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Bernardo Bertolucci: the last emperor of Italian cinema

Bernardo Bertolucci (1941-2018), who passed away last November 26, was allegedly the last in a long list of film directors who was capable of depicting great human epics on the big screen.

Italian director Liliana Cavani said that she found it “difficult to think of Italian cinema” without Bernardo, who has died at the age of 77.

“We really loved each other, we talked and met very often, a life-long friendship sustained by a common vision of the cinema, without borders, free, a boundless expressive space that was the dream of our generation” said Cavani.

She was bound to Bertolucci by their common roots in the leftwing and Communist “furnace” of Emilia, which Bertolucci depicted so well in his masterpiece 1900.

Cavani is originally from Carpi while Bertolucci was from Parma, both iconic towns on the Via Emilia.

“I considered myself his lucky charm – she said in an official statement following Bertolucci’s death  – What I always admired about him were his courage, his never-banal ideas, his bulimia for knowledge. Above all, his ambition, that of a good kind, to build grand dreams which allowed his cinema to be super-national. His casts were always international. Bernardo liked talking about important issues in private and public life”.

Without doubt, we lost one of the most adamantine pillars of Italian cinema, a man who was able to convey through each motion picture his global vision on humankind.

Bertolucci’s films include many remarkable titles.

Last Tango in Paris (Italian: Ultimo tango a Parigi) is a 1972 Italian-French erotic drama film which portrays a recently widowed American who begins an anonymous sexual relationship with a young Parisian woman. It starred Marlon Brando, Maria Schneider, and Jean-Pierre Léaud.
The film’s raw portrayal of sexual violence and emotional turmoil led to international controversy and drew various levels of government censorship in different venues.

1900 (1976) featured an international cast including Robert De Niro, Gérard Depardieu, Dominique Sanda, Francesca Bertini, Laura Betti, Stefania Casini, Ellen Schwiers, Sterling Hayden, Alida Valli, Romolo Valli, Stefania Sandrelli, Donald Sutherland, and Burt Lancaster. Set in Bertolucci’s ancestral region of Emilia, the film chronicles the lives and friendship of two men – the landowning Alfredo Berlinghieri (De Niro) and the peasant Olmo Dalcò (Depardieu) – as they witness and participate in the political conflicts between fascism and communism that took place in Italy in the first half of the 20th century.
Running 317 minutes in its original version, 1900 is known for being one of the longest commercially released films ever made.

The Last Emperor (1987) was hailed as Bertolucci’s supreme masterwork, for which he won the Academy Award for Best Director and the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. The film recounts the life of Puyi, the last Son of Heaven, the Emperor of China. Puyi’s life is depicted from his ascent to the trhone at the young age of 3 to his imprisonment and political rehabilitation by the Communist Party of China. It was the first Western feature film authorized by the People’s Republic of China to film in the Forbidden City in Beijing. It won 9 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.

The Dreamers was released in 2003. Based on Gilbert Adair’s novel The Holy Innocents, who also wrote the screenplay, the film represents an international co-production by companies from France, the United Kingdom, and Italy. It tells the story of an American university student in Paris who, after meeting a bohemian brother and sister who are fellow film enthusiasts, becomes entangled in a dream-like menage à trois. It is set against the backdrop of the 1968 Paris student riots. The film makes several references to various movies of classical and New Wave cinema, incorporating clips from films that are often imitated by the actors in particular scenes.

In recognition of his work, Bernardo Bertolucci was presented with the inaugural Honorary Palme d’Or at the opening ceremony of the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.

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