Politics and sex collide often on the big screen. It’s a motif that has drawn many filmmakers to it. But the mark of a director whose art endures is to ensure the collision is, at the very least, visually spectacular. Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci, who died on November 26 aged 77, managed to get that potent mix correct for the most part.
Bertolucci was only about 22 years old when he directed his first feature film, The Grim Reaper (1962). His father had already arranged for another Italian film icon, Pier Paolo Pasolini, to get him on board as assistant director on his film Accattone (1961). In a career spanning more than half a century, Bertolucci explored and engaged with fascism through his films, especially The Spider’s Stratagem (1970), The Conformist (1970), and 1900 (1977). He became a part of the Italian Communist party, and then became disillusioned. But his belief in the evils of fascism never dimmed. Speaking about The Conformist, Bertolucci said his intention was to “expose both Fascism and the sins of fathers”. A physicality that pushed boundaries pervades his films. From the ménage à trois in The Dreamers (2003), featuring a brother-sister and an erotic triangle, to the opera singer, her junkie son, and an incestuous relationship, in La Luna (1979), the Bertolucci film was never comfort fare.
The same art of pushing the uncomfortable also tainted Bertolucci’s legacy. In Last Tango in Paris (1972), Bertolucci cast Marlon Brando, in his late 40s, opposite Maria Schneider, a teenager then. A sex scene caused outrage when Schneider alleged that it was unscripted, and that she felt raped both by the director and the actor. She tried committing suicide later in life and was allegedly driven to depression.