Talking Pictures

Just another weblog

Bernardo Bertolucci before the revolution.

Posted by keith1942 on July 11, 2011

Background and films:

Bernardo Bertolucci was born in Parma in 1940. His father was an established poet and film critic. The young Bernardo grew up in the countryside and played with the younger rural children. At ten his family moved to Rome. After school he studied at University but did not finish his degree because of other interests. He first made his name with a volume of prize-winning poetry, but already his passion was cinema. His father was friendly with the writer and filmmaker Pier Paulo Pasolini. Bertolucci was invited to work on his film Accattone (1961). His own first feature was based on a script by Pasolini, La commare secca (The Grim Reaper, 1962). It tells of an investigation into the murder of a Roman prostitute and uses a flashback structure to detail the investigation.

His next film bought him attention and awards, Prima della rivoluzione (Before the Revolution, 1964). It is set in his home city and freely adapted the novel by Stendhal, The Charterhouse of Parma. The film shows the influence of Jean-Luc Godard. Bertolucci was already impressed by both Godard’s films and by the nouvelle vague. The influence was evens stronger in his next film Partner (1968). This is a sort of agit-prop film and dramatised the youthful politics of that year. It is full of overt stylistic gestures and the narrative is elliptical and confusing.

By 1970 he was able to win the support of the Italian Television Company Rai for two films made both for theatrical exhibition and television. These are two of his most impressive and critically lauded films: both are set in the fascist Italy of the 1930s. La strategia del ragno (The Spider Stratagem, 1970) follows a young man, Athos, who investigates the death of his father, a noted anti-fascist, in 1936. The story is taken from a novella by Jorge Luis Borges, Theme of the Traitor and the Hero. The film dramatically switches between the events of the 1930s and the contemporary investigation by the son: with both father and son played by the same actor. The film plays with narrative, with memory and with perceptions of these.

The second film was Il conformista (The Conformist, 1970). This is taken from a novel by Alberto Moravia, set in 1938 but with the story adapted to the interests of the director. The protagonist, Marcello, suffered a sexual assault in his childhood. His resulting ‘conformity’ springs from a desire to be like others, to be ‘normal’. This drives him to become involved in fascist plot to murder a liberal opponent living in exile in Paris. The opponent is in fact the protagonist’s old university teacher Professor Quadri. Filmed with stunning visuals, it explores politics, psychology and cinema itself.

The next film to be released was the notorious Ultimo tango a Parigi (Last Tango in Paris, 1972). The film is famous or infamous for its explicit sexuality. But it is also a complex investigation of traumatised states and is powered by one of the outstanding performances in modern cinema, with Marlon Brando playing the protagonist Paul. The film was censored and banned and Bertolucci was actually prosecuted in Italy. But it also established him as a commercial property in international cinema.

His next film had been developing for a couple of years. But now it was supported by the Hollywood studios Paramount, United Artists and C20th Fox. This was mixed blessing. The film depicts the development of political consciousness and class conflict in the countryside of Emilia Romagna in the first part of the C20th. However, the Italian title Novecento (1900, 1976) also carries the connotation of the whole century. It was an epic production with major European and Hollywood stars and expensive location and technical resources. The final film ran for over five hours. But the English language version was cut to less than three hours, and the original version is usually screened in two parts.

Despite this Bertolucci was still able to win resources for international productions, usually of large proportions with large budgets. La luna (1979) is a drama involving incest, set in Italy but with the Hollywood actress Jill Clayburg in the lead. Three even larger epics followed: The Last Emperor (1987), winner of nine Oscars; The Sheltering Sky (1990) from the novel by Paul Bowles; and Little Buddha (1993).

Then, probably exhausted by these vast enterprises, Bertolucci returned to two smaller Italian based dramas. Lo ballo da sola (Stealing Beauty, 1996) follows a young American girl who visits Italy in a quest to find out about her father and her sexuality. L’assedio (Besieged, 1998) is set in Rome and charts the relationship between an English musician and his paid African house-servant. Bertolucci’s most recent film is The Dreamers. It is based on a novel by Gilbert Adair: both he and Bertolucci were fans of and heavily influenced by the nouvelle vague. The film follows a ménage à trois of cinephiles in the Paris upsurges of 1968.

