Bernardo Bertolucci Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In cerca del mistero [In Search of Mystery] (poetry) 1962

La commare secca [The Grim Reaper; director and co-screenwriter with Pier Paolo Pasolini and Sergio Citti] (film) 1962

Prima della rivoluzione [Before the Revolution; director and co-screenwriter with Gianni Amico] (film) 1964

*Partner [director and co-screenwriter with Gianni Amico] (film) 1968

Il conformista [The Conformist; director and co-screenwriter with Marilu Parolini and Eduardo de Gregario] (film) 1970

La strategia del ragno [The Spider's Stratagem; director and co-screenwriter...

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Robert Burgoyne (review date fall 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Burgoyne, Robert. “The Somatization of History in Bertolucci's 1900.Film Quarterly 40, no. 1 (fall 1986): 7–14.

[In the following review, Burgoyne discusses how Bertolucci's 1900 portrays history from the perspective of both the individual and the peasant class as a whole.]

History in Bertolucci's 1900 is fashioned much like a gestalt drawing, with two highly antagonistic versions of time and events unfolding within the same narrative space. From one perspective, the film purports to analyze the “poetic awakening” of the Italian peasant class to their own historical significance; from another, it appears to concentrate on what...

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Stanley Kauffmann (review date 14 December 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. Review of The Last Emperor, by Bernardo Bertolucci. New Republic 197, no. 241 (14 December 1987): 22–24.

[In the following negative excerpt, Kauffmann argues that Bertolucci's The Last Emperor lacks drama and seems more like a travelogue than a film.]

Marx and Freud have dominated Bernardo Bertolucci's career, for better and worse. Better: Before the Revolution and Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man. Worse: 1900 and Luna. The twin deities apparently persuaded Bertolucci to choose his latest subject. The story of the Chinese emperor Pu Yi could hardly have swept Bertolucci off his feet as a drama. It's not...

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T. Jefferson Kline (essay date 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kline, T. Jefferson. “‘A Turbid, Unreal Past, in Certain Measure True’: Last Tango in Paris.” In Bertolucci's Dream Loom: A Psychoanalytic Study of Cinema, pp. 106–26. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987.

[In the following essay, Kline examines the role of the Orpheus myth in Last Tango in Paris.]

I hear the echo of those tangos
I watched danced on the pavement
On an instant that today stands out alone
Without before or after, against oblivion
And had the taste of everything lost,
Everything lost and recovered.

Jorge Luis Borges

“Tonight we improvise!” shouts a gleeful Jeanne (Maria Schneider)...

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Fatimah Tobing Rony (review date winter 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rony, Fatimah Tobing. Review of The Last Emperor, by Bernardo Bertolucci. Film Quarterly 42, no. 2 (winter 1988): 47–52.

[In the following review, Rony presents a historical analysis of The Last Emperor in order to portray how Bertolucci engages the viewer in a game of belief versus disbelief.]

There seem to be two responses to Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor. One is typified by a remark I overheard as I left the theater: “I loved it! And I learned so much about history too.” The other is characterized by a New York Times article which, in its obsession with verisimilitude, set out to prove the historical...

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Richard A. Blake (review date 9 January 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Blake, Richard A. “China Doll.” America 158, no. 1 (9 January 1988): 17.

[In the following positive review, Blake asserts that The Last Emperor exhibits a return to the brilliance of Bertolucci's early career.]

Many people, especially as they pass through the peak of their middle years, grow melancholy with their lack of achievement. Most of these will simply regret that life has never called them to greatness, or having called them, then conspired against them. Most lives are shot through with threads of regret bordering on tragedy. The fortunate among such people learn to scale down expectations and relish the smaller, more human pleasures life...

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John K. Fairbank (review date 18 February 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Fairbank, John K. “Born Too Late.” New York Review of Books 35, no. 2 (18 February 1988): 14–16.

[In the following review, Fairbank discusses the literary origins of Bertolucci's The Last Emperor.]

