Known both for sweeping epics and for helping to bring eroticism into general release with Last Tango in Paris, Bernardo Bertolucci is one of the pre-eminent international directors of the latter half of the twentieth century. The son of poet, film critic, and anthologist Attilio Bertolucci, he was born on March 16, 1940 in Parma. Surrounded by an atmosphere of comfort and intellectualism, Bertolucci began making 16 mm films as a teenager. In addition to making two short films about children, he also gained a certain amount of respect as a writer, winning the Premio Viareggio (one of Italy's top literary awards) for his first book, In Search of Mystery. Going on to study at the University of Rome, Bertolucci started his film career as an assistant director to Pier Paolo Pasolini. After working on Pasolini's Accatone, he left the University in 1961 and embarked on his own independent film study.
Bertolucci made his directing debut the following year with La Commare Secca (The Grim Reaper), a stark murder mystery filmed on location in Rome. Based on a script by Pasolini, the film went largely unseen; his next effort, Prima della Rivoluzione (Before the Revolution) (released in the U.S. in 1965) was also a commercial disappointment, but it won him recognition at the 1964 Cannes Film Festival. This recognition was followed by an almost five-year period during which the director was unable to secure funding for another feature-length film; he instead made a number of documentaries and assisted director Julian Beck on various productions.