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Bernardo Bertolucci, Italian director of ‘Last Tango in Paris,’ dies at 77

Bernardo Bertolucci on the set of his 1996 movie, “Stealing Beauty.”
Bernardo Bertolucci on the set of his 1996 movie, “Stealing Beauty.” (Claudio Onorati/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

When “Last Tango in Paris” premiered at the New York Film Festival in 1972, “the audience,” wrote New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, “was in a state of shock” — jolted by an X-rated work of art featuring Maria Schneider as a young Parisian and Marlon Brando as an anguished middle-aged American stranger who becomes her anonymous lover.

“This must be the most powerfully erotic movie ever made,” Kael wrote, “and it may turn out to be the most liberating movie ever made.” Brando and the movie’s writer-director, Bernardo Bertolucci, “have altered the face of an art form,” she added. “Who was prepared for that?”

While the “movie breakthrough” Kael envisioned never fully materialized — serious, sexually explicit films remain rare — “Last Tango” went on to launch its director to international stardom, establishing Mr. Bertolucci as one of the most daring and disturbing filmmakers of his generation.

In a career spanning more than five decades and two dozen movies, Mr. Bertolucci was regarded as a master craftsman who devised ravishing palettes as the backdrop for emotional, sometimes historic torments — from fascist Italy in “The Conformist” (1970) to the birth of modern China with his Oscar-winning “The Last Emperor” (1987).

He was 77 when he died Nov. 26 at his home in Rome, according to Italy’s state-run broadcasting company, RAI, which did not give a precise cause.

Perspective: More than anyone, Bernardo Bertolucci exemplified the pain and pleasure of the male gaze

An award-winning poet in his native Italy, Mr. Bertolucci turned to filmmaking in his early 20s, deciding that movies, rather than literature, offered him the best means of self-expression.

“My movies aren’t so much psychodramas as they are self-examinations,” he told the New York Times in 1990. “They evolve from things I learn about myself and others during the actual filming process. Anyone who knows me,” he added, “will testify that my participation with a project, with a story, with the characters, with my cast, reaches almost an obsessional stage.”

Mr. Bertolucci’s most acclaimed works included “The Conformist,” which starred Jean-Louis Trintignant as a sexually confused man who embraces fascism and agrees to work as an assassin; “The Sheltering Sky” (1990), based on the novel by Paul Bowles about a couple who travel to North Africa to save their marriage; and “The Dreamers” (2003), which centered on an erotic triangle during the 1968 student riots in Paris.

His most commercially successful movie was “The Last Emperor,” with John Lone as Pu Yi, the Chinese ruler who ascended the throne as a toddler, survived the Japanese invasion in the late 1930s, was imprisoned after the Communist Party seized power, and went on to care for plants at a botanical garden.

The film featured 19,000 extras and just as many 19th-century costumes, producer Jeremy Thomas once said, and was the first Western feature to obtain permission to shoot in the Forbidden City, the imperial palace complex in Beijing. It grossed $44 million in the United States alone and received nine Academy Awards, including best picture, best director and best adapted screenplay, which Mr. Bertolucci shared with his brother-in-law, screenwriter Mark Peploe.

Mr. Bertolucci, who received Oscar nominations as a screenwriter for “The Conformist” (it was adapted from a novel by Alberto Moravia) and as a director for “Last Tango,” was widely celebrated for his distinctive visual style. Known for bold colors and unusual camera angles, he also developed a reputation for encouraging his actors to improvise — while sometimes manipulating them into delivering the performances he wanted.

For “The Sheltering Sky,” Mr. Bertolucci used makeup wizardry to transform actress Debra Winger, without her knowledge, into a character who looked remarkably similar to Bowles’s wife, Jane Bowles, who died in 1973. During filming, Winger developed a close rapport with Bowles, who appeared on set to guide the adaptation of his semiautobiographical novel.

“Paul told me that when Jane died, life stopped having the same meaning for him,” Mr. Bertolucci told the New York Times. “Now, something of Jane has been rekindled by Debra and my set is ablaze with passion.”

