Thursday, February 24, 2011

Before the Revolution

In his second film, Before the Revolution, Bernardo Bertolucci, infected with the enthusiastic cinephilia of the French New Wave, and obviously impressed by the films being made by his peers in France, leapt headfirst into the new cinema, adopting its style and concerns for his own, translating the style to a post-war Italy in a mood of uncertainty and instability. The film's characters are haunted by "fevers" of one kind or another, and the film itself is heady with the fever of moviemaking, the passion for images that capture, in their immediacy and vibrancy, the mood of an entire generation of cinema-hopping would-be revolutionaries. Fabrizio (Francesco Barilli) is a young man on the cusp of adulthood, unsure about where his life is headed, swept up in the idealism of Marxism. He joins the Communist Party, under the guidance of his teacher Cesare (Morando Morandini), but he remains aimless despite his newfound convictions, and when his friend Agostino (Allen Midgette) dies in a drowning accident that might be a suicide, he really comes unmoored. Over the course of a summer following his friend's funeral, he engages in a passionate but ultimately unhappy love affair with his visiting aunt, Gina (Adriana Asti), and in the process replaces his youthful idealism with a more "adult" attitude that might be called pragmatism or, less euphemistically, fatalism.

Bertolucci's film is very much of its time, in every way. It captures a precise and very important moment, not only in this young man's life, but in the history of Italy and Europe at large. Just as Fabrizio, poised on the verge of adulthood, could continue to engage with the world and with his strongly held ideals or retreat into bourgeois security and emptiness, the forked road ahead for Europe must have looked very similar at the time, in the years leading up to the peak of the student rebellions in May 1968. In retrospect, Bertolucci's film is "before the revolution" that would briefly sweep across the western world in the late 60s, and his pessimistic ending — a declaration that, for aimless young people like Fabrizio, it's always "before" a revolution that never comes — is a bleak but accurate prediction of the disappointments to come.

The film is of its time stylistically as well, in that it's drowning in style. Bertolucci was invigorated as a filmmaker by the French New Wave, and it shows in his jittery appropriations of their restless aesthetics. In one scene, early on, as Gina talks about death, Bertolucci uses zooms and pans the way Breathless deployed jump cuts, with seeming carelessness, a casual disregard for the rough edges, for what's left out. Gina theatrically plays with the camera, turning away from it and then abruptly thrusting back, widening her eyes at it like a melodramatic primadonna, and the camera's zig-zagging motion further discombobulates the composition. The camera is constantly zooming in, focusing momentarily on her eyes or mouth, then losing track of her as she moves away, briefly lingering off to the side, in the texture of her hair, before she bobs back into the frame. The effect is distracting more than invigorating, as Godard's early, jazzy innovations were, but maybe that's the point: it's style for its own sake, style divorced from content. The hyperactive gesticulations of the camera mirror the restlessness of the protagonist: in a later scene, as Fabrizio shifts nervously from one seat to another while trying to explain his discontent to Cesare, the camera pans drolly back and forth, as though amused by the young man's indecision, amused by his very bourgeois, entitled troubles.

At another point, Fabrizio goes to see Godard's A Woman Is A Woman, but he barely pays attention, and afterward is deaf to his friend's rhapsodic words on the film's style — ah, the friend says, realizing that his friend is in love, it's not a matter of style but of content. But is it? This friend parrots back many of the favored sayings of the Cahiers du cinema critics — morality is a matter of tracking shots, and tracking shots are a matter of morality — and rattles off lists of movies and directors ("you can't live without Rossellini," he shouts to Fabrizio as a parting shot) but he doesn't seem to have much to say about anything that he can't see in a theater. For him, Anna Karina will someday define his generation in the same way that Louise Brooks and Bogey/Bacall had defined earlier ones — a prescient prediction, that, but not one that does anything to help Fabrizio figure out just where his own life is heading.

Bertolucci at times seems to care more about his camera's meanderings than about the self-absorbed whining of his protagonists, or about the actors, who deliver fine, emotionally naked performances (especially Asti) into a vacuum of motivation and emotional grounding. Again, that's part of the point: these bourgeois dreamers, trying to break free, trying to live their own lives, hardly know why they're suffering or why they're feeling what they're feeling, and the film's jumpy, elliptical style breaks down their pointless love story until it feels as empty and silly as it is. It's all about style in search of some content.

