Movies 26 November 2018 | 11:30

Bernardo Bertolucci, legendary Italian director, has died aged 77

26 November 2018 11:30

Bernardo Bertolucci, the Italian film director who has died aged 77, was one of the most provocative and critically adored of his generation. From his early years as an avowedly Marxist filmmaker typified by 1970’s The Conformist, a psychological study of fascism, to the extraordinarily grand The Last Emperor (1987) and the continuing notoriety of his sexually explicit Last Tango in Paris (1972), his films proved to be as inflammatory and influential as they were intensely personal. Emerging from the explosive cinematic scene of the 1960s, he went on to inspire generations of filmmakers around the world.

Born in 1941 in Parma to a wealthy, cultured family, Bertolucci entered the cinema business when Pier-Paolo Pasolini, a friend of his father, hired him as an assistant on his debut, Accatone (1961). Bertolucci directed his first film, La Commare Secca a year later, while continuing to work as a scriptwriter on projects such as Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western epic Once Upon a Time in the West. Early works, including Before the Revolution (1964) and the highly influential and visually rigorous The Conformist, marked Bertolucci out as a precociously talented and political filmmaker, who as he said, ‘lived in a dream of communism’.

The Conformist also marked the beginning of Bertolucci’s long-running collaboration with cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, which resulted in some of the world’s most gorgeously photographed films, including The Spider’s Stratagem (1970), and the Italian historical epic 1900 (1976), which boasted a star-studded cast including Robert De Niro, Gérard Depardieu and Burt Lancaster.

In order to make The Last Emperor, possibly his most ambitious film, Bertolucci gained unprecedented permission to shoot inside Beijing’s Forbidden City, and the resulting film won all nine Oscars for which it was nominated, including Best Director and Best Picture. The British producer of that film, Jeremy Thomas, would work with Bertolucci on all his remaining projects.

His later films rejected politics and took more intimate themes, such as 1996’s Stealing Beauty, starring Liv Tyler. In 2003, he made The Dreamers, an erotic drama set nostalgically amid the protests of May 1968 and the cinephile culture of the late 1960s – it combined beautifully both his radical political edge and the sensuality of his best work.

As he approached the end of his career, Bertolucci’s contribution to film culture was recognised with prizes, including an honorary Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2011. While admired widely for the artistic quality of his films, Bertolucci has been criticized severely after Maria Schneider, who starred in Last Tango in Paris with Marlon Brando, revealed that the director kept her in the dark about a key scene, leaving her feeling ‘humiliated and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci’. The director’s defence of his actions (‘I wanted her reaction as a girl, not as an actress. I wanted her to react humiliated’) did not satisfy his critics, and along with the #MeToo movement, the controversy has prompted many in the film industry to look again at the ethics of filming sex scenes.

Although he had been using a wheelchair since 2003, Bertolucci continued to be a presence on the festival circuit and make new work. He once said that his dream was ‘to arrive at the point at which one can live for films, can think cinematographically, eat cinematographically, sleep cinematographically, as a poet, a painter, lives, eats, sleeps painting’. His final completed film was 2012’s Me and You, adapted from a novel by Niccolò Ammaniti, which was not well received, but he didn’t intend it to be his last. In April this year, Bertolucci told Italian Vanity Fair that he was working on a new film, a love story, but also a film that would address the challenges of his own career. ‘In reality, the theme is communication and therefore also lack of communication,’ he said. ‘The condition I found myself facing when I moved on from my films of the sixties to a larger cinema ready to meet a larger audience.’