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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.]


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The Leopard / Il Gattopardo

Posted by keith1942 on November 10, 2010

Italy 1963 

Visconti’s epic drama from the period of the Italian Il Risorgimento has received a further digital restoration. It was screened in 35mm at Il Cinema Ritrovato this year, and was immaculate, with pristine image and colours. It can now be seen in the UK in a High Definition digital transfer, which is almost as good as the 35mm version and one of the best HD versions I have seen. 

The film follows the fortunes of the household of the Prince of Salina, Don Fabrizio (Burt Lancaster) during the tumultuous months when Garibaldi led his ‘thousand redshirts’ in overthrowing the reactionary Kingdom of the Two Scillies. This was the most famous event of the process of unifying Italy. The film enjoys Visconti’s perfectionism in décor, and setting. There is a sweeping music score by Nino Rota. The buildings, the characters and the events all seem compelling historical recreations. Visconti was also a great director of actors, despite or maybe because of being extremely autocratic. This must be Lancaster’s finest performance, and even small parts [including the dog Bendicò] are convincing. This is the Italian language version, so Lancaster’s lines are dubbed. And one slight regret is the absence of his own fine speaking voice. But the Italian language version is far superior to the English-Language [USA] version.


The film adapts the famous and successful novel by Giuseppe di Lampedusa.The author was a Sicilian nobleman and the book clearly relies to a degree on his own family history. The novel’s main protagonist is the Prince of Salina, and the leopard graces his coat of arms. It also symbolises his character in the C19th Sicilian society. A critic commented on the book: ”The crumbling of his estate and his class … is made by him to appear to himself and the reader as the inexorable work of Time and Death, …” (John Gatt-Rutter in Writers & Politics in Modern Italy, 1978). In this sense the book fits in with the famous analysis of Antonio Gramsci, that Il Risorgimento was a ‘passive revolution’. By that he meant one in which the people were left out as the ruling class transformed itself, absorbing the new, rising bourgeoisie. This is the sense of a frequent comment in Italian politics to ‘tranformismo’, a transformation not of the state or the people but of its establishment. The distinction between these two writers is that whilst Gramsci writes with critical frustration, Lampedusa writes from a pessimistic perspective. But it is also one with irony. The book contains numerous references to post-Risorgimento events and a final sardonic chapter set in 1910.  Gatt-Rutter also discusses the point-of-view of the novel, which is predominantly that of the noble Prince of Salina himself. Though there is one chapter seen from the perspective of his confessor Father Pirrone, and the final chapter is after his death.

The film focuses on 1860 to 1862. It follows the novel fairly closely, though it leaves out the final chapters and the frequent references to post-Risorgimento events. The film does retain comments by Father Pirrone (Romolo Valli) on nobles, transferred from a visit to his home village to a break in the journey to the family estates at Donnafugata. And the pre-occupation with death in the penultimate chapter with the Prince on his deathbed in 1883 is caught in the closing scenes of the film, following a lavish ball in Palermo. Visconti’s view of the events of 1860 seems close to that of Gramsci. The plot and dialogue frequently remind us of ‘tranformismo’ as the ruling elite, composed of nobles like the Prince of Salina, accommodate the rising bourgeoisie, such as don Calogero Sedara (Paolo Stoppa). This class collaboration is sealed in the engagement of the Prince’s [poor] nephew Tancredi Alain Delon) to [rich] Sedara’s daughter Angelica (Claudia Cardinale). And one function of the immensely long ball scene is to publicly recognise this union.

At the time and since there have been numerous criticisms of Visconti’s film and the stance on this earlier period. Many comments compared the film to the original novel and identified nostalgia for the vanished life of the Italian aristocracy [into which Visconti himself was born]. It is also the film about which some critics started to use the word ‘decadent’, critically devaluing Visconti’s later films in comparison to an earlier more radical period.

Like the character of Visconti himself I think the film has contradictory qualities. The emphasis on the lives and activities of the elite in this time of momentous change is clearly there. There is little screen time devoted to the ordinary working and people, either urban based or peasantry. This makes for a strong contrast with the earlier classic film on Il Risorgimento, 1860, directed by Giusseppe Blasetti in 1933. That film is dominated by the rebellious peasantry of Sicily and to a lesser degree the volunteer ‘redshirts’ who fought the battles that led to the collapse of the Bourbon rule.

However, the film of The Leopard does address the nature of the revolution more strongly than the novel. Visconti and his team have inserted an impressive sequence depicting the Battle of Palermo. We see the enthusiastic redshirts: the Bourbon mercenaries who shoot civilians under orders of the secret police: and the men and women of the city who flock to support the ‘thousand’ and to wreak vengeance on the agents of the reactionary regime.

In the film as in the book Tancredi has joined Garibaldi’s expedition in the mountains and fights in the battles against his own class. He does this because as he tells Don Fabrizio, “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” This is an epigram repeated a number of times in both book and film and expropriated for his own use by the Prince. In both versions Tancredi sticks to his morals [or lack of them]. When the Piedmontese military suppresses Garibaldi and his men Tancredi joins the Piedmontese army. As his political ambitions rise, he abandons a tentative interest in Fabrizio’s daughter Concetta (Lucilla Morlacchi) and sets out to woo Sedara’s potentially wealthy daughter, the beautiful Angelica. Sedara, who has already made a fortune, including buying up land that once belonged to the Salina family, is happy to endow Angelica, and Tancredi’s ambitions as his entree to elite society.

The book provides ironic comments on this behaviour from an omniscient narrative voice. In the film Visconti uses mise en scène, camera and editing. In one scene the Salina family arrives at Donnafugata for their summer retreat. They sit in the local church stalls covered in the dust of the journey. The camera tracks along this line of ghostly figures, seemingly prefiguring their social death as a declining class.

And there is pointed cut as we approach the long final sequence of the film. There is a shot of the peasants working in the fields, the music of the ball rises on the soundtrack, and suddenly we see the couples whirling round the floor at the elite gala in Palermo. This vividly presents the gulf between one class and another. The theme of ‘tranformismo’ also dominates the ball. The key guest is Colonel Pallavico. And his hosts are eager to congratulate him as the man who shot and suppressed Garibaldi’s further expedition to liberate the Papal States. In the welter of reactionary self-congratulation is the representative of the new dominant class, Sedara.

It is at the ball’s conclusion that Visconti and his writer make their most powerful comment on this class coalition. Don Fabrizio walks home from the ball, gazing at the stars and thinking of the relieving embrace of death. The final shot of the film shows him disappearing into the shadows of a Palermo street. Meanwhile Tancredi, Angelica and Sedara travel home in one of the carriages. As dawn approaches volley’s of shot ring out. We hear only the sound, but we and the passengers in the carriage know that it is Colonel Pallavico and his men executing the remnants of the Garabaldini. In the end an iron heel achieves the passivity of the ordinary people. So it seems to me that both visually and through additions to the plot that Visconti and his team offer a somewhat subversive version of Lampedusa’s tale.

However, this is not straightforward subversion. John Gatt-Rutter further comments on the novel, “… such is the power of the characterisation that Fabrizio’s presence tends to fill the whole novel and overwhelm it, …” This is equally a characteristic of the film. Lancaster’s superb performance dominates the film from start to finish. And it is his world that is beautifully re-created and which provides the visual pleasures of the film. So there appears to be a contradiction in this epic between the politics of comment and aspects of its visualisation of story and characters. Audience assumptions and experience are likely to be important in how they read this film.


The restoration has been carried our by a number of associates, importantly the Cineteca di Bologna and The Film Foundation.

Posted in Il Risorgimento, Italian Film | Leave a Comment »