Nationality: Italian. Born: Parma, Italy, 16 March 1940. Education: Attended University of Rome, 1960–62. Family: Married 1) Clare Peptoe, 1978; 2) Adriana Asti. Career: Assistant director on Accattone (Pasolini), 1961; directed first feature, La commare secca, 1962; joined Italian Communist Party (PCI), late 1960s. Awards: Special Award, Cannes Festival, for Prima della revoluzione, 1964; Best Director Award, National Society of Film Critics, for Il conformista, 1971; Oscars for Best Director and Best Screenplay, and Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Feature Film Achievement, for The Last Emperor, 1987. Address: via della Lungara 3, Rome 00165, Italy.
Films as Director:
La commare secca (The Grim Reaper) (+ sc)
Prima della rivoluzione (Before the Revolution) (+ co-sc)
La vie del Petrolio (+ sc); Il canale (+ sc)
Ballata de un milliardo (+ co-sc)
"Il fico infruttuoso" episode of Amore e rabbia (Vangelo '70; Love and Anger) (+ sc)
Partner (+ co-sc)
La strategia del ragno (The Spider's Stratagem) (+ co-sc)
Il conformista (The Conformist) (+ sc)
La saluta e malato o I poveri muorioro prima (La Sante est malade ou Les Pauvres meurent les premiers) (+ sc); L'inchiesa (+ co-sc)
Last Tango in Paris (Le Dernier Tango à Paris; Ultimo tango a Parigi) (+ co-sc)
1900 (Novecento) (presented in two parts in Italy: Novecento atto I and Novecento atto II) (+ co-sc)
La luna (+ co-sc)
La tragedia di un uomo ridicolo (La Tragedie d'un homme ridicule; The Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man) (+ sc)
The Last Emperor (+co-sc)
The Sheltering Sky (+co-sc)
Stealing Beauty (+co-sc)
Paradiso e inferno
Accattone (Pasolini) (asst-d)
C'era una volta il West (Once upon a Time in the West) (Leone) (co-sc)
Bertolucci secondo il cinema (The Cinema according to Bertolucci (Amelio, Giuseppe Bertolucci) (ro as himself)
Wie de Waarheid Zegt Moet Dood (Whoever Says the Truth Shall Die) (Bregstein) (as himself)
Golem, l'esprit de l'exil (Golem, the Spirit of the Exile) (Gitai) (ro as Master of the Courtyard)
Jean Renoir (Thompson) (doc) (ro as himself); De Domeinen Ditvoorst (The Ditvoorst Domains) (Hoffman)
La Vera vita di Antonio (The True Life of Antonio H.) (Monteleone) (ro as himself)
Kurosawa: The Last Emperor (Cox) (ro as himself)
By BERTOLUCCI: books—
In cerca del mistero, Milan, 1962.
Bertolucci by Bertolucci, interviewed by Don Ranvaud and Enzo Ungari, London, 1987.
Bernardo Bertolucci: Interviews, edited by Fabien S. Gerard, T. Jefferson Kline, and Bruce Sklarew, Jackson, Mississippi, 2000.
By BERTOLUCCI: articles—
Interview with Jacques Bontemps and Louis Marcorelles, in Cahiersdu Cinéma (Paris), March 1965.
"A Conversation with Bernardo Bertolucci," with John Bragin, in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Fall 1966.
"Versus Godard," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), January 1967; also in Cahiers du Cinéma in English (New York), May 1967.
"Prima della rivoluzione," in Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), June 1968.
"Bertolucci on The Conformist," with Marilyn Goldin, in Sight andSound (London), Spring 1971.
Interview with Amos Vogel, in Film Comment (New York), Fall 1971.
"A Conversation with Bernardo Bertolucci," by Joan Mellen, in Cinéaste (New York), vol. 5, no.4, 1973.
"Every Sexual Relationship Is Condemned: Interview," with Gideon Bachmann, in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Spring 1973.
"Dialogue: Bertolucci and Aldrich," in Action (Los Angeles), March/April 1974.
"Dialogue on Film," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), April 1974.
"Films Are Animal Events," interview with Gideon Bachmann, in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Autumn 1975.
"Propos de Bernardo Bertolucci," interview with Guy Braucourt, in Ecran (Paris), October 1976.
Interview with D. Buckley and others, in Cineaste (New York), Winter 1976/77.
Interview with D. O'Grady, in Cinema Papers (Melbourne), July 1977.
