Remembering The Work Of Director Bernardo Bertolucci

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The Oscar-winning director of "The Last Emperor" and "Last Tango In Paris" has died of cancer at 77. Italy's Bernardo Bertolucci came of age during the political tumult of the 1960s. He became both controversial and one of film's acknowledged masters. Critic Bob Mondello offers this remembrance.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: To make a political film in Italy in the 1960s was sort of to make a film. Everybody back then was putting politics and social issues in movies - Fellini, Antonioni, Pasolini. And Bertolucci was no exception, as he told Madeleine Brand on NPR's Day to Day in 2004.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BERNARDO BERTOLUCCI: I really would like that the kids - 17, 18, 19, 20 years old - to see especially one thing that I repeat and repeat, which is that in '68, we were going to sleep knowing that we would wake up not tomorrow but in the future. And future means hope.

MONDELLO: Bertolucci's first widely seen film, in fact, was "Before The Revolution," about a student who found hope in communism but had to reconcile the party's views with his bourgeois upbringing. What was also in the film was the student's passionate relationship with his aunt. And that combination of sensuality and politics would inform the rest of Bertolucci's career - "The Conformist," about fascism and sexual repression in the 1930s, the magnificently sweeping five-hour epic "1900" about 20th-century class struggle and the film starring a middle-aged Marlon Brando and a teenaged Maria Schneider for which Bertolucci is perhaps most famous or infamous, "Last Tango In Paris."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LAST TANGO IN PARIS")

MARIA SCHNEIDER: (As Jeanne) I don't know what to call you.

MARLON BRANDO: (As Paul) I don't have a name.

SCHNEIDER: (As Jeanne) You want to know mine?

BRANDO: (As Paul) No, no, I don't. I don't want to know your name. You don't have a name, and I don't have a name either - no names.

SCHNEIDER: (As Jeanne) OK.

MONDELLO: "Last Tango" included a rape scene that was shocking both for its explicitness - the film was banned in many countries - and for the way Bertolucci filmed it. He and Brando had talked through the scene, but Schneider, who was 19 at the time, wasn't aware of what would happen until they were actually filming. Her tears were real, and the filmmaker never apologized. The film's success, however, allowed his career to flourish. After the lush epic "1900," he made what he called his eastern trilogy, beginning with another epic, 1987's exquisitely grand "The Last Emperor" about China's 3-year-old Pu Yi.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LAST EMPEROR")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I have decided that you will be the new lord of 10,000 years. You will be the son of heaven.

MONDELLO: "The Last Emperor" was the first Western film to be granted permission to shoot in China's Forbidden City. And it won all nine of the Academy Awards it was nominated for, including best picture and best director. The rest of the trilogy, "The Sheltering Sky" and "Little Buddha," were less well-received. And in the late 1990s, Bernardo Bertolucci returned to making smaller, character-based films in Italy always infused with both sensuality and politics and always gorgeously shot. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.