This week I watched Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Before the Revolution” (“Prima della rivoluzione”). I finished a few days ago and have spent the intervening period watching the extensive extra material that came along with it. The curious thing is that I remember very little of what actually happened in this movie. Instead what I do recall are fragment of situations that only barely stick together. In desperation I checked on Wikipedia for a synopsis, but it only gives me three lines for the entire story and those three lines pretty much sums up what I do remember. Did I fall asleep? Not sure. Or did my mind simply drift? It is possible. Or maybe this is exactly what this movie is.
That sounds really bad, but I liked it better than that. There was something compelling about this movie, something that did feel refreshing even as I got lost in it. Apparently it adheres to the French New Wave style for better or worse. That does make it interesting technically, but also means that it gives up on a normal narrative. As a casual viewer that can be a frustrating experience.
Fabrizio (Francesco Barilli) is a young man, maybe 18 or so years old of the upper middle class in Parma, Italy. He really wants to be a communist and relate to the proletariat, but his commitment has some difficulty getting beyond the academic level. In the beginning he has a conversation with his friend Agostino, who then dies, drowning in the river. Fabrizio takes this pretty badly. Then Fabrizio meets his aunt Gina (Adriana Asti), who is ten years older than Fabrizio, but in many ways act as if she was 5 years younger than him. The to of them engage in a stormy sexual relationship, but eventually that ends, and Gina goes back to Milano. Fabrizio gives up on his communist dreams and marry a girl of his own class.
The two main characters are of course Fabrizio and Gina and what they share is a deep confusion of who they are and what to do with their lives. I suppose that is common enough, most teenagers go through a confusion phase. The special thing here is how extreme it plays out. Fabrizio feels shackled by the expectations to him due to his family background and rebels by embracing, trying to embrace, the opposite position, the communists, though eventually he realizes he is actually fighting himself. Gina has similar issues embracing the persona she is supposed to be and shy away from personal responsibility and conventions. Both are very emotional types who are thrown completely off by their confusion and maybe it is this that draws them to each other. A sexual relationship with your 10 year older aunt/ 10 year younger nephew is about as anti-convention as it gets. It is also extremely icky and I had to double check that I had understood it right that Gina is not some remote acquaintance, but really his aunt! Wow.
The title of the movie is a bit mysterious. There is a reference to it, that people like Fabrizio always seems to live the years before the revolution. I am still not entirely sure what that means, but maybe a reference to the last years of depravity of the upper class just before, say, the French or the Russian revolutions, that he feels the push from below that this is wrong. Beyond that I do not know.
The Book makes a lot out of that Bertolucci was very young when he made this movie and I suppose that is remarkable. What that does to the movie is that it makes it feel young and fresh and that I suppose is a quality of its own.
There is a part of me who wants to dislike this movie for its lack of narrative, it incestuous scenes and opaqueness, but mysteriously I found that I actually liked it. Don’t ask me why, I am still trying to process that. Maybe it is the futile rebelliousness of youth it portraits, maybe the refreshing style. Or maybe I just want to like anything Ennio Morricone scores…