"History Lessons," interview with D. Young, in Film Comment (New York), November/December 1977.
Interview with Gordon Gow, in Films and Filming (London), June 1978.
"Bertolucci on La Luna," an interview with Richard Roud, in Sightand Sound (London), no.4, 1979.
"Bernardo Bertolucci on Luna," an interview with M. Sclauzero, in Interview (New York), October 1979.
Interview with Michel Ciment and Gerard Legrand, in Positif (Paris), November 1979.
"Luna and the Critics," interview with G. Crowdus and D. Georgakas, in Cineaste (New York), Winter 1979/80.
"Dialogue on Film: Bernardo Bertolucci," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), January/February 1980.
Interview with M. Magill, in Films in Review (New York), April 1982.
Interview with G. Graziani, in Filmcritica (Florence), February/March 1983.
"After the Revolution? A Conversation with Bernardo Bertolucci," by D. Lavin, in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), January 1984.
Interview about Pasolini, in Cinema e Cinema (Rome), May/August 1985.
Interview with A. Philippon and S. Toubiana, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), November 1987.
Article in Film Comment (New York), November/December 1987.
Interview in Films in Review (New York), March 1988.
"Radical Sheik," an interview with Harlan Kennedy, in AmericanFilm (Washington D.C.) December, 1990.
"Love and Sand," an interview with R. Gerber, in Interview, January 1991.
"Bernardo Bertolucci: Intravenous Cinema," an interview with Chris Wagstaff, in Sight and Sound (London), vol. 4, no. 4, 1994.
"Beauté volée," an interview with Gérard Legrand and Christian Viviani, in Positif (Paris), June 1996.
Interview with Bram Crols and Marcel Meeus, in Film en Televisie (Brussels), July 1996.
"Liv and Let Love," an interview with Geoff Andrew, in Time Out (London), 7 August 1996.
Bertolucci, Bernardo, "Bernardo Bertolucci's Guilty Pleasures," in Film Comment (New York), July-August 1996.
On BERTOLUCCI: books—
Leprohon, Pierre, Le Cinéma italien, Paris, 1966.
Gelmis, Joseph, The Film Director as Superstar, Garden City, New York, 1970.
Mellen, Joan, Women and Sexuality in the New Film, New York, 1973.
Casetti, F., Bertolucci, Florence, 1975.
Ungari, Enzo, Bertolucci, Milan, 1982.
Kolker, Robert Phillip, Bernardo Bertolucci, London, 1985.
Kline, T. Jefferson, Bertolucci's Dream Loom: A PsychoanalyticalStudy of the Cinema, Amherst, Massachusetts, 1987.
Negri, Livio, and Fabien S. Gerard, eds., The Sheltering Sky: A Filmby Bernardo Bertolucci Based on the Novel by Paul Bowles, London, 1990.
Burgoyne, Robert, Bertolucci's 1900: A Narrative and HistoricalAnalysis, Detroit, 1991.
Loshitzky, Yosefa, The Radical Faces of Godard and Bertolucci, Detroit, 1995.
Sklarew, Bruce H., Bonnie S. Kaufman, Ellen Handler Spitz, and Diane Borden, editors, Bertolucci's The Last Emperor: MultipleTakes, Detroit, 1998.
On BERTOLUCCI: articles—
Kael, Pauline, "Starburst by a Gifted Twenty-Two-Year-Old," in Life (New York), 13 August 1965.
Beck, Julian, "Tourner avec Bertolucci," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), October 1967.
Tailleur, Roger, "Les Vacances rouges," in Positif (Paris), May 1968.
Purdon, N., "Bernardo Bertolucci," in Cinema (London), no. 8, 1971.
Kreitzman, R., "Bernardo Bertolucci, an Italian Young Master," in Film (London), Spring 1971.
Roud, Richard, "Fathers and Sons," in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1971.
"Le Dernier Tango à Paris," in Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), February 1973.
Kinder, Marsha, and Beverle Houston, "Bertolucci and the Dance of Danger," in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1973.
Lopez, D., "The Father Figure in The Conformist and in Last Tangoin Paris," in Film Heritage (New York), Summer 1976.
Aitken, W., "Bertolucci's Gay Images," in Jump Cut (Berkeley), November 1977.
Schwartzman, P., "Embarrass Me More!," in Film Comment (New York), November/December 1979.
Horton, A., "History as Myth and Myth as History in Bertolucci's 1900," in Film and History (Newark, New Jersey), February 1980.
