Multi-Oscar winner Bertolucci passed away this morning in Rome aged 77 following a battle with cancer. Thomas traveled to say goodbye to his old friend and collaborator this past weekend.
The British producer, founder of iconic UK production firm Recorded Picture Company, told me, “He was like a brother to me. We spoke very regularly. It is a tough day. He was a wonderful man, one of the greats and the best of collaborators. He was a monumental and inspirational figure, the last of the great Italian filmmakers from that era.”
Thomas and Bertolucci worked together on five films: The Last Emperor, The Sheltering Sky, Little Buddha, Stealing Beauty and The Dreamers. Bertolucci first contacted the UK producer after seeing his film Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence at the Cannes Film Festival in 1983. The director was already well known for films such as The Conformist and Last Tango In Paris. The pair met at a Chinese restaurant in London where Bertolucci revealed his ambition to make a film about China’s last Emperor, which would go on to become The Last Emperor. The film won nine Oscars in 1987, including Best Film and Best Director.
Their last film together was the 2003 drama The Dreamers with Eva Green. The duo continued to discuss ideas for films in later years and had a script for a film about Neapolitan composer Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa but the project didn’t come to fruition.
Tributes have been pouring in for the Italian filmmaker this morning. Cannes Artistic Director Thierry Frémaux and Cannes President Pierre Lescure described Bertolucci as “a huge artist” who leaves “an indelible trace.”
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Martin Scorsese said, “In 1964, I went up to Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center for the 2nd New York Film Festival to see a new film from Italy. It was called Before The Revolution and it was by a young director named Bernardo Bertolucci. I came out of the theater in a daze, speechless. I was truly stunned and moved by the level of sheer artistry and talent up there on the screen, I was shocked by the freedom of the picture, I was somewhat mystified by so many of the cultural references and cross-references, and, as someone who wanted to make films, I was inspired. Before The Revolution opened many doors for me, and for many other young filmmakers as well. And Bertolucci kept on opening doors—with The Conformist, which had a profound influence on Hollywood moviemaking; with Last Tango in Paris, an explosive cultural event; with The Last Emperor and The Sheltering Sky, which reinvented the historical epic.
When I think of Bertolucci—the man, the artist—the word that comes to mind is refinement. Yes, he was flamboyant and provocative, but it was the mellifluousness and the grace with which he expressed himself, and his deep understanding of his own history and culture, that made his filmmaking and his presence so special, so magical.
Bernardo was in a wheelchair for the last years of his life, and it was extremely difficult for him to get around. It saddened all of us who knew him, because he had so much more that he wanted to do, and probably so many more films to make. When I think of him, I will always see an eternally young man.”
The DGA President Thomas Schlamme issued a statement saying: “Bernardo turned mainstream cinema on its ear more than once during his long and inspiring career. His films were provocative, meticulous and courageous. In The Last Emperor, for which he won the DGA Award, Bertolucci majestically captured turn-of-the-century China during a time of political and cultural transition—the result was epic filmmaking at its most masterful. Upon accepting the award, Bertolucci shared a quote about cinema that continues to inspire so many directors: “’Maybe I’m an idealist, but I still think of the movie theater as a cathedral where we all go together to dream the dream together.’” He will forever stand as inspiration for many generations of filmmakers to come.”
Roma director Alfonso Cuaron tweeted in Italian: “Goodbye Bernardo Bertolucci. Like elm, You’ll always be the rebel standing on the Cinema table. Thank you!”
The Venice Film Festival said Bertolucci would be remembered as “among the greatest of Italian and world cinema.”
Actors Roberto Benigni and Nicoletta Braschi told Italian media, “The greatest of all is gone, the last emperor of Italian cinema: a piece of our family, a fraternal, loving, intelligent friend, full of genius, unpredictable, rigorous and implacable in always telling us the truth.”
Director Franco Zeffirelli told Italian press, “It is very sad to say goodbye to a very dear friend and to a very talented director like Bernardo Bertolucci, who with his work managed to transport us to unique artistic dimensions”.