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Hot New Details From Italy's Battle Over 'Last Tango in Paris'

The infamous 1972 film sparked a years-long legal battle in director Bernardo Bertolucci's native land. The recently restored court archives are now being made public.

Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider in Last Tango In Paris, 1972
Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider in Last Tango In Paris, 1972
Franco Giubilei

BOLOGNA — A young man from the province of Bologna buys a ticket and enters the Kursaal cinema in Porretta Terme to see a brand new film by director Bernardo Bertolucci. The date is Dec. 15, 1972, and what the 32-year-old sees up on the silver screen shocks him, so much so that he rushes to a nearby prosecutor's office to put it down in writing.

"Individual scenes and sequences have offended my moral sensibilities and my ideal aspirations as a citizen," he writes. "There are scenes that perturb the moral sense of the honest citizen."

The film was Last Tango in Paris, and the man's reaction to it launched a legal odyssey that began with seizures, appeals, and more seizures. Crowds of moviegoers rushed, in the meantime, to take advantage of screenings while they lasted, and public debate took on the tone of a crusade. Spray-painted slurs sprang up on walls everywhere. Graffiti in Florence referred to the director and lead stars "pigs."

The Last Tango in Paris movie poster, 1972 — Photo: United Artists/Entertainment Pictures/ZUMA

Nearly five decades later, photos of that, along with all the documents related to the criminal case against the scandalous oeuvre by the late Bertolucci ​— who was tried alongside actors Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider, as well as the producer Alberto Grimaldi and the film's distributor, Ubaldo Matteucci — are about to be rendered public in digitized version.

At the request of the court that had custody of the case, the Bologna State Archive has completed the restoration of some 2,000 pages of documents bound in two files. The material will be viewable by the end of October.

Last Tango in Paris is a revelatory search into the unknown depths of man.

The moral climate of those years rings out in the denunciations that restorer Rita Capitani has saved from the deteriorating paper. "It's a manual of pornography and immorality," reads one complaint. "The public who, like myself, expects a very different story is left speechless.

There were calls for signatures seeking to ban the film. "Said film offends our dignity as men, Catholics and citizens of Italy," critics argued. A youth group drafted its own petition, slamming the film for its "striking "porno-escalation" that goes against all artistic and cultural values."

Screenings of Last Tango, which were barred to minors, had gone off without a hitch in Paris and New York. But Italy was a different story. The prosecutor of Bologna, Gino Paolo Latini, described it this way: "A film of obscene content that is offensive to modesty, intended to incite the lowest libidinal instincts, dominated by the idea of excitement and unbridled appetite for sexual pleasure, a film of scurrilous and vulgar language, with crude, repulsive, graphic representations of carnal congress, even the unnatural kind, and with continuous and gratuitous descriptions of masturbation, libidinous acts, and lewd nudity, all accompanied by groans, sighs and Italian middle class shrieks of enjoyment."

Bertolucci and Brando on the set — Photo: Entertainment Pictures/ZUMA

As archivist Francesca Delneri explains, the Bologna prosecutor opened investigations for obscenity and a prosecutor from Rome ordered the first seizure. But when the matter finally went to trial, she recalls, "it quickly ended in acquittal."

While the language of the complaint reflects the repugnance of Italy's most prudish social classes, the initial judgment expresses the opposite sensibility. "None of the three sequences seem offensive to the common sense of modesty in this particular historical moment of cultural evolution and that of the Italian middle class," wrote the trial judge, who then launched into a cinematic dissertation.

"Last Tango in Paris is the visual translation of a revelatory search into the unknown depths of man; it is an anthological search," he concluded. "As such, it not surprisingly calls to mind the Paris of the 1930s, during the rediscovery of the works of the Marquis de Sade, bustling with the likes of George Bataille and Louis-Ferdinand Céline, where all the Surrealists and all the cultural moods of Europe were concentrated."

The prosecutor didn't give up, however, and filed an appeal. And on June 4, 1973, the trial court decision was overturned. Enough with all that De Sade, Bataille, Céline business! "The common man doesn't read all that," the new ruling argued.

And then, 11 years later, rehabilitation!

A year later, in September 1974, the appellate court in Bologna took things a step further, sentencing all the parties to two months behind bars and a 30,000 lira fine, worth around $35 at the time. And in January of 1976, the epic legal battle took yet another dramatic turn: A higher appellate court confirmed the conviction, stripped Bertolucci of his civil rights for five years, and ordered destruction of the negatives.

The famous director petitioned the then-president, Giovanni Leone, seeking a pardon. It was only because of an order from the minister of justice that three copies of the film were spared. Those copies were conserved at the National Film Archive. And then, 11 years later, rehabilitation! The film's ban in Italy was lifted.

And today? Last Tango in Paris is the second-most-watched Italian film (in Italy) of all time after War and Peace (1956). As another famous dramatist once said, all's well that ends well.

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