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This 15-film retrospective of work by the Italian director continues Friday, August 20, through Saturday, August 28, at Facets Cinematheque, 1517 W. Fullerton. Tickets are $9, $5 for Facets members. Following are the films scheduled for August 20 through 26; a full series schedule is available online at www.chicagoreader.com. Films marked with an asterisk (*) are highly recommended.

* Besieged

Bertolucci's sensual made-for-TV feature (1998), with dialogue in English, focuses on the attraction of a wealthy English pianist in Rome (David Thewlis) to his African housekeeper (Thandie Newton), a medical student whose husband is a political prisoner. As a story this is relatively slight for Bertolucci, and is carried mainly by the actors; as an allegory about colonialism and guilt-ridden privilege it verges on the routine. But as stylistic expression--a mosaic of images and singular editing patterns--it was the most interesting thing he'd done in years, as well as the most pleasurable. It's a story told mainly through images and music (ranging from African pop and McCoy Tyner to Mozart and Grieg)--with dialogue kept to a minimum and looks and gestures exploited to the fullest--and as a re-creation of silent cinema it's much more accomplished than The Thin Red Line, its only recent competitor. 94 min. (JR) (Wednesday, August 25, 7:00 and 9:00)

The Conformist

In retrospect, Bertolucci's highly influential fifth feature (1969)--ravishing to the eye but less than fully satisfying to the mind--can be regarded as the lamentable turning point in an extremely promising career that ultimately chose stylishness over style and both over content. Following on the heels of his much superior The Spider's Stratagem and adapted from an Alberto Moravia novel set in 1938, this political thriller follows an Italian professor (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who's recoiling from his own homosexual impulses as he agrees to work as a police agent during his honeymoon in Paris and assist in the assassination of his former mentor, now a dedicated antifascist. A restored print will be shown, featuring the five-minute "Dance of the Blind" sequence cut from American prints. With Stefania Sandrelli, Dominique Sanda, Gastone Moschin, and Pierre Clementi. In Italian and French with subtitles. 115 min. (JR) (Thursday, August 26, 6:30 and 8:45)

* Last Tango in Paris

The operatic extravagance of Bertolucci's style has emerged more clearly since this 1972 drama, which still managed to seem vaguely naturalistic in the midst of its elaborate camera moves and eccentric construction. The surface plausibility is probably the contribution of Marlon Brando, whose performance has strength and detail enough to counterbalance Bertolucci's taste for pure psychological essence. With Maria Schneider as Brando's lover and Jean-Pierre Leaud in the Ralph Bellamy part (he has a job). Photography by Vittorio Storaro. In English and subtitled French. 127 min. (DK) (Friday, August 20, 6:30 and 9:00)

Little Buddha

There's nothing wrong in theory with Bertolucci choosing to make a movie about Buddhism for kids, any more than with Akira Kurosawa taking a kids' view of certain ecological issues in Dreams. Working from a script by Rudy Wurlitzer and Mark Peploe, Bertolucci oscillates between a contemporary tale about an elderly Tibetan lama believing that a little boy living in Seattle might be the reincarnation of his teacher and the story of Siddhartha and the origins of Buddhism 2,500 years ago; the latter sections tend to be more compelling than the former. The cast, which includes Keanu Reeves, Chris Isaak, and Bridget Fonda, isn't all it might have been, but Bertolucci's celebrated burnt-orange-and-burnished-lemon look remains handsome, and the story itself still commands some interest as a pivot into daunting material. Too bad that Miramax decreed about 15 minutes be cut from the original version, which has shown overseas; apparently a snappier kind of Buddhism is required here (1993). 123 min. (JR) (Tuesday, August 24, 6:30 and 8:45)

1900

Great moments stud Bertolucci's 1976 Marxist epic, but the end result is ambiguous. Robert De Niro is a landowner, Gerard Depardieu is a peasant; they share a birthday and most of the history of the 20th century--the fall of feudalism, the rise of fascism, and two world wars. In the film's four-hour version, at least, the characterizations are hazy and the narrative seems jerky. Some scenes are banal and offensively simpleminded. But patience, ultimately, is rewarded with a welter of detail and some mighty fine camerawork. With Donald Sutherland, Burt Lancaster, Dominique Sanda, Stefania Sandrelli, and Sterling Hayden. 318 min. (DK) (Saturday, August 21, 3:00)

The Sheltering Sky

A disappointingly reductive adaptation (1990) of Paul Bowles's first novel by writer-director Bertolucci and cowriter Mark Peploe. Debra Winger and John Malkovich star as a restless intellectual couple moving through North Africa, sexually estranged from each other despite their deep emotional ties. Both actors are as good as the script allows them to be, Bertolucci remains a director of some erotic intensity, and Vittorio Storaro's cinematography is as ravishing as one has any right to expect. But the virtual Hollywoodizing of Bowles's not very filmable narrative isn't accompanied by enough personal force to make one care very much about the characters, and Bowles's own brief on- and offscreen participation, as a witness to the action who occasionally recites his own prose, can't really make up the difference. It's a pity that Bowles's own music was passed up in favor of an unmemorable score by Ryuichi Sakamoto. With Campbell Scott, Jill Bennett, Timothy Spall, and Eric Vu-An. 138 min. (JR) (Sunday, August 22, 3:00 and 6:00)

* Stealing Beauty

After years of filming abroad, Bertolucci returned to Italy--using English dialogue primarily--to fashion a civilized, mellow, and generally graceful chamber piece (1996), literary in a good sense (and written by novelist Susan Minot), about a young American (Liv Tyler), the daughter of a deceased woman poet, who returns to a villa occupied by family friends in Tuscany hoping to lose her virginity and discover the identity of her father, two concerns the film regards as intimately intertwined. Switching cinematographers from standby Vittorio Storaro to Darius Khondji (Seven), Bertolucci seems less rhetorical and more assured than usual. Though the film tapers off a little toward the end, there's a climactic scene of recognition between the heroine and her father that was one of the most exquisite pieces of acting I'd seen in ages. With Carlo Cecchi, Sinead Cusack, Jeremy Irons, Jean Marais, Donal McCann, D.W. Moffett, Stefania Sandrelli, and Rachel Weisz. 119 min. (JR) (Monday, August 23, 6:30 and 8:45)

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