One of the seminal bad boys of European art cinema in the 1960s and ’70s, Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci found new relevance in 1987 with this ornate, Oscar-winning epic about the life of China’s last monarch, now available in a lovely four-disc Criterion edition. (The set contains the theatrical cut of the film, a television version that runs about an hour longer, numerous documentaries, and some very enlightening commentary from Bertolucci and his key collaborators.)
Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi was crowned while a mere tot, and then suffered pretty much every indignity the 20th century could throw at him, ending his days as a humble gardener in the People’s Republic of China. That sounds like a recipe for the usual staid historical biopic, but this is, after all, Bertolucci. In his hands, the emperor’s palace in the Forbidden City is not just an impossibly gorgeous world of gold and fabric, it’s also a mental maze of stunted emotions and psychosexual longing. In addition, Bertolucci’s panoramic masterwork presents the reverse of what ennobling historical films usually try to teach us: Pu Yi has no power; from his unwitting elevation to the throne to his unexpected abdication to his pathetic attempts to regain his past glory, this is a man acted upon by history, not the other way around. The result is a bewildering masterpiece—a glorious film about an inglorious man.