“What is wonderful when you see a film is to discover ‘cinema’ through that film.”
<Bernardo Bertolucci, ‘La Mia Magnifica Ossessione’>
Bernardo Bertolucci was 23-years-old when, in 1963, he made his second feature, ‘Prima della Rivoluzione.’ (His second feature, at the age of twenty-three!) He was young and fearless and fiercely intelligent – he must have been. When I first saw the film thirty years later, Bertolucci’s passion for cinema, its possibilities, its poetry, was still thrillingly evident. It was one of those films in which I discovered ‘cinema.’
And yet, I’m not sure I could call it a great film. It’s a pessimistic story of an idealistic young man’s frustration with his inability to sustain his revolutionary fervour in the face of a world too slow to change. He embarks on a vain (technically incestuous) affair with his highly-strung aunt, whose neurosis seems to make her an outsider like him, but eventually succumbs to his destiny as a bourgeois.
There’s a lot of febrile angst, passages of dense political argument, and Francesco Barilli puts in an unwieldy performance in the lead. What is remarkable about the film, though, is its lightness. The young Bertolucci was brimming with the courage of the French New Wave, liberated by Jean-Luc Godard. The ponderous threat of melodrama evaporated in jump cuts and violent zooms, disorienting lack of establishing shots, and a singular way of constructing a scene by zoning in on the important bits, the emotions.
“Ricordati il film che abbiamo veduto …”
My recollections were primarily of style, not content; but also of romance. The Nouvelle Vague has always done romance well. Bertolucci was assisted here by Ennio Morricone’s lovely, playful score and two of Gino Paoli’s most delicate canzone: Vivere Ancora and Ricordati. In fact, the scenes I recalled most were those featuring the two songs. First, a kind of cinema-verite divertimento, their first date, with the camera picking out the two lovers searching for each other in the crowds of Parma’s Piazza Garibaldi. Second, in the sleepy contentment after the traditional Italian Easter blowout, the camera panning up from the young man’s father to Adrianna Asti’s face as she looks over her shoulder from the gramophone, then reaches to pull her illicit lover into a slow-dance in front of the dozing grandmother, the father taking his leave off-screen. They hold each other, but the clinch is interrupted by his younger brother, to whom the aunt immediately switches her attention.
Many people would say, and I would have to agree, that the political discussion dates the film. Watching again this week I found I appreciate the issues more than I had the first few viewings. The concept of the impossibility of the bourgeois marxist is no longer lost on me. The hero alienated from the workers whose cause he would advocate. And I was struck by a quiet sequence that follows the climax at the opera, in which the young man’s marxist mentor, a schoolteacher, walks to work and opens up the schoolhouse. Is this an exemplary life, I wondered?
Before The Revolution has been given a limited re-release this week – April 8th – in UK cinemas (the BFI?) and is also available to rent but not to purchase (?!)