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Bernardo Bertolucci, director of 'Last Tango in Paris, dead at 77

"The Last Emperor" won all nine Academy Awards it was nominated for in 1988 — including best movie and best director.
Image: Director Bernardo Bertolucci celebrates his Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
Director Bernardo Bertolucci was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2013.Valerie Macon / Getty Images file

ROME — Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci, who won Oscars with "The Last Emperor" and whose erotic drama "Last Tango in Paris" enthralled and shocked the world, died Monday. He was 77.

Bertolucci's press office confirmed the death in an email to The Associated Press. Italy's state-run RAI said Bertolucci died at his home in Rome, surrounded by family.

Bertolucci's movies often explored the sexual relations among characters stuck in a psychological crisis, as in "Last Tango." The self-professed Marxist also did not shy away from politics and ideology, as in "The Conformist," which some critics consider Bertolucci's masterpiece.

Despite working with A-list American and international stars, Bertolucci always defended his own film-making style against what he said was the pressure of the U.S. film industry. He maintained critical success for most of his career, weathering the controversies that his sexually provocative work would stir and some commercial flops.

Image: Bernardo Bertolucci in 1973
Bernardo Bertolucci in 1973.STF / AFP - Getty Images, file

"When it comes to commercial cinema, I have the strange pleasure of feeling that I'm from another tribe, an infiltrator," he told Italian daily Corriere della Sera in 1990.

He was honored for lifetime achievement at the Cannes film festival in 2011.

Bertolucci's movies also bore the imprint of the director's own experiences in psychoanalysis. He always said that making films was his way of communicating with the audience. It was his personal language.

"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 said upon receiving an award from the Director's Guild of America for his 1987 film "The Last Emperor."

That movie handed Bertolucci his greatest success. In 1988 it won all the nine Academy Awards that it had been nominated for — including best movie and best director.

The movie — the first Western feature film to win permission to shoot in Beijing's Forbidden City — follows the life of China's last emperor, from child-king at the end of the Qing Dynasty to war criminal and finally to an ordinary citizen in the People's Republic.

It was filmed in the lush and vivid style that was one of Bertolucci's trademarks. It featured grandiose scenes and intimate moments, and a flashback structure that is typical of biopics.

Bertolucci shot to stardom, and notoriety, with "Last Tango."

The film, starring Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider as a middle-aged man and younger woman who engage in a brutal sexual relationship in a bare Paris apartment, shocked the world and incurred censorship in his native country.

Image: Maria Schneider and Marlon Brando in "Last Tango in Paris"
Maria Schneider and Marlon Brando in a scene from "Last Tango in Paris."United Artists / AP Photo, file

But its raw and improvisational style also earned Brando and Bertolucci Oscar nominations.

The movie was banned in Italy just after its release in 1972, and was not released again until 1987. The case went back and forth in the courts until the high criminal court banned the film in 1976 and ordered all copies confiscated and destroyed. Bertolucci, Brando and Schneider, as well as the producer Alberto Grimaldi, were sentenced to two months in jail and a fine of $40 each — although the jail terms were suspended.

Schneider herself would say she was traumatized by the movie. The actress, who died in 2011, was just 19 during filming and told the Daily Mail in 2007 that a rape scene involving a stick of butter was included without warning.

"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. I felt humiliated and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci. After the scene, Marlon didn't console me or apologize. Thankfully, there was just one take," she said.

Bertolucci also directed "Little Buddha" in 1993 with Keanu Reeves as Siddharta; "Stealing Beauty" in 1996 starring Liv Tyler as a teenager discovering sex during a trip to Italy; "The Dreamers," again an erotic drama set against a political backdrop — in this case the 1968 student riots in Paris — starring Eva Green and Louis Garrel as cinema-loving siblings who strike up a friendship with visiting American student Michael Pitt. The film featured full-frontal male nudity but was released uncut in the United States.