- Bertolucci, Bernardo
- (1941-)Poet, screenwriter, director. Son of the renowned Italian poet Attilio Bertolucci, Bernardo was born into a cultured middle-class family and initially appeared destined to follow in his father's artistic footsteps. From early on, however, he also developed a passion for the cinema and at 16 had already made several amateur short films. In 1959, while on a visit to Paris, he became acquainted with the emerging directors of the French New Wave and was particularly struck by the work of Jean-Luc Godard. After returning to Italy and still only 20, he abandoned literary studies at the university in order to work as assistant to Pier Paolo Pasolini on Pasolini's first attempt at filmmaking, Accattone (Accattone! 1961). The film proved to be a formative experience for both of them and so, in spite of winning the prestigious Viareggio Prize with his first published collection of poems that year, Bertolucci turned his back on a literary career and seized the opportunity he was offered to direct his own first film, La commare secca (The Grim Reaper, 1962).Demonstrating an already impressive command of film language and technique, Bertolucci's debut feature also betrayed the strong influence of both Pasolini and Godard, who consequently featured as the two "fathers" whom he would eventually feel forced to exorcise in order to affirm his own artistic autonomy. Two years later he began to find his own style with Prima della rivoluzione (Before the Revolution, 1964). Although the film still bore strong traces of the influence of Godard and the French New Wave, the conflict at the core of the film between the comfortable bourgeois existence of its young protagonist and his felt need to engage in revolutionary politics introduced those autobiographical and political elements that would characterize the films of Bertolucci's early period. However, in spite of being praised at Cannes, where it won the special Young Critics prize, the film fared very poorly with Italian audiences, leading the young cinephile to abandon the big screen for a period in order to make commercial documentaries for the RAI. After also working on the screenplay of Sergio Leone's Cera una volta il West (Once upon a Time in the West, 1968), Bertolucci returned to feature filmmaking with Partner (1968), an unsettling film loosely based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Double and strongly influenced by both Godard and the radical ideas of the New York Living Theater. The film's intentionally anticommercial style ensured its lack of popular appeal but both Bertolucci's style and fortunes would change dramatically with his next feature, La strategia del ragno (The Spider's Stratagem, 1970). Financed by RAI television, the film was conceptually difficult and openly displayed Bertolucci's now obsessive interest in psychoanalysis, but it was visually and aurally stunning. Shown twice on national television in a single week, it had already attracted an audience of millions of viewers by the time it was presented to loud critical acclaim at the Venice Festival that year.La strategia thus marked a crucial turn in Bertolucci's filmmaking, away from a cinema of ideas that spoke only to a small elite and toward quality films that would appeal to a mass audience. This new direction was confirmed that same year by what is still widely regarded as his most artistically accomplished film, Il conformista (The Conformist, 1970). Adapting a novel by Alberto Moravia set during the Fascist period, the film ably mixed politics, psychoanalysis, and cinephilia in a consummate exercise of virtuosic filmmaking. The Conformist's enormous critical and commercial success, however, was far surpassed two years later by the film that made his international reputation, Ultimo tango a Parigi (Last Tango in Paris, 1972). Starring Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider in a profound study of existential alienation and sexual politics, the film won international acclaim and a host of awards, including two Oscar nominations. In Italy, however, the film quickly became embroiled in a long series of censorship battles that kept it in the courts and officially banned from Italian screens for over a decade.In the wake of the enormous international success of Last Tango, Bertolucci was easily able to attract financing from three of the major American studios for his monumental five-and-a-half-hour historical epic, Novecento (1900, 1976). Nevertheless, in spite of its wide historical sweep and its extraordinary visual lyricism, the film was criticized from many quarters for both its ambivalent left-wing politics and its romantic approach to Italian history. It also suffered, especially in the United States, from circulating in a variety of shortened versions. Bertolucci returned to smaller-scale filmmaking with La luna (Luna, 1979), in which he emphatically brought together two of his major interests, opera and psychoanalysis, but the film was greeted with only a tepid critical response. Two years later, La tragedia d'un uomo ridicolo (Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man, 1981), a courageous attempt to explore the issue of political terrorism, which was still rife in Italy at the time, was also generally dismissed. After collaborating with a number of other directors on a documentary on the death of Italian Communist Party leader Enrico Berlinguer in 1984, Bertolucci directed L'ultimo imperatore (The Last Emperor, 1987), the first of the English-language megaproductions that would characterize his mature period. The most successful film of his entire career, The Last Emperor attracted a legion of national and international awards including nine David di Donatello, the Cesar for Best Foreign Film, four Golden Globes, and nine Oscars, thus elevating Bertolucci to a world superstar status unmatched by any postwar Italian director, with the possible exception of Federico Fellini. However, while he continued, with the help of his regular cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro, to produce films of extraordinary visual beauty, none of his subsequent works received the same attention or acclaim. The Sheltering Sky (1990), adapted from a novel by American writer Paul Bowles, was ironically more appreciated in Italy than in the United States, and Little Buddha (1993) received some critical praise but did poorly at the box office. For all its warmth and color, Stealing Beauty (1996) failed to impress, and Besieged (1998), the story of a relationship that develops in an apartment in Rome between a white American musician and a black African housekeeper, was also widely dismissed, when not attacked as implicitly racist. A warmer crititical reception has greeted Bertolucci's most recent celebration of sex, politics, and cinephilia in Paris in the 1960s, The Dreamers (2003), though perhaps not quite enough to fully restore him to the rank of Italy's greatest international director, a position that he managed to occupy for a large part of his extraordinary career.Historical Dictionary of Italian Cinema by Alberto Mira
Guide to cinema. Academic. 2011.