Before the Revolution (Prima della rivoluzione) (Director: Bernardo Bertolucci): Bertolucci’s second feature, and the first written by the director, is bound to be a bit more autobiographical than La commare secca‘s exploration of the Italian underclass. Even though it’s loosely based on Stendhal’s novel The Charterhouse of Parma, the director, just 23 when he made the film, surely drew upon some conflicted feelings about his own upbringing. Fabrizio (Francesco Barilli) is a child of privilege who’s been under the tutelage of a Communist teacher. He yearns to escape his bourgeois fate, and so dumps his gorgeous but simple girlfriend Clelia (the stunning Cristina Pariset) to pursue revolution in a more monklike fashion. Enter his young Aunt Gina (Adriana Asti), a neurotic and confused beauty who has come from Milan to stay with her sister’s family in Parma. At first Fabrizio is distracted by the suicide of his unhappy (and quite probably gay) friend Agostino, a young man he was trying to tutor politically. His reaction is more one of disappointment than of grief, but it plants a seed that maybe his political activism isn’t the solution to all of life’s problems.
The emotionally-needy Gina, meanwhile, has become obsessed with her nephew and before long they fall into a passionate affair. This forbidden tryst is somewhat of a political act for Fabrizio, but for the self-loathing older woman, it’s an act of desperation. For all the dazzingly stylish images Bertolucci frames for us, he can’t make these two self-absorbed people very sympathetic characters, and I found my patience tested more than once with some of the bombastic speechifying.
Strangely enough, it’s a scene almost entirely divorced from the narrative up to that point that brought me back into the film. Gina goes to visit an aristocratic man a little bit older than herself, whom she calls “Puck.” For some unexplained reason, Fabrizio and his Communist mentor Cesare show up a little while later. Puck’s monologue about his own lack of purpose as a child of the bourgeoisie is unexpectedly poignant, especially for a character we’ve just met. As he stands on the riverbank looking out over the unspoiled wilderness of his estate, he explains to the group that all his land is mortgaged and that he is about to lose everything. Businessmen will buy the land up and develop it, erasing its pastoral serenity. He realizes his own uselessness as a member of society, never having earned a degree or learned a trade. Fabrizio upbraids him for his “false sincerity” but after Gina slaps his face, he begins to recognize himself in the older man. There is no escape for the children of the bourgeoisie.
Despite the relatively narrow gap in their ages, Gina and Fabrizio are definitely on two sides of a generational divide. For the young man, he wants to change the present, to change himself in an attempt to escape his fate, and to change the world by imposing the order he sees in a set of dogmatic political principles. Gina, on the other hand (and “Puck” as well) desperately wants to hold onto the present. She has already felt the passage of time and the disorder of the real world and feels helpless in the face of the future.
Bertolucci uses a mishmash of styles throughout, borrowing especially from the French New Wave directors. There’s even a scene where Fabrizio goes to see Godard’s A Woman is a Woman, getting into a half-hearted argument with a boorish cinephile afterwards. Just as in Godard’s work, I found some of the jump-cutting made the narrative disjointed in spots. And I found a few of the later scenes went on far too long. But just as often I found the camerawork dazzling, and some scenes were just a pure pleasure to watch: a scene of Fabrizio and Gina shopping, for example, or the dance scene which you can watch in the clip below. As for the performances, the film belongs completely to Adriana Asti as Gina. Despite my reference to the “stunning” Cristina Pariset above, it’s Asti you can’t take your eyes off, even as her neurotic mood swings make her character unlikeable. By contrast, Francesco Barilli is just a petulant rich boy. Though he’s ostensibly the protagonist, it’s Gina’s character whose conflicts remain most visibly unresolved.