The Last Emperor is a spectacular film photographed in brilliant color. It is also a moral drama with controversial political overtones of great ambiguity. It spans sixty years of history, between the Manchu dynasty's final decrepitude and the disaster of the Cultural Revolution in the People's Republic. It leaves us with a question: Did Pu Yi, the last emperor of the Ch'ing dynasty (1644–1912) and the only emperor of Japan's puppet state of Manchukuo...

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David Wilson (review date spring 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wilson, David. “Peter Pan in the Forbidden City.” Sight and Sound 57, no. 2 (spring 1988): 134–35.

[In the following review, Wilson argues that although segments of Bertolucci's The Last Emperor are “magnificent,” they do not create a unified whole.]

‘Is it true I can do anything I like?’ The child's remark is half innocent, half aware of the corruptions of power—and perhaps the key to Bertolucci's interpretation of the life of the last Emperor of China. Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi was, literally, His Majesty the Child. Installed on the Dragon Throne in 1908 at the age of three, festooned by stepmothers, tutors, courtiers and an army of eunuchs...

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Robert Zaller (essay date winter 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Zaller, Robert. “After the Revolution: Bertolucci's The Last Emperor.Michigan Quarterly Review 28, no. 1 (winter 1989): 79–93.

[In the following essay, Zaller discusses the importance of The Last Emperor and praises Bertolucci for his combination of the tragic and the ridiculous in the film.]

The theme of this movie is change. Can a man change? The story of Pu Yi is a story of metamorphosis. From emperor to citizen … from caterpillar to butterfly. The extraordinary thing is that the film's story coincides completely with China today. China is changing, a big mutation is in progress. … The movie is somehow in synch...

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Paul G. Pickowicz (review date October 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Pickowicz, Paul G. Review of The Last Emperor, by Bernardo Bertolucci. American Historical Review 94, no. 4 (October 1989): 1035–36.

[In the following review, Pickowicz argues that Bertolucci ignores important issues of Chinese history in The Last Emperor.]

Bernardo Bertolucci spent 25 million dollars making The Last Emperor and won nine Oscars for his effort, but historians of China, with few exceptions, refuse to take this lavish production very seriously. Among other things, they object to the invention of some episodes, such as Pu Yi's attempted suicide in 1950, and the inexplicable omission of genuinely important moments in his life, such...

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Sean French (review date winter 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: French, Sean. “The Road to Morocco.” Sight and Sound 60, no. 1 (winter 1990): 66–67.

[In the following review, French offers a negative assessment of The Sheltering Sky.]

Nicolas Roeg was reportedly disappointed when Bernardo Bertolucci finally managed to make a screen version of Paul Bowles' novel The Sheltering Sky, since this was a project he had been aspiring to do for some years. This is puzzling as he had already adapted the novel—albeit obliquely and partially—back in 1978. In Bad Timing, arguably Roeg's masterpiece as well as his last noteworthy film, the free spirit Milena (Theresa Russell) is seen at one point somewhat...

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Bernardo Bertolucci and David Gritten (interview date 9 December 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bertolucci, Bernardo, and David Gritten. “His Just Desert: Director Bernardo Bertolucci Turned from the Epic Sweep of The Last Emperor to the Arid Alienation of The Sheltering Sky.Los Angeles Times (9 December 1990): 23.

[In the following interview, Bertolucci discusses the making of The Sheltering Sky, how the film differs from The Last Emperor, and his relationship with his film crew.]

It's fair to say that if Bernardo Bertolucci believed in omens, he would never have embarked on The Sheltering Sky, his $22-million epic film adaptation of the 1949 Paul Bowles novel.

The Italian director,...

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Sheila Benson (review date 11 January 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Benson, Sheila. “Bertolucci's Desert of the Soul.” Los Angeles Times (11 January 1991): F12.

[In the following review, Benson offers a negative assessment of The Sheltering Sky.]

The New Yorkers of The Sheltering Sky (throughout San Diego County), Port and Kit Moresby, are expatriates of the late 1940s, aware that they are living through the dying fall of their marriage as they travel the world with no urgency about their return, or about anything else for that matter. Disinterested now in America, they've sailed to Tangier, with crushing amounts of luggage and the hope of finding the enlightenment that has eluded them on their other exotic treks....

