Bernardo Bertolucci was still in his early 30s when he reached the peak of his international fame with Last Tango in Paris, a film that has as much to do with the sexual revolution as it does with cinema. The 1972 movie, starring Marlon Brando as a recent widower who takes up an anonymous sexual relationship with a soon-to-be-married young woman (Maria Schneider), created an international furor, prompted cover stories in Time and Newsweek, and elicited the most laudatory review of Pauline Kael's career, when she declared it had "altered the face of an art form."
In the last three decades, Bertolucci has made a number of films that, in the main, have been much weaker than the precocious brilliance he showed pre- Tango. The exceptions are the sumptuous The Last Emperor (1987) which took nine Oscars, and The Siege (1998) about an African woman in exile (Thandie Newton) and her composer landlord (David Thewlis), who is in her thrall.
For a real sense of what Bertolucci meant to cinema history, check out the new retrospective showing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox this month, under the dopey title, Fashion, Fascism and F***ing: The Films of Bernardo Bertolucci. Of particular interest are three films Bertolucci made when he was in his 20s - Before the Revolution, The Spider's Stratagem and The Conformist. The son of a well-known poet and film critic, Bertolucci apprenticed with one of his father's friends, Pier Paolo Pasolini. By his second feature, Before the Revolution (1964), Bertolucci had clearly fallen hard for the French New Wave.
A loose adulteration of Stendhal's The Charterhouse of Parma, Before the Revolution follows an earnest young bourgeois man (Francesco Barilli), who wants to be a Marxist but has a life-changing affair with his mercurial, beautiful aunt (Adriana Asti, who was then Bertolucci's wife). It is an intoxicating immersion in the constantly inventive, disruptive cinema of the early sixties, and it's Bertolucci's opening statement on his lifelong struggle to reconcile sex and politics, Freud and Marx. The influence of Jean-Luc Godard, whose film A Woman is a Woman is the subject of a conversation in the film, is all over Revolution. Bertolucci says he saw Godard as a father figure. The apprenticeship abruptly ended when Godard rejected what he saw as the ideologically suspect "individualism" of The Conformist.
More interesting as an aesthete than an ideologue, Bertolucci gets great strength from his cultural depth, his ability to synthesize literature, music and especially baroque painterly beauty in his work. Key to his films is cinematographer Vittorio Storaro ( Apocalypse Now), who holds strong convictions about the psychological power of different colours, especially reds, oranges, yellows and blues.
That leads to another can't-miss film in this regard, The Spider's Stratagem, adapted from a Jorge Luis Borges story about a young man (Giulio Brogi) revisiting the town where his hero father was assassinated during a performance of Rigoletto. As well as a gripping detective story, the film is gorgeous, with luminous indigo nights, breathtaking flashback transitions and the rich expressionist treatment of the architecture of a small Italian town.
The Spider's Stratagem was released the same year as the film generally considered Bertolucci's masterpiece, The Conformist, adapted from Alberto Moravia's novel and made when Bertolucci was 29. The story is about a man who, in order to suppress doubts about his own sexuality and to advance his career, becomes a tool for the Fascists. He gets married and goes on a honeymoon to France, where he is assigned to look up an old professor who's targeted for assassination.
The Conformist has it all: stunning production values, beautiful temporal transitions and a story that crawls under your skin, as the protagonist (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and his flighty wife (Stefania Sandrelli) set up his old mentor (Enzo Tarascio) and his wife (Dominique Sanda) leading to the powerful nightmarish climax.
The Conformist was an influence on the directors of the Hollywood Renaissance - Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg - and you can see the ending copied in the Coen brothers' Miller's Crossing. The impact is easy to understand: Watch it once, and you'll never forget it.
TIFF Cinematheque's Fashion, Fascism and F***ing: The Films of Bernardo Bertolucci continues at Toronto's Bell Lightbox through Jan. 23 (tiff.net).