A few years ago Bertolucci suffered a mishap in an operation and nowadays he is frequently confined to a wheelchair: however, he is planning to direct another film.

Fabrizio and Cesare at Festa dell'Unita

Style and themes:

As with many successful directors Bertolucci has relied on regular collaborators throughout his career. Giusseppe Bertolucci, his cousin, has produced a number of his Italian films. His first wife Adriana Asti was the lead actress in Before the Revolution. He also used the same editor, Franco Arcali, on many films: and Arcali has also contributed to some of the screenplays. And [like several Italian filmmakers] he frequently used music by Ennio Morricone. The most noted collaborator has been the cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, [who worked as assistant cameraman on Before the Revolution]. The partnership commenced on the two RAI productions and they continued to work together up until The Sheltering Sky. Storaro became a celebrated lighting cameraman in this period and was sought after by such filmmakers as Warren Beatty [Reds, 1981] and Francis Ford Coppola (One from the Heart, 1982). The lustrous visual style of a number of Bertolucci’s films is very much down to Storaro’s prowess. There is also his second wife and fellow filmmaker, Claire Peploe, who has jointly scripted several of his later films.

Bertolucci’s films have both a distinctive style and distinctive themes. In the 1960s he was very influenced by Jean-Luc Godard and used similar and unconventional techniques such as the jump cut and elliptical edits. These are both apparent in Before the Revolution, along with a freewheeling camera also reminiscent of the French directors. The scene where Fabrizio and Cesare talk seated opposite each other on park benches is very reminiscent of Godard. There is also a touch of Michelangelo Antonioni in certain scenes: possibly due to the cameraman Aldo Scavarda who also filmed L’Avventura.

Since becoming involved in more mainstreams productions his films have been closer to the conventional techniques found in Hollywood films. But consistently through his career he has shown a close attention to the relationship between camera and subject. His films always have examples of fluid and impressive moving cameras. Like one of his idols Roberto Rossellini he works to explore the space between camera and subject. The opening sequence of Before the Revolution as Fabrizio finds Clelia at church is similar to sequences in Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (Voyage to Italy, 1953).

His films are full of cultural references: to art and paintings, to music especially to the operas of Verdi; to writers and philosophy; and most noticeably to cinema itself. Before the Revolution opens with a monologue by Fabrizio, which includes part of a poem by Pier Paulo Pasolini. The ending features Verdi’s Macbeth, performed at Parma’s Teatro Regio. In between we twice hear a song by Gion Paoli Vivere ancora soltano per un’ora (To live again only for an hour), including accompanying the dance by Fabrizio and Gina on Easter Sunday. And there is there is the conversation with a friend after a film-show in which he and Fabrizio discuss the filmmakers Jean-Luc Godard, Nicholas Ray and Roberto Rossellini. This scene includes the line ‘style is a moral fact.’

One of the frequently recurring themes is the relationship and conflict between fathers and sons. In Scene by Scene he remarks that a son kills his father [either literally or symbolically] in nearly all his films. In Before the Revolution Fabrizio’s real-life father is a distant and unimportant figure, [as indeed in the book]. But more central to the narrative is the ‘father-figure’ of Cesare, the teacher and mentor. At the end of the film the sequence of Cesare at the school is separated from Fabrizio at his wedding. And Cesare is reading Herman Melville’s Moby Dick to his young pupils.

Bertolucci is also generally regarded as a political filmmaker: he himself claims that a Marxist perspective informs his films [or at least some of them]. I have not actually found anywhere an explanation of what interpretation of Marx he follows. Among his documentaries is one made for the Italian Communist Party [PCI], which he joined in the late 1960s and it is Euro-Communism that has dominated the Italian Party in this period. However, the 25th April 1945 sequence in 1900 appears more radical than the PCI line, either in the 1940s or in the 1970s. [Bertolucci scripted the film with his brother and long-time collaborator Franco Arcalli]. There are political discussions by characters in his films, but there is not the analytical framework that is found in some of the films of Francesco Rosi [for example Il caso Mattei, The Mattei Affair, 1972). Certainly his earlier films are more explicitly political.

