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Born: Parma, Italy, 16 March 1940.

Bernardo Bertolucci (JPG, 14 KB)

One of the most accomplished directors of the contemporary Italian cinema. The son of poet and film critic Attilio Bertolucci, he began writing poetry as a child, and his work was published in periodicals before he was 12. Eight years later, while still a student at Rome University, he won a national poetry prize for his volume In Search of Mystery. While still in his teens he had developed a passion for the cinema and made several amateur 16mm films. In 1961 he dropped out of college to become Pasolini's assistant director on Accatone!, and the following year, barely 22, he directed his first film, The Grim Reaper, a sombre affair that was a commercial disaster and made little impact on critics. He then spent two years preparing his second, Before the Revolution, a remarkably mature and intensely romantic exploration of turbulent youth. Despite stylistic flaws and Godard-like excesses, the film was widely hailed by critics in Europe and the USA, and it earned him the Max Ophüls Prize in France.

But the true milestone year in Bertolucci's career was 1970, when he turned out two outstanding films, the visually lovely The Spider's Stratagem, originally made for Italian TV, and a richly poetic, stunningly elegant, intricate, ambivalent, and completely personal adaptation of Alberto Moravia's novel The Conformist. Bertolucci, who believes that "cinema is the true poetic language," had applied his celluloid poesy mostly to political-human themes, but with Last Tango in Paris (1972) he moved into the realm of the purely human. The highly controversial film, which was condemned in the Italian courts as "obscene, indecent, and catering to the lowest instincts of the libido," became a world-wide box-office hit on the strength of its explicit sexuality and the presence of Marlon Brando in the leading role. It established Bertolucci as a commercially viable director as well as a highly gifted one. His next film, 1900 (1976), an epic covering 70 years of life and social conflict in the Emilia region of Italy, caused controversy not only because of its explicit sexuality and graphic violence but also because of its unusual length. The original cut, screened at the Cannes Festival, ran five and a half hours. After a heated dispute between the director and the film's producer, Alberto Grimaldi, it was considerably pared down. The next peak in Bertolucci's career was The Last Emperor (1987), a majestic epic that recreated, through dazzling colour cinematography and with exquisite sets and costumes, the glory and doom of the final chapter in the history of China's royalty. The film won nine Academy Awards, including best picture, best director, and best adapted screenplay.

— Ephraim Katz, The Film Encylopedia

Bernardo Bertolucci Reference Page
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This page was last updated on 23 July 2000.