Posted in: Bernardo Bertolucci, biography, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Directors, Essays

Bernardo Bertolucci

[originally published in a booklet for the DVD release of Partner by NoShame in 2005]

The political and the sensual meet in the cinema of Bernardo Bertolucci. His visually dense and stylistically labyrinthine films are among the most beautiful — and the most provocative (The Last Tango in Paris) — ever made.His career straddles canvases both epic (1900,The Last Emperor) and intimate (Luna, Besieged), from defiantly Italian stories that reverberate with the echoes of Italy’s Fascist past to international dramas that explore culture,history, and spirituality around the world. All of them are beautifully crafted works attuned the texture of experience and the magic of the moment.

Born and raised in and around the Northern Italian town of Parma, Bernardo Bertolucci grew up surrounded by literature and art. His father, Attilio Bertolucci, was a poet and art history teacher, and it seemed perhaps inevitable that Bernardo would follow in his father’s footsteps. He studied modern literature at Rome University and published a prizewinning collection of poetry in 1962. But according to Bertolucci, it was cinema that enthralled him from an early age. When family friend and fellow poet Pier Paolo Pasolini (already an established screenwriter) hired Bertolucco to assist on his 1961 directorial debut, Accatone, Bertolucci quit college and dedicated himself to cinema, which he called “the true poetic language.”

He made his directorial debut the very next year with La Commare Secca (The Grim Reaper) (1962), scripted by Bertolucci and Sergio Citti from a story by Pasolini and (like Accatone) shot on location with anon-professional cast. But where Pasolini favors flat, static compositions — a cinema inspired by classical painting — Bertolucci lets his camera wander through the faces and landscape as the film winds through the Rashomon-like mosaic of stories.

Before the Revolution (1964), a satire about a young bourgeois intellectual flirting with Marxism, is a more personal film. You can see both the stylistic influence of the French New Wave and of the visually intricate and stylistically ornate cinema of Orson Welles, Max Ophuls, and Josef von Sternberg in his flowing,flowering style, as well as his first real confrontation with the themes that return time and again in his work: politics, sex (to say nothing of the politics of sex), the struggle against social conformity, the search for identity.  

Those themes are somewhat abstracted in Partner (1968), a defiantly Godard-influenced project filled with oblique dialogue, political debates, and eccentric identical characters who identities blur through the film, but are at the center of The Spider’s Stratagem(1970). Adapted from a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, the labyrinthine drama is the most visually accomplished of Bertolucci’s films to date and marks his first collaboration with cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. Their creative partnership spanned eight films, among them Bertolucci’s greatest and most ambitious works: The Conformist (1970), Last Tango In Paris (1972), 1900 (1976), and The Last Emperor (1987).

Based in the novel by Alberto Moravia, The Conformist is Bertolucci’s masterpiece, a deliriously baroque drama that tosses sex, desire,politics, and personal responsibility into the Fascist era before World War II. Bertolucci’s fluid camera glides and dances through art deco sets which Storaro bathes in soft nostalgic colors, but beneath the opulent surface is an empty shell of a man willing to sell his soul for affirmation.

The frank eroticism of The Last Tango in Paris, a dark psychological drama starring Marlon Brando as a grieving widower who loses himself in an anonymous, purely physical relationship with a younger woman, created a storm of controversy as it shattered taboos of sexual politics. (His 1979 Luna, about the incestuous relationship between a widowed mother and her troubled teenage son, also raised eyebrows.)

The sprawling 1900 explores the socialist dream and the Fascist nightmare of Italy’s agrarian past. The epic drama (it ran over five hours in its original European cut) charts forty five years of Italian social history through two childhood friends — one a peasant, the other the scion of a vast country estate — who become bitter enemies on opposite side of the political battle. A film of earthy passion and raw violence, it contrasts with his visually sumptuous The Last Emperor,where the seismic shifts of China’s political history become the backdrop for the personal story and spiritual journey of the one-time child Emperor.

In this aspect, at least, The Last Emperor looks ahead to the more intimate dramas Bertolucci has made since: the sumptuous and sensual The Sheltering Sky (1990), the gentle storybook rendering of Buddhism in Little Buddha (1993), the austere chamber-piece of a culture-crossed love story Besieged (1998), and The Dreamers (2003), a love-letter to the bohemian spirit of the sixties and the joys of being young and in love with cinema. In a way it brings Bertolucci full circle, paying tribute to the films that influenced and inspired him, the political atmosphere that informed his work, and the era that shaped his identity and his development.