Bernardo Bertolucci (born 1940), director of Last Tango in Paris and The Last Emperor, is considered one of the modern masters of international filmmaking.
The grandchild of a revolutionary who grew up loving the fine arts and literature, Bernardo Bertolucci revolutionized the art of cinema with his frank films about politics and sexuality. The Italian director has made some of the landmark films of the modern era, earning international recognition and industry accolades along the way. He has worked with some of the finest actors in the world, including Marlon Brando, Gerard Depardieu, and Robert De Niro. Bertolucci's films have ranged from the exquisitely personal to the grand epic, but he has always kept his political and philosophical concerns front and center in his work. His resume of achievements includes multiple Academy Award nominations and a Best Director statuette for his 1987 masterpiece The Last Emperor.
Life of Leisure
Bertolucci was born on March 16, 1940 in Parma, Italy. His lineage was one of intellectual curiosity and radical politics. His maternal grandfather was an Italian revolutionary forced into exile in Australia. His mother, Ninetta, worked as a teacher. His father, Attilio Bertolucci, wrote poetry and taught art history. Bertolucci also had a younger brother, Giuseppe. The family lived in a large house filled with books and staffed by dedicated servants. Bertolucci enjoyed a very privileged upbringing that allowed him to pursue his artistic and intellectual interests.
At an early age, Bertolucci developed an interest in cinema. His father wrote a film column for a prominent newspaper. On many days Bertolucci would accompany him to see the latest releases. Since these trips often involved traveling to the big city, Bertolucci began to associate movies with the strangeness and wonder of urban life. Later on in his childhood, the family moved to Rome.
Begins Making Movies
When Bertolucci graduated from high school, he received a 16-millimeter camera for a present. He used it to make his first short films, using his brother and cousins as actors. He enrolled at the university in Rome and began studying modern literature. Besides filmmaking, his major passion during this period was writing poetry. In 1962, his first collection of poems, In Search of Mystery was awarded the Viareggio Prize. Encouraging Bertolucci in both his poetry and filmmaking was Pier Paolo Pasolini, a famous Italian director who also wrote poetry. Pasolini became a mentor to the young Bertolucci. He gave him the position of assistant director on his film Accattone (1961). Working with the great director convinced Bertolucci that filmmaking could be a kind of poetry in itself. He soon left Rome University to concentrate on a filmmaking career. "I had to find my own language," he told Time. "That language was cinema."
In 1962, Bertolucci directed his first feature, La commare secca (The Grim Reaper). The dark murder story was filmed on location with a cast of amateurs. It received mixed reviews, though many critics saw potential in the young director. Bertolucci's next effort came two years later. Prima della rivoluzione (Before the Revolution) (1964) was a love story set against political developments in contemporary Parma. Reviewers likened it to the works of great directors like Orson Welles, Jean-Luc Godard, and Luigi Visconti. It was given the young critics' award and the Prix Max Ophuls at the 1964 Cannes Film Festival.
Artistic and Political Growth
Critical acclaim did not make it any easier for Bertolucci to get the financial backing to make his films. During the mid-1960s, he worked for the Shell Oil Company making documentaries about the petroleum industry. He contributed to other people's films and wrote scripts in this period as well. It took until 1968 for him to direct another full-length feature. Partner concerns a man with an evil twin, and is based on the works of Edgar Allen Poe and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. That same year, Bertolucci joined the Communist Party. He went through a period of soul-searching that included psychoanalysis.
Now committed to the Marxist ideology, Bertolucci made his most political film yet, Il conformista (The Conformist). The movie concerns a decadent intellectual who is lured into the Fascist movement during the 1930s. Bertolucci's script received an Academy award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, and he was widely hailed as a filmmaker of international importance.
Bertolucci's next feature, Ultimo tango a Parigi (Last Tango in Paris) (1972) cemented his reputation as an international master. The controversial picture starred Marlon Brando as a lonely man grieving for his late wife who has a passionate affair with a young Parisian woman, played by Maria Schneider. The movie's sex scenes were quite graphic for the time, and it was dismissed as obscene by some. But most critics found it riveting and honest in its depiction of contemporary relationships. It became on of the most talked-about films of the year and earned Bertolucci an Academy Award nomination for Best Director.
In the wake of the success of Last Tango in Paris, Bertolucci made a very different film. The 1977 release, 1900, was a sweeping epic that spanned over 40 years of Italian history. It came in at over five hours and featured an international cast that included Robert DeNiro and Gerard Depardieu. The film was cut by over an hour when it was released in America, however, which enraged Bertolucci to no end. In 1991, the "restored" original version was finally released to American theaters.
In 1978, Bertolucci married Clare Peploe, an English woman whom he had been seeing since 1973. She collaborated with him on the script for his next film, La Luna (1979), which starred Jill Clayburgh as a woman who has an incestuous relationship with her son. The movie received mostly poor reviews and failed at the box office. Returning to Italian subjects, Bertolucci next made La tragedia di un uomo ridiculo (The Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man) (1981). A "small" movie about the kidnapping of a cheesemaker's son, it got a mixed critical reception and was largely ignored by audiences.
Gains Academy Recognition
Bertolucci scored a major hit by returning to the grand scale with The Last Emperor (1987), the epic story of Pu Yi, the last emperor of China. In the film, based on Pu Yi's autobiography, the child ruler survives court intrigues, Japanese invasion, and Communist revolution to end up a gardener in Peking. The film was shot on location in the People's Republic of China and immediately restored Bertolucci's international reputation. When it was nominated for multiple Academy Awards, Bertolucci could barely contain his excitement. "I got colitis, my heart began beating fast, I even started smoking again," he told Time.
The Last Emperor won the Academy Award for Best Picture, as well as eight others, with Bertolucci taking the prize for Best Director. In accepting his prize, Bertolucci tweaked Hollywood by referring to it as "the big nipple." "I wanted to say that I was overwhelmed by this gratification," he later explained to Time, "which poured forth like milk."
Films in the 1990s
Bertolucci moved into a new decade with his next release, The Sheltering Sky, about the collision between western and non-western cultures. The film was well cast and boasted some beautiful desert scenery, but critics found it a poor adaptation of Paul Bowles' novel. His 1994 feature Little Buddha starred teen heart throb Keanu Reeves as an ancient prince on a quest for meaning. Stealing Beauty (1996) was a more intimate film, about a 19-year-old American, played by Liv Tyler, who undergoes her rite of passage into adulthood at the Tuscany, Italy home of her dead mother's friends.
In 1988, Bertolucci told Time that he remains true to his radical convictions. He still votes Communist, he reported, and remains leery of the "Hollywood" lifestyle despite the freedom his success has given him. "Nothing has really changed," he remarked. "My movies are too risky. But it gives me a feeling of being more secure."
Further Reading on Bernardo Bertolucci
International Dictionary of Film and Film Makers, Volume 2 Directors, St. James Press, 1991.
American Film, October 1986; November 1987.
People, May 9, 1988.
Premiere, May 1994.
Time, April 25, 1988.
Vogue, March 1994.
Stealing Beauty, http://www.cecchigori.com/cinema/stealing/ (April 28, 1998).