The Last Emperor (1987)

By Gary M. Kramer. 

Bernardo Bertolucci presented a 3-D version of his Oscar-winning film, The Last Emperor (1987), at the 2013 AFI Fest in Los Angeles. At a roundtable at the festival, in which Film International‘s Gary Kramer participated, the director spoke about the film as well as issues of censorship.

What do you think of the AFI Fest?

Last year, I was invited to choose movies, and this year, they invited me to screen The Last Emperor. It was destiny to screen it at the Chinese Theatre!

What are your thoughts on the 3-D version of The Last Emperor?

I think that even if some folks don’t care [for 3-D], what I’ve seen of the finished 3-D version is magic. Why not do it? The movie is lovely! I don’t see my movies much, so watching it in 3-D, I told my wife, it looks great. And she said the movie looks great. There are all these temptations of [creating] effects, which are very banal. But for this film, it simply feels new in 3-D. It’s not taking advantage of the viewer.

The depth of field of 3-D enhances the grand epic scale of the film…

I think that it makes it more hyper-realistic, which is something that felt right for me. They do this restoration of movies all the time, and I think the trick is taking the next step. Cinema has made so many technical inventions. It was silent. Then it became sound. Then it became color. Every time, people accepted the change. I remember years ago, cinematographers couldn’t accept digital. They feel impoverished without  a certain kind of chiaroscuro that you can only do on film. It’s nonsense. I like the technological discoveries. I found out that you can do 3-D after the movies now, so…

Did you consider making it in Chinese?

No way. Also because there was a kind of attitude that Chinese production, ancient Roman productions all speak English in the movies. I couldn’t have done it because I don’t understand Chinese. I don’t speak Chinese. It’s a convention that in an epic like this, everyone speaks English.

What was the appeal of making the film?

I went to China with two projects in 1984. One was Man’s Fate by Andre Malraux, a novel about Shanghai in 1927 when the Communists were beaten by Chiang Kai-Shek, and the foreign [nations] put in money to stop this Communist uprising in China. And the [Chinese authorities] said, “No. We don’t know this book.” The Chinese [objected]. Finally, I said I had another project, The Last Emperor, and they said, “That can be done.” So I was happy to be able to shoot in China, because it’s like going to a mysterious, forbidden country. China fascinated all of us. Nobody had been there. You learn a lot about the history of China in the film.

You made The Last Emperor in a forbidden country. You also make films with sexually explicit or political material. I admire your daring. Can you discuss that aspect of your work?

In the 1960s and 1970s, I couldn’t help being transgressive. I wasn’t alone. A generation had to be transgressive. It was part of the joy of life. Even transgressive in cinema style.

Last Tango in Paris got an X rating at the time it was released. The Dreamers got an NC-17 when it came out. Do you feel the ratings have become more conservative or more open?

It depends on the country. In some countries the censorship is maybe worse. I think we all agree censorship should not exist apart from protecting very, very young children. Otherwise, I think everyone is a grown up and has the right to see what’s on the screen.

Gary M. Kramer is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and co-editor of the forthcoming Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.

2 thoughts on “Interview with Bernardo Bertolucci, AFI Festival”

  1. And another great interview! Of all of Bertolucci’s films, I’ve always liked Before The Revolution (1964) — made when Bertolucci was only 22 years old. It’s a mess, in many ways, and overlong, but it’s worth it for the passion and intensity of the experience, made when the director was still in touch with the extravagant romanticism of youth. The Dreamers tries to recapture that feeling, but isn’t as successful – but it’s still heartening to see that Bertolucci, too, is still in there working, and offering an alternative to the dreck at the multiplex.

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