Bernardo Bertolucci

Two film greats: Direc­tor of the nine-Os­car ‘The Last Em­peror’, who scan­dalised with ‘Last Tango in Paris’, and the direc­tor who strug­gled for com­mer­cial suc­cess but was seen to great­est ef­fect in ‘Don’t Look Now’, ‘Per­for­mance’ and ‘Walk­a­bout’

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Deaths And Obituaries -

BERNARDO Bertolucci, the Ital­ian film­maker, who died last Mon­day aged 77, was best known for two films so dif­fer­ent in char­ac­ter and con­cep­tion that it was dif­fi­cult to be­lieve they emerged from the same direc­tor.

The Last Em­peror (1987) was a sweep­ing and sump­tu­ously filmed ac­count of the life of Pu Yi, the Chi­nese child-king, last of the Qing Dy­nasty, who was de­posed and treated as a war crim­i­nal by the com­mu­nists, end­ing up an or­di­nary ci­ti­zen in Chair­man Mao’s Peo­ple’s Repub­lic.

Shot in the vis­ual splen­dour of Bei­jing’s For­bid­den City, which had never be­fore been opened up for use in a West­ern film, it was made with the ap­proval of the Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties, who pro­vided 19,000 ex­tras from the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army to help in its pro­duc­tion.

It won Bertolucci all nine Os­cars for which it was nom­i­nated, in­clud­ing Best Film and Best Direc­tor.

Fif­teen years ear­lier, the direc­tor had caused a scan­dal — and made his name — with Last Tango in Paris, star­ring Mar­lon Brando and Maria Sch­nei­der as a mid­dle-aged man and younger woman who en­gage in a bru­tal sex­ual re­la­tion­ship in a bare Paris apart­ment. In Italy, the film was de­clared by a court to be “ob­scene, in­de­cent and cater­ing to the low­est in­stincts of the li­bido” and, ini­tially, banned; Bertolucci had his civil rights re­voked for five years and earned a four-month sus­pended prison sen­tence.

Sourly claus­tro­pho­bic where The Last Em­peror was epic and grandiose, Last Tango in Paris was in­spired by a sex­ual fan­tasy of Bertolucci’s that in­volved “see­ing a beau­ti­ful name­less woman on the street and hav­ing sex with her with­out ever know­ing who she was”. It caused out­rage for a rape scene in which a growl­ing, sweat­ing, naked Mar­lon Brando “sodomises” Maria Sch­nei­der us­ing a pack of but­ter as a lu­bri­cant.

The but­ter de­tail had not been in the orig­i­nal script; ac­cord­ing to Bertolucci the idea oc­curred to him when he and Brando, 48, were hav­ing break­fast “and there was a baguette and there was but­ter, and we looked at each other and with­out say­ing any­thing, we knew what we wanted”.

They de­cided not to warn Maria Sch­nei­der, a 19-yearold un­known when she made the film, un­til the two ac­tors were ready to shoot the scene, be­cause, as Bertolucci re­called later, “I wanted her re­ac­tion as a girl, not as an ac­tress. I wanted her to re­act hu­mil­i­ated”.

In an in­ter­view in 2007, the ac­tress claimed that she had not known about the pro­posed rape scene at all (let alone the pro­posed mis­use of a dairy prod­uct), un­til just be­fore film­ing: “Mar­lon said to me, ‘Maria, don’t worry, it’s just a movie’, but dur­ing the scene, even though what Mar­lon was do­ing wasn’t real, I was cry­ing real tears. I felt hu­mil­i­ated and to be hon­est, I felt a lit­tle raped.”

In­deed the scene was so har­row­ing to watch that some be­lieved the rape had re­ally taken place.

Af­ter Last Tango in Paris Maria Sch­nei­der bat­tled with drugs and men­tal health and when she died of can­cer aged 58 in 2011 her obit­u­ar­ies blamed at least some of her prob­lems on Bertolucci’s treat­ment of her.

Writ­ing in The Sun­day Tele­graph Mag­a­zine in 2013, how­ever, John Pre­ston, who in­ter­viewed her shortly be­fore she died, wrote that while she may have had a “le­git­i­mate beef ”, he had the feel­ing that “she’d lit on Last Tango in Paris as the source of all her woes be­cause it en­abled her to shift the blame for the ap­palling mess she’d made of her life on to some­one else”.

Bertolucci was de­scribed by one pro­file writer as “an en­chant­ing nar­cis­sist, a limou­sine Marx­ist, an adorer of Freud and Bud­dha, a lover of fab­u­lous cloth­ing, rak­ish hats, cash­mere”. Off the set, he had a rather old-fash­ioned cour­te­ous air, but he al­ways ad­mit­ted that he was apt to get car­ried away when di­rect­ing, some­times to the point of ruth­less­ness.

