Through his overwhelmingly vivid and sensual images, the Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci, who died Monday at 77, was a master at capturing both the immense scope of historical movements and the intimacy of a Parisian apartment.
Working often in collaboration with his favorite cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro, he made films about ordinary and extraordinary people alike, and about the ways in which they struggle to dictate the course of their own lives.
Several of Bertolucci’s more significant efforts are not available to stream, including “Before the Revolution,” “The Spider’s Stratagem,” “Besieged” and “The Dreamers.” (His debut feature, “La Commare Secca,” is streaming on FilmStruck, but that service will be gone by Friday.)
The seven movies featured here, however, comprise an excellent sampling of his most celebrated and controversial works, along with a few flawed visions that deserve a second look. (Dates reflect the year of a film’s earliest theatrical debut, foreign or domestic.)
‘The Conformist’ (1970)
A persistent theme in Bertolucci’s work is how individuals are swept up by the forces of history, whether they’re royalty, like Pu Yi in “The Last Emperor,” or the childhood friends whose fates follow opposing political trajectories in “1900.”
With “The Conformist,” his rapturously beautiful film about life in Mussolini’s Italy, Bertolucci contends that fascism can also find an audience in passive and susceptible people, not only in the fervent ideologue. Jean-Louis Trintignant’s character makes for a compelling case study: He is a member of the secret police assigned to murder his former college professor, a political dissident exiled in Paris, but he’s hamstrung by feelings for the professor’s wife (Dominique Sanda). Through flashbacks, Bertolucci identifies the circumstances that have led him to this place — and implies that others can be vulnerable, too.
‘Last Tango in Paris’ (1972)
Controversy has followed “Last Tango in Paris” for decades, from the X-rated provocations that famously led Pauline Kael to compare its premiere to Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” to the accusations of sexual coercion and abuse more recently leveled by its female lead, Maria Schneider.
Seen today, the film embodies both the possibilities and the excesses of the Method style of its lead actor, Marlon Brando, whose intense brooding and wrenching outbursts are its driving force. Brando stars as a middle-aged American abroad who enters into an affair with a much younger Parisian woman (Schneider), initially as a salve to get over his wife’s suicide. Their anonymous trysts — they share no personal information with each other, names included — are not without emotional consequences.
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This historical epic immediately ran aground when his 317-minute director’s cut, which he had hoped to release in two parts, was scuttled by his producer, who edited together a 195-minute version before they compromised at 247. Since its 1991 rerelease, however, the longest cut has emerged as the definitive one, fully articulating Bertolucci’s grand statement about Italian politics in first half of the 20th century.
Robert De Niro and Gérard Depardieu star as a two childhood friends born on the same estate on Jan. 1, 1900, one the grandson of a peasant, one the grandson of an aristocrat. Although they remain in contact over the years — extremely close contact in one scene, which earned the re-release an NC-17 rating — they’re driven apart by a shared love for the same woman (Dominique Sanda) and their conflicting roles in the fascist takeover of the estate.
The Last Emperor (1987)
Although it swept the Oscars in 1987, winning awards for best picture and best director, “The Last Emperor” has receded from view over the years, which seems entirely appropriate to its story of a leader who was worshiped as a boy and all-but-forgotten as a man.
But there’s plenty here to cherish, starting with the sumptuous beauty of the production, which revivifies China’s Forbidden City. It also has one of the greatest film scores in cinema history, composed in separate and distinctive portions by Ryuichi Sakamoto, David Byrne and Cong Su.
The life of Pu Yi, played as an adult by John Lone, unfolds in four distinct phases, with the emperor learning the ropes from a British tutor (Peter O’Toole) as a boy, being exiled from the Forbidden City in 1924, returning as a puppet leader of Manchuria for Japanese invaders and, finally, living out the end of his life as a gardener.
The Sheltering Sky (1990)
In the wake of “The Last Emperor,” this picturesque love triangle, set in North Africa after World War II, was dismissed as comparatively insubstantial, less an engagement with the historical moment than a pretty snapshot.
But in adapting the novel by Paul Bowles, who had just settled in Tangier when he wrote the book, Bertolucci is trying to account for how people struggle to find a place for themselves in a suddenly borderless world. Described as “travelers” rather than tourists — the distinction being that travelers could stay indefinitely while tourists are just passing through — an American couple (Debra Winger and John Malkovich) and their friend (Campbell Scott) arrive in Tangier in 1947 and soon get caught up in romantic entanglements that threaten the marriage and the friendship.
Little Buddha (1993)
The casting of Keanu Reeves as Siddhartha all but guaranteed that Bertolucci’s earnest spiritual journey would get scoffed out of theaters. T hat’s to say nothing of the awkwardness inherent in its premise, which follows the search for a reincarnated Buddhist teacher to a middle-class white family in Seattle.
Yet “Little Buddha” has a storybook simplicity that is unusual for Bertolucci, who seems utterly committed to making the transcendent accessible to the widest possible audience. The quest to find the reborn Lama Dorje leads Tibetan Buddhist monks to a sweet young boy (Alex Wiesendanger), whose parents (Chris Isaak and Bridget Fonda) are understandably wary about handing him over to a higher fate. Bertolucci cuts between these recruitment efforts and a highly stylized story-within-the-story about Siddhartha’s quest to end universal suffering.
Stealing Beauty (1996)
After years of cinematic globe-trotting, Bertolucci returned to Italy for this fetching wisp of a coming-of-age film, which cast Liv Tyler as a 19-year-old who heads to a Tuscan villa with the secret mission to lose her virginity.
“Stealing Beauty” doesn’t sidestep the icky pitfalls of that conceit, especially once a dying playwright (Jeremy Irons) finds out and spills the beans to a community of mostly middle-aged artists, who obsess over it. But the surface pleasures of the film are substantial, highlighted by Tyler’s simple and appropriately guileless lead performance and the luscious magic-hour photography by Darius Khondji, who stepped into the light after shooting “Seven.” It may be high-toned erotic fantasy, but at least it’s elevated fantasy.
Source : https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/26/movies/bernardo-bertolucci-movies.html