Mr. Bertolucci was later criticized for taking his manipulative tactics too far in “Last Tango.” While the film drew praise from critics and grossed more than $30 million in the United States, it spurred international outrage for its raw and graphic sex scenes, including an infamous rape sequence in which Brando used butter as a lubricant to force himself on Schneider.

Why the ‘Last Tango in Paris’ rape scene is generating such an outcry now

The movie was banned in Spain and, in 1976, outlawed in Italy as wall, after the country’s highest court ordered the destruction of all copies, handed Mr. Bertolucci a brief suspended sentence and stripped him of the right to vote for five years.

In a 2007 interview with the Daily Mail, Schneider said the rape sequence was never detailed in the original script. “During the scene, even though what Marlon was doing wasn’t real, I was crying real tears. I felt humiliated and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci. . . . Thankfully, there was just one take.”

Mr. Bertolucci later said he did not tell Schneider butter would be used in the scene “because I wanted her reaction as a girl, not as an actress. I wanted her to react humiliated.”

Gato Barbieri, Grammy-winning saxophonist heard on ‘Last Tango in Paris’ score, dies at 83

Bernardo Bertolucci was born in the northern Italian city of Parma on March 16, 1941. His mother was a teacher; his father was an art history professor who wrote poetry and film criticism.

As a high school graduation gift from his parents, Mr. Bertolucci spent a month in Paris, taking in the French New Wave films of directors such as Jean-Luc Godard. Another major influence was poet Pier Paolo Pasolini, who became a downstairs neighbor after Mr. Bertolucci’s family moved to Rome in 1952.

Mr. Bertolucci was studying poetry at the University of Rome, assembling the Viareggio Prize-winning collection “In Search of Mystery,” when he dropped out to work as an assistant director on Pasolini’s film “Accattone” (1961). The movie’s success led him to direct a picture of his own, “The Grim Reaper” (1962), which was adapted from a Pasolini story about the murder of a prostitute.

That film and Mr. Bertolucci’s 1964 follow-up, “Before the Revolution,” garnered a few glowing reviews — New York Times reviewer Eugene Archer called him “a new talent of outstanding promise” — but little box-office success. So he directed documentaries, including one commissioned by the Italian oil and gas giant Eni, before returning to feature films with “Partner” (1968), a loose adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel “The Double,” and “The Spider’s Stratagem” (1970), based on a short story by Jorge Luis Borges about a son who tries to pin down his father’s killers.

With the success of “Last Tango,” Mr. Bertolucci embarked on the 1976 historical epic “1900,” which starred Robert De Niro and Gérard Depardieu as friends from different social stations and covered four decades of Italian history, culminating with the rise of communism. Mr. Bertolucci, who had joined the Communist Party several years earlier, said he “had this dream about bringing this big socialist story with lots of red flags to the United States.”

But his film ran for more than five hours — in the United States, Paramount succeeded in forcing him to trim it down to four — and received mixed reviews, with Times critic Manohla Dargis later describing it as “something of a beautiful mess, filled with lyrical passages, awkward patches and occasionally terrible dialogue.”

In 1978, Mr. Bertolucci married Clare Peploe, a British screenwriter and director. She collaborated with him on the screenplays for “Luna” (1979), which starred Jill Clayburgh as an opera singer who develops an incestuous relationship with her heroin-addicted son, and “Besieged” (1998), about an African woman who works as a housekeeper for a wealthy, love-struck Italian man.

Survivors include his wife of 39 years. An earlier marriage, to actress Adriana Asti, ended in divorce.

Mr. Bertolucci’s other movies included “Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man” (1981), about a cheese baron whose son is kidnapped and held for ransom; “Little Buddha” (1993), starring Keanu Reeves as Prince Siddhartha, who finds enlightenment and grows up to become the Buddha; and “Stealing Beauty” (1996), featuring Liv Tyler as a young American who experiences a sexual awakening while vacationing in Tuscany.

He used a wheelchair while working on his last film, “Me and You” (2012). By then, he said, times had changed — the transgressive quality that defined so many of his films in earlier decades was almost impossible to replicate.

“Provocation in those times was maybe easier,” he told the Independent. “In a way the world was more moralistic and so to be transgressive was a must in the ’60s and ’70s. It was one of the Ten Commandments.”

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