By Harrison Smith / The Washington Post
Bernardo Bertolucci, an Italian director and screenwriter whose films ranged from the barrier-breaking erotic drama “Last Tango in Paris” to the Chinese historical epic “The Last Emperor,” died Nov. 26 at his home in Rome. He was 77.
His death was reported by Italy’s state-run broadcasting company, Rai, which did not give a precise cause.
An award-winning poet in his early 20s, Bertolucci traded literature for cinema after working as an assistant director under Pier Paolo Pasolini, a fellow poet turned filmmaker. He went on to become one of the world’s most renowned directors, alternately spurned and celebrated for films that starred leading actors such as Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro while featuring sexually provocative, politically charged subject matter.
His breakthrough was “The Conformist” (1970), about a member of the fascist secret police in Mussolini’s Italy (Jean-Louis Trintignant) ordered to assassinate his former college professor. The film, based on a novel by Alberto Moravia, earned Bertolucci his first Oscar nomination, for best adapted screenplay.
It was followed two years later by “Last Tango in Paris,” which starred Brando as a middle-aged American widower who carries on a romantic relationship with a younger French woman, played by Maria Schneider. The film’s raw depiction of sex — including a rape scene involving a stick of butter — spurred international outrage, and in 1976 Italy’s highest court banned the film, ordered all copies destroyed and handed Bertolucci a four-month suspended sentence.
Yet critics such as Pauline Kael of the New Yorker hailed the film as a trailblazing work of art. In one of the most famous reviews in movie history, she called the film’s premiere at the New York Film Festival “a landmark in movie history,” comparable to the night that Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” opened in Paris, marking the onset of a new avant-garde era in classical music.
“This must be the most powerfully erotic movie ever made,” Kael wrote, “and it may turn out to be the most liberating movie ever made, and so it’s probably only natural that an audience, anticipating a voluptuous feast from the man who made ‘The Conformist,’ and confronted with this unexpected sexuality and the new realism it requires of the actors, should go into shock. Bertolucci and Brando have altered the face of an art form. Who was prepared for that?”
Bertolucci went on to release critically acclaimed movies such as “The Sheltering Sky” (1990), based on a novel by Paul Bowles and starring Debra Winger and John Malkovich as a couple who travel to North Africa to save their marriage, and “The Dreamers” (2003), about an erotic love triangle formed during the 1968 student riots in Paris.
But his most successful movie was probably “The Last Emperor” (1987), with John Lone as Puyi, the Chinese emperor who ascended to the throne as a toddler and was imprisoned as a war criminal after the Communist Party seized power. The film was the first Western feature to obtain permission to shoot in the Forbidden City, the former imperial palace complex in Beijing.
It grossed $44 million in the United States alone and received nine Academy Awards, including best picture, best director and best adapted screenplay, which Bertolucci shared with screenwriter Mark Peploe.
“Maybe I’m an idealist,” Bertolucci said after receiving an award from the Directors Guild of America for the film, “but I still think of the movie theater as a cathedral where we all go together to dream the dream together.”