Which doesn't mean that Bertolucci doesn't locate some genuinely affecting images within all this stylistic grandstanding. The scene where Fabrizio confronts Gina after she's been unfaithful to him is a case in point: Fabrizio walks away, disgusted, and Gina starts to follow him, walking away from the man she'd been with. She reaches a corner, stops, and in closeup looks toward Fabrizio, who's only an indistinct blur in the back of the frame, and then she looks back towards the other man, Bertolucci's camera panning to follow her gaze, finding another indistinct blur, another gray nothingness moving away from her. Quite literally, wherever she looks, she sees disconnection and emptiness, sees other people moving away from her until they seem to be swallowed up whole by the landscape. In another great sequence, early on, Agostino plays on his bike, drunk, and the camera gets drunk with him, wavering as the young man wheels by, standing on the bike's seat or putting his legs up over the handlebars, falling over again and again. The framing is lazy, drunken, often capturing an out-of-focus image of the young man wobbling by on the bike before he crashes to the ground, falling off camera, the image getting blotted out by some obstacle or another. It's a wonderfully offhand and playful encapsulation of this kind of aimless goofing around, capturing among other things the hint of homoerotic fascination that the watching Fabrizio nurses for his friend.

This is all Bertolucci's loving ode to his French contemporaries, to the cinema. Whatever the themes of Fabrizio's struggles with his political consciousness and his doomed love affair, the film is at least as much about the cinema as it is about anything that happens outside the frame, in the real world. Casual references to French filmmakers like Godard and Resnais abound, as do namedrops of the Hollywood auteurs, like Hawks and Hitchcock, so adored by Cahiers du cinema. There's a color sequence when Gina views Fabrizio through a camera obscura, and the resulting scene somehow simultaneously pays tribute to Hollywood technicolor and silent comedy. When Gina and Fabrizio make love for the first time, they self-consciously fall into the same pose, the same shadowy lighting scheme, as the similarly ill-fated couple at the beginning of Resnais' Hiroshima mon amour — another couple doomed by misunderstandings and miscommunications, by unbridgeable gaps dividing them from one another. By the end of the film, when Fabrizio vainly tries to find Gina within the shining white maze of an opera house, only to finally find her so they can talk past one another, the lovers seem to be reliving another Resnais film, trapped within the alienating façades of Last Night At Marienbad.

At times, this endless referentiality makes Before the Revolution seem like a cineaste's dream, a young man's film (Bertolucci was only 22 when he made it) about youthful fascinations with cinema and politics, youthful ambitions and desires, youthful introductions to love and disappointment. For all the verve of its style, the film is a dark vision; it's a film about idealism made by a young man obviously already tinged with his own streak of cynicism. The film's arc is relentlessly downward, as embodied in the treatment of Fabrizio's fiancée Clelia (Cristina Pariset) at the beginning and end of the film. In an early scene, Fabrizio goes to see Clelia for what he says is the last time: he just wants to look at her one last time before making a break with his bourgeois existence, and indeed she won't appear in the film again for most of its length. Fabrizio finds her in a church, with her mother, and Bertolucci films it like a holy moment: the actress is stunning, radiant in closeup, and she's chatting with her mother, smiling, while the soundtrack remains silent, the substance of her words unimportant in comparison to the stark beauty of that image, a beautiful woman who represents everything Fabrizio is leaving behind. Or everything he'd like to leave behind, because in the end he finds that he can't, and his fiancée returns, still with nothing to say, still just a smiling, flawlessly pretty symbol of a certain kind of life. Earlier in the film, that brief glimpse of her seemed vaguely spiritual and affecting, but upon her return she comes to represent staid bourgeois marriage and the abandonment of youth's ideals. This is a bleak ending, though not as bleak — or as darkly hysterical, or as emotionally shattering — as the film's very last shot, a freeze frame that implies that the whole cycle of youthful idealism and disillusionment is about to begin again.


DavidEhrenstein said...

Yes he was just 22 -- a year older than wunderkind du jour Xavier Dolan is today.