"La Luna Issue" of Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), 15 November 1980.
Magny, Joel, "Biofilmographie commentée de Bernardo Bertolucci," in Cinéma (Paris), October 1981.
Gentry, R., "Bertolucci Directs Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man," in Millimeter (New York), December 1981.
Ranvaud, Don, "After the Revolution," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), October 1986.
"Last Emperor Section" of Cinéma (Paris), 25 November 1987.
Article in Film Comment (New York), July/August 1989.
Burgoyne, Robert, "The Somatization of History in Bertolucci's 1900," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Fall 1986.
Burgoyne, Robert, "Temporality as Historical Argument in Bertolucci's 1900," in Cinema Journal (Austin), vol. 28, no. 3, 1989.
Burgoyne, Robert, "The Last Emperor: The Stages of History," in SubStance (Madison, Wisconsin) no. 59, 1989.
Bundtzen, L. K., "Bertolucci's Erotic Politics and the Auteur Theory: From Last Tango in Paris to The Last Emperor," in WesternHumanities Review, vol. 44, no. 2, 1990.
Loshitzky, Yosefa, "'Memory of My Own Memory': Processes of Private and Collective Remembering in Bertolucci's The Spider'sStratagem and The Conformist," in History and Memory, vol. 3, no. 2, 1991.
Thomson, David, "Gone Away," in Film Comment, May/June 1991.
Loshitzky, Yosefa, and Raya Meyouhas, "'Ecstacy of Difference': Bertolucci's The Last Emperor," in Cinema Journal Austin), vol. 31, no. 2, 1992.
McAuliff, Jody, "The Church of the Desert: Reflections on TheSheltering Sky," in South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 91, no. 2, 1992.
Loshitzky, Yosefa, "The Tourist/Traveler Gaze: Bertolucci and Bowles' The Sheltering Sky," in East-West Film Journal (Honolulu), vol. 7, no. 2, 1993.
Buck, Joan Juliet, "The Last Romantic," in Vogue, March 1994.
Robert Horton, "Nonconformist: Bernardo Bertolucci's Little Buddha," in Film Comment, July/August 1994.
Socci, S., "Bernardo Bertolucci," in Castoro Cinema, November/December 1995.
Scorsese, Martin, "Ma cinéphilie," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), March 1996.
Epstein, Jan, "Is Cinema Dead?" in Cinema Papers (Fitzroy), August 1997.
* * *
At the age of twenty-one, Bernardo Bertolucci established himself as a major artist in two distinct art forms, winning a prestigious award in poetry and receiving high critical acclaim for his initial film, La commare secca. This combination of talents is evident in all of his films, which have a lyric but exceptionally concrete style. His father, Attilio Bertolucci, was famous in his own right as a critic, professor, and poet, and in 1961 introduced Bernardo to Pier Paolo Pasolini, an esteemed literary figure. This friendship led both writers, ironically, away from poetry and into the cinema. Serving as the assistant director on Pasolini's inaugural film, Accattone, Bertolucci was very quickly entrusted with the full direction of Pasolini's next project, La commare secca, based on a story by the writer.
La commare secca is an auspicious debut; as both screenwriter and director, Bertolucci found at once the high visual style and narrative complexity which distinguish his later films. The sex murder of a prostitute is its central narrative event; as the probable witnesses and suspects are brought in for questioning, a series of lives are unraveled, with each sad story winding toward the city park where the murder occurred. Formally, the film is an ambitious amalgam of a film noir atmosphere and narrative style with a neorealist concentration on behavioral detail and realistic settings.
In Before the Revolution, Bertolucci first presents the theme which will become foremost in his work: the conflict between freedom and conformity. Fabrizio, the leading character, is obliged to decide between radical political commitment and an alluring marriage into the bourgeoisie. In this reworking of Stendhal's The Charterhouse of Parma, Bertolucci expressly delineates the connection between politics and sexuality. The film also establishes the Freudian theme of the totemic father, which will recur throughout Bertolucci's work, here emblematized in the figure of Fabrizio's communist mentor, whom Fabrizio must renounce as a precondition to his entry into moneyed society.
Bertolucci diverged from the style of his first two critically successful films with The Partner, a complex, experimental work based on Dostoevski's The Double. Heavily influenced by the films of Godard and the events of May 1968, it eschews narrative exposition, developing instead a critique of literary consumerism, academic pacifism, and the student left, through a series of polemical debates between a bookish student and his radical double. For the most part The Partner is an anomalous film, which conveys very little of the heightened lyricism of his major works.
