Acclaimed Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci died on Monday in Rome, his publicist confirmed to the media. The director of The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris, the Academy Award-winning The Last Emperor, The Sheltering Sky and The Dreamers was 77 and was suffering from cancer. He is survived by his third wife, British screenwriter Clare Peploe.
Born on March 16, 1941, in Parma in Italy, Bertolucci made his directorial debut at the age of 21 with La Commare Secca (1962). His second film, Before the Revolution (1964), explores themes to which he would return in subsequent productions: the tensions between beauty and revolution, sexual desire and political commitment, fascism and communism.
The film that put Bertolucci on the world map was The Conformist (1970), based on Alberto Moravia’s novel of the same name. Jean-Louis Trintignant plays a fascist foot soldier who plots the assassination of a political dissident who once taught him. The film was acclaimed for its imaginative production design and cinematography, by frequent collaborator Vittorio Storaro.
In 1972, at the age of 31, Bertolucci made the film for which he is best remembered: Last Tango in Paris. The erotic drama stars Marlon Brando as a widower who has a life-altering encounter with a much younger woman, played by Maria Schneider. The film caused controversy for its explicit sexual content, but was equally acclaimed for its narrative bravura, Brando’s poignant and heavily improvised performance, and Schneider’s heart-rending lack of inhibition.
The movie’s reputation has suffered in recent years along with Bertolucci’s after Schneider claimed in a 2007 interview that she had not been informed about the manner in which a controversial anal rape sequence was to be filmed. “I felt humiliated and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci,” she said. Bertolucci said in response that he did not regret his on-set decisions.
Other notable films include the historical epic 1900 (1976), which explored the tussle between communist activists and fascists in rural Italy. The star-studded cast included Robert De Niro, Gerard Depardieu, Donald Sutherland and Burt Lancaster. The film clocked 317 minutes, and was often screened in two parts.
Bertolucci’s most decorated work was The Last Emperor (1987), which won Academy Awards in every one of the categories in which it was nominated, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. The sumptuously mounted film was based on the autobiography of Puyi, the last ruler of the Qing dynasty before Communist rule. Starring John Lone, Joan Chen and Peter O’Toole, The Last Emperor was the first Western production to be permitted to film inside the Forbidden City in Beijing, the palace complex that once housed the Chinese dynasties.
Bertolucci’s later work included The Sheltering Sky (1990), based on the Paul Bowles novel of the same name and starring John Malkovich and Debra Winger as a married couple desperately seeking to rekindle their relationship.
“I conceived of ‘The Sheltering Sky’ as a kind of anti-’Last Emperor,’ as a completely private project,” Bertolucci told the Los Angeles Times in an interview in 1990. “This is a story about two people in the desert, instead of a movie with 20,000 extras. ‘The Last Emperor’ was talking about history in capital letters. This was a film about intimate, private destinies.”
The 1990s and 2000s saw the Keanu Reaves-starrer Little Buddha (1993), which explores a quest to find a new Lama, the multilingual Stealing Beauty (1996) with Liv Tyler, Joseph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, The Dreamers (2003) and Italian drama Me and You (2012). The Dreamers, a tribute to the spirit of 1960s France and the French New Wave, marked the debut of Eva Green, who plays one peg of an erotic triangle involving her twin brother and their newly acquired friend.
The tributes paid to Bertolucci on social media include stills and clips from his films – a testament to his visual mastery and his command over the tools unique to cinema.