Bernardo Bertolucci (born March 16, 1940) is a writer and film director.
Born in Parma, Italy the first son of a reputed historian, Bertolucci started writing at the age of 15 and soon after received some prestigious literarian prizes like the Premio Viareggio. He then reached Rome, where he was assistant to Pier Paolo Pasolini for his Accattone.
Many critics would try to sum up Bertolucci’s work in two words; sex and politics. Whilst it is true that these two themes figure largely throughout his career it seems a rather sweeping statement to make about a man who has directed, written, or been otherwise involved in literally dozens of movies spanning five decades. However, his recent releases do much to consolidate this point of view with Stealing Beauty offering little heterogeneity and The Dreamers managing to include both subject matters and little else. Whether this is what Bertolucci intends for his movies or whether critics are justified in accusing him of such narrowness misses the point of what Bertolucci is always trying to do; to push the boundaries and use the controversy aroused by his films iconoclastically to force people to look at themselves and the society they live in.
Bernardo Bertolucci was born in Parma in 1941 to a cultured family; his father was a poet and an art historian. He directed his first film at the age of 21 (The Grim Reaper, 1962) which was immediately followed by his still acclaimed Prima della rivoluzione (Before the Revolution, 1964). Admittedly, his father’s background helped his career immensely, his father had helped the Italian film maker Pier Paolo Pasolini to publish his first novel who reciprocated by hiring Bernardo as first assistant on Accattone (1961). But his present title of listed genius was already being recognised by those such as Sergio Leone, who asked him to write the storyline for Once Upon a Time in the West, before rejecting it as too cerebral for an American audience.
Yet the boom of Italian cinema that Bertolucci had cut his teeth in was soon to end as alas, the 1970's brought to the Italian film industry the twinge of a declining global economy. Directors increasingly found it necessary to make co-productions with French, American, Swedish, and German companies in order to finance their films and to bring them the links that would facilitate their attempts to compete in the now global entertainment industry. Bertolucci was no exception. Last Tango in Paris (1972), starring Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider was the epitome of a new trend or even rule of thumb that for Italian movies to make money foreign actors must be employed usually in the starring roles, indeed Last Tango in Paris included only one Italian actor, Massimo Girotti, in a main role. The film caused a deep scandal in Italy for a sodomy scene and the film was sequestered by censorship and officially all the copies were destroyed. An Italian court revoked Bertolucci's civil rights for five years plus it gave him a four-month suspended prison sentence. Many years after, when the general modesty had changed and the censorship commission had been abolished, the film reappeared (because Bertolucci had kept a clandestine copy) and was projected in a slightly censored version. Bertolucci’s 1900 (1976), starring Burt Lancaster, Donald Sutherland, Robert de Niro, and Gerard Depardieu, has often been accused as marking the point at which Italian cinema’s dependence on the international market contributed to the disintegration of its national identity.
Yet, Bertolucci himself would see this disintegration of national identity less as an accusation and more a congratulatory statement. Without a doubt Bertolucci is highly political, a self confessed Marxist intellectual it is likely he was one of the few in the West who shed a tear at the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Communist experiment. Like Visconti before him, who himself employed many foreign artists during the late 1960’s, Bertolucci uses his films to express his own political take and hence can be highly autobiographical as well as highly controversial. This re-evaluation of the political impact of cinema began with a re-evaluation of the historical past. His 1970 masterpiece The Conformist prodded Fascist ideology, criticising the relationship between nationhood and nationalism, whilst at the same time re-assessing popular taste and collective memory and 1900 also analyses the struggle of Left and Right. However, it is the 1987 epic The Last Emperor (the recently re-released version runs for a staggering 219 minutes) which allowed Bertolucci to influence politics both through his characters and through the act of making the film itself. The unprecedented permission granted to him to film in the Forbidden City now, with the rise of Chinese cinema and package tourists, seems to have receded in importance but at the time it was truly groundbreaking. The film itself showing the central character Pu Yi and his decade long communist re-education under Mao which takes him from the peacock colours of the palace to the grey suit worn by his contemporaries to live out his life as a gardener. Many critics found it impossible to sympathise with the Emperor despite John Lone’s breathtakingly convincing performance. What these critics seemed to miss is that Bertolucci used The Last Emperor to dream the dream that he was later to complain the fall of the Berlin Wall forbade him, the dream of revolution.
Bertolucci also has a talent for delving deeply into human marrow and bone and likes to put the human soul under the microscope. Psychoanalysis is as central to him as it is to Woody Allen, and it was by sharing these psychoanalytical confidences with Marlon Brando on the set of Last Tango in Paris that Brando has said gained his trust and helped elicit what many believe to be the performance of a lifetime, which for the star of the Godfather is no small claim. Bertolucci himself is renowned for a harem of bow-tied psychologists who follow him everywhere doing their doctoral theses on the creative artist, which often includes interpreting his dreams. It is this interest in getting underneath the skin of the human condition that often requires his attention to turn to the most basic human urges which infamously leads to the many explicit scenes he includes in his films. From Last Tango in Paris with its exposition of Marlon Brando’s character Paul as he finds comfort in an anonymous affair after the death of his wife in violent circumstances to the visual account of a girl growing into a woman in the context of a summer abroad as with Liv Tyler’s character in Stealing Beauty, Bertolucci has examined the power of sexual relations in our lives. His latest work The Dreamer’s has been criticised not only for its extensive sex scenes but also the inclusion of male masturbation. However, it can be noted that it is through the sexual relations of three main characters that their thoughts are exposed. For instance, when Theo is shown to masturbate it is in the context that the one he loves the most, his sister, seems to be growing away from him and he can see the development of a relationship between the newcomer and his sister that excludes him.
Thus, some critics have come to the conclusion that Bertolucci is out to shock and that his pictures are nothing more than political and sexual in nature. Others argue his Freud meets Marx approach has created some of the finest films of the last half-century. Keanu Reeves, once said of him, “Bernardo has that balance of artistic vision and the machines.”
La Commare secca (1962)
Prima della rivoluzione (1962) aka Before the Revolution
La Via del petrolio (1965)
Il Canale (1966)
Amore e rabbia (1969) (episode "il Fico Infruttuoso")
La Strategia del ragno, (1970) aka Spider's Stratagem
Il Conformista (1971) aka the Conformist
Ultimo tango a Parigi (1973) aka Last Tango in Paris
1900 (Novecento) (1976)
La Luna (1979) aka The Moon
La Tragedia di un uomo ridicolo (1982) aka Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man
L'Ultimo Imperatore (1987) aka The Last Emperor
The Sheltering Sky, (1990)
Il piccolo Buddha (1993) aka Little Buddha
Io ballo da sola (1996) aka Stealing Beauty
L'Assedio (1998) aka Besieged
Ten Minutes Older:The Cello (2002)
I Sognatori (2003) aka The Dreamers