With The Spider's Stratagem, originally made for television in 1969, and The Conformist, Bertolucci combines an experimental narrative technique with lavish visual design, achieving in The Conformist an unprecedented commercial and critical triumph. Sexuality is here explicitly posited as the motor of political allegiance, as Marcello, the lead character in The Conformist, becomes a Fascist in order to suppress his growing recognition of his homosexuality. The character performs an outlandishly deviant act—killing his former professor, now a member of the Resistance, in order to declare his own conventionality and membership in the Fascist order. Conformity and rebellion are thus folded together, not only in the psyche of Marcello, but in the culture as a whole, as Bertolucci examines the interpenetrating structures, the twin pathologies, of family and politics. Bertolucci here unveils the full range of stylistic features—the elaborate tracking shots, the opulent color photography (realized by the virtuoso cinematographer Vittorio Storara), the odd, surrealistic visual incongruities—that give his work such a distinctive surface. It is here, also, that Bertolucci connects most directly with the general evolution of the postwar Italian cinema. Beginning with Visconti, and continuing with Antonioni and Bellocchio, an increasing emphasis is placed on the psychology of transgression, a motif which links politics and the libido. The inner life of the alienated protagonist becomes the lens displaying the spectrum of social forces, as the politics of the state are viewed in the mimetic behavior of disturbed individuals.
Last Tango in Paris depicts the last week in the life of Paul, played by Marlon Brando, as a man who is both geographically and spiritually in exile. His orbit crosses that of "the girl," played by Maria Schneider. The raw sexual encounters that ensue serve as a kind of purgation for the Brando character, who retaliates against the hypocrisy of cultural institutions such as family, church, and state through the medium of Jeanne's body. Sex is used as a weapon and symbolic cure, apparatus of social constraints. The outsized human passion Bertolucci depicts, chiefly through the threatening figure of Marlon Brando, seems to literalize the filmmaker's comment that "films are animal events." In addition to the players, the music by Gatto Barbieri and the cinematography of Vittorio Storaro contribute to the febrile intensity of the work.
The world acclaim brought by Last Tango assured Bertolucci of the financial resources to complete the long-planned Marxian epic, 1900. Setting the film in the rural areas of Parma, a few miles from his childhood home, Bertolucci set out to compose a paean to a way of life that was passing—the "culture of the land" of the peasant farmers, seen as a native and pure form of communism. The film depicts the cruel historical awakening of the farmers of the region, part of an entire class that has been regularly brutalized, first by aristocratic landowners, and then by the Fascist regime. Bertolucci localizes this conflict in the twin destinies of two characters born on the same day in 1900—Olmo, who becomes a peasant leader, and Alfredo, the scion of the feudal estate in which the film takes place.
The controversial work was released in a six-hour form in Europe, and shortened to three hours for American release. Bertolucci had complete control of the cutting of the film, and considers the shorter version a more finished work. The epic sweep remains, as do the contradictions—for the film amalgamates the most divergent elements: a Marxian epic, it is furnished with an international star cast; a portrait of the indigenous peasantry, its principle language is English. Intentionally fashioned for wide commercial appeal, it nonetheless broaches untried subject matter. The film keeps these elements in suspension, never dissolving these differences into an ideological portrait of life "after the revolution." The film's ending seems instead to return to the customary balance and tension between historical forces and class interests.
In Luna, Bertolucci turns to a much more intimate subject: the relation between mother and son. The work has a diminutive scale but a passionate focus, a quality crystallized in the opera scenes in which the mother, Caterina, performs. The reconciliation of mother, son, and father occurs during a rehearsal in which the mother reveals, through song, the identity of father and son. This cathartic and bravura scene plays in high relief the characteristic patterns of Bertolucci's cinema, in which the family drama is played against the backdrop of a ritualized art form, opera in this case, dance in Last Tango, and theater (the Macbeth scene in Before the Revolution).
With Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man, Bertolucci continues his inquiry into the relations between politics and family life, here framing the ambivalent bond between father and son with the correlative conflict between capitalism and political terror.
Bertolucci returned to the wide canvas of the historical film with The Last Emperor in 1987. Frustrated by his inability to acquire financing for a film of the Dashiell Hammett story Red Harvest, and unhappy with the state of filmmaking in Italy, the director turned to the autobiography of Pu Yi, China's last emperor, and had the privilege not only of filming in China but also of filming in the Forbidden City in Beijing, the first time such access had been allowed.
