Film & TV

Human Dignity: The Cost of Art?

By Sara Abidi

An Italian director and screenwriter, the late Bernardo Bertolucci is credited with several works that achieved remarkable critical acclaim. His work in The Last Emperor earned him the Academy Award for Best Director and the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Eventually, he was presented with the inaugural Honorary Palme d’Or Award at the opening ceremony of the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.

Whilst Bertolucci was admittedly an ingenious artist, however, his creativity unfortunately came at a repulsive cost, exposing the egomania within.

The Last Tango is a film which was hailed as revolutionary in its era. Dubbed as the “most powerfully erotic movie ever made”, it was peak 1970s avant garde: aspirational even. ‘Liberating’ was the consensus, but liberating for whom? Certainly not for Maria Schneider, barely 19 when she starred in The Last Tango. Barely 19 when she was grossly violated and humiliated to fulfil Bertolucci’s artistic whims.

“I didn’t want Maria to act her humiliation, her rage. I wanted Maria to feel, not to act, the rage and the humiliation”, Bertolucci has stated in interviews since, as explanation for why he terrorised his young actress by simulating an anal rape scene not previously mentioned in the script.

While the rape wasn’t real, the stick of butter used as ‘lubricant’, Bertolucci’s betrayal and Schneider’s terror and misery are unspeakable parts of our reality. She was abused on the silver screen, her abuser celebrated and her torment immortalised.

Ironically, The Last Tango was a movie about male trauma; I use the word ironic here with great bitterness, for Schneider never really recovered from Bertolucci’s ‘artistic’ liberties. In the years following the film, she suffered a nervous breakdown, attempted suicide several times and eventually, fell prey to drugs.  She refused to do nude scenes at any future opportunity.

Bertolucci’s influence and actions ruined the way she saw herself and lived her life; it can realistically be equated to a living death of what Maria Schneider used to be.

Schneider and many others have since spoken about their abuse in the film industry and more oft than not, their cries are suppressed. Their abusers remain untouchable, their art exalted.

This begs the question, the metaphorical pig in this scratchy blanket: should art be separated from the artist and their endeavours?

I’ll cut right to the chase; there is nothing gentle about abuse, nothing acceptable about abusers and absolutely no conceivable reason why one’s artistic contributions should redeem their offences..

Let’s examine a similar example. Woody Allen’s work defined a generation; on the flip side, he also faces child molestation allegations, levelled by his own daughter Dylan Farrow. Is her trauma, her pain as an innocent seven-year old molested by her own father, justified simply because his work inspired millions? At what point did we begin trading in innocence and basic human dignity as if they were nothing more than shiny pebbles? Which miscreant decided the worth of a child?

Men like Bertolucci and Allen wield considerable power. Their actions, good or otherwise, subconsciously influence anyone consuming their work. Their offences are normalised, justified, even rationalised—erased to an extent that Bertolucci’s Wikipedia page does not even deign to mention his deplorable directorial decisions in The Last Tango.

Till date, Bertolucci never apologised for his actions against Schneider. He insisted that his decisions were essential to the film and claimed to feel no regret in regard to how things played out.

And that is precisely the issue. For certain individuals to be so certain of their own authority that they feel secure in committing AND admitting to abuse. So very cocksure in fact, that nary an apology has passed their lips.

With persons like these, I believe the public should be made aware of the full extent of their delinquencies and then be left to decide for themselves, whether the art redeems the artist. Because there is no way to truly separate the two; to praise a piece of art is to commend the artist—they’re two sides of the same coin.

Is a brilliant film worth a child molested, a young woman violated? How about two films, hell, how about a dozen? Who decides the worth of a human life? Who pays the price?