The following is one of the entries from my 100 Greatest English-Language Films list, which I invite you to visit on this site if you haven’t already done so. — Dennis
“Don’t you ever like films that win best picture Oscars?”
The Last Emperor, the first part of a trilogy that gets progressively more lost (The Sheltering Sky, 1990; Little Buddha, 1993), is one of the two or three best “best pictures,” and maybe the best. For the record, though, if Academy voters had grasped its politics, they never would have given Bernardo Bertolucci’s film its Oscar, nor given it eight additional prizes besides, including those for direction and cinematography (Vittorio Storaro).
This is a mesmerizing, if dubious, biography of Pu Yi, China’s last emperor, whose humbling and rehabilitation by the Communists is heart-piercingly symbolized by the release of a cricket from long captivity. The Last Emperor is the richly detailed drama of the liberation of a soul from the decadent lifestyle and the arrogance that misled him to believe that the common lot of humanity was beneath him. Communism enables Pu to learn, by difficult degrees, to be human.
It is (especially in the hour-longer version now available on DVD) one of the most passionate and splendiferous movies ever made. It is a work, also, of cool irony, for Pu’s enforced obscurity and humility mirror his confinement behind imperial walls during a terribly lonely though exalted, endlessly pampered childhood. Pu’s existence remains solitary. From start to finish, his is the life of one of history’s unluckiest pawns.
The film is formally indebted to Roberto Rossellini’s The Rise of Louis XIV (1966), whose objective humanism Bertolucci moves toward a more sensual romanticism. However, the film’s most gripping scenes, perhaps, are those describing Pu’s imprisonment and re-education. These are spare and austere.
As the grown Pu, John Lone is superb.
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