Bernardo Bertolucci and his films were often regarded as poetic appropriately so as his father was a well known Italian poet. Born on 16th March 1941 he often went to the cinema with his father where his love of film developed and he began making his own 16mm films and was hired as a production assistant when he was 20 years old on Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1961 film, ’Accatone’.
Bertolucci didn’t wait around and the following year made his directorial debut feature based on a script treatment by Pasolini about the murder of a prostitute from different perspectives on the last day of her life and all shot in different styles. His next film would see themes emerge that would be a constant throughout his future work including betrayal libido and left wing politics that would play a large part in his future films. Bertolucci’s reputation grew quickly and was enhanced when his films were shot by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and they would go on to make eight films together. 1970’s The Conformist would see his style at its peak with odd camera angles, indulgent camera tracking, rich colours, and great production design.
But it was 1972’s Last Tango in Paris that would bring Bertolucci to international attention with its controversial and explicit sexual sense starring film star Marlon Brando which in its most shocking scene would use butter in a far from hygienic manner. His co star Maria Schneider found the scene upsetting later claiming she had felt violated by the scene having not been told what Brando would do. For its director he found himself in front of court for making porn although he was acquitted yet still lost his civil right to vote for five years and the courts even went as far as to demand that all the prints be destroyed. However the film did well at the box office and gave him the money to make the epic ‘1900’ fours years later in an attempt to make a more populist film. Starring Gerard Depardieu, Burt Lancaster and Robert De Niro it was a long film and the producer had cut it down to 195 minutes from its 315 minute intended cut by Bertolucci. He fought the studio and it almost cost him his career.
Having married and divorced Maria Paola Maino his second marriage to Adriana Asti also ended in divorce and he married fellow writer director Clare Peploe in 1978 until the end of his life.
After this his films never really caught the public or critics imagination and after 1981 he didn’t make another film until 1987. But what a film because it was the magnificently opulent The Last Emperor. It was the first western film to be shot in China with the governments participation . The biopic of Pu Yi, China’s last emperor or “Son of Heaven” who is “re-educated” by the Maoist regime, is a fascinating, sumptuous epic, covering nearly 60 years of China’s cataclysmic history. The film cost $21m and the money was all on screen with its immense number of extras and stunning costumes. It was nominated for nine Oscars and won every single one including best director for Bertolucci.
After this his films would never hit such heights again. The Sheltering Sky was dull, Little Buddha starring Keanu Reeves oversimplified the story. Both films flopped. He turned to smaller films many about sexual awakening such as 2003’s ‘The Dreamers’ with Eva Green.
By then Bertolucci was suffering from back problems and underwent surgery that lost him the use of his legs and would be bound to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Suffering from bouts of depression he didn’t make another film for nine years with his last film ‘Me and You’ which was largely overlooked.
He died aged 77.