As for cultural influences I've always thought of Bertolucci as France's most interesting Italian filmmaker. Pasolini was his teacher, but Godard was his master -- until he turned against him with The Conformist. The phone number of the professor that Trintignant is assigned to kill in the film (played by Jean Boise) is Godard's Paris phone number.

The talk of Karina and Louise Brooks that Fabrizio barely listens to is funny because Bertolucci treats Adriana Asti, who he was having a passionate affair with at the time (Well DUH!) as if she were Anna Karina and Louise Brooks combined.

The songs used in the film are by Gino Paoli and Ennio Morricone. paoli is a very important singer-songwriter, and all-round Italain cultural figure, who was at one point married to the lovely Stefania Sandrelli (whose credits include Bertolicci's Partner, The Conformist and Stealing Beauty)

This is one of my very favoirte Moricone score, particularly for the grand finale where all the themes (major and minor) are played in chorale as Gina (sobbing) kisses the face of Fabrizio's younger brother. Truly emotionally overwhelming.

Allen Midgette is an American. While Before the Revolution is his most famous Bertolucci role he also appeara in La Commare Secca, The Spider's Strategem and 1900.

He is most (in)famous for making public appearances as Andy Warhol (at Andy's request) and can be seen in such Warhol films as The Nude Restaurant, ****(Four Stars) and Lonesome Cowboys. He also has a role in Godard and Gorin's Marxists western Wind From the East

He now lives in upstate New York.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Here's one of the film's best scenes, using a Paoli-Morricone song.

Ed Howard said...

Oddly enough, Allen Midgette keeps popping up in my viewing lately between Bertolucci and Godard. He always makes an impression, even when he's kind of used as a barely glimpsed little sight gag as in The Spider's Stratagem.

Agreed about the emotional power of the finale in this film. That final shot is just overwhelming - so dark, so sad, and also so bitterly funny, suggesting that Gina's just going to work her way down to the next generation, disillusioning the younger brother as well. I couldn't help laughing at the sheer boldness of that image, even as I was also deeply chilled and saddened.

DavidEhrenstein said...

True. It also underscores Gina's loneliness and isolation. The scene where she discovers a little girl alone in her walled house (who throws stones at her and sings a mocking song) is vey tellling in this regard. it's almost like a falshback to Gina as a child, and the fact that this meeting upsets her so emotionally underscores that fact.

Fabrizio loves her -- and abandons her to become a good bourgeois. But he will never really know her. Puck does -- biut that's about it.

Sam Juliano said...

"For all the verve of its style, the film is a dark vision; it's a film about idealism made by a young man obviously already tinged with his own streak of cynicism. The film's arc is relentlessly downward, as embodied in the treatment of Fabrizio's fiancée Clelia (Cristina Pariset) at the beginning and end of the film."

And therein lies the bottom line with this film, which strives throughout to find a voice within the excessive stylistics that may at first seem destined to fail at finding the substance in this work by a then young idealist. I agree with David Ehrenstein that this is clearly one of Morricone's best scores ever, certainly on par with the two "Once Upon A Time" scores he did for Leone, and Aldo Scararda's cinematography is truly magnificent. The film's deep pessimism gave notice to what was really to come, and there was a personal expression in this film that was only seen in this level of intensity once more in Bertoluci's career (The Conformist) I have indeed seen the Godardian influence in the film from the start, and your paragraph beginning with "The film is of its time stylistically as well, in that it's drowning in style." is utterly brilliant in delineating this. I can't blame Mr. Ehrenstein for implying that the French literally "owned" Bertolucci during this period as his indeptedness was apparent (in this film) in every shot. He did of course move further away with "The Conformist," where he asserted his artistic independence and forged his individuality lock, stock and barrel.

Let's leave hyperbole to the side and just agree this is one of your greatest reviews ever, stronger than any professional piece I've ever read on a particularly challenging film.

And it's the second great review of this near-masterpiece I have read in the past months. The other was by Movie Man Joel Bocko, who penned this for WitD:

I am optimistic that Mr. Ehrenstein's strong recommendation of Xavier Dolan's latest film, HEARTBEATS will come to fruition this weekend at the IFC Film Center, though it's OF GODS AND MEN that really has me afloat with anticipation.

Ed Howard said...

