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Italian film legend Bernardo Bertolucci, who directed 'Last Tango', dies

Bernardo Bertolucci became a symbol of European art-house cinema before gaining commercial success with Last Tango in Paris and The Last Emperor.

Bernardo Bertolucci
Bernardo Bertolucci | Photo: Wikipedia

Bernardo Bertolucci, the Italian film director who became a symbol of European art-house cinema before gaining commercial success with and The Last Emperor, has died. He was 77.

His death, first reported on daily Corriere della Sera’s website on Monday, was confirmed in a post on Twitter by Rome Mayor Virginia Raggi, who stressed the director’s contribution to the cinema’s world history.

Bertolucci was in a wheelchair in his later years after operations on his back.

An avid Marxist in his youth, Bertolucci expressed in his early work the typical concerns of young left-wing filmmakers of 1960s Europe, employing the convention-breaking styles of Pier Paolo Pasolini and Jean-Luc Godard. Yet he also contributed to the storyline of Sergio Leone’s epic Spaghetti Western Once Upon a Time in the West, an early indication of his ambivalent relationship with mainstream big-budget cinema.

While The Conformist (1970), about a man concealing his past beneath the cloak of fascism, is regarded by many critics as his best film, it was Last Tango in Paris (1972) that made him a household name globally. The Oscar-nominated film mainly owed its place in cinematic history to its nudity and sex scenes involving a 48-year-old Marlon Brando and 19-year-old French actress Maria Schneider.

Middle-age lust

Predominantly a meditation on misanthropy, middle-age lust and mourning, Last Tango caused a rift with Schneider, who claimed her role in the film had ruined her life. Brando severed contact with Bertolucci for many years after the movie, according to a 2013 interview with the director in the UK’s Telegraph newspaper. An Italian court also handed Bertolucci a suspended prison sentence on grounds of obscenity.

“I remember when I showed the film to my parents, at the end my mother was smiling with pride, and my father, who was normally very supportive, was looking furious,” he said in the interview. “When I asked him what the matter was, he said, ‘This film is obscene. We’ll all be put in prison for it.’”

Bertolucci’s most acclaimed film came more than a decade later with The Last Emperor (1987), which collected nine Academy Awards, including for best picture and best director. Funded principally outside the Hollywood studio system, the movie followed the life of Pu Yi, the last of China’s emperors, from his short reign in Peking’s Forbidden City to his life as a peasant in Mao Zedong’s China.

‘Big Nipple’

During the Academy Awards ceremony for The Last Emperor, Bertolucci described Los Angeles as the “big nipple” (in contrast to the “Big Apple,” New York). The neologism stuck, and Hollywood was to feed many a Bertolucci project. His movies featured Robert De Niro, John Malkovich, Peter O’Toole, Keanu Reeves, Donald Sutherland, Debra Winger, Jeremy Irons, Liv Tyler and Rachel Weisz.

Bertolucci’s use of big, cross-Continental names and his on-off flirtation with America suggested a desire to reinvent the language of cinema on a grand scale. The director said in a 1966 interview with John Bragin that he dreamed of being able “to live films, to arrive at the point at which one can live for films, can think cinematographically, eat cinematographically, sleep cinematographically.”

The success of Last Tango also attracted the funding that allowed Bertolucci to make 1900 (1976), a five-hour epic about the emergence of fascism and socialism in Italy. A commercial failure, it managed to annoy both its Hollywood studio backers -- who released it with no publicity even after producers trimmed about an hour from the film -- and Italy’s communists, who derided its final sequences as historically inaccurate. Bertolucci described the effect as akin to having all of his bones crushed at once.

Early years

Bertolucci was born in Parma, Italy, on March 16, 1940. His Italian father was a respected academic, film critic and poet. His mother was an Australian of Irish-Italian extraction who had emigrated to Italy as a child. Bertolucci would later voice pride at having a grandmother with the surname Mulligan.

Young Bernardo set out to emulate his father’s career as a poet. He switched to film in 1961, when his father secured him a position as assistant to Italian director Pasolini. By 1962, Bertolucci had directed his first film, “La Commare Secca” (The Grim Reaper), an adaptation of a Pasolini treatment.

Bertolucci made more than 20 films in his career, including The Sheltering Sky (1990), Little Buddha (1993), Stealing Beauty (1996) and Me and You (2012). At the 2007 Venice Film Festival, the director was awarded an honorary Golden Lion to mark his life’s achievements.

Bertolucci was married twice. His second wife, Clare Peploe, directed the 1995 film “Rough Magic” and the 2001 movie “The Triumph of Love,” starring Ben Kingsley. They had no children, according to the Associated Press.

First Published: Mon, November 26 2018. 21:33 IST