To my thinking, he was one of the great directors of the post-WWII cinema scene, a director who created stories of compelling emotional power, cinematographic precision, color and power, and a director who plunged the depths of the human psyche. I've watched "Last Tango in Paris" more than any other film, viewing it countless times, fascinated by its brooding majesty, perverse allure, and the great acting by Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider. Certainly the film is somewhat tainted by the accounts of an act of sexual abuse performed by Brando on Schneider, with the apparent collusion of Bertolucci. But that, and only that, is the sole taint on Bertolucci's career. Certainly it caused Schneider much mental pain over the years, and has only burnished her performance in the film, out-distancing in my eyes, that of Brando's, for her own open vulnerability and courage in this very raw film, a real turning point in the history of film. Still, the film is a masterpiece, with Vittorio Storraro's magnificent cinematography, Gato Barbrieri's soaring soundtrack, and Bertolucci's merciless portrayal of an affair bound to go nowhere.
And this was just one of his great films that influenced cinema history, at a time when film auteurs were taken seriously and influenced world film in a way that is no longer possible. He made films that mattered: "The Conformist", "1900", "The Spiders Stratagem", "After the Revolution", "The Sheltering Sky", "The Last Emperor", and his follow-up, such as it was, to "Last Tango", "The Dreamers." I think after "Last Tango," "1900" is the film I have watched the most, in part or all, owning the full five hour version. The sweeping scale of this over five-hour Marxist epic on political, cultural and psychological history of Italy from 1900 to post-WWII is a magnificent epic, rich, multi-layered, tormented and spectacular, with an amazing cast: Burt Lancaster, Dominique Sanda, Robert DeNiro, Sterling Hayden, Gerard Depardieu, Donald Sutherland, Stefania Sandrelli, and other Italian actors not as familiar to US viewers, but stars in their own right such as Laura Betti, Romolo Valli, Alida Valli and others. A critique of history, an emotional saga, and the story of class struggle unresolved through the tumultuous events of the first half of the twentieth century.
And that's just two films. "The Conformist" is perhaps Bertolucci's greatest film, his second film lensed by Storraro, adapted from the novel by Alberto Moravia, about a gay man, suppressed into conformity, who sells his soul to the Italian Fascist party, only to have it all unravel with the fall of Mussolini. This is perhaps his most structured yet powerful film, another dark and merciless film like "Last Tango," where there are no heroes, just victims and survivors. And Dominique Sanda, who was offered the role of Jeanne in "Last Tango" but turned it down due to prior commitments, is enigmatic, alluring, as the dopplenganger of the protagonist, Jean-Louis Trintignant's desires, the film a fascinating nightmare of Freudian dimensions and a damning condemnation of Italy's fascist madness - a warning to all of us living through Trumpian America.
And the revisiting of Spring 1968, Paris, sexual liberation, Marxism, the Cinematheque Francais, rock and roll in "The Dreamers," with Eva Green as an updated Maria Schneider. And "The Last Emperor", a Hollywood blockbuster which melded big 80s bio-pics with serious content and political commentary on the Communist Chinese dystopia - no wonder it was the first, and last, Western film granted access to the Forbidden City, the home of the Chinese Emperors, in Beijing. And his script writing for "Once Upon A Time In The West," Sergio Leone's 1969 masterpiece, rated by most film critics as the greatest Western ever.
A monumental talent, a man who remade cinema has passed. Requiescat in pace, signor Bertolucci. Your life has been one that has touched many, as an artist in cinema who has few equals.