Sam, thanks for the kind words. I agree this is a near-masterpiece, a really great film with so much going on, from the Morricone score to the working through of the French New Wave influences to the giddy stylistics both overpowering and informing the bleak story. I'm not sure Bertolucci ever quite got past his fascination with the French, as Last Tango in Paris (the subject of a soon-to-be-published conversation with Jason Bellamy) and The Dreamers show him still dealing with the New Wave in various ways. But The Conformist was certainly an attempt to leave that influence behind and find his own voice, and as David points out, that film's citation of Godard as a target for assassination is no coincidence. It was Bertolucci's kill-your-idols moment.

Thanks for the link to Joel's review, too, Sam. I missed that one but I'll go check it out now.

Sam Juliano said...

Ha! Yes indeed Ed (and David) on that Godard assasination target! Geez.

Well I most assuredly look forward to reading that slated Conversations piece!!!

This is the DVD version to own, methinks:

Ed Howard said...

Nice, I didn't even realize there was a DVD version, I saw it via download. Good to know it's available, although it's a shame there's no proper US DVD. The film deserves to be as well known as the iconic 60s films of Antonioni, Godard, Resnais, etc.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Bernardo is STILL very French. The extras on The Last Emperor DVD find him speaking French frequently.

The Dreamers is of course all about the French. He was in Rome making Partner when May 68 broke out, and he always regretted he wasn't there to experience it. Gilbert's novel gave him an opportunity to re-create it. There's a significant difference between the novel and the film in that in the novel the brother and sister and the American have a menage a trois. After writing the novel Gilbert had a "Saul at Damascus" moment of sorts and decided he was straight (Yeah right.) Needless to say we are no longer speaking. Consequently in the film there's no love scene for Louis Garrel and Michael Pitt (though both would certainly have been up to it if asked). Louis' father (who was right in the thick of it in May '68) got his own back in his masterpiece Les Amants Reguliers, especially in the moment whne o0ne of the students looks directly into the camera and says (rather sarcastically) "Prima Della Rivoluzione par Bernardo Bertolucci!"

DavidEhrenstein said...

That's a very nice Wonders in the Dark piece about the film.

I was 17 when I first saw it back in 1964. In those days I saw the films I loved over and over again. Like Breathless, Before the Revolution seems to me less a film than an actual event in my life.

However, "You can't live without Rossellini" for me became "You can't live without Godard."

DavidEhrenstein said...

Here's Allen Midgette's big scene in the film Agostino is in love with Fabrizio and knows he can't have him -- hence his despair. Was his death an accident or a suicide? That's the great mystery. But as he walks off in this scene sobbing "Perda! Perda! Perda!" ("Lost! Lost! Lost!") it's pretty clear that he's not ong for this world.

Joel Bocko said...

I wish more young filmmakers (actually, I wish there were more young filmmakers to begin with, but that's another story) had the recklessness of Bertolucci in '64 - the willingness not to bother being "tasteful" or "thoughtful" with their mise en scene but rather to dive in headfirst and embrace style as the essence of cinema - not in the flashy, slick look-ma-I'm-directing-a-commercial kind of way but in the impulsive, expressing emotion through camera movement, editing, and framing sense. I think you captured Bertolucci's ability to do so (even as it sometimes leads to cul-de-sacs) quite well.

Ed Howard said...

Joel, you're totally right: this film has such passion, such an urgent need to communicate, to make films, and it's all the better for it even when Bertolucci goes over the top. He's not afraid to take risks and that doesn't always pay off, but it's his boldness and his youthful energy that make the film so invigorating. As David says, it was an experience at the time, intimately connected to the era, and it remains compelling now because all that passion and relevance has endured. That's the spirit of the New Wave, and you really don't see enough of that these days.

Unknown said...

NB : I met once Allen Midgette on occasion of a special morning screening of "Prima" at the Lincoln Center, in 1996 (we were only three spectators in the theater, including Susan Sontag, who was a very good friend of BB—she wrote about "Prima" in her book "Trip to Hanoi"). The funny story is that Midgette left the place right after his part was over in the film. I'd been told in Rome, many years before, that he also was initially one of the dancers in "West Side Story", before he went to spend a couple of years in Italy, were he was soon "adopted" by writer Elsa Morante, Moravia's wife and a close friend of Pasolini and Bertolucci as well.