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Bernardo Bertolucci Biography


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Birth Name: Bernardo Bertolucci
Born: 03/16/1940
Birth Place: Parma, IT


Born on March 16, 1940 in Parma, Italy, Bertolucci was raised in idyllic surroundings by his father, Attilio, a famed poet and film critic, and his mother, Nina, a poetry scholar. But despite the comfortable house, the servants and an atmosphere that encouraged creativity, he grew up a disaffected youth, chafing against his life of privilege and the tradition of his father's poetry, which he eventually viewed as being based on repression. Having been fed poetry as part of his daily diet, Bertolucci naturally ventured into the father's arena, publishing his first poems by the age of 12. He later won the prestigious Viareggio Prize for his first book of verse, In Cerca del Mistero/In Search of Mystery (1962), a work full of nostalgia for the lost Eden of his country boyhood. By then, however, Bertolucci had begun to forge his own identity at Rome University, where he studied literature, only to drop out that same year after experiencing his first taste as an assistant director for family friend Pier Paolo Pasolini's inaugural film, "Accattone" (1961).

Bertolucci made his own feature debut at the helm of "La Commare Secca" ("The Grim Reaper") (1962), a bleak murder mystery based on an original script by Pasolini that he rewrote extensively with Sergio Citti. The film followed the murder of a prostitute, around which he wove flashbacks to the lives of witnesses and potential suspects which all lead up to the time of the killing. Though influenced by the French New Wave, the film showed an even greater allegiance to Italian neorealism in its concentration on behavioral detail, location shooting and use of nonprofessional actors. With his second film, "Prima della rivoluzione" ("Before the Revolution") (1964), Bertolucci became internationally known while establishing his distinctive visual style of bold camera movements, moody lighting and expressive mise-en-scene, typically backed with an evocative score. For the first time, his preoccupation with politics, sex and Sigmund Freud was on full display with "Before the Revolution," which also introduced what would became a favorite thematic element for the director: the conflict between freedom and conformity, which placed him on the cutting-edge of 1960s counterculture sensibilities.

Though the film evoked comparisons to Orson Welles, it stalled at the box office, leading Bertolucci to turn to television, where he made a prize-winning series of three documentaries about the Italian petroleum industry. He also wrote the story for what became "Once Upon a Time in the West" (1968), though director Sergio Leone threw out Bertolucci's script prior to shooting over concerns that his take was too cerebral for American audiences. Returning to directing features, he next directed "The Partner" (1968), which continued the political argument begun in "Before the Revolution," while exploring his fascination with one's psychological double. Drubbed for its polemical excesses, "The Partner" found few admirers. An angry and disillusioned Bertolucci joined the Italian Communist Party and went about resurrecting his career with two 1970 films, while beginning his long collaboration with director of photography Vittorio Storaro. With "The Spider's Stratagem," which was commissioned by Italian television company RAI, Bertolucci returned to overt political themes with a surrealistic and complex narrative about a son (Giulio Brogi) returning to the town where his anti-fascist father was killed many years before, only to discover that his father was not the hero he imagined him to be.

Bertolucci next directed "The Conformist" (1970), another politically themed film that many critics considered to be his masterpiece. The story centered on the cowardly Marcello (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who becomes a Fascist in order to suppress his growing recognition of his homosexuality. Bertolucci's often used Oedipal imagery was on full display in this film, as Marcello plans to kill his anti-Fascist teacher (Enzo Tarascio) and have sex with the teacher's wife (Dominique Sanda). But after botching the assassination attempt, Marcello becomes powerless to prevent the wife's murder by his Fascist comrades. Firmly in control of the lighting, decor, costume and music, Bertolucci reveled in the elaborate tracking shots, the lush color photography and the odd, surrealistic visual incongruities that give his work a distinctive surface. Additionally, the classic sequence in which the two central women characters perform a tango became a Bertolucci signature. The film was widely hailed the world over, winning several international awards. In the United States, where it was equally well received, "The Conformist" earned nominations at the Golden Globes for Best Foreign Film and at the Academy Awards for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Bertolucci went on to direct his most notorious and controversial film, "Last Tango in Paris" (1972), an erotic drama that depicted an anonymous relationship between an older man (Marlon Brando) and a younger woman (Maria Schneider) which becomes increasingly more sadomasochistic. Though widely hailed as a breakthrough in its frank portrayal of sexual politics, "Last Tango" was considered obscene by many and was banned in multiple parts of the world for several graphic sex scenes, including the infamous "butter scene," where Brando's character uses the popular dairy product to sexually humiliate his partner (Decades later Schneider claimed that she "felt raped" by Brando, who improvised the rough scene with Bertolucci's blessing, while stating her onscreen tears were not the result of good acting.) Despite the calls of pornography and depredation depicted on the screen, Bertolucci's film undoubtedly touched a raw nerve while gaining international acclaim and notoriety. The director also earned an Oscar nomination for Best Director, while leading Brando to deliver what many considered one of the best performances of his illustrious career. But the film was not without its consequences. With his film banned for 11 years in his native Italy, Bertolucci was tried for blasphemy and received a suspended prison sentence while being stripped of his right to vote for five years.

