Bertolucci: Venice Fest Honoree–Golden Lion for Career Achievement

Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci received the Golden Lion lifetime achievement Award at the 2007 Venice Film Festival. Bertolucci’s career is marked by both personal arthouse films and big-screen epics.

Famous for introducing explicit sex into the mainstream with the 1973 “Last Tango in Paris,” Bertolucci has remained fiercely independent throughout his career and is considered one of the world’s leading directors.

His work has received awards all over the world but never at his “home” festival Venice. This month at the 75th Venice Film Festival, Bertolucci was awarded an honorary Golden Lion for lifetime achievement. “Venice never gave me any award, and I have had to wait a long time to receive it, 45 years, but it is very welcome,” Bertolucci said.

The filmmaker first showed at Venice in 1962 with his debut feature, “The Grim Reaper,” and has been a festival regular ever since. “I came many times and I remember many moments. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Venice Film Festival was a kind of coriba, a bullfight. The Italian press was so violent and dramatic. I remember many times my movie had been massacred, but also moments of great joy.”

In 1997, Bertolucci’s epic look at the final days of divine right in China, “The Last Emperor” won nine Oscars. He describes this experience as an “Oscars overdose.” “You know for American filmmakers, the Oscars is like a mystic thing. For me, it was being in a mirror of my dreams when I was dreaming of Hollywood when I was an adolescent. It was unexpected because we had 9 nominations. It was kind of never ending,” he explains.

“The Last Emperor” is renowned for lavish costumes, a cast of thousands and Bertolucci’s extraordinary feat of securing permission to shoot in Beijing’s Forbidden City. “I couldn’t have done the film without shooting in the Forbidden City,” he reflects.

In the end, it was the hard work of one of the film’s main actors, Ying Ruocheng, who was also the Vice-minister of Culture that persuaded the Chinese Government to allow them to shoot there. “I was so excited about shooting in the Forbidden City that for nine weeks I couldn’t sleep more than three to four hours night,” Bertolucci said.

Excitement wasn’t the only thing keeping Bertolucci awake at night. The sheer scale of the production daunted the filmmaker who was more accustomed to small scale art-house films. “I must admit the morning of the scene of the Coronation of the little boy Emperor, I arrived in the courtyard of the supreme armoury, 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 admits.

If “The Last Emperor” is the high point of his career, aspects of the notorious “Last Tango in Paris” (1972) can be seen as the nadir.

Bertolucci assisted Pier Paolo Pasolini on the controversial “Accattone” (1961) so he was no stranger to pushing boundaries but he was not prepared for the brutal response to his explicitly sexual film. “I felt prosecuted by censorship,” Bertolucci said of the Italian authorities’ decision to condemn the film to be destroyed.

“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 brought Bertolucci moments of great joy. It was a critical success and The New Yorker’s celebrated film writer Pauline Kael compared the film’s opening to Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring. So the censorship prosecution was balanced by a certain success,” he said. It was in this film that Bertolucci built a unique relationship with Hollywood legend, Marlon Brando.

“It was a challenge. I said ‘Marlon, I would like you to be in Last Tango in Paris different from what you were in all of your movies. You were great. You are the best one but I want you different. I want you as you are having dinner with me, as you are in life. I want to take away your mask, take off your mask of actor’.” Many years later I told him, “I think I succeeded, it’s your face without the mask.” And he looked at me and said, “And you think that one is me” he laughs.

It was a performance that Bertolucci cites as one of his greatest achievements.

He has not courted controversy in the same way since but his fundamental approach to film-making has not changed. “There is something which is the same, which is maybe my capacity to hear and follow my heartbeat, my pulse. And to be sincere to your pulse, I think, for me, is one of the most important things,” he said.

After decades in the industry, Bertolucci continues to make acclaimed films, most recently “The Dreamers” (2003). He definitely doesn’t see the lifetime achievement Golden Lion as a retirement gift. Indeed, he refused the award a number of times previously for this reason.

“Marco Mller, director of the Venice Film Festival, told me, ‘I want to give the Golden Lion to your career.’ And I said no, no, no. There is something a bit sad, like the end of something,” Bertolucci said.

This year, Venice celebrated 75 years and Bertolucci was happy to receive his Golden Lion as part of the celebrations. “This festival, the first one in the history of the world, has contained so many memories of cinema. It’s like I was identified with cinema and that makes me very happy,” he said.