Legendary Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci died on Monday at the age of 77, leaving behind the legacy that had us rethinking beauty, politics and fashion
Italian movie director Bernardo Bertolucci had a 56-year-long career that is worthy of a cinematic storytelling of its own. After dropping out of the University of Rome where he aimed to become a poet like his father Attilio Bertolucci, the then-20-year-old assisted Pier Paolo Pasolini in the making of Pasolini’s first feature film Accattone (1961). It was not long before he picked up his own camera and made his directing debut at Venice Film Festival with The Grim Reaper (1962).
Bertolucci entered the international limelight with The Conformist (1970), a beautiful interrogation of the political conformity and repressed sexuality in Mussolini’s Italy. But what really shot him to stardom and covered him with notoriety is Last Tango in Paris (1972). Starring Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider, the erotic drama depicted the anonymous sexual affair between American widower Paul (Brando) and a young French woman, Jeanne (Schneider).
Last Tango drew controversy for its raw portrayal of sexual domination and emotional manipulation in a twisted relationship, and led to national censorships. His most famous and infamous film would continue to haunt his reputation as Schneider said in 2007 that she “felt a little raped” and real tears were shed during the scene where Brando’s character forced himself on her, using butter as lubricant.
It wasn’t until almost ten years later that Bertolucci released a statement confirming that while Schneider was on the same page about the violence in the scene, the use of butter was withheld from her to stimulate real feelings of “the rage and humiliation”. Since then, critics and cinema goers have been re-evaluating the trust and betrayal between director and performer.
After a couple of commercial flops, Bertolucci made his big comeback with the 1987 The Last Emperor, a biopic following the life of Puyi, a Chinese child-emperor at three years old, national exile at 18, later a Japanese puppet state leader, and eventually a commoner of the new republic. The ground-breaking film was the biggest winner at the 1988 Academy Awards, bringing home all nine nominations including Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Bertolucci’s films often depict protagonists at life’s intersections, caught in the struggle of societal ideology and the pursuit of love, beauty and enlightenment. But his sensual and stylistic cinematic language tells the world that in the end, we’re all human.
So it came as no surprise that Bertolucci participated in Fashion Revolution’s anti-sweatshop campaign #whomademyclothes, which brought attention to the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh in 2013, the deadliest garment-factory accident in history.
This led to the observation that, although with such rich cultural heritage, the Italian auteurs never seem to flaunt their fashion even in the prime period. However, weaved into the poetically grandeur imagery and history-book-worthy performances, the aesthetic is self-evident.
Even deep in the arthouse movement, Italian fashion has shone through the post-war idealism: the classic wardrobe of the strapless gravity-defying black dress worn by Anita Ekberg and Marcello’s sophisticated suiting in the Fellini classic La Dolce Vita (1960) won designer Piero Gherardi an Oscar; Adriana Berselli’s dressing for Monica Vitti in Michaelangelo Antonioni’s first film from his iconic trilogy, L’avventura (1960) made Vitti the muse of Italian cinema.
As for Bernardo Bertolucci, whose start of the career rode on the end of the wave of the cinema Renaissance, also didn’t fail to contribute to the great line of tradition with his romantic drama The Dreamers (2003). Set in the 1968 Paris student riots, the film features quirky styles for the American student Matthew (played by Michael Pitt) and French siblings Isabelle and Theo (Eva Green and Louis Garrel).
Eva Green’s first leading role also established her as a style icon with the classic images of the emerald green velvet dress paired with a bright red beret, the ultra-sheer floral dress, posing as the Venus de Milo in evening gloves, and with a cigarette dangling in her mouth almost throughout the film.
Gilles Jacob, the former president of the Cannes Film Festival expressed the sadness over losing “the last emperor of Italian cinema, the lord of all epics and all escapades” in a statement. In mourning of the great master, it’s important that we celebrate the sensual yet enlightening cinema and rethink the messages and controversy in the films that couldn’t be made by any other than Bernardo Bertolucci.
*This article is originally published on _shiftlondon