Bernardo Bertolucci, who defined the art-house cinema of the 1960s and ’70s and won numerous Oscars for The Last Emperor in 1988, died today at his home in Rome at the age of 77. His wife and artistic collaborator, Claire Peploe, confirmed his passing in a statement. Although no cause of death was given, Bertolucci was known to have cancer.
Bertloucci burst onto the scene in 1964 with Before the Revolution, the story of a young, middle-class Italian man torn between the Catholic ideals of his youth and the increasing appeal of radical Marxism. Although Bertolucci was only 23 when the film was shot—it was his second, after the previous year’s La Commare Secca—he had already fastened onto the theme that would go on to define his career, the interplay between political ideology and tradition on the one hand, and erotic desire on the other.
Bertolucci directed his last film, 2012’s Me and You, from a wheelchair, which he had used for more than a decade after failed surgery for a herniated disc left him with back pain. Even before then, confinement had been a recurring subject of his films, from 1968’s Partner, a fusion of Dostoevsky’s The Double and the essay films of Jean-Luc Godard, through 2003’s The Dreamers, in which young intellectuals retreat from the political turmoil of 1968 to explore their own sexuality, only to have the revolution come literally crashing through their windows.
Confinement and obsession was also at the heart of Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, the story of an all-consuming sexual relationship that Pauline Kael famously likened to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.* It was during the making of that film that Bertolucci and actor Marlon Brando conspired to film a scene in which Brando’s character anally rapes the character played by Maria Schneider, only informing the 19-year-old Schneider shortly before the scene was filmed. Schneider said in 2007 that she felt “humiliated … and a little raped” by the experience, and in 2013, two years after Schneider’s death, Bertolucci admitted he had “been, in a way, horrible to Maria,” although he added, “I feel guilty, but I do not regret.”
Both Bertolucci and Schneider’s remarks resurfaced in 2016, at which point the outrage that had failed to greet either on first airing finally emerged, although in their rush to justly condemn Bertolucci’s behavior, many lost sight of Schneider’s actual words; although she confirmed in her initial remarks that she and Brando never had intercourse, forcible or otherwise, numerous accounts echoe that of actress Jenna Fischer, who tweeted that the film “contains an actual rape and sexual assault.” As Lindsay Zoladz wrote in The Ringer, “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.”
Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor won nine Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, in 1987, but none of the films he made after it, including The Sheltering Sky, Little Buddha, and Stealing Beauty, equaled it in popularity or critical acclaim, and his last film was virtually ignored, which means there is effectively an entire generation for whom he exists only as an sometimes-sensationalized headline. (Perhaps the people confident tweeting that Last Tango contains an “actual rape” think they’re doing the Lord’s work, but disregarding Schneider’s actual words in the name of posthumously defending her is at least a little ironic.) Schneider certainly deserved better, both during the making of Last Tango and afterwards, when she struggled with the intense attention brought on by the film’s scandal-driven success; she became a drug addict, attempted suicide, and eventually became an advocate for better working conditions on-set. And Bertolucci, public apology notwithstanding, never fully reckoned with the damage that he’d done. With Bertolucci, Schneider, and Brando all dead, that reckoning falls to us, and at least for now, Schneider looms as large in Bertolucci’s legacy as he did in hers.
Correction, Nov. 26, 2018: This post originally misidentified the composer of The Rite of Spring. It is Stravinsky, not Tchaikovsky.