Monday, January 16, 2012

What is it with Bertolucci?

Film: Prima Della Rivoluzione (Before the Revolution)
Format: Internet video on laptop

Considering the parade of films I have watched in the past two years, it takes quite a bit more than it used to to really squick me, but Bertolucci’s Prima Della Rivoluzione (Before the Revolution) managed to in its first half hour or so. The reason will become evident as I get into the actual narrative here. What’s interesting is that the main reason for this, while central to the plot, could have easily been changed to be far less creepy and still have almost the exact same purpose in service to the narrative.

Fabrizio (Francesco Barilli) is in many ways the classic example of youth in revolt. Blessed with a bourgeoisie upbringing, he is filled with passion and energy, and the teachings of his professor, Cesare (Morando Morandini), a communist. At home, Fabrizio spends time with his friend Agostino (Allen Midgette), who shocks Fabrizio with his sudden death. Agostino drowns, and there are some indications that it may be a suicide. Conflicted and filled with an energy that has no focus or direction, Fabrizio falls into the arms of Gina (Adriana Asti) and begins a passionate affair.

And here’s where the squicking comes in—Gina is Fabrizio’s aunt. She’s about 10 years older than he is and plenty attractive, and in many ways it would be natural for him to be attracted to her. In this case, though, the attraction is mutual, and they begin mashing on each other at Agostino’s funeral and continue for quite a bit of the rest of the film. I’m not a prude and I try not to keep my views provincial, but every time these two ended up in a clinch, I found myself wanting to look away.

This is not the first time that I have encountered creepy sex in a Bertolucci film. I am instantly reminded of the butter and pig vomit scenes in Last Tango in Paris as well as the sex with the epileptic prostitute and the pederasty sequence in Novocento. Of all of these, I can see the point of some of what happened in Novocento, but I’m forced into the belief that Bertolucci might have been something of a pervert. In the case of this film, the function that Gina serves is as more or less an outlet for Fabrizio’s undirected, general frustration. I don’t, honestly, see any real difference that would have been made by having Gina be a friend of the family, akin to something more like The Graduate.

The real point of the film comes in the third act when Fabrizio, Cesare, and Gina go to visit Gina’s friend Puck (Cecrope Barilli). Puck lives on a parcel of undeveloped land that he is about to lose, unable to maintain his hold on it into the future. That, more than anything, is what Fabrizio is dealing with. He cannot, and will not live in Italy’s fascist past, and it appears that the future is both bleak and completely unknown. For him, neither past nor future hold anything worth saving or working toward. There is only now, and now is also insufficient in fulfilling him.

Prima Della Rivoluzione was filmed in black-and-white, which is evocative of several different possibilities. One possibility is that Fabrizio, still young, sees his world in these same black-and-white tones. Another is that the world for many of our characters truly does exist in this colorless world. There’s really no reason to choose between these two possibilities, of course. Bertolucci may have meant both, or neither, or something else entirely. It’s noteworthy, though, that the one small piece of the film that is in color is essentially a short pseudo-fantasy that Fabrizio arranges for Gina’s benefit. Here, and only here, something completely outside the normal world, do colors exist for us.

With a film like this, I am unable to prevent myself from projecting the characters forward, beyond the scope of the film itself. In this film, my thinking concerns family gatherings in the future and just how awkward some of those meetings well be. “Hey, Aunt Gina, remember that time a couple of years ago when you and I had all of that incestuous sex?” In fact, near the end of the film, Gina leaves and Fabrizio goes back to Clelia (Cristina Pariset), his fiancĂ© introduced very briefly at the beginning of the film. And while he accepts this, it is soon evident that his mind is still on Gina.

It’s evident throughout the film that Bertolucci spent a lot of time watching Godard, as this film is very similar in style to Breathless. We see similar jump cuts, similar camera movements. In fact the two films look very much like the could have come from the same director. This isn’t too surprising, considering Bertolucci’s age of 22 at the time of filming this. Like the work of many a young filmmaker, this comes across in many ways as a combination of homage, tribute, and outright theft of a favored mentor. This isn’t a criticism, but a statement of fact.

But really, Gina’s identity, her eventual betrayal, and the destruction of their relationship could have had 95% of the same effect had she simply been the girl across the street, although it does make for a fascinating reaction from Gina at Fabrizio’s wedding.

Why to watch Prima Della Rivoluzione: It’s a natural, Italian counterpoint to the French New Wave.
Why not to watch: Because for Bertolucci, good sex is disturbing sex.


  1. I have not seen this film, so I do not know if she was a biological aunt or an aunt by marriage. (The level of my reaction would differ.) The relationship was probably made what it was precisely to generate a stronger response than that of just a family friend.

    Bertolucci explores somewhat similar territory in The Dreamers. A young American man ends up in the home of a French brother and sister (Eva Green) who are a similar age to him. The siblings have a very strong bond with each other, and for quite a while the movie plays with the viewer, hinting that maybe their relationship is taboo and maybe it isn't. The Dreamers is not a must see. It's probably worth watching for movie lovers because all three main characters spend much of the movie discussing and re-creating film scenes. The movie also features a stunning recreation of the Venus de Milo, with Eva Green doing the honors.

  2. As I recall from the dialogue, Gina says something about her father/his grandfather. I think. I recall there being something that indicated a blood relationship. Despite what the Tome of Knowledge might say, this one is pretty safe to skip.

    I've heard of The Dreamers, mostly because Eva Green evidently spends most of it nude. If I recall, the film came up in the LAMB Movie of the Month discussion on Band a Parte.

  3. I got an electronic version of this from an online friend in the 1001 community and watched it a few days ago. I've been actively looking for this for two or three years, and it was worth the wait.

    I've been a fan of Bertolucci since early 1988 when I saw The Last Emperor just a few weeks before it won Best Picture and I then saw The Conformist at a revival house a year or so later. (I think it was maybe the second or third Italian movie I ever saw.)

    In the ensuing 30 years, I've seen The Sheltering Sky and The Spider's Stratagem … and that's it! I think.

    I really liked Prima della rivoluzione! I was thinking "The Italian New Wave!" and so I wasn't surprised when I did my online reading later and found that Bertolucci was a big fan of Godard.

    Among other things, this movie gets points because they go to the opera!

    I also liked Gina saying "Do these afternoons in Parma never end?" It made me think that Parma is like Italy's Mobile, Alabama. Or maybe Dayton, Ohio?

  4. The only place I've been that feels like the days never end is Biloxi, Mississippi, and I don't mean that in a good way.

    I think, like Godard, Bertolucci is hit-or-miss for me.