Bernardo Bertolucci, 1941–2018

In the clip above, from the BBC interview series Scene by Scene, director Bernardo Bertolucci talks to Mark Cousins about what his relationship with Marlon Brando looked like during the making of Last Tango in Paris (1972). That movie has become increasingly controversial over the years because of how Bertolucci directed an infamous rape scene and how he treated the actress involved in it. Still, he remains one of the greatest filmmakers of the 1970s. Today, we lost him at the age of 77.

Born in the Italian city of Parma, Bertolucci’s interest in film was helped by the fact that his father occasionally worked as a critic. He was the one who helped Pier Paolo Pasolini get his first novel published, and Pasolini eventually repaid his debt by hiring the younger Bertolucci as an assistant director on Accattone (1961), the film that became Pasolini’s jump from literature to movies. Bertolucci was also a gifted writer and originally considered following in his father’s footsteps and become a poet. He did write screenplays over the years, but turned to directing right away – the year after Accattone, he debuted with La compare secca, based on a short story by Pasolini. 

Bertolucci broke through with The Conformist (1970), a political drama depicting the Fascist era in Italy. Last Tango in Paris became an international sensation, an erotic drama starring Brando and a 19-year-old Maria Schneider. The rape scene I mentioned featured simulated sex, but Schneider didn’t know all the details beforehand. The use of butter as lubricant was an idea that Bertolucci and Brando allegedly came up with behind her back, meant to provoke an “authentic” reaction from her.

The experience had a very negative effect on Schneider who felt used; eventually, she turned to drugs and became suicidal, and even later a feminist activist who fought for better treatment of women in the industry. The scene also landed Bertolucci in legal trouble in Italy. The controversy followed him to his grave; his poor decisions as a director in that situation is viewed as a perfect example in an ongoing debate of the need for talents to be able to feel safe on a movie set.

Bertolucci made one more classic film in the 1970s, the epic 1900 starring Robert De Niro and Gérard Depardieu. His next huge hit would be another historical epic, The Last Emperor (1987). Partly filmed in The Forbidden City, the film won nine Oscars, with Bertolucci picking up two of them for directing and co-writing. The clip above shows a scene where the Emperor is forced to leave The Forbidden City. This was Bertolucci’s last great project and one of my favorites.

He took on other epic challenges in the shape of The Sheltering Sky (1990) and Little Buddha (1993), but they failed to impress. The Dreamers (2003) followed young people, as most of his films did, this time using the 1968 student riots in Paris as a backdrop. Bertolucci frequently returned to politics during his career.

The director received lifetime achievement awards at the film festivals in Cannes and Venice. When news broke of his death today, his legacy was celebrated by among others Roberto Benigni and a 95-year-old Franco Zeffirelli who called him “a very dear friend”, wrote Variety

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