Oscar-winning director, screenwriter and producer Bernardo Bertolucci, who died of cancer at the age of 77 in Rome on Monday, was the ‘last emperor’ of Italian cinema.
Son of poet Attilio Bertolucci from Parma, the creative young writer was hired by his father’s friend, poet-director Pier Paolo Pasolini, as an assistant director in 1961 when he was just 20.
From La Comare Secca (The Grim Reaper 1962), based on a short story by Pasolini himself, to Io e Te (Me and You 2012), Bertolucci made 16 films. They ranged from avant-garde and art-house cinema to low-budget or Hollywood production.
Some of them were hits, others flops. But they were all stuff that dreams are made of — from depiction of provincial life, farmers’ revolts and class struggle in Italy to poetic visions of a bygone era in South Asia.
For Bertolucci, movie theatres were places where people gather to dream the dream together. So even while making a commercial film, the idealist director felt he was creating a piece of art.
Bertolucci became famous as a provocative filmmaker with his erotic drama Last Tango in Paris (1972). The cult hit starring Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider shocked the world with a controversial sex scene involving butter. The film was censored for more than a decade in Italy.
While shooting the butter scene, Bertolucci’s intention was not to get noticed or achieve commercial success by overstepping boundaries. He wanted to explore the sexual relations of a character stuck in a psychological crisis.
Schneider, who was just 19 then, knew nothing about the butter scene until it was shot. She never forgave the director as it affected her career and personal life.
Bertolucci defended himself by saying he did not want Schneider to enact the humiliation and rage of the character but to feel it to make the scene more authentic.
While doing so, he might have crossed moral boundaries but was able to reveal the state of mind of the hero played by Brando.
The Grim Reaper, Bertolucci’s first work, tries to unravel a murder mystery as each suspect recounts to police their activities on the day a prostitute was found murdered on the banks of Tiber River in Rome.
The final flashback shows the real murderer, who was previously let off after questioning, being arrested at a dance.
The Grim Reaper won international acclaim but Italian critics said the film, based on a short story by Pasolini, bore touches of the genius.
Although the story is similar to Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa’s classic Rashomon, Bertolucci denied having seen that film at the time.
Bertolucci was a Marxist and his work Before the Revolution (1964) reflects the political and romantic uncertainty among the youth of Parma represented by the hero who finally disavows the Communism revolution and marries his former girlfriend.
The Conformist (1970), one of Bertolucci’s best films, focuses on a bureaucrat’s psychological need to become part of a dominant socio-political group, which is normal under Facist rule, and how he becomes dehumanised.
Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who has compared Bertolucci to American writer William Faulkner, makes The Conformist a visual experience.
Bertolucci five-and-a-half-hour epic drama 1900 (‘Novecento’ in Italian 1976) chronicles the lives of a landowner and peasant as they witness farmers’ revolts and class struggle in Italy at the beginning of the century.
Because of the sheer length of the film, it never became a hit despite an international cast including Robert de Niro and Gerard Depardieu.
Bertolucci’s most successful movie The Last Emperor (1987) traces the life of China’s last emperor from child-king through war criminal to an ordinary citizen in the People’s Republic.
It won nine Academy Awards including best movie and best director in 1988 and four Gold Globes.