Before the Revolution (1964): Bertolucci’s Sophomore, Romantic Political Melodrama

Bernardo Bertolucci’s second feature, Before the Revolution, a romantic political melodrama that depicts the political and romantic uncertainty among the youth of Parma.

Before the Revolution
Before the Revolution poster.jpg

Film poster

The film’s title is derived from a saying by Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord: “Only those who lived before the revolution knew how sweet life could be.”

It is strongly influenced by the French New Wave, both thematically and visually. It was shot in fall 1963 in Parma and its surroundings; one scene was in the camera ottica (optical chamber) at the Sanvitale Fortress in Fontanellato.

The movie premiered on May 9, 1964 at the 17th Cannes Film Fest in the International Critics’ Week series.

Fabrizio (Francesco Barilli) a young student in Parma circa 1962, struggles with reconciling middle class life with his interest in the militant views of the Italian Communist Party.

In a discussion with his best friend Agostino (Allen Midgette), the latter tells him that he hates his parents’ way of life. Ideologically, he is now caught between relying on the Catholicism of his parents and the Marxist ideas touted by Fabrizio.

Fabrizio is shocked when he learns of Agostino’s drowning in the Po River, and after preliminary investigation, he becomes convinced that Agostino had committed suicide.

Fabrizio speculates that Agostino’s hatred for his parents was really self-hatred. His despair causes him to break up with his girlfriend Clelia (Cristina Pariset), an apolitical, but pretty girl from a respectable family who he associates with the middle class life he despises.

His restlessness causes his parents to invite his mother’s beautiful younger sister Gina (Adriana Asti) from Milan to stay with family. After some discussion about death and the meaning of life, Fabrizio and Gina begin a passionate sexual affair. Fabrizio brings Gina to his former teacher Cesare (Morando Morandini), who’s responsible for his interest in Communism. They all engage in reading from various philosophical works and reflect on Italy’s fascist past.

Fabrizio encounters Gina as she leaves a hotel with a man she met in the street. After harshly confrontation, Fabrizio leaves angrily. Gina then complains to her psychoanalyst about her inability to sleep and constant anxieties. Through hearing her side of the conversation, we deduce that she has had some mental health issues. It’s implied that her trip to Parma was suggested by the therapist to help her deal with domestic problems. Fabrizio tries to distract himself by going to the movies with a friend who waxes poetic about how morality can be expressed through camera angles.

Fabrizio and Gina spend the day with Puck (Cecrope Barilli), an old lover of Gina’s now living off land owned by his father. He has never held a job, but is unashamed about it. This strikes a chord in Fabrizio (jealous of Gina and Puck’s intimacy) who lashes out at Puck; Gina slaps him for being rude. Fabrizio fears that Puck represents himself in 30 years, based on his notion that children of the bourgeoisie cannot ever escape their past.

Fabrizio becomes more conscious of his own weaknesses and his inability to realize his political ambitions. He finally disavows the Communism revolution and chooses to go along with what’s expected of him.

In the end, vowing to forget politics and Gina, he marries his former girlfriend Clelia.

The characters’ names are the same as those in Stendhal’s novel La Chartreuse de Parme: the principal character-narrator, Fabrice, is now Fabrizio del Dongo, a young Marxist from a bourgeois family, who attracts his young aunt, Gina, now Gina Sanseverina, and finally marries a girl from a good family, Clélia, now Clelia Conti.

Bertolucci said of the film’s context in a 1996 interview: “I have a different fever, a nostalgia for the present. Each moment seems remote, even as I live it. I don’t want to exchange the present. I accept it, but my bourgeois future is my bourgeois past. For me, ideology was something of a holiday. I thought I was living the revolution. Instead I lived the years before the revolution. Because, for my sort it’s always before the revolution.”

Critical Status:

Like Marco Bellocchio’s Fists in the Pocket (I pugni in tasca), which was released the following year, Before the Revolution is considered a precursor of the protests of 1968.

It did not attract large audiences in Italy where it only received lukewarm response. It did however enjoy an enthusiastic reception abroad, and over the years, it has become widely praised for its technical merit.

Cited as “one of the masterpieces of Italian cinema” by Film4, it is featured in the book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, where Colin MacCabe describes it as “the perfect portrait of the generation who were to embrace revolt in the late 1960s, and a stunning portrait of Parma—Bertolucci’s own city.”

Adriana Asti as Gina
Francesco Barilli as Fabrizio
Allen Midgette as Agostino
Morando Morandini as Cesare
Cristina Pariset as Clelia
Cecrope Barilli as Puck
Evelina Alpi as the little girl
Gianni Amico as a friend
Goliardo Padova as the painter
Background and production


Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci
Written by Bertolucci, Gianni Amico
Music by Ennio Morricone
Cinematography Aldo Scavarda
Edited by Roberto Perpignani
Distributed by New Yorker Films (US, 1965)

Release date: May 9, 1964 (Cannes Film Fest)

Running time: 115 minutes

Critics Response

Luana Ciavola, author of Revolutionary Desire in Italian Cinema, believes the film gives the impression of coming from within the bourgeoisie, but at the same time being against it. He writes of it: “the revolt of the protagonist finds support in political commitment. Sustained by an erotic desire, the revolt is fostered by the political ideology that provides a raison d’etre as well as a symbolic terrain through which to articulate the revolt. Even more, the ideology, embodied by Cesare, provides Fabrizio with a superior meaning with which to confront and shape his rebel self. Through ideology, Fabrizio spells out and clarifies his course of revolt and singularity of rebel subject, and eventually his desire for revolt”.

David Jenkins, the Time Out critic, noted that like “all of Bertolucci’s movies, there’s a central conflict between the ‘radical’ impulses and a pessimistic (and-or willing) capitulation to the mainstream of bourgeois society and culture.”

Bertolucci attempted a “symbolic autobiography” in his classical construction of the film, in which loss and defeat are notable themes.  The failure at love symbolizes “a death of the past, an angst-ridden sense of futility in any kind of revolutionary striving, whether emotional, political or merely intellectual, amid the defeat of contemporary society.”

Bertolucci uses poetic sounds and images to communicate emotions and ideas, such as in the disturbing final scene where Fabrizio and Clelia’s wedding is intercut with Cesare reading “Moby Dick” to youngsters.

Archer: Bertolucci used cinematic references to Italian and French directors such as Roberto Rossellini and Alain Resnais, and managed to “assimilate a high degree of filmic and literary erudition into a distinctively personal visual approach,” showing “outstanding promise” as a filmmaker.

TimeOut: although it is a “leisurely, verbose and stylish film made by thinkers for thinkers, the film “feels like it’s caught between two stools: it lacks the acute social observation found in Bertolucci’s stunning debut, The Grim Reaper (1963), but it also fails to achieve the levels of free-flowing fizz displayed in his follow-up, Partner (1968).”

There was praise for “the virtuoso camerawork, Ennio Morricone’s rippling score and the melancholy reminder that for the young and politically engaged, the ‘revolution’ is always just over the horizon.”