‘Before the Revolution’ still startles as study of lust and politics

Although based on Stendhal, the spirit of new cinema animates Before the Revolution: Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1964 film is about and for les soixante-dix-huitièmes, who, besotted with Godard and the New Wave, experimented with a radicalism that led to the pandemic of student protest four years hence. The young Marxist Fabrizio (Francesco Barilli), shaken by the death of buddy Agostino, thrashes in ever more fraught directions until he starts an affair with his aunt Gina (Adriana Asti). Like his namesake in The Carterhouse of Parma, Fabrizio embraces the episode such that it extinguishes the ardors of his youth; like that novel, Bertolucci doesn’t confuse experience for wisdom. Cynicism is not irony, no matter how times people confuse them.

What distinguishes Bertolucci from his contemporaries and heirs is his literacy. Young artists often use their erudition to mask their lack of experience. Watching Before the Revolution, it’s clear that literature and film shape Fabrizio’s radicalism. Allusiveness suffuses almost every frame, Ed Howard writes:

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.

“It is the story of a boy who discovers he is not single-minded enough to be a revolutionary, that he is too deeply involved in the beauty of life as it is before the revolution,” Pauline Kael rhapsodizedat the time. Audiences familiar with the elegant, increasingly etiolated late works after 1976’s 1900 like The Last Emperor and The Sheltering Sky, or the rather astonishing vacuousness of Stealing Beauty will be astonished by Before the Revolution’s force; I’d make the argument that this, The Spider’s Stratagem, and, supreme among them, The Conformist comprise his most essential work. At best flummoxed by or at worst bored by women, Bertolucci folds this phenomenon into the textures and tensions in Before the Revolution instead of letting it work against the film; we would have enough time to deal with the icons, virgins, and destroyers of worlds populating his future work.

Unavailable, to my knowledge, on Region 1 DVD, Before the Revolution remains tragically unseen unless your library still owns a VHS copy of the New Yorker Video edition I watched in the early nineties. Take advantage of any opportunity for a big screen revival.

Before the Revolution plays tonight at Coral Gables Art cinema at 7 p.m.

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