The story of Pu Yi illustrates a striking change in the political focus of Bertolucci's filmmaking. The relationship between individual psychology and the political and historical forces that mold it remains, as before, the central subject of the film, linking it to works such as Before the Revolution, The Conformist, and 1900. But the resolution of the film seems to take place outside the political and historical context. The transformation of Pu Yi, in Bertolucci's words, from "a dragon to a butterfly," occurs only in the context of individual friendship. In depicting the rise and fall of imperialism, republicanism, and fascism, and ending the film with a portrayal of the harsh excesses of the Cultural Revolution, Bertolucci depicts a sequence of destructive political "solutions" that somehow clear the way for the journey of the main character from "darkness to light."
Following The Last Emperor, Bertolucci continued his exploration of non-Western cultures with The Sheltering Sky and Little Buddha, opening his work to existential and philosophical themes that would almost seem to defy dramatic expression. In The Sheltering Sky, Bertolucci fashions a disturbing portrait of a consciousness in search of its own annihilation. Drawn from the Paul Bowles novel of the same title, the film, in its first half, focuses on the pathos of a couple who adore each other but cannot be happy, on the difficulty of romantic love. The work centers on the willful isolation and self-loathing of the character Porter, who has traveled to Morocco in 1947 with his wife Kit and a friend, Tunner, in order to escape the bitter sense of his own emptiness and artistic impotence. Like the character Paul in Last Tango in Paris, Porter is a dangerous and mesmerizing character whose self-absorption creates a kind of vortex which draws others down with him. As the two main characters, Port and Kit, push deeper into the Sahara, the physical hardships they encounter seem more and more like rites of purgation, as if only the heat and dirt of the desert could wear down the various masks and poses that they continually display to each other. Port dies a horrifying death from typhus, revealing the depths of his love for Kit only as the curtain descends. Kit, cast adrift deep in Morocco, hitches up with a caravan of Tuareg nomads and allows the remains of her Western identity to dissolve; she becomes the lover of the leader of the caravan, her Western clothes are buried in the desert, and she enters his harem disguised as a boy, dressed in the indigo robes, turban, and sword of a Tuareg tribesman. In a sense, Kit becomes possessed by Porter's spirit, his taste for uncharted experience, without, however, assuming his arrogance or corrosive unhappiness. Kit's story, which Bertoucci poetically links with the phases of the moon and nocturnal shades of blue, becomes dream-like, a carnal utopia of full and expressive passion in which she submerges her identity and becomes whole, albeit temporarily.
The Sheltering Sky has much in common with Bertolucci's earlier films, particularly Last Tango in Paris; as Bertolucci says in an interview, "Isn't the empty flat of Last Tango a kind of desert and isn't the desert an empty flat?" By filming in North Africa, however, Bertolucci allows the landscape to provide a kind of silent commentary on the doomed protagonists, whose profound unhappiness is made more piercing by the almost cosmic scale of the environment. The film abounds in visual ideas, finding in the mountain overlooks, wind-blown expanses, and fly-infested outposts a kind of encompassing dimension comparable to the role played by history in other Bertolucci films. Here, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro composes scenes around the division of color temperatures associated with the two main characters, red and blue, in ways that accentuate their irreconcilability. Exceptional acting by John Malkovich and Debra Winger gives The Sheltering Sky a sense of emotional truth that stays with the spectator, like the tattoos on fingers and feet that Kit receives in the deepest Sahara.
Little Buddha, released in 1994, completes what Bertolucci has called his Eastern trilogy. Although it shares the exoticism and the chromatic richness of The Last Emperor and The Sheltering Sky, Little Buddha is a sharp departure from its predecessors. It is, Bertolucci has said, a story without dramatic conflicts, a story in which the dualism and division that animates his other films is resolved into a kind of harmonious unity. Weaving together the ancient tale of Siddartha and his quest for enlightenment with a contemporary story of an eight-year-old American boy who may be the reincarnation of a famous Buddhist master, the film aims for a simplicity of tone and address that could be understood and appreciated by children: indeed, Bertolucci has called Little Buddha a film for children, arguing that when it comes to Buddhism, everyone in the Western world is a child.
