World-renowned Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci — who won two Oscars across his 56-year career — died Monday in his home country at age 77 following a battle with cancer, Italian officials confirmed to CNN.
Before establishing himself as a maverick auteur known for explicit depictions of sex and carnality in films like 1972’s Last Tango in Paris starring Marlon Brando, Bertolucci — the son of film critic and poet Attilio Bertolucci — served as an assistant director to regional icon Pier Paolo Pasolini on his gritty drama Accattone in 1961 en route to honing his personal directing style on features like The Spider’s Stratagem and The Conformist — both released in 1970.
Bertolucci’s biggest break, however, remains the classic Last Tango in Paris, which courted controversy as a graphically wrought erotic drama about a young Parisian woman (Maria Schneider) who engages in a strictly sexual relationship with an American businessman (Brando). The film went on to put Bertolucci on the mainstream world stage by receiving two Oscar nominations: one for Brando’s performance and one for Bertolucci’s direction.
Still, Bertolucci “felt prosecuted by censorship,” he told CNN in a 2007 interview about the film, which was banned in his native Italy just after its release in 1972, and was not released again until 1987. “It was kind of a sign of the times, it was still an Italy where the reaction forces were … much stronger than the progressive forces. The most humiliating thing … I discovered I lost my civil right for five years. I couldn’t vote. It was one of the worst moments in my relationship with my country.”
Bertolucci would spend much of his career defending various elements of the film, including a particular scene in which Brando’s character rapes Schneider’s using butter as lubricant. Schneider, who died in 2011 and was 19 at the time of production, told the Daily Mail in 2007 that the scene wasn’t in the original script. “I should have called my agent or had my lawyer come to the set because you can’t force someone to do something that isn’t in the script, but at the time, I didn’t know that,” she said. “Marlon said to me: ‘Maria, don’t worry, it’s just a movie,’ but during the scene, even though what Marlon was doing wasn’t real, I was crying real tears.”
In 2016, Bertolucci responded to renewed outrage over that scene in a statement that said, “I decided with Marlon Brando not to inform Maria that we would have used butter… We wanted her spontaneous reaction to that improper use [of the butter]. That is where the misunderstanding lies. Somebody thought, and thinks, that Maria had not been informed about the violence on her. That is false! Maria knew everything because she had read the script, where it was all described. The only novelty was the idea of the butter.”
Still, Bertolucci’s success as a filmmaker continued through his later career. He would go on to receive two Academy Awards for writing and directing the 1987 historical drama The Last Emperor starring John Lone, Joan Chen, and Peter O’Toole,which also won the Best Picture Oscar the following year for its depiction of the life of Puyi, the final ruler of the Qing dynasty in early 20th century China. Between that film’s release and his death, however, Bertolucci only directed six further films, namely the Liv Tyler-starring, Cannes Palme d’Or-nominated Stealing Beauty in 1996 and the 2003 drama The Dreamers starring Eva Green, Michael Pitt, and Louis Garrel; His final feature Me and You — which held its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival — was released in Italy in 2012.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi paid tribute to Bertolucci’s impact on the country’s culture, sending a message of condolence to his followers on Twitter Monday following the director’s death.
“Bernardo Bertolucci, one of the great masters of Italian cinema, has left us,” the tweet reads, per CNN’s translation. “I remember him as a spectator of his works, like everyone else. But also as a valuable advisor when we decided to invest more resources on cinema at Palazzo Chigi. Thank you Maestro, it was an honor. RIP”
Bertolucci is survived by his wife Clare Peploe, whom he married in 1979.