sanda, and Burt Lancaster, 1900 did not come cheap, and even after it was cut down to four hours for its U.S. release, it flopped. Looking back on the film for the A.V. Club in 2006, Noel Murray found that 1900 “may seem too conventional compared to the blazing fire of Bertolucci's previous films, but as the film rambles toward its beautifully symbolic final shot of a man on train tracks, it takes its place at the center of the director's career-long, fragmentary twentieth-century mosaic.”

Luna (1979), starring Jill Clayburgh as an opera singer, was, as Dan Callahan reminds us at, “regarded as a failure in its time, but there are several scenes that rank with Bertolucci’s best work, particularly a sequence where the protagonist Joe (Matthew Barry) is at a theater where they are showing Marilyn Monroe in Niagara (1953) and gradually the roof of the theater starts to open until the moon is visible—we can still hear the soundtrack of Niagara as Joe stares up at the moon in wonder. This was Bertolucci at his intuitive ‘I want it all’ best.” By comparison, Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man (1981) was a modest treatment of contemporary terrorism in Italy, a film now primarily remembered for starring Anouk Aimée and Ugo Tognazzi, who won the award for best actor in Cannes.

By the mid-1980s, Bertolucci was ready to go full-blown epic again. And this time, it paid off. The Last Emperor (1987), based on the autobiography of Pu Yi, who became Emperor of China when he was only three, collaborated with the Japanese during WWII, and lived out his later years as a rehabilitated citizen in Mao’s China, won all nine Oscars for which it was nominated, including best picture and director. Writing for Senses of Cinema in 2004, Bilge Ebiri proposed that Bertolucci was “bringing to the fore a theme that had been discreetly lurking in his work from the very beginning. The central paradox in all of his early films is the difficulty of reconciling the individual with the masses, a familiar theme among middle-class intellectuals and artists dabbling in socialism.” With The Last Emperor, “Bertolucci finally begins to acknowledge that such a reconciliation might not be possible. If the phrase ‘Before the Revolution’ could be used to describe most of Bertolucci’s works in the 1960s and ’70s, then ‘After the (Non) Revolution’ could be used to describe the later films. The Last Emperor finally features a Bertolucci protagonist struggling with identity not in anticipation of, but in the wake of social upheaval.”

The Last Emperor was the first western production permitted to shoot in the Forbidden City in Beijing. Bertolucci’s next project would take him to northern Africa. The Sheltering Sky (1990), based on the 1949 novel by Paul Bowles, stars John Malkovich and Debra Winger as stand-ins for Bowles and his wife, Jane, also an accomplished writer. As Jonathan Rosenbaum noted in his review for the Chicago Reader, Bertolucci’s stated intention was, in the director’s words, to make a film “with no immediate political or historical implications.” And that, wrote Rosenbaum, “doesn't sound like the Bertolucci I know.” The Bertolucci he knew was “fundamentally bound up in a struggle to reconcile Freud and Marx—more specifically, a struggle to reconcile oedipal hang-ups with the precepts of Italian communism.” Though he outlined several of the problems he had with The Sheltering Sky, Rosenbaum certainly didn’t find it to be “a movie devoid of serious meaning and interest.” If nothing else, it’s “shot so gorgeously by Vittorio Storaro that it's worth seeing for its views of deserts, markets, and North African alleys alone.” Little Buddha (1993), with Keanu Reeves as Prince Siddhartha and a soundtrack by Ryuichi Sakamoto (who’d scored and appeared in The Last Emperor), was generally well-received and completed what some have called Bertolucci’s “Eastern trilogy.”

In Stealing Beauty (1996), Liv Taylor plays a nineteen-year-old American who stumbles upon her sexual awakening among her late mother’s family and friends in a lush Tuscan villa. “As both an example and occasional critique of what is commonly called the male gaze,” writes Ann Hornaday in the Washington Post,Stealing Beauty aptly summed up Bertolucci’s effect on modern cinema and how our agreed-upon notions of pictorial beauty, formal perfectionism and sensuality have been conditioned by the preoccupations of the male auteur—which in Bertolucci’s case could be prurient and fetishistic one moment, discreetly observational the next.” Bertolucci was rarely more discreet or intimate than in Besieged (1998), an adaptation of a short story by James Lasdun about an English pianist and composer (David Thewlis) in Rome who falls for his African maid (Thandie Newton).

With The Dreamers (2003), Bertolucci returned to the preoccupations of his early features. Gilbert Adair wrote the screenplay, adapting his own 1988 novel, The Holy Innocents, in which a young American (Michael Pitt) turns up at one of the most iconic events of 1968, the protests against the firing of Henri Langlois at the Cinémathèque Française in Paris. There he meets two fellow cinephiles, twins played by Eva Green and Louis Garrel, and moves in with them. The New York TimesA. O. Scott found The Dreamers “disarmingly sweet and completely enchanting” as it “fuses sexual discovery with political tumult by means of a heady, heedless romanticism that nearly obscures the film's patient, skeptical intelligence.”

In 2010, Bilge Ebiri got to speak with Bertolucci for Vulture about several key scenes in his filmography, and when it came to the one in The Dreamers that finds the three young characters squeezed into a bathtub, Bertolucci remarked that “the sexuality of that age was so wild, and it was not loaded. It has not been understood since that time.” Nearly ten years after The Dreamers, in 2012, having been confined to a wheelchair by a back injury, Bertolucci made one last feature. Based on Niccolò Ammaniti’s novel, Me and You focuses on a young, introverted teen who hides out in a basement for a week with his older half-sister. “It’s a nothing movie, really,” wrote Fernando F. Croce in the Notebook. “And yet there’s something touching about the way the old sensualist continues to seek (and find) movement and beauty in deliberately cramped spaces. I kept thinking of Visconti directing Conversation Piece from his wheelchair, gazing at youth through a mix of fondness and envy.”

One of the most sought-after interviewees of the past few days has been Jeremy Thomas, the producer who worked closely for many years with both Roeg and Bertolucci, the latter of whom, he tells Deadline’s Andreas Wiseman, “was like a brother to me. He was a monumental and inspirational figure, the last of the great Italian filmmakers from that era.” Wiseman also passes along a statement from Martin Scorsese: “When I think of Bertolucci—the man, the artist—the word that comes to mind is refinement. Yes, he was flamboyant and provocative, but it was the mellifluousness and the grace with which he expressed himself, and his deep understanding of his own history and culture, that made his filmmaking and his presence so special, so magical . . . When I think of him, I will always see an eternally young man.”

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