Bernardo Bertolucci, the award-winning movie director, has died aged 77 following a battle with cancer, Italian officials confirmed Monday.
Bertolucci was perhaps best-known for introducing explicit cinematic sex into the mainstream through his erotic drama “Last Tango in Paris,” starring Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider.
He remained fiercely independent throughout his career and was considered by many to be one of the world’s leading contemporary directors.
Bertolucci’s interest in film started early in his childhood; his father was – among other things, such as a poet and art history teacher – a film critic.
By 15, the aspiring auteur had created two short films. But it was as an assistant director to Pier Paolo Pasolini on the controversial “Accattone” in 1961 where Bertolucci cut his teeth in the world of film.
Bertolucci’s first feature “The Grim Reaper” marked him as a young director to watch despite being something of a box office failure.
Over the next few years, Bertolucci kept busy with a string of films including “Before the Revolution in 1964 and “The Spider’s Stratagem” in 1970.
But it was with political drama “The Conformist” – also released in 1970 – in which Bertolucci evolved into a more mature director. Two years later came the release of “Last Tango in Paris.”
“I felt prosecuted by censorship,” Bertolucci told CNN back in 2007 regarding the Italian authorities’ decision to condemn the film to be destroyed due to its graphic content.
“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.”
But the film also offered the director the opportunity to build a treasured relationship with Hollywood legend, Marlon Brando.
Bertolucci’s film “The Last Emperor” also won all nine Academy Award categories that it was nominated for in 1988. The movie was an epic look at the final days of divine right in China and is renowned for its lavish costumes, the sheer scale of the production thanks to a cast of thousands and the remarkable accomplishment of security permission to shoot in Beijing’s Forbidden City.
“I was so excited about shooting in the Forbidden City that for nine weeks I couldn’t sleep more than three to four hours a night,” Bertolucci also said.
For a filmmaker who had, until that point in his career, stuck to smaller art-house projects, the immense size of the cast involved was daunting.
“I must admit the morning of the scene of the coronation of the little boy Emperor, I arrived in the courtyard of the supreme armory, and I saw these two to three thousand soldiers dressed up in costume … and I was terrified. I remember that I hid in my caravan and the producer outside the door said, ‘Bernardo, time to shoot.’ [And I said] ‘Go away. Go away.’ It took a long time before I had the courage to go then,” he recalled.
Tributes pour in
As news of the director’s death emerged, many took to social media platforms to express their condolences, including former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.
“Bernardo Bertolucci, one of the great masters of Italian cinema, has left us. 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” Renzi posted.
The president of the Italian General Entertainment Association, Carlo Fontana, described Bertolucci as “one of the greatest authors, perhaps the last one, of the Italian Cinema.”
Fontana said Bertolucci’s films “have become part of the collective imagination of our culture, going beyond our national borders to become milestones of the world cinema.”
Rome Mayor Virginia Raggi also tweeted condolences for Bertolucci – who lived and died in the Italian capital.
CNN’s Gianluca Mezzofiore contributed to this report.