The first time I met the rabblerousing Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci, he was searching for a word, rubbing two fingers together as if to spark a thought. “I think — how do I put it? — that the word is texture. You know, how a movie feels when you hold it in your head and run it through all your own life experience. So there’s depth to it. And politics. And sex. And, if you’re lucky, maybe magic.”
Bertolucci, who died on Monday at 77, spent his last few years with his body confined to a wheelchair but his mind still searching. His magic can still be found in his films, from his first, 1962’s The Grim Reaper, to his final reach for texture, 2012’s Me and You. Both movies are in Italian, the language that nurtured him initially as a poet and then as a poet of cinema. No one talks much about those films today. Read the obits and you see a career reduced to its sensational highlights: Marlon Brando locked in sexual bondage with a much-younger Maria Schneider in 1972’s Last Tango in Paris. And those nine Oscars Bertolucci won, including his only victory as Best Director, for 1987’s The Last Emperor, in which the Chinese government allowed him to shoot in Beijing’s Forbidden City.
The forbidden was always a big draw for Bertolucci. But his momentous achievements extend far beyond the passing glitter of Hollywood gold and the sexual bonfire of the X-rated Last Tango. Bertolucci knew better than most how the media worked and whether he was loved or hated rarely concerned him. Ever the provocateur in interviews, he would toss his scarf (he loved scarves and felt hats) and fully admit that he lived through the characters in his films, even the killers. An avowed Marxist lost in what he called “the dream of communism,” Bertolucci broke through with his second film, 1964’s Before the Revolution, about a young man, like the then-22-year-old director, caught between his middle-class background and his radical politics. The two Bertolucci films released in 1970 — The Spider’s Stratagem, about a son dealing with the death of his resistance-leader father, and The Conformist, a visionary masterpiece that linked fascism and sexual repression — continued these consuming passions in the most lush visual style possible, through the director’s long collaboration with camera virtuoso Vittorio Storaro.
Bertolucci’s work is filled with subtextually-loaded flourishes, from the epic sweep of 1900 with a landowner (Robert De Niro) and peasant (Gérard Depardieu) enmeshed in the swirl of early 20th century politics, to the sexual immediacy of 2003’s The Dreamers, in which three film-loving students get caught up in the Paris riots of 1968. Still, the essence of Bertolucci can be found in its full glory in The Conformist. From its rigid architecture (you can almost feel the angles of buildings such as the Esposizione Universale Roma) to the sight of the film’s passive protagonist, Marcello Clerici (the brilliant Jean-Louis Trintignant) standing rigid as dancers swirl round him, The Conformist is pure cinema. It’s the Bertolucci you must see (or re-see) to understand this complex filmmaker.
But will you? In a career stalked by controversy, Bertolucci felt the most pushback from his treatment of Schneider on Last Tango — in particular during the filming of its now-infamous rape scene. He seemed genuinely stricken when, after Schneider’s death from breast cancer in 2011, word got out that the actress, only 19 during shooting, felt exploited at the hands of Brando and Bertolucci. The director’s comment — “Poor Maria. I didn’t have the occasion to go to ask her to forgive me”— doesn’t carry much weight in the era of #MeToo. In a 2013 interview, Bertolucci stated that though the sex was simulated, he did not tell Schneider about Brando’s use of butter as a lubricant because he “wanted her reaction as a girl, not as an actress. I wanted her to react humiliated.”
There is no excuse, ever, for tricking an actor into doing a scene, any scene. Did Bertolucci carry his guilt to the grave? That’s debatable. Earlier this year, Bertolucci criticized fellow filmmaker Ridley Scott for replacing Kevin Spacey with Christopher Plummer in All the Money in the World after Spacey was accused by several men of sexual assault. Bertolucci announced that “Scott should be ashamed” for giving in to public pressure, adding “I immediately wanted to make a film with Spacey.”
Bertolucci died seeing his reputation battered. But judged on talent alone, the power and influence of his films remain undeniable. They inspire awe. How much of Bertolucci’s art is based on his life, his love of other films, his years of Freudian analysis? Cinephiles will be asking those questions long after his death. Others may never forgive him. In the final analysis, this argumentative, defiant artist may not have wanted it any other way.