Little Buddha features a striking visual style, marked by heightened color abstraction. Vittorio Storaro, Bertolucci's cinematographer for all his films except one, has said in an interview that Little Buddha represents the culmination of his exploration into light, and that it may be a film that is "impossible to go beyond." The painterly style of Little Buddha is keyed not only to the contrast between the blue tonality of Seattle and the red and gold of the Siddartha story, but also to the four elements and the movement of the celestial spheres. When Siddartha achieves enlightenment under the banyan tree after staving off temptation and fear, harmony and balance are signified by the simultaneous appearance of the sun and the moon in the sky, and by the balanced color temperature of the sequence. In his career-long work with Bertolucci, Storaro has progressed from an exploration of light and shadow, to an exploration of the contrast of colors within light, to an exploration of the harmony within the spectrum.
The fascinating sequences of Siddartha's journey to enlightenment have a distinctly magical, storybook quality, a tone that is achieved partly by filming these scenes in 65 millimeter. The precision and detail that sets these sequences apart gives them the quality of an illuminated manuscript, or of a dazzling storybook of hand-colored pages. Also important here is the acting of Keanu Reeves, who embodies the part of a beautiful youth determined to find the true value of life. The slightly unformed, open innocence of Reeves' Siddartha is perfectly attuned to the enchanted vision of this benevolent film, which discovers in a tale of reincarnation a kind of dispensation from the drama of political and sexual conflict that had defined Bertolucci's filmmaking to this point.
Stealing Beauty, the story of a young girl's sexual awakening, is a small-scale, intimate film that marks a departure from the spectacular, exotic subject matter of the "oriental trilogy" of The Last Emperor, The Sheltering Sky, and Little Buddha. Returning to Italy to make a film there for the first time in more than ten years, Bertolucci set aside the elaborate cinematography and the opulent design for which he had become famous in favor of a more subdued and unstudied style. A story of a young American girl (played by Liv Tyler) who returns to the villa in Tuscany, still populated by artists and bohemians, where her mother had once lived and reigned as the beautiful muse and poet of the group, Stealing Beauty gradually unfolds as the story of the girl's search for her unknown father, a quest that coincides with her first experience of sexual love. Bertolucci has said that he felt he needed to approach Italy with new eyes, with the eyes of a foreigner, after all the changes that the country had gone through after the 1980s, and that he had in effect "reincarnated himself as a young 19 year old American girl" in this film.
Here, the director composes a light, Mozart-like variation on themes he has considered in highly dramatic terms before: the search for the father, the passing of one generation and the advent of another, the dangerous power of erotic attraction. Although Stealing Beauty possesses sobering elements, such as the imminent death of the playwright played by Jeremy Irons, the brooding restlessness of the sculptor played by Donal McCann, and the intermittent madness of the character played by the 85-year-old Jean Marais—perhaps best known for his role in Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast—the overall effect of this subtle, observant film is that of a movie, as Bertolucci says, that "weighs only a few grams." The title of the film, the director says, comes from the idea that the artist is always "stealing beauty," using the beauty of the world for his or her subject matter, drawing from it for inspiration. By setting the film in Tuscany, in a landscape that has inspired painters from Giotto onwards, Bertolucci Bertolucci offers a here a quiet meditation on art and life.
In his next film, Beseiged, Bertolucci continues this style of oblique, subtle filmmaking whose greatest power is in its observation of the unpredictability of human behavior. Set again in Italy, this time in Rome, Beseiged is the story of a young African woman (played by Thandie Newton), who has fled to Rome after her husband has been arrested by the military dictatorship in her country. While pursuing her studies toward a medical degree, she works as the live-in housekeeper for a reclusive English pianist (played by David Thewlis). He immediately falls in love with her, which he declares in a series of awkward, tentative, and ultimately assertive gestures that infuriate her. Finally, she tells him that if he really loves her he will try to get her husband out of jail. Surprisingly, he takes her at her word, and begins selling the objects in his apartment to raise money. He also begins incorporating African styles and musical ideas in his compositions. As the apartment becomes more and more bare, she mentions that there is not much left to dust, never suspecting the reasons for his selling most of his material possessions. She also begins to be increasingly fond of him, as he becomes more and more certain, assured, and mysterious. Finally, after giving a last concert in his apartment to his friends and colleagues (who consist only of his young music students), he sells his grand piano and wins her husband's release.
