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The Humanities Conference 2003

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Bernardo Bertolucci and the Tragedy of the Ideal

J. Madison Davis.

Throughout his career as a director, in his large commercial films as well as his smaller ones, Bernardo Bertolucci has been remarkably consistent in portraying characters who attempt to remake themselves into a more idealized form of themselves. It is not only fascinating that this pattern emerges in his first film and continues throughout his career, but that these attempts at self-perfection always result in failure if not in tragedy. Reality ultimately defeats each main character. In 'Before the Revolution,' the young man who is the main character longs to identify with the working class, but in the end of the film he is back among the bourgeoisie. In 'Last Tango in Paris' Paul struggles to keep the outside world from the apartment in which he meets the young woman, but in the end he tries to draw her into his real world and is killed by her, as she denies knowing him. In 'The Last Emperor' the main character fails miserably in his attempt to act as an emperor when the Japanese place him on their puppet throne. The theme occurs with total regularity throughout Bertolucci's oeuvre, and perhaps it speaks loudly to us because it personalizes the larger political tragedy of the twentieth century, which was the struggle for an ideal society. Political movements of both the right and the left produced the deaths of millions, unimaginable horrors, as an appreciation and understanding of humanity was ignored, humanistic values were set aside, and the attempt to reach an ideal society repeatedly failed.


J. Madison Davis  (United States)
Professor, Professional Writing Program
Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication
University of Oklahoma

Dr. Davis is a novelist nominated for several distinguished awards in mystery writing. He has also published several nonfiction books (both scholarly and popular) and has worked in screenwriting as well. He is former president of he North American branch of the International Assoc. of Crime Writers and an award winning teacher.

  • The Last Emperor
  • Last Tango in Paris
  • Beyond the Revolution
  • Besieged
  • Little Buddha
Person as Subject
  • Bertolucci, Bernardo

(Virtual Presentation, English)