Italian filmmaker and screenwriter Bernardo Bertolucci is regarded as one of the finest auteurs of his generation, responsible for masterpieces like The Conformist and The Last Emperor among several others. Born in Parma, Bertolucci grew up in an artistic environment and began writing at the age of 15. His father, a notable historian and art critic, introduced Bertolucci to the film industry and he never looked back.
As a favour to his father, the great Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini invited Bertolucci to join his team as first assistant. Although he initially wanted to become a poet, Bertolucci dropped out of university and made his first feature film titled The Grim Reaper when he was around 21-years-old. After that, he was well and truly on the path to cinematic greatness. Bertolucci would go on to produce brilliant films over the course of his career, eventually passing away in 2018 after succumbing to lung cancer.
Bertolucci spoke about revolution in art while discussing his work in a 1971 interview, explaining: “In the cinema, Godard started it. In music, Schönberg. But The Conformist arrives at a moment when I myself, looking around in cinema, realise that this destruction of structures has itself become the new establishment, not only in my film but in those of others. I think we need more plot and structure now. Perhaps it is fear, I don’t know.”
He added: “I also fear this aestheticism, because I know very well that I can make a film about the quality of wind—the essence of wind which is nothing—and it will make festival audiences happy. I am afraid of doing that. Aestheticism is always a mistake…I hope there is just as much need for political consciousness in me as there is for aestheticism. Perhaps I shall make my best films dealing with politics without talking about politics.”
On his 80th birth anniversary, we revisit six definitive films from Bernardo Bertolucci’s illustrious filmography as a celebration of his invaluable contribution to the world of cinema.
Bernardo Bertolucci’s 6 definitive films:
The Grim Reaper (1962)
Based on a short story by the acclaimed director Pier Paolo Pasolini, this film marked the directorial debut of Bernardo Bertolucci at the relatively young age of 21. The Grim Reaper was hailed as the emergence of a new talent by critics at the time of its release.
Although Bertolucci denied having seen Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon before making the film, The Grim Reaper draws inspiration from the famous Rashomon Effect and uses innovative dialectics. The film is not as developed as some of his later works but it is an important precursor that announced his artistic intentions to the world.
The Conformist (1970)
A brilliant adaptation of Alberto Moravia’s seminal novel The Conformist, Bertolucci’s masterpiece features an interesting intersection of Fascist-era aesthetics and postmodern disillusionment. The visual style influenced other filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola who incorporated similar elements into his celebrated sequel The Godfather Part II.
In an interview with Film Comment, Bertolucci revealed: “I don’t attribute the same meaning as you do to the term “ literary.” For me, ‘literary’ is very close to ‘visual.’ For what you call ‘literary,’ I’d like to use a different term ‘theatrical.’ Or ‘filmed theatre.’
“The cinema is much closer to literature and poetry than to the theatre. I agree with you that often cinema is merely an illustration of a story. That is the biggest danger you face when you make a film from a novel. That was my problem when I made The Conformist, which is based on a Moravia story.”
Last Tango in Paris (1972)
Starring Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider, Last Tango in Paris depicts a clandestine relationship between a widowed American and a young Parisian woman. Although it was the seventh-highest grossing film of that year, Last Tango in Paris was censored by various government boards due to its explicit portrayals of sexual violence.
The director said, “If you mention any ideological thing about shooting Last Tango in Paris, I was thinking I was doing a political film. A man and a woman, the age difference between them; she’s very young and he’s almost 50 years old, and the politics between an American in Paris and the girl that hardly knows him and hardly knows anything. Politics are definitely strong there. I think politics is a higher build in life.”
The Last Emperor (1987)
An epic biopic about the life of Aisin-Gioro Puyi, The Last Emperor tells the story of aristocratic institutions and communist revolutions. It chronicles the history of China during an especially turbulent period. The film was very well-received, winning nine Academy Award wins including Best Picture and Best Director.
“I was fascinated by the human parable,” Bertolucci commented, “The idea that a man can change. And Pu Yi really did a metamorphosis, from Dragon Emperor into human being. There’s quite a lot of Confucianism in it.
“The Confucian idea that man is born good. The notions of regeneration and redemption when a man falls, that’s also very Confucian. The idea of education is almost excessively present in China and that too is going back to Confucius.”
The Dreamers (2003)
Based on Gilbert Adair’s 1988 novel The Holy Innocents, Bertolucci’s 2003 romantic drama is a thesis on sexuality and politics. With the 1968 Paris student riots in the background, The Dreamers tells the story of an American college student who gets caught up in an erotic relationship with a pair of siblings.
Eva Green recalled: “I always called him the Little Buddha. There was something very wise about him, with his very naughty, mischievous but kind eyes. I learned so much from him. He was very open to the unexpected, to the spontaneous.
“For example, we had a scene in the kitchen and my hair caught on fire. And [my co-star] Michael Pitt kind of jumped on my hair and stopped the fire. Bernardo just kept filming. If you look at the movie really carefully, you can see my hair on fire for a second.”
Me and You (2012)
This 2012 drama marked the end of Bertolucci’s illustrious career. Although he was working on a new film just before his death, it will sadly remain unfinished now. Me and You tells the story of a young boy and his fundamental isolation.
Bertolucci explained: “I was full of excitement to discover something new. Because I thought that at that point, my love of cinema would be to watch movies, not to do movies. For a moment I thought this was doable, I was so happy, I thought, ‘Maybe I should.’ On the other hand, I’ve done movies all of my life, and that’s the most enjoyable and normal thing to do for me.”