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Critic's notebook: Bernardo Bertolucci indelibly but disturbingly pushed the on-screen sex envelope

The legacy of the Italian filmmaker is defined by her daring examinations of transgressive sexual themes, writes the Rome-based criticism of The Hollywood Reporter, who wrote her postgraduate thesis on Bertolucci.

The death of Bernardo Bertolucci at age 77 will be a blow to anyone who grew up in Italian art films at its peak. Intellectual and sensualist able to combine poetry and social themes in his films, the filmmaker was an inventive author supported by the best technicians of his time. His eclectic talent moved nervously between Europe and Hollywood, China and the world, as his songs touched on the topics that most aroused his curiosity, from politics and society to psychoanalysis and eroticism.

One of the Italian directors best known for his historical epic winning several Oscars. The last Emperor (1987), his fame is also linked to the shock effect of the pioneering scenes of sex like the infamous in 1972. Last tango in paris, in which Marlon Brando (in one of his most emblematic performances) uses butter as a lubricant in an anal rape scene with his young co-star Maria Schneider. It is unknown how many members of the public bought a ticket for scenes like this, but he certainly made his contribution to push the envelope of sex in the movies.

What was less amusing was the effect that the shooting of this scene had on Schneider, 19, who knew nothing about it and then said that she had felt "a little violated" by Brando and Bertolucci. They had hit the butter stand just before filming and decided not to tell him, so that he would react "naturally" to the humiliation. Addressing the issue years later, after Schneider's death in 2011, Bertolucci said he regretted not having discussed the scene with her or apologized to her for having cooked him with Brando.

As a movie piece. Last tango in paris It is still powerful, the story of two strangers who meet for intimate sexual encounters in a Paris apartment and refuse to exchange names. The ghost of his first wife stalks Paul, the character of Brando and his impersonality towards his lover Jeanne is the symptom of a man incapable of love.

The same warm and extroverted man, married to the British writer and director Claire Peploe, Bernardo suffered stoically through interviews with students who wrote theses about his films, like me. His formidable intellect, which he always explored and, one imagined, judging those in front of him, made him a little scary, but he had the laughter of the Italians for whom life has been good. Even from the wheelchair he had to use after an operation on a herniated disc that went awry in 2003, he exuded magnetism and curiosity about the people around him.

Born in 1941 in the Emilia-Romagna region around Parma, son of acclaimed poet Attilio Bertolucci, Bertolucci's sympathy for the working class linked him with the most controversial Italian director of the 60s, Pier Paolo Pasolini. His first foray into cinema was as an assistant to Pasolini in Accatone. A year later, he made his directorial debut at the precocious age of 21 in the Pasolini-inspired film. The Commare Secca, which revolved around the murder of a prostitute.

Bertolucci (as Marco Bellocchio, his illustrious contemporary) was inspired by a great interest in psychoanalysis and the psychodynamics of relationships, and sexuality is never left out of the equation. He seemed to be well trained to handle public protest and the attacks of the censors against the transgressing sexual themes that are repeated in his films. Moon (1979), for example, deals with mother-child incest; Homosexuality appears in different forms in The conformist (1970); and the Marxist epic of 1976 1900 has a memorable three-part masturbation scene involving Robert De Niro, Gerard Depardieu and Stefania Casini.

However, the great themes of the director are not only Freudian. His best films contain a powerful link between politics and sexuality, as in The conformist, a great critical and commercial success, which began its long collaboration with the director of photography Vittorio Storaro and the publisher Franco Arcalli. The unpleasant story of a young wealthy intellectual who joins the fascist party in the 1930s in the self-denial of his homosexuality is paradoxically told with a romantic lyrical romanticism. His theme of the conflict between conformity and personal freedom recalls the touching Before the revolution (1964), based on Stendahl The Cartuja of Parma (1948), and the choice of a young man between following the politics of the left and marrying the comfortable bourgeoisie.

If the first half of Bertolucci's 50-year career would be enough to establish his reputation as one of the greatest European art authors, it was with Last emperor that his biggest career started with the Hollywood stars and the main distribution. The visual style and captivating narration of this biography of the last Chinese emperor won nine Academy Awards, including the best film and director, and marked Bertolucci's first association with British producer Jeremy Thomas.

His films in the 90s also opened new paths, but none achieved the exciting mixture of passion, politics and artistic invention of the first films. The protective sky (1990), starring John Malkovich and Debra Winger, was atmospheric, but less so than the Paul Bowles novel on which it was based, and the unconventional cast of Keanu Reeves as Siddhartha in 1993 Little Buddha He gave that fervent movie a strange pop feeling. Interestingly, two photos later, Stealing beauty (1996) with a young Liv Tyler and The dreamers (2003), set during the barricades of May 1968 in Paris, repeats the themes of sexuality and rebellion that made Bertolucci one of the most important nonconformist artists of his time.

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