“Maria ac­cused me of hav­ing robbed her of her youth,” he said af­ter her death, “and only to­day am I won­der­ing whether there wasn’t some truth to that.” He wished he had been able to apol­o­gise to her at least once.

Bernardo Bertolucci was born on March 16, 1941 in the north­ern Ital­ian city of Parma. His fa­ther, At­tilio Bertolucci, was a poet, art his­to­rian and film critic.

When Bernardo was 13 the fam­ily moved to Rome where one day he an­swered the door­bell. “A very sin­is­ter look­ing man was stand­ing there in a black hat. He asked for Pro­fes­sor Bertolucci. I went and woke up my fa­ther who was hav­ing a nap and told him there was a man out­side who looked like a thief.” The man, it tran­spired, was the film direc­tor Pier Paolo Pa­solini.

Bertolucci ended up drop­ping out of uni­ver­sity and go­ing to work for Pa­solini as an as­sis­tant direc­tor on Ac­cat­tone (1961). A year later, in 1962, he made his first film The Grim Reaper, about the mur­der of a pros­ti­tute, fol­lowed by Be­fore the Revo­lu­tion (1964) — avant-garde works in­flu­enced by the French New Wave.

There fol­lowed two 1970 films delv­ing into Italy’s dal­liance with fas­cism: The Spi­der’s Stratagem and The Con­form­ist, the lat­ter — star­ring Jean-Louis Trintig­nant, Ste­fa­nia San­drelli and Do­minique Sanda in a free­wheel­ing adap­ta­tion of an Al­berto Mo­ravia novel about an Ital­ian fas­cist in the Thir­ties who is told to kill his for­mer teacher — was a vis­ually stun­ning work which many crit­ics felt was Bertolucci’s mas­ter­piece.

Re­view­ing it in The New Yorker, Pauline Kael hailed it as “a sump­tu­ous, emo­tion­ally charged ex­pe­ri­ence”. “His films just seem to flow,” she wrote, “as if the life he pho­to­graphs had not been set up for the cam­era but were all there and he were mov­ing in and out of it at will.”

Bertolucci wanted to cast Trintig­nant and Do­minique Sanda in Brando and Sch­nei­der’s roles in Last Tango in Paris, but Trintig­nant de­clined and Do­minique Sanda was preg­nant. The film pro­voked ex­treme re­ac­tions all round — cin­ema­go­ers in Italy and Spain, where it was banned, had to travel to France, where it earned rave re­views, to see it. But it made Bertolucci the most fa­mous direc­tor in the world.

Think­ing he could do al­most any­thing he wanted, he em­barked on 1900 (1976), a huge, all-star five-hour pe­riod epic about strug­gling farm­ers in Emilia-Ro­magna, fea­tur­ing Ger­ard Depar­dieu as its Marx­ist hero. The film re­ceived mixed re­views from crit­ics in Amer­ica, where the dis­trib­u­tors forced Bertolucci to make cuts and gave it a lim­ited re­lease.

His roller-coaster be­tween crit­i­cal suc­cess and fail­ure con­tin­ued with such works as La Luna (1979), an over­heated tale of in­cest, which even he la­belled “atro­cious”; The Last Em­peror; The Shel­ter­ing Sky (1990), an adap­ta­tion of the Paul Bowles novel de­scribed by one critic as “barely watch­able”; and Lit­tle Bud­dha (1993), which, though beau­ti­fully filmed, earned ridicule for Bertolucci’s choice of Keanu Reeves to play Siddhartha, the fu­ture Bud­dha.

But he re­mained a key fig­ure of se­ri­ous cin­ema, ad­mired for his bold­ness of style. His last ma­jor film, Me and You (2012), based on a novel by Nic­colo Am­man­iti, was about a trou­bled teenage boy who bunks off a school ski­ing trip and spends a week liv­ing in the base­ment of his mother’s apart­ment build­ing, emerg­ing a lot hap­pier.

Bertolucci once said that his films were a by-prod­uct of his time on the psy­chi­a­trist’s couch. The Tele­graph’s John Pre­ston felt Me and You was a “metaphor” about the direc­tor’s own life.

Bernardo Bertolucci was mar­ried to Clare Pe­ploe, the Bri­tish screen­writer, pro­ducer and direc­tor, who sur­vives him. They had no chil­dren.

CON­TRO­VER­SIAL: Bernardo Bertolucci, left, dis­cusses a scene with lead­ing ac­tors Mar­lon Brando and Maria Sch­nei­der dur­ing the shoot­ing of ‘Last Tango in Paris’ in 1973. Photo: AP

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.