Bernardo Bertolucci, the famed Italian director known for the ever-controversial Last Tango in Paris as well as films like The Last Emperor and The Dreamers, died on Monday in Rome at 77. The New York Times said his wife Clare Peploe confirmed the news, but did not specify a cause of death. Born in Parma, Italy in 1941, Bertolucci decided to become a film director after working with his friend Pier Paolo Pasolini. His films blended the influence of the Italian neorealist movement and the French New Wave, and often, as in the case of 1970’s The Conformist (about a closeted man who joins the Fascist party), that of Freudian psychoanalysis and the theory of the subconscious. Last Tango in Paris, his most famous work, which depicts a sexually explicit affair between Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider, premiered at the New York Film Festival in 1972 and caused a great scandal; some critics, including Pauline Kael, hailed it as a “movie breakthrough,” while others decried its violence and apparent misogyny. The scene in which Brando’s character uses a stick of butter to anally rape Schneider has continued to be a subject of controversy, as Schneider claimed the scene was unscripted and took her by surprise, while Bertolucci has insisted that he and Brando only withheld from Schneider that they would use butter as lubricant.
The attention brought by Last Tango in Paris led Bertolucci to direct more ambitious films, including the five-hour epic 1900, about peasant revolutionaries. In 1987, he released The Last Emperor, a film about a young Chinese monarch who lives through the Cultural Revolution and ends up a citizen of the People’s Republic. The film won nine Oscars, including Best Picture, and garnered the Best Director prize for Bertolucci. In much of his later work, including The Sheltering Sky, Little Buddha, and The Dreamers, Bertolucci reckoned with his frustrations with the West, and his attempts to grapple with the communist ideals that propelled much of his early work. “I was quite shy in real life, when I was young,” he told Vulture in an interview to promote what would become his last film, Me and You, in 2014. “So, I used my movies to show myself. I’ve said before that inside every shy person there is a bloody exhibitionist.”