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The revered director Bernardo Bertolucci, director of The Last Emperor, inspired controversy for 1973's sexually explicit drama The Last Tango in Paris, which starred Marlon Brando. Now, he's back with another film that is earning attention for its graceful cinematography and its controversial sexual subject matter.
But it is also earning some sharp criticisms from critics, especially in the religious press. Christians are especially troubled by the explicit sexual material that earned the film a NC-17, the first film to open across the country with that rating since 1995.
The story is based on the novel Holy Innocents, set in 1968 Paris, during the Marxist riots. An American movie buff named Matthew moves in with a brother and sister: two French film enthusiasts, Isabelle (Eva Green) and Theo (Louis Garrel). As the political tension rises outside, the sexual tensions rise indoors. When Matthew discovers rather incestuous behavior, he's upset, but soon he's joining the sexually reckless siblings in heated political debate, heated discussions of cinema, and behavior that is heated beyond the bounds of propriety.
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "At 63, Bertolucci has the desperation of an aging demagogue still hawking his moth-eaten gospel of free love—a libertinism as morally empty today as it was back in 1968. Many of the sequences play like love poems to the filmmakers who influenced him, most notably Goddard and Truffaut. However, The Dreamers collapses under the weight of its inflated sense of self-importance." He cautions viewers about the film's "exploitative eroticism."
Tom Snyder (Movieguide) writes, "Bertolucci's movie not only captures the political, sexual rebellion of the times, it also captures the love of cinema of film buffs living in Paris from the 1950s to the early 1970s. Some of these film buffs went on to become important filmmakers in their own right. Regrettably … [the film] is filled with explicit sexual content, incest, graphic nudity, harsh obscenities, and denials of God's existence."
Mainstream critics are divided over the film, but most see it as one of Bertolucci's lesser works.