Marlon Brando, scandal and the sexual misuse of a dairy product made director Bernardo Bertolucci internationally famous and notorious. But before Brando’s soul-searing performance in Bertolucci’s controversial Last Tango in Paris (1972), the Italian writer-director had established himself among the most important new international filmmakers for a rich visual signature and for stories that reached deep into his characters’ emotions.
Since Last Tango, Bertolucci has directed many critical successes and a few failures, but he has always remained a key figure of serious cinema, often controversial for his films’ politics and voyeuristic sensuality, but admired for his boldness of subject and style. And his The Last Emperor was the 1987 winner of nine Oscars, including best picture and best director.
“He is one of the major living masters of cinema,” says Fabrizio Nava, consul general for Italy in Houston. “What I find unique about Bertolucci is the way he has moved from one genre to another. He’s done very intimate movies, like The Dreamers (2003) or Last Tango in Paris and he’s made some amazing historical epics, like The Last Emperor or Little Buddha (1993) or The Sheltering Sky (1990), and all the time he has developed a unique language. So we look at him as a very versatile author, digging into several sources of inspiration.”
For its annual Italian Retrospective, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, presents The Nonconformist: A Bernardo Bertolucci Retrospective, starting Friday and continuing through Sept. 30, which features a dozen of the director’s movies, some rarely seen, others world famous.
The retrospective is presented in collaboration with the Italian Consulate General of Italy in Houston and with the Italian Cultural Institute of Los Angeles.
The series opens with Bertolucci’s first films, The Grim Reaper (1962) and Before the Revolution (1964), avant-garde works greatly influenced by the French New Wave, followed by two 1970 films delving intimately and uncomfortably into Italy’s long, tragic dance with Fascism. The Spider’s Stratagem (Saturday) brought Bertolucci major Italian attention, and The Conformist (Sept. 14) won international acclaim.
The Spider’s Stratagem, a film that Bertolucci did for Italian TV in the late 1960s, is like a preparation for The Conformist, says Alessandro Carrera, director of Italian Studies, including Italian film, at the University of Houston. “It’s a really metaphysical portrait of Italy in the 1940s, after the war. The Conformist is an eye-opener in many respects.”
The latter film featured major romantic French star Jean-Louis Trintignant as a Fascist assassin endlessly seeking conformity due to a childhood sexual trauma. It’s a visually beautiful period film. It famously features an amusingly sensual tango between beauty Dominique Sanda and the assassin’s wife, played by Stefania Sandrelli.
The critical admiration of that film allowed Bertolucci to attract even bigger international stars — Brando, Robert De Niro, Gerard Depardieu, Burt Lancaster — on greater canvases. He soon created a worldwide sensation with Last Tango in Paris, a film to savor not for its sexuality but for its visuals, its emotional power, the Gato Barbieri soundtrack and for Brando.
“It was a very bold film for the (early) ’70s,” says Nava. “It was an immediate magnet for attention. Maybe the media impact was drawn by the subject of the movie, but then they quickly realized it was made by the hand of a master. That is what sparked (Bertolucci) into fame.”
It’s still important today, Carrera says. “It shows how a great auteur can manipulate the actors and the audience. It is incredibly intense to the point of being sadistic.”
Both Brando (who was nominated for a best actor Oscar for the film — and might well have won had he not won – and snubbed the Academy — the year before for The Godfather) and his co-star, Maria Schneider, also claimed manipulation and mistreatment by Bertolucci in their graphic sexual scenes — including the instantly notorious butter scene.
“There are moments of voyeurism in Bertolucci’s films, mostly notably I would say in Stealing Beauty,” says Carrera. “I don’t want to be moralistic, but I do not find that particularly attractive or aesthetically successful. But Bertolucci is not shy about that element in his personality. The voyeurism in The Dreamers plays a big part. It’s almost like a soft porn movie sometimes, but I think it really captures some of the personal and collective utopia of the time that is described.” (MFAH requests only mature audiences for Last Tango and The Dreamers.)
Bertolucci followed Tango four year later with “1900,” an epic of Italian history in the first half of the 20th century starring De Niro and Depardieu as a rich man and laborer’s son representing opposites of Italy’s political spectrum. The MFAH is showing the (relatively) short 245-minute version in two parts on Sept. 15 and 16.
The film, which also starred Lancaster, features a muddled story, outlandish characterizations (Donald Sutherland in particular) and Marxist outlook, but also has excellent performances and grandly visual scenes shot by the great cinematographer and frequent Bertolucci collaborator Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, The Last Emperor).
Bertolucci’s broad range of interest and styles are featured in the beautifully filmed Little Buddha (Keanu Reeves as Siddhartha, Sept. 22), the emotionally and sexually intimate The Dreamers (Sept. 28) and the psychological exploration of The Sheltering Sky (Sept. 30). The series also includes Bertolucci’s international and critical hit The Last Emperor, which is epic and stunning as well as emotionally intimate (Sept. 29).
Carrera will introduce the series on Friday and Little Buddha on Sept. 22. “Bertolucci is one of the last of the giants,” he says.
For the MFAH’s complete Bertolucci schedule, including showtimes, directions and descriptions, go to www.mfah.org/films.
Film critic Louis B. Parks is a freelance writer.