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From ‘Last Tango’ to ‘Last Emperor,’ Bernardo Bertolucci Was the First and Last of His Kind

The year 2018 is shaping up to be a tragedy of epic proportions for lovers of world cinema. In April, Czech director Milos Forman passed away, and now, in late November, within a matter of days, we have lost avant garde maestro Nicolas Roeg and that great Italian iconoclast Bernardo Bertolucci.

Consider: Forman’s “Amadeus,” Roeg’s identity-shattering “Performance” (co-directed with Donald Cammell), and Bertolucci’s still unsurpassed exploration of moral ambiguity and personal compromise, “The Conformist.” The medium is inconceivable in its present form without these films, whose directors were hardly one-hit wonders, contributing masterpiece after masterpiece during the most fertile stretches of their careers. Though each had struggled to maintain his relevance in recent decades, any late-life disappointment seems inevitable when judged relative to the achievements that came before.

Of the three, Bertolucci was by far the most successful at sustaining his impact until the end, for his brand was controversy, and even though few saw his final narrative stunt — “Io e te” (or “Me and You”), an out-of-touch rehash of themes previously explored in 1979’s quasi-incenstuous envelope-pusher “Luna,” this one shot in 3D — he was back in the headlines again two years ago over his treatment of actress Maria Schneider in the film “Last Tango in Paris.” At issue: whether Bertolucci’s instruction to Marlon Brando to surprise Schneider with a stick of butter in the film’s simulated rape scene constituted a violation in itself. In a 2007 interview with the Daily Mail, Schneider said, “I felt humiliated and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci.” Schneider also specified that the sex was not real in the movie.

In a way, this firestorm — which flared anew nearly 40 years after the film struck audiences like a kind of atomic bomb, forcing the international film community to confront a kind of grown-up sexuality never before depicted onscreen — served to illustrate just how potent the underlying work of art remained. Bertolucci defused the situation, to a degree, by clarifying how the scene was shot, but this was hardly the first time he’d found himself at the center of controversy. In fact, few of his films have opened without scandal of some kind, which can be attributed to his lifelong exploration of the political, spiritual, and carnal dimensions of the human experience — any one of which might incense certain audiences, but when taken together in different proportions across his filmography, seems a sure recipe to outrage the institutions.

Personally, I like to think this approach — the compulsion to provoke, chipping away at the three pillars that underlie all human hypocrisy (politics, religion, sex) — was something he learned from the great Italian filmmaker-poet Pier Paolo Pasolini, for whom he worked as an assistant director, and from whom he learned his trade. Pasolini, for me, is perhaps the greatest filmmaker the medium has ever known, which is ironic, since he wasn’t necessarily a great director: Formally speaking, his films can often be quite clumsy, featuring uneven performances from actors with unforgettable faces, assembled somewhat awkwardly at times, and yet, in terms of sheer substance, they provoke and challenge and openly defy the values of the modern world.

Bertolucci may have begun his apprenticeship on “Accattone” — Pasolini’s scrappy, street-level upgrade of the Italian neorealist tradition — but in the decades to come, his command of the cinematic craft would far surpass his teacher, to the extent that several of his films — “The Conformist,” “The Last Emperor,” “Little Buddha” — rank among the most beautiful movies ever made. Boasting breathtaking locations and nearly 2,000 costumed extras, “The Last Emperor” in particular is a feat nearly unfathomable in the present age of digitally enhanced filmmaking, and one for which film scholars must reach back nearly to D.W. Griffith’s “Intolerance” to find precedent.

With “The Last Emperor,” Bertolucci identified his Everest and set out to climb it, convincing the Chinese government to let him film in the Forbidden City, becoming the first Western feature ever to do so. Though the title emphasizes the absurd and seemingly tragic fate of Pu Yi — who was born a god among men, made emperor at the age of three, and ousted at seven — “The Last Emperor” is not so much about Pu Yi being the last of some great and noble tradition (yes, all that pageantry is part of the film’s appeal), but his becoming the first and only emperor to be given a chance to abdicate, re-educate, and assimilate into the modern world. (More thoughts on the Criterion Collection release here.)

Set halfway across the world in the moments just before Benito Mussolini’s fall, his most significant artistic achievement, “The Conformist,” offers a complex and deeply disturbing character study of a young man (Jean-Louis Trintignant) whose past guilt makes him an ideal pawn for the Fascist Party, allowing him to accept far greater crimes — most notably, the assassination of a former teacher — in a corrupt attempt to clear his conscience of a murder and homosexual attraction in his past.

The film, which predated Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” by two years, had an enormous influence on American cinema in the 1970s and beyond (DP Vittorio Storaro would later go on to shoot “Apocalypse Now”), both in its bold, expressionistic style and the insidious suggestion that a film’s “hero” could be so morally compromised.

For me, “The Conformist” is a key text in understanding the career of Martin Scorsese, who, more than Tarantino, is a master synthesizer of all that has come before. Although Scorsese has cited countless influences over the years, “The Conformist” is the one film whose influences I find most consistently (or perhaps most intriguingly) woven throughout his oeuvre: a visual style unabashed about calling attention to itself, the notion of allowing a character’s psychology to dictate the film’s language, and a kind of direct, nonjudgmental approach toward violence that’s far more chilling for its apparent ambivalence.

I met Bernardo Bertolucci just once, for an interview about his 2003 film “The Dreamers,” certainly one of the sexiest films ever made, which had sparked the umpteenth scandal of his career. Once again, Bertolucci was testing the limits of American prudishness with this steamy love triangle — an erotic awakening set in Paris against the backdrop of the political uprisings of May 1968 — which the MPAA had slapped with an NC-17 rating for a scene of male frontal nudity.

Bertolucci was a large man, deeply intellectual, with a confidence in his opinions that I found quite intimidating, but have since come to recognize as a particularly Italian quality: an ability to lean back, swell one’s chest, and hold forth, repeating bold provocations with great certainty, no matter how outrageous. I had hoped to steer the conversation to his earlier work, though Bertolucci dismissed the idea, insisting that he thought of his past films like old lovers, preferring not to revisit them.

“The Dreamers” was Bertolucci’s last great film — certainly far better than “Stealing Beauty,” which benefits from his gift for sensuous filmmaking, but ultimately feels too lecherous to be taken seriously. From “Last Tango in Paris” to “The Last Emperor,” Bertolucci’s career seems like a collection of lasts, but is in fact, one of beginnings, or of the anticipation of things to come. The title that best describes this outlook was that of his second feature, “Before the Revolution,” which conveys how knowing what was to come — say, the virginity Liv Tyler’s character is so determined to lose in “Stealing Beauty” — lends depth to drama that, if viewed solely in the context of the present, might seem frivolous. In a sense, Bertolucci was the revolution as far as cinema was concerned, and now we find ourselves with no more Molotov cocktails to anticipate, but the fires he started still raging strong.

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