Beseiged proceeds with very little dialogue — Bertolucci says that he had in mind a line from Cocteau: "There is no love, there are only proofs of love"—a line which he had used in Stealing Beauty and which he saw as a leitmotif for this film: "it's easy to say 'I love you,' it's more difficult to give proof, proofs of love. Besieged is about that." He also says an idea that grew naturally out of the film was that the only way of being truly happy is making happy the people you love. Thus Kinsky, the pianist, finds joy in giving up everything, including his beloved piano—without Shandurai, the African woman, ever knowing his reason for doing so. In several ways, Besieged presents the reverse side of the coin of Last Tango in Paris, also a film about a man and a woman in a bare apartment. In Last Tango, Bertolucci set out to show, as he said at the time, that "every sexual relationship is condemned." In Besieged, the love between Kinsky and Shandurai develops along the opposite arc, from possessive desire to relinquishment, or, as the director says, toward the "total annihilation of selfishness."
The absence of dialogue in the film, in which emotions and messages are communicated through gesture, music, and movement, recalls the cinema of Rene Clair, who in films like Under the Roofs of Paris would have dialogue fade out and music carry the conversation. Bertolucci has also said that the absence of dialogue in the film came partially from his thinking about where the cinema was going, and how much the cinema should incorporate new technologies. He decided that in Besieged he would go back to the origins, to the silent cinema before 1927, when feelings were communicated uniquely through images and music. Made originally for Italian television, Besieged gave Bertolucci a chance to rediscover a kind of spontaneity in filmmaking, a feeling he had lost because of the size and scope of his productions of the last fifteen years. Here, he was able to create twenty or thirty shots in a day's shooting, to mix handheld, steadicam, and tracking shots together, and not to worry overly much about light and shadow. "It was like going back to the '60's, to the old times when there wasn't so much pressure. . . to go back to that feeling was extraordinary . . . incredibly stimulating."
Bernardo Bertolucci (born 1940), director of Last Tango in Paris and The Last Emperor, is considered one of the modern masters of international filmmaking.
The grandchild of a revolutionary who grew up loving the fine arts and literature, Bernardo Bertolucci revolutionized the art of cinema with his frank films about politics and sexuality. The Italian director has made some of the landmark films of the modern era, earning international recognition and industry accolades along the way. He has worked with some of the finest actors in the world, including Marlon Brando, Gerard Depardieu, and Robert De Niro. Bertolucci's films have ranged from the exquisitely personal to the grand epic, but he has always kept his political and philosophical concerns front and center in his work. His resume of achievements includes multiple Academy Award nominations and a Best Director statuette for his 1987 masterpiece The Last Emperor.
Life of Leisure
Bertolucci was born on March 16, 1940 in Parma, Italy. His lineage was one of intellectual curiosity and radical politics. His maternal grandfather was an Italian revolutionary forced into exile in Australia. His mother, Ninetta, worked as a teacher. His father, Attilio Bertolucci, wrote poetry and taught art history. Bertolucci also had a younger brother, Giuseppe. The family lived in a large house filled with books and staffed by dedicated servants. Bertolucci enjoyed a very privileged upbringing that allowed him to pursue his artistic and intellectual interests.
At an early age, Bertolucci developed an interest in cinema. His father wrote a film column for a prominent newspaper. On many days Bertolucci would accompany him to see the latest releases. Since these trips often involved traveling to the big city, Bertolucci began to associate movies with the strangeness and wonder of urban life. Later on in his childhood, the family moved to Rome.
Begins Making Movies
When Bertolucci graduated from high school, he received a 16-millimeter camera for a present. He used it to make his first short films, using his brother and cousins as actors. He enrolled at the university in Rome and began studying modern literature. Besides filmmaking, his major passion during this period was writing poetry. In 1962, his first collection of poems, In Search of Mystery was awarded the Viareggio Prize. Encouraging Bertolucci in both his poetry and filmmaking was Pier Paolo Pasolini, a famous Italian director who also wrote poetry. Pasolini became a mentor to the young Bertolucci. He gave him the position of assistant director on his film Accattone (1961). Working with the great director convinced Bertolucci that filmmaking could be a kind of poetry in itself. He soon left Rome University to concentrate on a filmmaking career. "I had to find my own language," he told Time. "That language was cinema."
In 1962, Bertolucci directed his first feature, La commare secca (The Grim Reaper). The dark murder story was filmed on location with a cast of amateurs. It received mixed reviews, though many critics saw potential in the young director. Bertolucci's next effort came two years later. Prima della rivoluzione (Before the Revolution) (1964) was a love story set against political developments in contemporary Parma. Reviewers likened it to the works of great directors like Orson Welles, Jean-Luc Godard, and Luigi Visconti. It was given the young critics' award and the Prix Max Ophuls at the 1964 Cannes Film Festival.
