In the wake of Nicolas Roeg‘s passing, we have lost another cinema revolutionary and provocateur, with Italian film director Bernardo Bertolucci’s death this morning (Monday 26th November 2018).
Bertolucci remains best known as the director of Last Tango in Paris, a bleak sexual drama that caused outrage across the world in 1972, even though it emerged at a time when much raunchier soft porn was being widely released, and Deep Throat had thrust hardcore into the spotlight. Much of this outrage was manufactured, of course, and much due to the fact that here was a respectable filmmaker, a big star (Marlon Brando) and major distributor (Warner Brothers) making the sort of film that critics had been able to ignore previously – in other words, it was less the levels of sexual explicitness that upset the censorial as much as the ear that this was the thin end of the wedge – that Last Tango might be at the forefront of graphic sex scenes (maybe even real sex scenes) becoming the norm in mainstream, respectable cinema. That fear has, more recently, translated in accusations that the infamous ‘butter’ scene (where Brando’s character anally rapes Maria Schneider) was shot without the actress’s consent – claims made thanks to an interview with the notoriously skittish Schneider that was deliberately quoted out of context, and Bertolucci’s own misinterpreted response. For the record, let’s reiterate that the scene was in the film script from the start, was clearly planned out and does not involve actual penetration. Schneider was not, by even the loosest interpretation of the word, ‘raped’.
It would be unfortunate if contrived outrage overshadows Bertolucci’s career (and we only address it here because in the two obituaries we’ve read so far, a great deal has indeed been made of it). Even without Last Tango – less a sexual free-for-all than a dour study in romantic desperation – Bertolucci’s career would be extraordinary. From his debut movie – the intriguing if somewhat dull thriller The Grim Reaper – through The Conformist (a film that would have considerable influence on the film brats of the 1970s) and The Spider’s Stratagem, through to his big budget historical epics The Last Emperor and Little Buddha, and later dramas like The Sheltering Sky and The Dreamers (another tale of political and sexual revolution), Bertolucci’s films are never less than fascinating (and often visually beautiful). For me, his masterpiece is the sprawling epic 1900, a history of the rise and fall of fascism in Italy that proves that a five-hour 17 minute film can indeed fly by. Like much of his work, the film mixed the political and the personal – politics and dark sexuality being the constant themes of Bertolucci’s work. In that, it is appropriate that he began his film career as an assistant to Pier Paolo Pasolini – a man with similar obsessions – in 1961 with Accattone. Like Pasolini – though thankfully less dramatically – he paid the price for his controversial work – Last Tango was banned in Italy and criminal proceedings were brought against the director, who had his civil rights revoked for five years as a result, alongside a four-month suspended prison sentence. But thankfully, by the time of his death, he was – artificial outrage notwithstanding – finally hailed as a cinematic great. Modern cinema needs his like more than ever.