For director Bernardo Bertolucci, the political is always personal — and always pretty. His 1987 epic bites off a mighty chunk of history and social upheaval — China from the last vestiges of its monarchy to Mao?s Cultural Revolution — but confines its observations to the point of view of Pu Yi, the titular protagonist. And the end of an era has never looked so good. From the early days of Bertolucci’s Before the Revolution (1964) and the still startling Conformist (1970), the director has reveled in a conflicted world view that calls for radical political change while embracing the opulent, with communism and a buffed-up Art Deco set design all in the same pizza pie. The Last Emperor is no exception. There?s a certain ham-handedness to this approach; history is laid out in broad, didactic strokes that force-feed the audience with names, dates, and events. While plenty of drama ensues as power changes hands, wars erupt, and lovers quarrel (John Lone, Peter O?Toole, and a host of supporting actors impress), this ravishing new DVD transfer makes it clear that Bertolucci?s heart lies in the pictorial qualities that the narrative offers. Taking full advantage of his access to the Forbidden City (the first time any Western director was allowed to enter), Bertolucci and his celebrated cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro, fill the screen with lavish imagery that ultimately takes precedence over the historical imperatives. If you come away with lingering visions of imperial finery rather than the tenets of basic Maoism, you are forgiven. -
About the Author
Steve Futterman writes the "Jazz and Standards" listings for The New Yorker.