One reason might be that he lost his admiration for Godard. In The Conformist there is an in-joke, Professor Qadri’s Paris address and telephone number are actually those of the Godard in real-life. Another factor was Bertolucci’s developing interest in Sigmund Freud and his participation in psychoanalysis [from 1969 to 1984]. This is most apparent in The Conformist where the film’s resolution is much more in line with psychoanalytical ideas than those of Marxism.

This presumably connects with Bertolucci’s tendency to presenting fairly explicit sexuality: and frequently abnormal sexuality. Last Tango is the most notorious example but it recurs throughout his film career. Before the Revolution is quite explicit for the early 1960s and involves incest between Fabrizio and Gina. And later films like The Sheltering Sky and The Dreamers had problems because of some of the explicit material. 

Gina in the film

Novel and film:

Some reviews suggest that Bertolucci’s film only uses the names and settings of the novel by Henri Stendhal [Henry Beyle]. It seems more complex than that. The Charterhouse of Parma is set in an Italy divided and dominated by foreign rule. The French revolution inspires a movement for democracy and self-determination which reaches its peak in the year of 1860 and the Risorgimento. In Before the Revolution, set in 1962, Italy still needs a thoroughgoing revolution to provide real democracy and determination.

The two main characters from the book, Fabrizio and Gina, have fairly similar characteristics in both the book and the film. The main difference is that their attraction is consummated sexually in the film. In the book Fabrizio is inspired by the ideals represented by Napoleon, whose invasions of Italy were seen by many as a liberation. In the film Fabrizio is inspired by the ideals of the PCI to liberate the working and peasant classes in Italy. In either he is torn between his aristocratic or bourgeois class position and his ideals. Gina, a Duchessa, despite her close blood relationship to Fabrizio, develops a powerful passion for him.

Clelia is much less developed in the film than in the book. In the latter she represents a romantic attraction for Fabrizio. It is with her that the hero has illicit [as outside marriage] sex. In the film she is mainly an icon, a representation of one class choice.

The book does not really contain a character like Cesare, but there are parallels with the Conte Mosca. Officially part of the liberal movement the Count is a Machiavellian politician. But he also provides a father figure for Fabrizio, who relies on his advice and experience. He loves and marries the Duchessa. A relationship paralleled by Cesare’s brief assistance to Gina when she leaves Milan: and there is another scene between them in the script but which is left out of the film.

There is also the tower. In the book Fabrizio is imprisoned here: and Clelia’s father supervises the jail. It is during his captivity that the Fabrizio / Clelia affair develops, including various devices by Fabrizio to attract her attention. Meanwhile the Duchessa Gina is emotionally distraught as she attempts to save Fabrizio from imprisonment and possible execution. In the film we see a young girl up in a tower first throwing stones and then calling to Gina who waits for Fabrizio outside Cesare’s house. At this point Gina becomes extremely distraught, an early indication of her psychological state. It is an intriguing echo from the book. There is also an important sequence relating to the opera in Parma.

At the end of the book Clelia has died, as has Fabrizio’s concealed offspring, a son: Fabrizio, after entering the Charterhouse of Parma [a monastery] dies after one year later and the Duchessa shortly after this. Only Count Mosca survives. At the end of the film Gina has returned to Milan: Fabrizio and Clelia has entered what would promise to be a sterile marriage: and Cesare alone remains in the world committed to revolution.


Pesant solidarity in 1900


Films and history:

There is a dividing line in Bertolucci’s work between films produced in his native land and the larger, international productions for which he is most famous. In the 1980s he left Italy claiming he had lost all sympathy with the culture. The fuss over Last Tango was likely a contributing factor. His films up until 1970 are informed by a particular interest as Italian radicals and liberals questioned their history, especially that of the fascist period. The key influence here is Antonio Gramsci. A communist leader in the 1920s who was imprisoned by the fascist and died in captivity. In prison he wrote a series of notebooks including an analysis of the Risorgimento. This landmark event in Italian history has featured in many films; especially the liberation of Sicily led by Garibaldi, [two key films are 1860, 1934 and The Leopard, 1963]. Gramsci claimed that the revolution was unfulfilled, as power was retained by the existing ruling classes in a new form. A recurring aristocratic line in The Leopard sums this up: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” A similar claim could be made for post-1945 when the Italian bourgeoisie, [with clandestine support from the US Intelligence Agencies] was able to disarm the partisans, overwhelmingly dominated by socialist and communist politics.

