As per his publicist, Signor Bertolucci died in his house in Rome at 7:00 Monday morning, following a struggle with cancer. He was 77. The Parma-born director was perhaps best known for his epic The Last Emperor, which detailed the life of China’s final monarch before the country’s shift towards communist rule. The film won nine Oscars at the 1988 Academy Awards, including two for Bertolucci for his direction and screenplay.
Similar to fellow countrymen Sergio Leone and Michelangelo Antonioni, Bertolucci was able to reach beyond his Italian roots for his productions, working across Europe and partnering with international production companies.
Bertolucci has always been a name close to my heart, though not necessarily for a film he directed. Often working on his films’ screenplays, Bertolucci is credited (alongside Italian horror maestro Dario Argento!) for the script on Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, A.K.A. Sam’s Favorite Film Ever.
Before Once Upon a Time in the West in 1968, Sergio Leone’s grandest production (barring his debut “swords & sandals” epic The Colossus of Rhodes) was a little unknown western called The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in 1966. You might know it. Yet while Ugly sprawls across the country, taking the audience across deserts and literal war zones, the story remained a very small, character-driven story of greed, basically. Leone was familiar with his rivalries and double-crossing desperados. But the Wild West was more than that, maybe?
Letting loose the eye for the big picture we would see in his own films like The Last Emperor and 1900, Bertolucci’s contribution to the screenplay for West can be characterized, perhaps, as “scale.” The expansion of Leone’s tight close-ups and dueling guns into an epic encompassing the closing frontier, the rise of modern American capitalism, and the dying gunfighter. Pair this with Dario Argento’s sense of visceral horror and dread for those scenes of intimacy and violence, and you’ve got yourself an epic western for the ages.
In his own films Bertolucci was able to plant his characters in the middle of massive worlds, evident in the aforementioned Last Emperor and 1900, but also his masterpiece The Conformist, which tracks one troubled government agent’s indecision and trauma during Italy’s descent into fascism, following the First World War.
The Conformist is talked about to this day–nearly 50 years since its 1970 release in Italy–as one of the best-photographed films of all-time, contemporaries praising Bertolucci and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s attention to detail, and use of both grand and intimate spaces. Without a doubt, Bertolucci’s legend will only grow, his films kept alive by the filmmakers whom he inspired and audiences who remember his films fondly.
My top 3 Bertolucci:
1- The Conformist
3- The Last Emperor
— Guillermo del Toro (@RealGDT) November 26, 2018
A sad few days as we've just lost two huge inspirations: Nicolas Roeg and Bernardo Bertolucci. My thoughts fly out to their spirits, and my endless thanks and for their extraordinary films. #NicolasRoeg #BernardoBertolucci
— Jim Jarmusch (@JimJarmusch) November 26, 2018