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Chris Wagstaff (review date September 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wagstaff, Chris. “Theatre of Memory.” Sight and Sound 1, no. 5 (September 1991): 14–17.

[In the following review, Wagstaff examines the middle period of Bertolucci's career, focusing on The Spider's Stratagem and The Conformist.]

In the reign of Augustus, Horace admonished poets to seek a judicious balance between edifying and pleasing their readers. In 1970, Bernardo Bertolucci (born into a family of poets) came to the end of a painful search for that balance, and shot two films in the same year, La strategia del ragno (The Spider's Stratagem) and Il conformista (The Conformist). Both films tell of the assassination of...

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Yosefa Loshitzky (essay date winter 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Loshitzky, Yosefa. “More than Style: Bertolucci's Postmodernism versus Godard's Modernism.” Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts 34, no. 1 (winter 1992): 119–42.

[In the following essay, Loshitzky explores how Bertolucci's work has come to define postmodern cinema and the ways in which his films are an answer to the modernism of filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard.]

Any attempt to discuss Godard's and Bertolucci's styles1 invites an engagement with one of the most absorbing issues in contemporary discourse, the quarrel between modernism and postmodernism. The modern/postmodern debate is broached in various areas of contemporary thought...

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Jonathan Romney (review date 4 February 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Romney, Jonathan. Review of The Conformist, by Bernardo Bertolucci. New Statesman & Society 7, no. 288 (4 February 1994): 41–42.

[In the following review, Romney discusses the obscurity of Bertolucci's The Conformist.]

It's not uncommon to come across films that completely bypass understanding. What is rare is a film that eludes it—a more troubling, devious matter altogether. Bernardo Bertolucci's re-released The Conformist is such a film. It tells a story (albeit one that we have to reconstruct from complex flashbacks) and it has a point to make about psychology and politics. Yet, much as it might make perfect sense on one level, on...

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Bernardo Bertolucci and Chris Wagstaff (interview date April 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bertolucci, Bernardo, and Chris Wagstaff. “Bernardo Bertolucci: Intravenous Cinema.” Sight and Sound 4, no. 4 (April 1994): 18–21.

[In the following interview, Bertolucci discusses his relationship with his audience, his experience with Buddhism, and how he attempted to portray Buddhism in Little Buddha.]

Bertolucci's Little Buddha makes a very different address to a very different audience from that of his films of the 60s and 70s. His earlier films (Before the Revolution, Partner, The Spider's Stratagem and The Conformist) confronted the situation of a Marxist intellectual in contemporary Italy in the form of an...

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Chris Wagstaff (review date April 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wagstaff, Chris. Review of The Conformist, by Bernardo Bertolucci. Sight and Sound 4, no. 4 (April 1994): 53–54.

[In the following review, Wagstaff traces how Bertolucci's The Conformist communicates its major theme and how the reinsertion of a deleted scene affects the overall message of the film.]

Few people can resist considering Il conformista Bertolucci's masterpiece. He has constructed from Alberto Moravia's novel an Oedipal story of enormous complexity, both thematically and stylistically, reordering a chronological narrative into a dream, in which Marcello's psyche is gradually penetrated as though in a psychotherapy session...

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Kenneth Turan (review date 25 May 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Turan, Kenneth. “Buddha: Terminal Bliss.” Los Angeles Times (25 May 1994): F1.

[In the following review, Turan offers a negative assessment of Little Buddha, complaining that the film lacks drama and convincing dialogue.]

When the editor of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, one of the few journalists allowed on the set of Little Buddha, the new Bernardo Bertolucci film, wrote about her experience, one question continued to trouble her. What was the word Little doing in the title?

None of the filmmakers, it turned out, could give her a satisfactory answer, but now that the picture itself is here, the reason...

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Philip Strick (review date June 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Strick, Philip. Review of Little Buddha, by Bernardo Bertolucci. Sight and Sound 4, no. 6 (June 1994): 53–54.

[In the following review, Strick offers a mixed assessment of Little Buddha.]

