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Bernardo Bertolucci with his best director Oscar award for The Last Emperor in 1988.—AP
Bernardo Bertolucci with his best director Oscar award for The Last Emperor in 1988.—AP

ROME: Italian film director Bernardo Bertolucci, whose films include Last Tango In Paris and 1900, died on Monday aged 77.

Considered one of the giants of world cinema, Bertolucci was the only Italian ever to win the Oscar for best film, snapping up the award in 1988 for The Last Emperor. He had gained notoriety for his 1972 erotic drama Last Tango In Paris starring Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider, which featured a controversial sex scene involving butter.

The film-maker died at his home in Rome early on Monday, his press office Punto e Virgola said in an email. He had been wheelchair-bound for several years because of back problems.

Bertolucci’s biographical masterpiece about the last Chinese emperor won a total of nine Oscars, all of those for which it was nominated.

He won an honorary Palme d’Or for his life’s work at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. Former festival president Gilles Jacob said he was saddened by the death of “the last emperor of Italian cinema, the lord of all epics and all escapades.” “The party is over: it takes two to tango,” Jacob said.

Born in Parma, north-eastern Italy, on March 16, 1941, Bertolucci made films that were often highly politicised, dealing with workers’ struggles in 1900 or the fate of left-wingers in fascist Italy in The Conformist.

A member of the Italian Communist party, he made the epic 1900 about the class struggle between Italian peasants and aristocrats spanning almost a century and starring Robert De Niro, Burt Lancaster and Gerard Depardieu.

Bertolucci’s father, a poet, history lecturer and cinema critic, gave him his first 16mm camera aged 15.

Bertolucci studied literature before turning to film, working as assistant director for Pier Paolo Pasolini on Accattone in 1961.

He co-wrote the 1968 spaghetti Western classic Once Upon a Time in the West along with Dario Argento and director Sergio Leone.

In Last Tango in Paris, Bertolucci acknowledged Schneider was not aware that Brando’s character would use butter as a lubricant during one notorious scene with Schneider, who was 19 at the time.

“The only new thing was the idea of the butter. It was this, I learned many years later, that upset Maria, and not the violence that was in the scene and was envisaged in the script of the film.

“It is both consoling and distressing that anyone could be so naive to believe that what happens on the cinema screen actually takes place,” he said of viewers.

Schneider said she had felt “a little raped” during the scene and was angry about it for years afterwards.

Apart from Schneider, the list of stars he discovered includes Liv Tyler in 1996’s Stealing Beauty and Eva Green, who made her screen debut in The Dreamers in 2003.

Director Roberto Benigni hailed a “fraternal, loving, intelligent, genial, unpredictable, rigorous and implacable friend, always telling us the truth, his cinema is one of the wonders of the 20th century”.

Published in Dawn, November 27th, 2018