There were five distinct Bertolucci eras or episodes — early, earthy, scruffy (The Grim Reaper, Before The Revolution), Glowing, Sensual, Perverse Perfection (The Conformist, The Spider’s Stratagem, Last Tango in Paris, 1900), The First Stumblings (La Luna, Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man), Return to Glorious Form (The Last Emperor, The Sheltering Sky) and the Long, Gradual, Modestly Respectable Downfall (Little Buddha, Stealing Beauty, Besieged, The Dreamers, Me and You).
For 90% of his followers, Bertolucci’s lasting glory stems from episodes #2 and #4 — the other three don’t count. If he had only made The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris, The Last Emperor and The Sheltering Sky, his world-class reputation would be assured.
Bertolucci talked like a Communist in the ’60s and ’70s but from the early ’70s on he loved going first class. He was a delirious sensualist, a colorist, a composer, a wearer of the finest clothing, a pageantist, and always a maestro of tracking shots. He and Vittorio Storaro, hand in hand, joined at the hip…brothers of the softest light and the most magical of colors (particularly amber).
If there’s one term or phrase that sums up Bertolucci’s spiritual or directorial signature, it would be “exquisitely composed decadent luxury.”
Remember that elegant party in 1900 when a huge white horse is led into a living room full of rich swells sipping champagne, and the owner tells everyone that the horse is named Cocaine? That was Bertolucci. He was every element in that scene…the guests, the horse, the cocaine, and certainly the audacity of leading a magnificent four-legged animal into a beautifully decorated living room and saying quite calmly “say hello to my gentle friend…for he is you and you are he and we are all together.”
Bertolucci was an absolute God between the releases of The Conformist, which opened stateside on 10.22.70, and Last Tango in Paris, which opened on 2.7.73. Two and a half years of being the absolute Zeus of filmmakers, and everyone on the planet was bowing down, including the lordly-at-the-time Norman Mailer.
Hugs and condolences to family, fans, friends, colleagues…this is a big one. And no, the ridiculous twitter outburst of 2016 over misinformation about shooting the Last Tango butter scene isn’t worth reviewing.