In Before the Revolution Fabrizio is questioning his class and his country’s history at just this time. The original novel by Stendhal was set in the early C19th. In the book the hero Fabrizio is from an aristocratic family, but inspired by the excitement of Napoleon and the French Revolution. The invasion of Italy by French revolutionary forces was a major spark in the development an Italian nationalism. Over the course of the book Fabrizio is tamed and reduced to a comfortable aristocratic existence, though he suffers personal bereavements. The parallel with post-war Italy adds a commentary to the film. It should be added that, as in the film, his Aunt Gina is as much a central character as Fabrizio.

If Before the Revolution uses the metaphor of Stendhal’s novel to obliquely comment on the intellectual in the 1960s, similarly concerns can be discerned in his other historical films of the period. 1900 opens at the beginning of the century with the birth of a new male child in the opposing households of a peasant family and a land-owning family: Olmo and Alfredo. The film follows their parallel stories and friendship over the years of radical socialist agitation and the subsequent victory by Mussolini’ fascists. The film ends in 1945 as the peasant wreak vengeance on the fascists and their bourgeois paymasters. However, the peasants are themselves disarmed, by the Committee of National Liberation as ‘democratic’ bourgeois politics are re-asserted.

It is worth noting that two of the most radical characters in the film are women: Anita the mother and her daughter, also Anita. In the 25th April 1945 sequence we first see Anita and other peasant women capture the fascist leader Attila and his wife Regina. The returning and armed male peasants take the captives off the women. But shortly after they themselves are disarmed. Strong women are a recurring feature of Bertolucci’s films, even if they usually centre on a male protagonist. Though strong, the women can also be problematic as is Gina in Before the Revolution.

The two films set in 1930s fascist period, Spider Stratagem and The Conformist, study characters apparently on the opposite sides of the political divide. Both films undercut the values and perceptions of their protagonists. Athos, in Stratagem, penetrates beneath the myth of his father’s death. The conformist Marcello appears to have discovered his sexuality rather than any political point at the conclusion. However, the later film does contain a brilliant cinematic metaphor. Marcello discusses with Quadri Plato’s image of chained captives who only perceive the reflection of reality in the shadows of the cave. The point is reinforced visually by the shadows from the shutters which place the characters in a noir world equivalent to that offered by Plato.

Other stylistic tropes appear to make parallel points in other films. Bertolucci is fond of mirror shots, and several key sequences in Before the Revolution are filmed reflected in the mirror. Quadri explicitly compares support for fascism with the illusion of a reflection rather than reality. Before the Revolution also uses a high level of light: scenes are almost ‘whited’ out at times. This reflects the mists of the area round the Po River. It also seems to comment on the characters inability to see with clarity.

 In The Conformist the idealist nature of Plato’s philosophy does rather suggest a pre-eminence for the idea over actuality. This would appear to be the curse of the intellectual, [certainly in Bertolucci’s world]. Fabrizio is the first of a number of characters in these films attracted intellectually to the philosophy of the proletariat, but unable to break away from the chains of their class.

The quotation that opens the credits for Before the Revolution is in part a comment on the cinema of Bernardo Bertolucci: “Those who have not lived the years before the revolution cannot realise the sweetness of life.” [Talleyrand]. 

Before the Revolution (Prima della rivoluzione), 1964 Producer: Iride Cinematografica. Assistant director: Gianni Amico. Screenplay: Bernardo Bertolucci and Gianni Amico. Photography: Aldo Scavarda. Music: Gino Paoli, Ennio Morricone. Editor: Roberto Perpignani.

Cast: Francesco Barilli (Fabrizio), Adriana Asti (Gina), Allen Midgette (Agostino), Morando Morandini (Cesare), Cristina Pariset (Clelia), Gianni Aniico (Friend), Cecrope Barilli (Puck), Guido Fanti (Enore).

Running time: 112 minutes. Black and white with Dupont colour, 1.85:1.

[Notes for a talk given at the National Media Museum before a screening of Before the Revolution: now available from the bfi in a high definition digital print.

A full-length and restored 1900 has been issued on DVD and Blu-ray. A restoration of The Conformist should be distributed later this year.]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: