Bernardo Bertolucci

b. March 16, 1941, Parma, Italy.
d. November 26, 2018, Rome, Italy.

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Exorcising the Father: Early Works

This is something that I dream about: to live films, to arrive at the point at which one can live for films, can think cinematographically, eat cinematographically, sleep cinematographically, as a poet, a painter, lives, eats, sleeps painting.

– Bernardo Bertolucci (1)

Very few international directors in the past four decades have managed to remain at the “critically successful” as consistently as Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci, whose career has straddled three generations of filmmaking, four continents, and several movie industries. Alongside his provocative explorations of sexuality and ideology, his highly kinetic visual style – often characterised by elaborate camera moves, meticulous lighting, symbolic use of colour, and inventive editing – has influenced several generations of filmmakers, from the American “movie brats” of the 1970s to the music video auteurs of the ’80s and ’90s. Perhaps the most important reason for Bertolucci’s continuing relevance has been the intensely personal nature of his movies: although he makes narrative features, very often based (albeit loosely) on outside literary sources, Bertolucci’s films over the decades reveal distinct connections to their creator’s private dilemmas and the vagaries of his creative and intellectual life. In other words, he has been able to fulfill his dream of being able “to live films” and “to think cinematographically” – to lay bare his inner life through his work.

Bertolucci was born to a prosperous family in Parma, Italy. His father, Attilio, was a well-known poet and writer. He exerted a considerable influence on the young Bernardo, who became an award-winning poet himself at the age of 21 and spent his teen years enamoured with the cinema, thanks to his father’s work as a film critic. At around the same time, Bernardo entered the world of filmmaking as an assistant to another Italian poet, Attilio’s friend Pier Paolo Pasolini, on the writer’s first feature, Accatone (1961). A five-page treatment by Pasolini led to Bertolucci’s own first feature, The Grim Reaper (La commare secca) (1962), an episodic, Rashomon-style investigation into the murder of a prostitute seen through the points-of-view of the dispossessed denizens of a Roman park. The impression of youth shows: The Grim Reaper, despite showing some early signs of Bertolucci’s personal style (expressionistic lighting, a highly mobile camera, and an inventive, time-hopping narrative structure), feels more like a Pasolini film, not the least because of its subproletarian milieu.

Many of Bertolucci’s early films work simultaneously as homages and exorcisms. Pasolini and Jean-Luc Godard were the filmmaker’s twin spiritual fathers in the 1960s, and the latter’s influence is clearly evident in Partner (1968), Bertolucci’s third feature, an attempt at the elliptical, playful, highly symbolic, and politically active style of Godard’s post-nouvelle vague filmmaking. A loose adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Double, Partner is the story of a young idealist (Pierre Clementi) who is faced with his politically revolutionary, socially active, and possibly psychotic doppelganger. Full of attempts at Brechtian distanciation (onscreen text, direct address to the camera, etc.), the film today retains a certain fascination for the ways in which the power of Bertolucci’s burgeoning lyricism and cinematic confidence clash with the fragmented, highly declarative style of Godard’s more political films.

Before the Revolution

In between these two cinematic homage/exorcisms, Bertolucci made a remarkable work imbued with the personal style he would go on to develop further. 1964’s Before the Revolution (Prima della rivoluzione), the director’s second film, tells the story of Fabrizio (Francesco Barilli), a bourgeois youth torn between his revolutionary aspirations and the decadent comfort of his surroundings. Introducing a political element that would later become even more refined, the film worked as an exorcism of a different sort:

I needed to exorcise certain fears. I was a Marxist with all the love, all the passion, and all the despair of a bourgeois who chooses Marxism. Naturally in every bourgeois Marxist, who is consciously Marxist, I should say, there is always the fear of being sucked back into the milieu he came out of, because he’s born into it and the roots are so deep that a young bourgeois finds it very hard to be a Marxist (2).

In essence, Bertolucci used Before the Revolution to explore the nature of political doubt: Fabrizio abandons one type of patriarchy (his conservative family) for another (the ideological demands of Marxism). As in most of the director’s films, this dichotomy is accompanied by sexual tension: While left-wing politics and haute bourgeois surroundings provide the milieu for Revolution, the main narrative (a very loose adaptation of Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma) concerns Fabrizio’s affair with his aunt Gina (Adriana Asti). But unlike in his later works, Bertolucci doesn’t quite manage to reconcile the film’s sexual politics with its more overt ideological content. Try as we might, it’s hard to read Gina as a symbol for anything – she simultaneously represents sexual freedom and Fabrizio’s stuffy family relations; it’s hard to divorce her from the rest of the world, even though she is clearly an outcast in her own surroundings. (It’s also possible to read the incest taboo as a sublimation of homoerotic desire; several early scenes are devoted to Fabrizio’s clearly gay, suicidal young friend Agostino [Allen Midgette], whose death is one of the centerpieces of the film.) Ultimately, what emerges from Before the Revolution is not a coherent vision but a brilliant, highly kinetic portrait of a very confused young man – made, perhaps, by a brilliant and very confused young man. Bertolucci even throws in a beautifully filmed, lushly scored ode to the environment, in which a minor character delivers a lyrical monologue to the decaying Po River, right near the end – a gorgeous sequence that almost feels like it deserves to be its own short work.

The Balancing Act: Politics, Style and Sex

The early 1970s proved to be a significant period for Bertolucci’s cinema. The Spider’s Stratagem (La strategia del ragno) (1970), an expansion of Jorge Luis Borges’ brief short story “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero”, and The Conformist (Il conformista), a major adaptation of Alberto Moravia’s novel of the same name, are both among Bertolucci’s most highly regarded works, with the latter considered by many to be his best. Stratagem, produced soon after the filmmaker entered psychoanalysis, begins as a modern-day story about a young man, Athos Magnani Jr., (Giulio Brogi) arriving at the small town of Tara to investigate the death of his partisan father, Athos Magnani (also played by Brogi), ostensibly at the hands of Mussolini’s fascists. The film then flashes back to the scenes of the elder Magnani’s exploits as a small-time Resistance leader. However, Bertolucci creates a jarring effect by casting the same older actors as Magnani’s comrades both in the present and the past, without trying to make them any younger. Coupled with the fact that the same young actor plays both Magnani Senior and Junior, the film appears to take place in a world divorced from reality – a landscape of the mind, perhaps, where the present and the past intermingle freely. It’s a highly symbolic work, tempered by Bertolucci’s expressive camera moves and bursts of vivid, at times surreal, colour (it was shot by Vittorio Storaro, who would become one of the director’s most cherished collaborators); as such, it perfects Partner‘s faltering attempts at a blend of the self-conscious and the conventional. Indeed, although Stratagem is by no means an “easy” work, it features several scenes of heightened suspense that suggest Bertolucci could be at home in the thriller genre. (Incidentally, one of his dream projects since the late 1960s has been to film Dashiell Hammett’s detective novel Red Harvest.)

The Conformist

The Conformist tells the tale of Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a young man in Mussolini’s Italy desperate to create the illusion of “normality” by rejecting his past, which includes a homosexual incident and a murder in his youth, and joining the Fascist Party, which entrusts him to locate his old Professor in Paris and assassinate him. Clerici, who has also embraced marriage to a petit bourgeois girl (Stefania Sandrelli) as part of his attempt to conform to society’s expectations, travels to Paris, only to fall in love with the Professor’s bisexual wife (Dominique Sanda). Whereas Moravia’s novel relied on a purely linear mode of storytelling, beginning with Clerici’s childhood and going all the way to his demise during the fall of Mussolini’s government, Bertolucci begins his film closer to the end, with Clerici waiting in a hotel room in Paris for the phone call that will whisk him away to the Professor’s assassination. The past then begins to play out while Clerici rides in his car, chatting with his fascist bodyguard. Even the flashbacks themselves have flashbacks – a visit to a priest on the eve of his engagement leads to a remembrance of the homosexual encounter where Bertolucci locates Clerici’s psychosis.

What distinguishes The Conformist’s structure from other works that rely on framing devices – including the director’s own The Last Emperor (1987), which replicates The Conformist‘s structure in a more conventional fashion – is Bertolucci’s avoidance of standard cinematic grammar, shirking dissolves, track-ins, voiceovers or other motifs that would traditionally indicate a flashback is about to occur. It certainly works to keep the audience from settling into a conventional story, but it also portrays something more profound. As Millicent Marcus has argued:

This ordering technique also says something about the moral and existential consequences of adherence to Fascist thought. By privileging the car ride, which would merit no attention at all in a sequential telling of the story, the film is able to concentrate our attention on the present of decision-making whose results Bertolucci identifies with Fascism itself. The journey is really one agonizing process of choice – will Marcello intervene to save the life of his beloved, or will he watch her murder in complicitous passivity?…Marcello’s original motives in undertaking the journey are heroic, activist, interventionist ones…The car ride to Savoy is fascism in its movement from a seemingly heroic ethos to a passive and cowardly one (3).

In other words, the film’s style, both in movement and design, is symbolic of Fascism’s rise and fall: Just as Marcello Clerici’s attempts to order his life according to society’s harsh rules lead to his eventual psychic disintegration, so too do Fascism’s attempts at regimentation and authoritarianism lead to anarchy and chaos. The earlier parts of the film, full of the clean, imposing spaces of Mussolini’s Italy, are directed with a highly orderly aesthetic – symmetrical compositions, lateral, precise tracking shots, and very tight, controlled movements by the actors, particularly Trintignant. The later parts are draped in shadows, or shot through with unflatteringly harsh lights, working to create a unique sense of violent social turmoil. The scene where the Professor and his wife are murdered is full of rough, handheld camerawork and jump cuts. The finale of the film, set in a dark, dank prostitute-riddled corner of the Colosseum on the night of Il Duce’s fall, with distracting searchlights and other odd lighting effects, is a far cry from the cleanly lit, orderly spaces of the earlier scenes. The mixture of homosexual and heterosexual hustlers (among them the gay chauffeur Marcello thought he had killed as a child), the disorderly political protesters, the collapsing symbols of fascism’s fall, all create the sense that the protagonist has wound up in a world where everything he sought to suppress has come out of hiding and into full view.

If The Conformist is today Bertolucci’s most critically lauded film, his next two were probably his most notorious, in more ways than one. Last Tango in Paris (1972), the story of an American widower (Marlon Brando) and a young French woman (Maria Schneider) engaging in anonymous, raw sexual games inside an unfurnished Paris apartment, burst onto the scene thanks to its explicit content and the middle-aged Brando’s intense performance. The critic Pauline Kael, in an infamous review, compared the film’s New York premiere to the first performance of Stravinsky’s The Rites of Spring, calling it “the most powerfully erotic movie ever made” and speculating that it “may turn out to be the most liberating movie ever made” as well. Today, some of Last Tango‘s explicitness has dated, but the potency of its characters’ acting out of their aggressions through sexual encounters reveals the film to be the primary influence on later films as diverse as Cedric Kahn’s L’Ennui (1999), Louis Malle’s Damage (1992) and Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992).

The enormous popular success of Last Tango allowed Bertolucci to assemble a massive budget and an impressive cast for his next film, the impossibly ambitious 1900 (Novecento) (1976) a politically committed 5-hour-plus epic about 20th century Italy starring Robert De Niro, Gerard Depardieu, Burt Lancaster, Donald Sutherland, Sterling Hayden, Dominique Sanda, Stefania Sandrelli and the late Laura Betti. However, the film’s vast running time and its explicitly Marxist political stance caused a major rift between Bertolucci, his producer and his studio. The film was recut twice and finally released by Paramount in the US with no publicity in a compromised 4 hour version.


1900‘s immense running time was not just a stunt: Bertolucci cut a wide swath through history, telling the story of two boys born on the same day in 1901 (the date of Giuseppe Verdi’s death) – Olmo (played by Depardieu as an adult) is the son of peasants and destined to be a socialist; the other, Alfredo (De Niro as an adult) is the son of landowners and destined to be a hopeless bourgeois, an unwitting defender of fascism, and an inadvertent propagator of crimes against his labourers. The vast historical melodrama that ensues is one of Bertolucci’s most committed and audacious works. Paradoxically, for most of its running time, 1900 is also probably the director’s most conventional film, full of war and conflict and love and sex. Its last act, however, sharply divided audiences, with Bertolucci depicting a Red Flag-waving trial of the landowners after the fall of fascism – a purely fantastical scenario that was closer to a Maoist show trial than anything that occurred in Italian history. Addressing those critics of his – many of them from the Italian Communist party – who claimed that these final scenes were inconsistent with historical fact, Bertolucci himself confirmed this: “This entire sequence is an anticipation”, he said in 1978. “It is a dream of something yet to be” (4).

The popular failure of 1900 – still one of the most ambitious works ever made by a major filmmaker – left Bertolucci scarred, but an American studio releasing a Communist film at the height of the Cold War seems downright surreal even now, and it’s to Bertolucci’s credit that he managed to mount such a contradictory production in the first place. The film’s reputation has increased over the years; the full version was restored in 1995 and finally released properly in the US, garnering significant critical praise.

In the wake of the debilitating struggle over 1900 (he has often described the experience as akin to having all his bones crushed) Bertolucci’s next two films could be seen as a calculated retreat: Luna (1979) is the small-scale, though no less gorgeous, story of an American opera singer (Jill Clayburgh) struggling with her disaffected teen son (Matthew Barry) and his drug addiction during a trip to Italy. One senses in the film a deliberate attempt by Bertolucci to reinvigorate his career by re-examining his work, especially in the charming manner in which the film becomes a travelogue through the director’s earlier career – from the farm in 1900 to an appearance by Pasolini regular Franco Citti, to a small but inspired moment when the boy’s father, right before his sudden death, discovers a piece of gum stuck under a balcony railing – right where Brando’s character in Last Tango left it, immediately before his own demise.

Luna was not a hit, and it was followed by Bertolucci’s last truly Italian film, The Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man (Tragedia di un uomo ridiculo) (1981), an intriguing political thriller featuring Ugo Tognazzi as an industrialist whose son is kidnapped by Communist activists. A film that sits uncertainly on the border between Bertolucci’s earlier work and his later films, Tragedy not only begins to express the director’s disillusionment with Marxism, but it ties up some loose ends as well:

I saw it in my mind’s eye as the ideal conclusion to Novecento (1900). But while the first two acts alluded to the relationship an Italian author may have with an international cinema, this third act shows, some years later, the relationship between that author and his own country. Novecento ended with the 25th April (the Liberation of Italy) while Tragedy is a film about the present with references back to 1945. Primo even reminds us of his past as a partisan. [He] is incapable of embracing the aberrant logic of Communism when it takes the form of kidnapping, negotiations, money payments, and the collection of the special trade-off represented by his son….There is a certain cultural, political and human continuity between Olmo and Primo. In a sense Primo is Olmo forty years on. He is the father who has become boss, who fought as a partisan, and was brought up as a communist and a peasant (5).

Late Resurgence: The Cinema of Isolation

In the ’70s, Bertolucci had become a major international filmmaker through a combination of provocative content, visual expressiveness and a willingness to make films that could be engaged with on serious intellectual terms. At the same time, a desire for a more commercial direction peered through his work, from the more lush, melodramatic moments of The Conformist to the operatic spectacle and the A-list cast of 1900. Even as he made some of his most challenging works, Bertolucci had always been fascinated by more popular movies: 1968, the year of his most “difficult” film, Partner, is also the year he shared a writing credit with the horror auteur Dario Argento on Sergio Leone’s classic Spaghetti Western, Once Upon a Time in the West. Nevertheless, these were just dalliances; the director had resisted the greater temptations of popular filmmaking. In a very revealing 1995 interview, he recalled his earlier days of making politically charged, stylistically challenging films:

Gianni Amico, Glauber Rocha and I called our films “Miuras” or “Young Bulls”. The “Miura” is the Spanish name given in bullfights to the most dangerous, strongest and lithest bulls…. “I’ve made a ‘Miura’ film; not a single spectator will enter the theater”, and we’d go on laughing to keep from crying.

I was deliberately trying to create such “Miuras,” and yet I suffered a lot when I thought of these packed movie houses of my childhood. I often wondered what I understood back then by the word “rigor”, and I think I can say that it was principally a refusal to have anything to do with my audience, fearing to be seen or judged, a refusal to seek out an audience coupled with the fear of being ignored by them. It’s like when you fall in love and you fear being rejected by the object of your love….Because of political moralism we refused ourselves the pleasure of any sensual contact between the author and his audience. This kind of pleasure struck me as belonging absolutely to right wing filmmakers.

And so, little by little, I began to give up this idea of “rigor”. I wanted to have contact, to embrace my audience (6).

Thus, Bertolucci’s late phase began with deliberate overtures to Hollywood. With both Luna and Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man barely making ripples (perhaps “being rejected by the object” of the director’s love), in the mid ’80s he tried to put together his long-gestating adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s aforementioned novel Red Harvest, starring Jack Nicholson. That project fell through, but in 1987, Bertolucci emerged from the wilderness in stunning fashion.

The Last Emperor

The Last Emperor was a massive English-language epic about the last monarch of China, Pu Yi, who took the throne at the onset of the 20th century as a toddler, lost his empire, collaborated with the Japanese during World War II, and was then rehabilitated by the Chinese Communists, finishing his days out as a humble citizen in Mao’s China. It was a massive worldwide hit, and won nine Academy Awards (including Best Picture, with Bertolucci personally winning for Best Director and Best Screenplay), among numerous other international prizes.

With Emperor, Bertolucci appeared to wholeheartedly embrace the mainstream. Certainly, although the film had the support of the Chinese government, little remained of the director’s fervent political convictions; the film’s depiction of Chinese socialism is little more than a mild-mannered form of Jeffersonian democracy, and the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution, once so beloved by the likes of Godard, are dismissed as childish and delusional. Bertolucci’s elaborate narrative structures also appeared to have given way to a standard biopic-friendly flashback structure. For all the film’s success, many of Bertolucci’s early admirers were disillusioned by its compromises.

But a closer look reveals the director bringing to the fore a theme that had been discreetly lurking in his work from the very beginning. The central paradox in all of his early films is the difficulty of reconciling the individual with the masses, a familiar theme among middle-class intellectuals and artists dabbling in socialism. The problem was reconciled in a variety of ways (self-negation in The Conformist and The Spider’s Stratagem, Utopian deus ex machina in 1900) but with his later films, Bertolucci finally begins to acknowledge that such a reconciliation might not be possible. If the phrase “Before the Revolution” could be used to describe most of Bertolucci’s works in the 1960s and ’70s, then “After the (Non) Revolution” could be used to describe the later films. The Last Emperor finally features a Bertolucci protagonist struggling with identity not in anticipation of, but in the wake of social upheaval; the later works would too, albeit upheavals of a different kind.

With their exotic locales and high production values, The Last Emperor, The Sheltering Sky (1990), and Little Buddha (1993) can collectively be considered an Eastern Trilogy, with all three films aiming for a wide international market. In one sense, this was an attempt by the director to capitalise on his newfound cache as a director of epic films, at a time when popular movies were becoming more and more like television shows; in another sense, this was a reaction to the realities of a globalised marketplace. Bertolucci, who now split his time between Rome and London with his English wife, Clare Peploe, had entered into a fruitful partnership with the British producer Jeremy Thomas, who was an expert at putting together international financing for ambitious films.

But despite the highly commercial nature of these films, they also revealed Bertolucci working in an intensely personal vein. If The Last Emperor is an example of a filmmaker attempting a clear break with the ideological, geographic and cultural nature of his past work, then The Sheltering Sky, an adaptation of Paul Bowles’ cult novel, about a troubled married couple (John Malkovich and Debra Winger) and their party-boy companion (Campbell Scott) drifting through post-WWII Northern Africa, could be seen as a kind of commentary on this act, in its existential portrait of Americans who have given up on the world.

The Sheltering Sky

Indeed, The Sheltering Sky‘s sheer lack of politics seems to be its most remarkable trait when considered against the rest of the director’s oeuvre: It is a film made by a man whose ideological foundations have collapsed, and who has been cast adrift in an intellectual and cultural desert. (Bertolucci himself has remarked on the strangeness of learning that the Berlin Wall had fallen during production on the film.) It’s a relentlessly bleak work, unafraid to acknowledge its characters’ emptiness, even at its very end: The film closes with Winger’s character being returned to civilisation after a nearly silent foray in the desert among Tuareg tribesmen; but just at the moment when the viewer can expect a tearful, triumphant reunion with Scott’s character (complete with swelling strings on the soundtrack) she disappears into the crowd, enters a cafe, and finds herself face to face with the weathered face of author Paul Bowles, playing himself. He asks her if she is lost, to which she replies, “Yes”. The film fades out on a close-up of Bowles – an unexpected kicker, and an uncharacteristic tip of the hat from Bertolucci the auteur to Paul Bowles the author, acknowledging the filmmaker’s newfound ability to give up some control over his own work.

If The Sheltering Sky is a cry of hopelessness, then what to make of Little Buddha, which was marketed as a sweet-natured family-friendly epic about Buddhism? Like several of Bertolucci’s earlier works, it tells two stories – one a modern day tale about Jesse, a Seattle boy who might be the incarnation of a major Tibetan lama, and the other a colourful storybook recreation of the life of Prince Siddhartha (Keanu Reeves), the founder of Buddhism, who rebels against his father’s authority, walks away from his empire, and becomes an ascetic, before achieving Enlightenment and establishing a religion.

Although Bertolucci is not a Buddhist, it’s easy to see why the story of Siddhartha appealed to him at this stage in his life. For at the heart of Siddhartha’s journey is a dark existentialist realisation that would have done Camus proud: sheltered by his father from the agony of the world, the Prince sneaks away and discovers poverty, disease, and finally death. Bertolucci’s representation of Siddhartha’s visually violent introduction to mortality is one of the most powerful moments in all of the director’s films, all the more so when one sees it in relation to the hopelessness expressed in The Sheltering Sky. Again, Bertolucci depicts a character whose entire belief system is destroyed, and who has to negate, and then rebuild, his identity – a very strong theme running through all three films in the Eastern Trilogy.

Little Buddha ends on an optimistic note, but it’s a curious one to find coming from this director. The nuclear family is kept intact, a religious reincarnation effected, with another one perhaps on the horizon. (One of the final shots implies that Jesse’s mom might be pregnant with another lama’s reincarnation.) In other words, life goes on – perhaps the only time in Bertolucci’s body of work that this is seen as a remotely satisfying conclusion, and an intriguing finale to an epic trilogy of alienated characters seeking psychological oblivion.


Although by no means dismissed, neither The Sheltering Sky nor Little Buddha approached the popular or critical success of The Last Emperor. Possibly as a result of this, Bertolucci began working in a more intimate vein. His most recent three films provide an interesting contrast and response to the preceding epics. It’s easy to group Stealing Beauty (1996), Besieged (1998) and The Dreamers (2003) together – as a Trilogy of Isolation, perhaps. If the earlier films focused intently on wanderers who sought the abyss by opening themselves out to the world and its harsh gaze, the later films focus on characters, often foreigners, who have withdrawn into internal spaces (a Tuscan villa peopled by English and Irish artists in Beauty, a Roman mansion shared by a European artist and an African refugee in Besieged, and a large Parisian house American and French film buffs ramble through in The Dreamers).

These films also appear to revisit the stories of Bertolucci’s earlier works, this time from a different perspective. Stealing Beauty concerns Lucy (Liv Tyler), a young American girl, and her attempts to identify her biological father among the group of artists with whom her mother shared a house long ago. The search for an elusive parent figure recalls The Spider’s Stratagem (as do the characters’ constant statements that Lucy looks just like her mother, echoing the “Absolutely identical!” refrain from the earlier film). Likewise, the Tuscan villa appears to exist in suspended time, outside of history, just like the town of Tara in Stratagem. But whereas the young Bertolucci filmed Tara as an ossified, otherworldly place full of Kafkaesque dysfunction, the older Bertolucci allows the adult characters of Beauty their reasons for escaping the world. References, some of them brief, to the destruction of the environment, the Balkan wars, the lost idealism of the ’60s, and AIDS, suggest that this escape is not entirely unjustified. Indeed, Stealing Beauty might well be the most generous film Bertolucci has ever made, and its characters reveal something significant about the director’s own political disillusion:

Like me, the people who make up this cosmopolitan community (Lucy) enters had been very politically engaged twenty or thirty years previously; but, out of despair, they decided to abandon their political dreams at a certain moment and seek refuge far from the vulgar crowd, at the top of a hill, overlooking a unique landscape whose incredible beauty inspired the Tuscan painters of the 14th and 15th centuries (7).

In Besieged, the characters’ reasons for escaping the world are even clearer. Shandurai (Thandie Newton) is an African immigrant who flees her totalitarian country after her husband is taken away by the military. She finds herself working as a housekeeper in Rome for Kinsky (David Thewlis), a reclusive English-speaking pianist who falls in love with her, and begins to sell off his belongings in order to help free her husband and win her love. The film’s stark portrait of two lost souls recalls the dynamics of Last Tango, but Kinsky’s romantic, self-negating sacrifice, doing away with his possessions and stripping away his identity, feels worlds away from Brando’s embittered rage in the earlier film. Even though the act is delusional, and the film ends on a captivatingly ambiguous note (Shandurai sleeps with Kinsky, and her husband arrives at their door the next morning, without any indication of what will happen next), the darkly optimistic Besieged suggests that such sacrifices can produce results.

Bertolucci’s most recent film The Dreamers revisits the defining moments of the director’s generation, the May 1968 riots in France, through its look at the erotically charged friendship of Matthew (Michael Pitt), an American film buff, and two sexually precocious French twins (Eva Green and Louis Garrel) who, after meeting at the Cinémathèque française, withdraw indoors while Paris ignites around them. (One is tempted to define this as the milieu of Partner, but for all that film’s nouvelle vague pretensions it was still set in Italy.) It’s a remarkable work coming from Bertolucci, not the least because the director manages to keep a surprisingly objective distance from ideological debate, despite the highly contentious setting. In earlier films, he had held up activism as an ennobling ideal, one his middle-class protagonists were desperate to live up to; here, the clearly bourgeois French twins (they are the children of a successful poet and an English mother) have no lack of ideological conviction. Indeed, it’s an American who provides the film’s conscience. At the end, in direct opposition to his comrades, Matthew rejects direct action, arguing against violence, and Bertolucci seems to side with him. It’s a complete turnaround from the man who made Partner, a paradox the film seems to acknowledge: the film ends with the American and the French children bitterly parting ways in the midst of a riot; the police begin charging, as the credits roll and the soundtrack plays Edith Piaf’s “Je ne regrette rien”.

That The Dreamers ends with its characters in the midst of a street riot is quite telling. Many of Bertolucci’s earlier works often climax with their protagonists among the masses, often in the midst of street parades and political demonstrations, as if to symbolise the charge of history. The isolation of the later works suggest that the characters have begun to exist outside history, perhaps understandable coming from a director whose social convictions had melted away with the end of the Cold War. Very significantly, the solitude of the kids in The Dreamers is punctured when a brick from the rioting outside smashes through the window of their house. One could almost say that it interrupts an idyll, but it also interrupts a suicide attempt (perhaps, in Bertolucci’s later films, the two are not so different). It’s a remarkable moment for the director’s cinema: an acknowledgement that, for all its comforts, the time for isolation may have come to an end. Indeed, one could see that brick as a challenge from the young Bertolucci to his older self – it may turn out to be the harbinger of a more politically engaged cinema from one of the most fascinating and gifted filmmakers of his, or any other, generation.

Bernardo Bertolucci


The Grim Reaper (La commare secca) (1962)

Before the Revolution (Prima della rivoluzione) (1964)

Il canale (1966) short

La via del petrolio (1967) television documentary

Partner (1968)

“Agonia” (segment) in Love and Anger (Amore e rabbia) (1969)

The Spider’s Stratagem (La strategia del ragno) (1970)

The Conformist (Il conformista) (1970)

La salute è malata (1971) documentary

Last Tango in Paris (1972)

1900 (Novecento) (1976)

Luna (1979)

Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man (Tragedia di un uomo ridiculo) (1981)

The Last Emperor (1987)

“Bologna” (segment) in 12 registi per 12 città (1989)

The Sheltering Sky (1990)

Little Buddha (1993)

Stealing Beauty (1996)

Besieged (1998)

“Histoire d’eaux” (segment) in Ten Minutes Older: The Cello (2002)

The Dreamers (2003)

Me and You (2012)

Venice 70: Future Reloaded (2013)

Select Bibliography

Fabien Gerard, T. Jefferson Kline and Bruce Sklarew (eds), Bernardo Bertolucci: Interviews, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 2000.

Donald Ranvaud and Enzo Ungari (eds), Bertolucci by Bertolucci, translated from the Italian by Donald Ranvaud, Plexus, London, 1987.

Bruce H. Sklarew, Bonnie S. Kaufman, Ellen Handler Spitz and Diane Borden (eds), Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor: Multiple Takes, Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 1998.

Robert Burgoyne, Bertolucci’s 1900: A Narrative and Historical Analysis, Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 1991.

T. Jefferson Kline, Bertolucci’s Dream Loom: A Psychoanalytic Study of Cinema, University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, 1987.

Robert Phillip Kolker, Bernardo Bertolucci, Oxford University Press, New York, 1985.

David Lapin, “After the Revolution? A Conversation with Bernardo Bertolucci”, Literature/Film Quarterly, vol. 12, no. 1, 1984, pp. 22–25.

Yosefa Loshitzky, The Radical Faces of Godard and Bertolucci, Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 1995.

Bruce Sklarew, “Returning to My Low-Budget Roots: An Interview with Bernardo Bertolucci”, Cineaste, vol. 24, no. 4, 1999, pp. 16–19.

Claretta Tonetti, Bernardo Bertolucci: The Cinema of Ambiguity, Twayne Publishers, New York, 1995.

Chris Wagstaff, “Bernardo Bertolucci: Intravenous Cinema”, Sight and Sound, vol. 4, no. 4, April 1994, pp. 18–21.

Articles in Senses of Cinema

Before the Revolution: Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers by Maximilian Le Cain

Clouds Pursuing Clouds: Bernardo Bertolucci’s Prima della rivoluzione (Cinémathèque annotations on film) by Neel Chaudhuri

Web Resources

Bertolucci Core
Fan site dedicated to Bertolucci. Includes biography, filmography, reviews, criticism, and links.

The European Directors – Bernardo Bertolucci
Bertolucci interviewed by Jeremy Isaacs for the BBC, September 1989.

After the Revolution: Bernardo Bertolucci Revisits Paris
Article on The Dreamers by Louis Menand.

Film Directors – Articles on the Internet
Several online articles can be found here.

BFI Interviews at the National Film Theatre
David Thompson interviews Bernardo Bertolucci and Gilbert Adair, November 2003.

Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci: the fate of a member of the artistic “generation of 1968”
Review of The Dreamers on the World Socialist Website.


  1. Fabien Gerard, T. Jefferson Kline and Bruce Sklarew (eds), Bernardo Bertolucci: Interviews, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 2000, p. 27.
  2. Fabien Gerard et al, p. 15.
  3. Millicent Marcus, Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1986, pp. 296–7.
  4. Fabien Gerard et al, p. 113.
  5. Donald Ranvaud and Enzo Ungari (eds), Bertolucci by Bertolucci, translated from the Italian by Donald Ranvaud, Plexus, London, 1987, p. 221.
  6. Fabien Gerard et al, pp. 228–9.
  7. Fabien Gerard et al, p. 236.

About The Author

Bilge Ebiri reviews and writes about film for New York Magazine and Vulture.com. His work has appeared in Bookforum, The Nashville Scene, Entertainment Weekly, Moving Image Source, Popular Science, Spirituality & Health, and Time Out New York. He blogs at They Live by Night.

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