Bernardo Bertolucci 1940-
Italian director, screenwriter, poet, and autobiographer.
The following entry presents an overview of Bertolucci's career through 1999. For more information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 16.
Bertolucci is a widely acclaimed filmmaker who is known for the exploration of sexual and political themes in his films. His works are infused with his personal beliefs about Marxism and Freudian psychoanalytic theory, but rather than create political treatises with his films, Bertolucci strives to entertain and to engage his audiences. Bertolucci began his artistic career as a poet, and his filmmaking has been noted for its lyrical sense. He is best known for the controversial Ultimo tango a Parigi (1972; Last Tango in Paris), which stars Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider, and the Chinese historical epic The Last Emperor (1987). Despite a number of critics who have questioned the content of Bertolucci's films, most reviewers regard the cinematography and artistic direction of his films as skillful and visually stunning.
Bertolucci was born in Parma, Italy, on March 16, 1940, to an upper-middle-class family. His father, Attilio Bertolucci, was a renowned poet and film critic. Bertolucci often accompanied his father to the theater and developed a love for the cinema at a very young age. He began making 16-mm films when he was sixteen years old, but he was also interested in composing poetry like his father. Bertolucci's collection of poems, In cerca del mistero (1962; In Search of Mystery), won the Prix Viareggio award in 1962. In 1961 Bertolucci worked as an assistant on Pier Paolo Pasolini's film Accatone! and soon decided to pursue a career in cinema. When Bertolucci was twenty, he directed his first feature, La commare secca (1962; The Grim Reaper). By the time Bertolucci was in his early thirties, he was considered one of Italy's most promising young directors. While making La strategia del ragno (1970; The Spider's Stratagem) Bertolucci began psychoanalytic therapy, and thereafter, the works of Sigmund Freud became a strong influence on his films. The controversial Last Tango in Paris garnered Bertolucci worldwide attention and won him an Academy Award nomination for best director. The film was viewed as pornographic by the Italian government and Bertolucci was charged with promoting obscenity. Bertolucci lost his right to vote for five years and chose to leave his native Italy. Following Last Tango in Paris, Bertolucci directed a string of less successful films before approaching the Chinese government about two projects—a film based on French novelist André Malraux's Man's Fate, which was denied, and a film about the life of Pu Yi, China's last emperor. The Chinese government not only sanctioned the latter project—The Last Emperor—but they supported Bertolucci with unprecedented access to China's Forbidden City, as well as supplying him with thousands of extras and authentic period costumes. The film won nine Academy Awards, including best picture and best director, and revitalized Bertolucci's career.
Bertolucci's oeuvre has ranged from intimate, personal dramas to large-scale, historical epics. One of his favored themes revolves around his generation's struggle with appreciating their bourgeois lifestyle and simultaneously wanting to destroy it. In his early films, Bertolucci was heavily influenced by filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard. However, beginning with Il conformista (1970; The Conformist), Bertolucci worked to consciously reject what he considered to be Godard's somewhat sadistic attitude toward his audiences. Bertolucci instead chose to engage his audience in a dialogue, and many of his films thereafter are considered to work in stylistic opposition to Godard's work. The Conformist is based on a novel by Alberto Moravia, set in 1930s Italy. Marcello is haunted by an incident from his childhood in which a male chauffeur tried to molest him. Marcello is convinced that he murdered the chauffeur, and in an attempt to escape the horror of this memory, he immerses himself in conformity and normality. He becomes a fascist agent and is ordered to murder his former professor, who acted as a father figure to him. In an ironic touch, the professor's phone number is the same as Godard's, signalling Bertolucci's metaphorical break from his own father figure. Last Tango in Paris focuses on Paul and Jeanne, who meet while looking at an apartment in Paris and begin an anonymous affair. Paul's wife has recently committed suicide, and he uses Jeanne to act out a series of violent sexual scenes in an effort to exorcise his grief over his wife's death. After the couple leaves the apartment for the last time, with both of them intending to go their separate ways, Paul follows Jeanne to her home and tells her his name. Feeling betrayed that Paul has broken the promised anonymity of their relationship, Jeanne shoots him in the genitals. The Last Emperor is based on From Emperor to Citizen, the autobiography of China's last emperor, Pu Yi. The film follows Pu Yi through the various stages of his life: his ascension to the throne at the age of three; his expulsion from the Forbidden City; his life as a playboy in Tientsin; his days as a puppet emperor of Manchuria under the control of Japan; his imprisonment and reeducation in a Communist prison; and finally his life as a working-class gardener. The Sheltering Sky (1990) tells the story of Port, a frustrated composer, and Kit, a New York socialite. The couple travels through Tangier in 1947 searching for spiritual fulfillment and a rekindling of the passion in their marriage. Their search is beleaguered by Port's infidelity and the harsh physical conditions in the desert which leads to Port's death. Kit suffers a mental breakdown soon after, and embarks on a trance-like journey into the desert alone, eventually becoming the concubine of a nomad. The conclusion is ambiguous with no evidence to confirm whether Kit will return home. Besieged (1999) is set in Rome and portrays Kinsky, a solitary pianist who hires Shandurai, a young African woman, as his housekeeper. Shandurai has fled the dictatorship in Africa to study medicine in Rome, and works for Kinsky to provide herself a room and money for her studies. Kinsky falls in love with her, but when he blurts out his feelings, she rebuffs him, telling him her husband is a political prisoner in Africa. Kinsky withdraws, but selflessly sacrifices his happiness and wealth to free her husband. Ironically, this selflessness causes Shandurai to fall in love with Kinsky just as her husband arrives in Rome to reunite with her.
Critics have passionately disagreed regarding Bertolucci's body of work. Some reviewers have preferred the visual majesty of his large-scale epics, while others have appreciated his more intimate films that explore personal relationships. In his description of Bertolucci's move to epic filmmaking, Dave Kehr asserted, “Within a breathtakingly short period, Bertolucci transformed himself from an edgy sexual-political provocateur into a David Lean manque. … [M]ystery and lyricism soon disappear, giving way to a painterly appreciation of crowd scenes and landscapes devoid of any identifiable personal slant. Introspection yields to spectacle, and art yields to industry.” Another point of contention among critics has arisen over whether the sexual content in Bertolucci's work, particularly Last Tango in Paris, should be viewed as pornography or as liberating eroticism. A few reviewers have actually complained that Bertolucci does not go far enough with the sexual content of his films, asserting that he only hints at homosexuality and incest without tackling the subjects directly. While most critics have agreed that Bertolucci's The Last Emperor is visually impressive, several critics have found fault with the film. Certain reviewers have stated that Bertolucci does not make Pu Yi's reeducation plausible. Others have complained that Pu Yi's character is too passive, a portrayal that caused the film to lack the necessary drama. A number of critics have noted the historical inaccuracies in The Last Emperor, with some bristling at Bertolucci's insertion of fictional events, while others have lauded his artistic melding of fiction and history. His harshest critics have found Bertolucci's films incomprehensible and have asserted that they are fueled by the director's egoism. Several reviewers have commented on Bertolucci's seemingly disparate works. However, Harlan Kennedy has found a continuity in the director's films, stating, “From La commare secca (1962) to The Last Emperor (1987), every Bertolucci movie is a locking of horns between past and present. Every movie is about the quest for salvation, political-historical or private-spiritual. And every movie has a visual style based on concealment and revelation.”