Continuing the symmetry of The Last Emperor and The Sheltering Sky, Bertolucci completes his oriental trilogy with [Little Buddha,] another tale of innocents abroad. While it will doubtless come as no surprise to committed Buddhists, the journeys of Pu Yi and the ill-fated Moresbys from lives of useless luxury to the informative extremes of destitution turn out closely to parallel the path taken by Siddhartha, whose serene childhood—lotus...

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Karl Springer (review date 27 June 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Springer, Karl. “Counterpunch: Little Buddha's Sense of Wonder Is No Small Thing.” Los Angeles Times (27 June 1994): F3.

[In the following review, Springer defends Bertolucci's Little Buddha in response to Kenneth Turan's May 25, 1994 review of the film in the Los Angeles Times.]

Bernardo Bertolucci's new film, Little Buddha, is an extraordinary achievement by a master director in ways that cannot be seen in Kenneth Turan's review (“Buddha: Terminal Bliss,” [Los Angeles Times,] May 25). The proposition that Little Buddha is distorted by Bertolucci's “New Age reverence” for Buddhism is simply not accurate. It...

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Yosefa Loshitzky (essay date 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Loshitzky, Yosefa. “The Spider's Sexual Stratagem: Bertolucci's Poetics and Politics of Sexual Indeterminacy.” In The Radical Faces of Godard and Bertolucci, pp. 174–99. Detroit: Wayne State University, 1995.

[In the following essay, Loshitzky analyzes the role of sexuality and sexual ambiguity in Bertolucci's films.]

Bertolucci's fascination with bisexuality and androgyny is a recurrent motif in his work. On this matter he observes, “I would say that I like men who have something feminine about them and vice versa. Absolute virility is horrible. Absolute femininity, also.”1 Yet, as Will Aitken observes, “gay sexuality has never been the...

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Jack Mathews (review date 21 June 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mathews, Jack. “Bertolucci's Beauty Searches for Identity, '60s Idealism.” Los Angeles Times (21 June 1996): 6.

[In the following review, Mathews notes several faults in Stealing Beauty, but argues that any Bertolucci film is a welcome event.]

When the young American Lucy Harmon (Liv Tyler) arrives at the Tuscan farm where she was conceived two decades earlier, she finds everyone there in the midst of a lazy, mid-afternoon nap. What follows is an awakening in more ways than one.

This opening to Bernardo Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty is as gentle a metaphor as one could imagine, and one that seems to say as much about...

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Stanley Kauffmann (review date 24 June 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. Review of Stealing Beauty, by Bernardo Bertolucci. New Republic 214, no. 26 (24 June 1996): 32.

[In the following excerpt, Kauffmann charges Bertolucci with indulging his infatuations in Stealing Beauty.]

Bernardo Bertolucci's new film is a record of infatuations. Stealing Beauty (Fox Searchlight)—a meaningless title—tells us first of all that the middle-aged Bertolucci is infatuated with Liv Tyler, a young American actress. (I'm speaking only of what's visible on screen.) Such infatuation is hardly new, and sometimes it has produced exceptional work. But sometimes it's embarrassing, as it is here. Tyler has a good face for...

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John Simon (review date 15 July 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Simon, John. Review of Stealing Beauty, by Bernardo Bertolucci. National Review 48, no. 13 (15 July 1996): 52–53.

[In the following review, Simon offers a negative assessment of Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty.]

In 1972, well before its commercial release, Pauline Kael pronounced Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris the film that made “the strongest impression on me in almost twenty years of reviewing. This must be the most powerfully erotic movie ever made, and it may turn out the most liberating,” she wrote. “People will be arguing about it, I think, for as long as there are movies.” When did you last hear people arguing about...

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Bernardo Bertolucci and Kevin Thomas (interview date 18 October 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bertolucci, Bernardo, and Kevin Thomas. “The Filmmaker Looks Back at His Work While Exploring New Realms.” Los Angeles Times (18 October 1996): 6.

[In the following interview, Bertolucci reflects on his body of work and career in the film industry.]

Bernardo Bertolucci doesn't like looking back.

