Bernardo Bertolucci, RIP

Bernardo Bertolucci, the renowned Italian film director, died in Rome earlier this week. By the time he was 30 years old, Bertolucci had directed at least two minor masterpieces: “Before the Revolution” (1964) and, especially, “The Conformist” (1970).

In 1972, Bertolucci hit it big with “Last Tango in Paris,” an X-rated psycho-drama starring Marlon Brando and 19 year-old Maria Schneider in a breakout performance. Pauline Kael, the leading film critic of the day, called “Last Tango” “the most powerfully erotic movie ever made” and possibly “the most liberating.” I’ll have more to say on this subject later in the post.

Bertolucci’s next big film was “1900,” (1976) a four hour historical epic, cut at the studio’s insistence from five hours, starring Robert De Niro and Gerard Depardieu, and featuring Burt Lancaster. Bertolucci was a communist when he made this film and he bragged about “bringing this big socialist story with lots of red flags to the United States.”

In the end, “1900” was far less shocking in the U.S. than “Last Tango.” Critics found the film’s politics cartoonish, but few seem to have been shocked or offended.

Bertolucci went on to make “The Last Emperor” (1987). It was a huge commercial and critical success, grossing $44 million in the U.S. alone and winning nine Academy Awards including best picture and best director.

After that Bertolucci returned to small-scale drama. I haven’t seen any of these movies, but will do so if, as I hope, the director’s death results in a Bertolucci retrospective accessible to me.

“Last Tango in Paris” remains Bertolucci’s signature movie. At the time, as noted, it was viewed by liberals and feminists like Kael as “liberating.” Many traditionalists hated the film and it was banned in Spain and in the director’s native Italy, where all copies were ordered burned and Bertolucci received a criminal sentence (suspended).

But today, the quarrel with “Last Tango” comes from feminists, a far more puritanical lot than their 1970s counterparts. The movie includes a famous rape scene. Since rape, real and imagined, is at the heart of contemporary feminism, it’s not immediately obvious why feminists would object to its depiction in an art film.

The feminist objection to Bertolucci seems to be two-fold. First, the late Maria Schneider complained that she felt “a little raped” by Bertolucci. In fact, she wasn’t raped at all. The infamous scene was play acting.

It’s true that Bertolucci used butter as a prop in the rape scene without telling Schneider in advance. He did so in order to get a shocked reaction from the young actress. But that’s not rape, not even close.

If Schneider felt “a little raped,” that’s a tribute to Bertolucci’s skill as the director. Bertolucci was able to bring authenticity to the rape scene without having Brando and Schneider engage in sex.

Brando, by the way, also considered himself a victim of Bertolucci’s skill, albeit to a lesser extent. In the movie, he recounts a humiliating scene from his teenage years — one that Brando says actually happened to him and which he had never revealed to anyone. Bertolucci coaxed it out of Brando, and the star wasn’t happy about it. But the authenticity imperative was satisfied.

The second, more basic feminist grievance with “Last Tango” is that it views sex with “the male gaze.” Apparently, “the male gaze” has become a feminist catch-phrase, sort of like “toxic masculinity,” which may be its ugly cousin.

Ann Hornaday, a left-liberal film critic for the Washington Post, expresses this grievance. Hornaday admires Bertolucci, whom she spoke with more than once. Indeed, she writes “so much of my informal film education was conducted by way of his films.”

However, Hornaday finds the director’s “male gaze” in “Last Tango” and other films problematic. She complains that Bertolucci’s “own fantasies and impulses became part of film’s fundamental grammar, internalized by men and women as what counts as beautiful, desirable, and worth aestheticizing in the first place.”

But isn’t this a legitimate function of art? Whose fantasies and impulses is the artist supposed to seek to impose on the viewer, if not his own?

Moreover, Hornaday seems to assume that a film director can impose his vision on “film’s fundamental grammar” and have it “internalized by men and women as what counts as beautiful” etc. by the sheer force of his talent. This may be a convenient belief for a film critic, but is it plausible?

If Bertolucci succeeded to the extent Hornaday claims (I think she overrates “Last Tango”), then yes, it’s a tribute to his skill as a director. But more fundamentally, I think it’s a tribute (if that’s the right word) to his vision — to his gaze. The film viewing public found beauty and desirability (if it did) in what that gaze presented, not so much because Bertolucci served it up masterfully, but because it struck a deep chord.

To me this isn’t just a legitimate function of art, but a central one.

Talented directors with different visions, many of whom are now women and contemporary feminists, challenge Bertolucci’s gaze through their work, as they should. But the preference of critics like Hornaday for these alternative visions should not stand as a rebuke to Bertolucci.