The Complicated Legacy of Bernardo Bertolucci

Photo: Dominique Charriau/WireImage

This is not the first time I’ve shared this personal anecdote — it’s not even the first time I’ve shared this personal anecdote with a caveat about how it’s not the first time I’ve shared this personal anecdote — but now that Bernardo Bertolucci has died, there is probably no more appropriate time to share it. In 1987, not long after I’d turned 14, I went by myself to see the Coen Brothers’ Raising Arizona at my local multiplex in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. I was enraptured by the movie, and as soon as I came home, I picked up a copy of Film Comment that my father, big film nerd that he was, had left lying around. It had a cover story on Raising Arizona, entitled “Praising Arizona,” in which author Jack Barth praised the Coens’ self-conscious filmmaking style. At one point, Barth offhandedly compared Arizona to Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist. There happened to be a VHS copy of The Conformist lying around; my parents had recently watched it. With Mom and Dad still at work, I immediately put the tape in the VCR.

Two hours later, I had no idea what I’d just seen. So, I immediately rewound and watched it again. By the end of the week, I think I’d watched The Conformist five times. By the end of the month, maybe ten. I was obsessed.

I’ve often tried to put into words what I felt after that initial viewing, and I’ve come up with some different formulations over the years. But recently it occurred to me that the answer is quite simple: The Conformist was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen in my life. It was beautiful not just in the sense that it was gorgeous, though it certainly was gorgeous. No, this was a different, more fearsome beauty — one whose surfaces only hinted at something far more complex and enthralling.

It seems odd, especially in this day and age, to use a word like “beautiful” to describe a picture about a young man who joins the Italian Fascist party and is enlisted to murder his old, left-wing professor, but here we are. The film had an elusive, rich dream logic. Its story hopped back and forth in time and doubled back on itself, sometimes without the viewer’s realizing it. It was often one step, two steps ahead of you, but it was hypnotic. It was a movie you had to watch again, but more importantly, it was a movie that made you want to watch it again. Through the sheer confidence of his filmmaking — the sinewy camera moves, the swirling interplay of light and shadow, the dance-like movements of his characters (who occasionally broke out into real dances) — Bertolucci held me in his grasp. And the slight narrative disorientation was part of The Conformist’s power: Its structure spoke to the protagonist’s troubled psyche, to the subtle ways that his own sense of guilt was transferred across the canvas of memory to the other people in his life.

1987, it turned out, was a good time to become obsessed with Bertolucci, for later that year he released his resplendent Chinese historical epic The Last Emperor, which would go on to win a bunch of Oscars. The film was a comeback vehicle of sorts. After the international success and scandal of 1972’s Last Tango in Paris, he had gone on to make an immense, star-studded and somewhat insane Communist epic, 1900 (1976), whose studio refused to release it. (“They broke all my bones,” was how he would later describe the experience to me.) He had made two movies in the ensuing ten years, both of them considered failures at the time, though, ahem, I happen to think that they are both great. The vast majority of his titles had not been available on video, but slowly, they started to appear. The Bravo Channel, which back then actually showed arthouse and foreign films, broadcast his earlier features The Spider’s Stratagem and Before the Revolution. A brave and foolhardy video distributor put out Partner, Bertolucci’s much-reviled extended Godard homage. The long-gone Biograph theater in D.C. — a porn house by day, an art house by night! — showed 1900. (In its cut version, so it was only four hours and 20 minutes long.)

Bertolucci’s work, it turned out, made for a perfect gateway drug into the broader world of cinephilia. He himself was a film buff in both sentiment and deed. He had fallen under the spell of the French New Wave and American classic cinema as a teen (his father had been a prominent critic in Italy), and he incorporated their contradictory legacies into his efforts. Last year, when the Quad Cinema in New York mounted a retrospective, I wrote this: “Bertolucci’s great achievement was to marry the great formal experiments of his time with a revitalized approach to melodrama and narrative: He understood not just the lessons of Jean-Luc Godard and Pier Paolo Pasolini (his mentors and spiritual fathers) but also of Douglas Sirk and Vincente Minnelli.” I think that’s mostly correct, but it feels weird not to mention also Luchino Visconti and Josef Von Sternberg (whose legacies he expanded upon), or Orson Welles (whom he adored) or F. W. Murnau and Max Ophuls (to whom he owed so much).