“I like looking in front of me. I see a mysterious landscape I don't understand, but then cinema is a kind of mutation,” the director says of his romantic, mystical passion for films and filmmaking.

He will be saluted tonight by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with a screening of a restored print of one of his...

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Dave Kehr (review date March 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kehr, Dave. Review of Besieged, by Bernardo Bertolucci. Film Comment 35, no. 2 (March 1999): 6.

[In the following review, Kehr asserts that the simplicity and intimacy of Besieged proves Bertolucci's maturity as a filmmaker.]

The past twenty years have witnessed a gradual globalization of the movies, which has mainly taken the form of Hollywood gobbling up all of the eccentric, individual national cinemas that once made up the rich fabric of the art. Clearly, the global march of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and the rest of the Hollywood action figures (Joe Dante's Small Soldiers provides a nice visual metaphor) has succeeded in wiping out most...

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Bernardo Bertolucci and David Gritten (interview date 16 May 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bertolucci, Bernardo, and David Gritten. “Bertolucci's Next: The Opposite of X.” Los Angeles Times (16 May 1999): 17.

[In the following interview, Bertolucci discusses his motivation for making Besieged.]

Bernardo Bertolucci's new film [Besieged] is an intimate chamber piece, featuring a man and a woman alone in an otherwise empty house. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

So it should. Bertolucci's biggest moment of fame (infamy, some would say) came in 1972 with the release of his steamy, controversial film Last Tango in Paris, starring Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider. Its explicit sexual content caused an international scandal;...

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Kevin Thomas (review date 21 May 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Thomas, Kevin. “Bertolucci Captures the Seductive Besieged.Los Angeles Times (21 May 1999): 6.

[In the following review, Thomas offers a positive assessment of Besieged, noting its economy, sensuality, and subtlety.]

From the start of the enchanting Besieged, a film that combines a stunning sensuality with a rigorous economy, you know that you're in the hands of a filmmaker who trusts in the storytelling power of the camera. And since the filmmaker happens to be Bernardo Bertolucci, you can count on his images to be ravishingly beautiful.

It begins this way: Bertolucci cinematographer Fabio Cianchetti's gracefully...

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Stanley Kauffmann (review date 21 June 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. “Close Encounters of the First Kind.” New Republic 220, no. 25 (21 June 1999): 30.

[In the following excerpt, Kauffmann offers a negative assessment of Besieged, arguing that the film's “vacuity” is “shocking.”]

Tough times for Bernardo Bertolucci. When he began making films, in the early 1960s, he was one of the young surfers riding the Italian postwar tide, which had been generated by such older figures as Rossellini and De Sica. Bertolucci's Before the Revolution, his second film but his first to be seen here, had the paradoxical design that marked the work of Olmi and Pasolini, the sense of breaking free of...

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Bernardo Bertolucci and Bruce Sklarew (interview date fall 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bertolucci, Bernardo, and Bruce Sklarew. “Returning to My Low-Budget Roots: An Interview with Bernardo Bertolucci.” Cineaste 24, no. 4 (fall 1999): 16.

[In the following interview, Bertolucci discusses the themes of Besieged, how the film was made, and his opinions of working in the television medium.]

Bernardo Bertolucci's latest film, Besieged, tells a story of attraction and sacrifice as it gradually unfolds between Shandurai (Thandie Newton), a young African woman studying medicine in Rome, and Jason Kinsky (David Thewlis), an English pianist and composer. Kinsky lives in the center of Rome in an old inherited house adjacent to the Spanish...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Bertolucci, Bernardo, and Don Ranvaud. “After the Revolution.” American Film 11, no. 1 (October 1986): 19–21.

Bertolucci discusses the logistics of filming The Last Emperor.

Bertolucci, Bernardo, and Lynn Hirschberg. “Romancing the East.” Rolling Stone, no. 517 (14 January 1988): 33.

Bertolucci discusses the filming of The Last Emperor and his frustration with the Hollywood studio system.

Bertolucci, Bernardo, and Harlan Kennedy. “Radical Sheik.” American Film 15, no. 15 (December 1990): 30–35, 56.

Bertolucci discusses the making...

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