Artistic and Political Growth
Critical acclaim did not make it any easier for Bertolucci to get the financial backing to make his films. During the mid-1960s, he worked for the Shell Oil Company making documentaries about the petroleum industry. He contributed to other people's films and wrote scripts in this period as well. It took until 1968 for him to direct another full-length feature. Partner concerns a man with an evil twin, and is based on the works of Edgar Allen Poe and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. That same year, Bertolucci joined the Communist Party. He went through a period of soul-searching that included psychoanalysis.
Now committed to the Marxist ideology, Bertolucci made his most political film yet, Il conformista (The Conformist). The movie concerns a decadent intellectual who is lured into the Fascist movement during the 1930s. Bertolucci's script received an Academy award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, and he was widely hailed as a filmmaker of international importance.
Bertolucci's next feature, Ultimo tango a Parigi (Last Tango in Paris) (1972) cemented his reputation as an international master. The controversial picture starred Marlon Brando as a lonely man grieving for his late wife who has a passionate affair with a young Parisian woman, played by Maria Schneider. The movie's sex scenes were quite graphic for the time, and it was dismissed as obscene by some. But most critics found it riveting and honest in its depiction of contemporary relationships. It became on of the most talked-about films of the year and earned Bertolucci an Academy Award nomination for Best Director.
In the wake of the success of Last Tango in Paris, Bertolucci made a very different film. The 1977 release, 1900, was a sweeping epic that spanned over 40 years of Italian history. It came in at over five hours and featured an international cast that included Robert DeNiro and Gerard Depardieu. The film was cut by over an hour when it was released in America, however, which enraged Bertolucci to no end. In 1991, the "restored" original version was finally released to American theaters.
In 1978, Bertolucci married Clare Peploe, an English woman whom he had been seeing since 1973. She collaborated with him on the script for his next film, La Luna (1979), which starred Jill Clayburgh as a woman who has an incestuous relationship with her son. The movie received mostly poor reviews and failed at the box office. Returning to Italian subjects, Bertolucci next made La tragedia di un uomo ridiculo (The Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man) (1981). A "small" movie about the kidnapping of a cheesemaker's son, it got a mixed critical reception and was largely ignored by audiences.
Gains Academy Recognition
Bertolucci scored a major hit by returning to the grand scale with The Last Emperor (1987), the epic story of Pu Yi, the last emperor of China. In the film, based on Pu Yi's autobiography, the child ruler survives court intrigues, Japanese invasion, and Communist revolution to end up a gardener in Peking. The film was shot on location in the People's Republic of China and immediately restored Bertolucci's international reputation. When it was nominated for multiple Academy Awards, Bertolucci could barely contain his excitement. "I got colitis, my heart began beating fast, I even started smoking again," he told Time.
The Last Emperor won the Academy Award for Best Picture, as well as eight others, with Bertolucci taking the prize for Best Director. In accepting his prize, Bertolucci tweaked Hollywood by referring to it as "the big nipple." "I wanted to say that I was overwhelmed by this gratification," he later explained to Time, "which poured forth like milk."
Films in the 1990s
Bertolucci moved into a new decade with his next release, The Sheltering Sky, about the collision between western and non-western cultures. The film was well cast and boasted some beautiful desert scenery, but critics found it a poor adaptation of Paul Bowles' novel. His 1994 feature Little Buddha starred teen heart throb Keanu Reeves as an ancient prince on a quest for meaning. Stealing Beauty (1996) was a more intimate film, about a 19-year-old American, played by Liv Tyler, who undergoes her rite of passage into adulthood at the Tuscany, Italy home of her dead mother's friends.
In 1988, Bertolucci told Time that he remains true to his radical convictions. He still votes Communist, he reported, and remains leery of the "Hollywood" lifestyle despite the freedom his success has given him. "Nothing has really changed," he remarked. "My movies are too risky. But it gives me a feeling of being more secure."
International Dictionary of Film and Film Makers, Volume 2 Directors, St. James Press, 1991.
American Film, October 1986; November 1987.
People, May 9, 1988.
Premiere, May 1994.
Time, April 25, 1988.
Vogue, March 1994.
Stealing Beauty,http://www.cecchigori.com/cinema/stealing/ (April 28, 1998).