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Before The Revolution

     These days, the Last Tango Italian filmmaker, Bernardo Bertolucci, is regarded as a dried-up talent who, in middle age, has long lost his way. The Last Emperor(1987), an Oscar winner, is the shining exception to two decades of misguided projects: Luna (1979), Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man (1981), The Sheltering Sky (1990), Little Buddha (1994), Stealing Beauty (1996), and Besieged (1998).

     I try to stay open to Bertolucci who, the several times I have talked to him, impressed me as such a cultivated, curious, and principled man. I think Jill Clayburgh was wonderfully sensual in Luna, The Sheltering Sky a noble effort to adapt the difficult Paul Bowles novel. Okay, Keanu Reaves wasn't ideal for a flashback Siddhartha; however, Little Buddha proved visually arresting in its Seattle scenes, evergreen and gray fog. Stealing Beauty? Thin going, yet Liv Tyler was discovered here.

     But Bertolucci, I say, is back on track, though in a deliberately modest way.Besieged, his current David Thewlis-starring film, is just an all-around decent, intelligent movie, the oft-epic filmmaker as miniaturist in offering the equivalent of a quiet, subtly epiphanic short story.

     Still, there's no getting around the fact that Bertolucci's glory days were long ago. Through the 60s and 70s he was among the most audacious voices of world cinema, a one-person Italian Nouvelle Vague. The Coolidge Corner's Bertolucci series includes his three early cause celebres (for these, Pauline Kael in The New Yorker was Bertolucci's most articulate cheerleader): Before the Revolution (1964), The Conformist (1971), Last Tango in Paris (1972), also The Last Emperor.

     The rarely revived one, a must for Bertolucci afficianados, is Before the Revolution, made, in wide-screen black-and-white, when he was an extraordinarily precocious 23. Understandably, it's autobiographical. The protagonist, Fabrizio (furrow-browed Francisco Barilli), is, like the youthful filmmaker, girl-and-movie crazy, and Marx-and-Freud obsessed, a tie-and-coat high bourgeoisie trying to be a renegade and relate to the historic struggles of the masses. He lives in the dull city of Parma (where Bertolucci was born), has a torrid affair with Gina (Adriana Asti), his attractive young aunt from hip Milan, while he is drawn to the conventional, church-going, pretty younger thing, Clelia (Cristina Pariset).

     Though Farbizio orders a suicide-prone friend to a screening of Hawks's Red River, and though Farbizio takes a quick break to see Godard's A Woman is a Woman, mostly he is too stressed and distracted by love and political concerns to benefit from film going. So Bertolucci provides him with a hilarious cinephile friend, who spends his whole sentient life at the altar of movies (he sees them twice in a row). Afterward, he smokes and philosophizes about them. "I remember the 360 degree dolly shot of Nicholas Ray, I swear, one of the highest moral facts in the history of cinema," this friend says, and, "Remember, one can't live without Rossellini!"

     Bertolucci, the film geek, is all over his shooting, as Before the Revolution is a perpetual homage to his cinema masters, old and new. Gina, alienated in fashionable clothes and photographed against architecture, comes from Antonioni, Gina in a telephone monologue from Rossellini, Gina framed formally with bare legs from Godard, Gina making faces in granny glasses from Truffaut. (It's interesting to see Bertolucci in 1963 quoting A Woman is a Woman and Truffaut's Jules and Jim. both of 1961, as if they are already canonic texts.)

     Bertolucci's other source: Stendhal's early 19th century novel, The Charterhouse of Parma. Thank you, Bernardo, for affording me an excuse to spend several long plane rides reading Stendhal's fabulous 500-page Machiavellian melodrama about the post-Napoleon political maneuverings in the city of Parma. What does it have to do with Before the Revolution? The names of the three main characters are the same--Fabrizio, Gina, and Clelia--and, in each case, Farbizio bypasses the love of his flashy aunt for that of a pious, straightlaced younger girl. And there's stifling Parma, and there's a common setting for high drama of the opera.

     But the contrasts are far more telling. Gina of the book is the most conniving belle at court, almost as obsessed by power and riches as she is by conquering Fabrizio. Gina of the movie is a little lost rich girl, panicked and neurotic, a walking nervous breakdown with no aspirations except getting men to love her. (At times, she is a drag, and her multi-moods are the most tiresome part of the movie.) Fabrizio of the book is a soldier (he fights at Waterloo), an adventurer, a nobleman, an autocrat, a political opportunist with little worry of conscience. Bertolucci's Fabrizio is a person of acute self-consciousness, pained by his political ineffectuality (that of the bourgeois class) and agonized that the promised Marxist paradise will never come.

     "It's always before the revolution," he says, on a May day in Parma of unfurled red flags, practically bawling.

(Boston Phoenix, July, 1999)


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