The worldwide attention garnered by "Last Tango" enabled Bertolucci to receive financing for his long-planned Marxian epic, "Novocentro" ("1900") (1976), which featured an international cast and a length of nearly six hours which was cut dramatically for American and British release. Returning to his northern Italian roots, the director charted 45 years of social history and class struggle through the friendship and political enmity of two men (Robert De Niro and Gerard Depardieu) born on different sides of the social fence at the turn of the century. Envisioning the culture of the peasant farmers as an idealized form of Communism, Bertolucci showed their exploitation at the hands of first the aristocracy and later the Fascists, ending with an agrarian revolt that seems to promise a socialist utopia, though the revolution they celebrate is already doomed. Despite mixed reviews and a woeful box office, Bertolucci was still able to acquire backing for "La Luna" ("Luna") (1979), swinging back to Freudian concerns for its graphic portrayal of incest between mother (Jill Clayburgh) and son (Matthew Berry). But following that film's critical and commercial failure, financing for any future movies dried up, leading to difficulties releasing his psychological drama "The Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man" (1981).

Having hit rock bottom, Bertolucci went into seclusion and stayed away from making movies for four years. Unhappy with the state of filmmaking in Italy and unable to get arrested in Hollywood, he looked to the East and was somehow miraculously able to mount an expensive, ambitious epic masterpiece, "The Last Emperor" (1987), which depicted the true story of Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi (John Lone, among other child actors), the last ruler of imperial China. Winner of nine Academy Awards, including Best Director and Best Picture, the film follows the shifting fortunes of Pu Yi, who begins his life as the last emperor of China and ends it as a gardener in post-revolutionary Beijing. Like the deposed Pu Yi, Bertolucci was an exile from his own culture and his passion for the project overcame such logistical nightmares as having the privilege of filming in China, not to mention becoming the first Westerner granted access to shoot in the Forbidden City since the Communists came to power in 1949. Again, the relationship between individual psychology and the political and historical forces that mold it formed the center of the film, linking it to "Before the Revolution," "The Conformist" and "1900," though by this point he had completely dismissed Communism as a failed ideology while losing interest in making political movies.

Bertolucci's much-anticipated adaptation of Paul Bowles' cult favorite "The Sheltering Sky" (1990), starring John Malkovich and Debra Winger, proved a critical and financial disappointment, even though he and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro may have done more for desert landscapes than anyone since David Lean. His fascination with epic form undimmed, he reteamed with Jeremy Thomas, the producer of "The Last Emperor" and "The Sheltering Sky," to complete what he called his Eastern trilogy with "Little Buddha" (1994). The visually stunning production, which owed much to Storaro and the designs of Oscar-winner James Acheson, focused on two stories: the modern-day search for the reincarnation of Buddha and the ancient tale drawn from the life of Prince Siddhartha (Keanu Reeves). Operatic in execution, the film failed in its attempt to synthesize a script which functioned meaningfully for both children and adults, as intended by the director. Despite the lush look of the canvas, there was a hollowness to these pictures as the director seemed to be losing his way amidst wild spectacle.

With "Stealing Beauty" (1996), Bertolucci seemed to signal a change in direction from large-scale epics to smaller, more personal films. Centering on a teenage American girl (Liv Tyler) sent to Tuscany to stay with family friends after her mother's death, the coming-of-age drama featured a star-making turn by Tyler and a touching performance by Jeremy Irons as the dying man who finds renewed life through his young visitor. Scaling down even further, Bertolucci shot "Besieged" (1998) - essentially a two-person piece with minimal dialogue - in 28 days for less than $3 million. Originally intended as a one-hour television project, the film - which starred David Thewlis as a reclusive composer helping his African housemaid (Thandie Newton) free her imprisoned husband - suffered in its expansion to feature length, with most critics decrying the dearth of believable character development. Though his films lost none of their surface polish, an older and mellower Bertolucci seemed unable to recapture that sense of danger that so captivated audiences in the 1960s and 1970s. He tried to reverse that trend with "The Dreamers" (2003), a "Last Tango"-eque erotic drama about an American exchange student (Michael Pitt) who is pulled into the incestuous relationship of a brother and sister (Louis Garrel and Evan Green) during the 1968 student riots in Paris. The film received a limited release with an NC-17 rating in the Unites States, which led to its rather quiet arrival and departure from the big screen. Following "The Dreamers," Bertolucci developed various projects, but failed to direct another film for quite some time.