For a film that won nine Oscars, including Best Picture, Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor has a curiously muted reputation, championed neither as a popular favorite, nor by cineastes who gravitate toward established Bertolucci classics like The Conformist, Last Tango In Paris, or even the flawed likes of 1900. It's tempting to dismiss the film as mere pageantry, a sumptuous one-of-a-kind tour through the Forbidden City that makes up in ornate costumes and exotic ritual what it lacks in historical or emotional resonance. The new four-disc Criterion edition makes an imposing and mostly convincing argument for the film as a truly great epic, one which attempts to capture the political turmoil that gripped 20th-century China without getting too reductive or bogged down in minutiae. Through the story of Pu Yi, the footnote of an emperor who ended the Ching Dynasty, Bertolucci tells the larger story of an era where individuals were caught in the swells of history.
Crowned Emperor in 1908 at age 2, Pu Yi ruled for only a few years, and the film shows the young boy as curious but put-upon from the start, attached more to his wet nurse than any of the luxuries within his gilded cage. Played as an adult by John Lone, Pu Yi has a rebellious (or at least petulant) streak, which British tutor Peter O'Toole labors mightily to mold into refined intellect. But he's essentially a prisoner in the Forbidden City, and when a warlord forcibly evicts him in 1924, it's an ironic sort of liberation. His later installment as a puppet leader of Manchuria by the Japanese leads to serious recriminations, and he dies a humble gardener.
Because Pu Yi wields so little control over his destiny, his passive nature makes The Last Emperor a difficult epic; it doesn't help that Lawrence Of Arabia himself is around to remind viewers what a more purposeful hero can do. But from The Conformist to The Dreamers, Bertolucci has always been fascinated by characters who are whisked away by powerful forces; that a "son of heaven" and ostensible leader of half a billion people could be among them is one of the film's many rich ironies.
Key features: The theatrical version, the 218-minute extended cut, and supplemental materials are spread out over four discs, but this is the rare case where Criterion goes for quantity over quality. Most of the making-of documentaries are deadly dull.