Forgive all the name-checking. The so-called “Movie Brat” generation would come a few years after Bertolucci (and bear his influence), but in some senses, he was the first of the brats, supremely literate in film history and eager to mix and match, to blend styles and moods and fashion something new. He talked openly about his inspirations. Reading up on his work, I discovered countless new movies and directors. And they really felt like discoveries, because it wasn’t easy back then to find pictures by Pasolini, or Visconti, or even Godard. You had to drive to distant video stores, or seek dodgy mail order catalogues and send away for questionable dupes, while the lucky among us could wait for retrospectives that sometimes materialized.

The standard line on Bertolucci is that after the success of The Last Emperor, his films became more ornate and cumbersome and less interesting. I disagree there, too. The Sheltering Sky, his follow-up to The Last Emperor, seems with each passing day like more of a masterpiece. His subsequent pictures, I’d argue, are among his most sincere. Back in 2014, I wrote a profile of the director for Vulture in which I discussed the sense of withdrawal and self-negation one finds in his later work, which seems to reflect his political disillusionment. But I now realize that his increasing physical difficulties — he’d spend the last decade of his life in a wheelchair — must have had something to do with it as well.

At the same time, I recognize that I am probably the least reliable person to ask for an assessment of any Bertolucci movie. We all have those pivotal artists who were so formative in our lives that their work consistently evokes the most personal of responses. For me, his style and sensibility are so integral to what I consider the very essence of cinema that even the most minor film feels like a voyage home. In that sense, losing him feels like I’ve lost a parent.

And heroes, like parents, are human, as we discover the longer we live. And complicated. And Bertolucci’s legacy has now become a controversial one, which I need to address here. But before we go any further, we need to state one clear fact: Maria Schneider was not raped on the set of Last Tango in Paris, and she never claimed she was. A video emerged a couple of years ago of a talk the director gave, which had been edited and packaged to make it seem as if Bertolucci was confessing to an outright crime. In truth, he was relating a story he had told countless times, even back when Schneider was alive, about the staging of one of the most controversial scenes in the film. But suddenly, the internet being what it is, many people were mistakenly led to believe that the movie depicted an on-camera rape.

One of the better pieces about this matter came from Lindsay Zoladz of the Ringer a couple of years ago, who traced the way the story was edited and then traveled around the planet: “Once it reached the English-speaking world,” she wrote, “the Bertolucci story was phrased and packaged in a way that deliberately maximized its outrage value and viral potential … An uncomfortable truth of the internet is that ‘rape’ is a word that gets clicks — and not just the skeezy, perverse kind of clicks, but also a more well-intentioned, liberal-vigilante kind, too.”

It is also true, however, that Schneider did feel humiliated and betrayed on the set of the film, and was forever angry at her director for the way she had been treated; he actually acknowledged this as well. As Zoladz says, “You are watching an actress’s trust being breached, but not necessarily in the way the headlines imply. It is possible to acknowledge and honor Schneider’s trauma while still knowing that.” What Bertolucci was guilty of, I think, was in manipulating his actors in pursuit of a realism that may not have been worth the psychological horrors he inflicted on them. And that is now part of his legacy, too.

I do wonder if Bertolucci himself knew he’d gone too far with Last Tango. He never tried for that improvisatory approach again — the performances in his later films are far more precise and mannered. It’s almost as if he was trying to shake it. Schneider, for her part never could; it haunted her for the rest of her career. And now, it haunts Bertolucci, too, even in death.

The Complicated Legacy of Bernardo Bertolucci