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Before the Revolution (1964) Reviews

From the seasoned film critic, mesmerized by the film’s pulsating emotional intensity, to the young scholar, delving into the film’s nuanced exploration of political ideology and societal constraints. Discover how the doomed romance of Fabrizio and Gina sets the stage for a grand examination of class, privilege, and the inevitable fallout of ideological aspirations. Unravel the threads of Bertolucci’s storytelling, as critics dissect his intricate blend of personal autobiography and broader social commentary.

These reviews represent a collective deep dive into a cinematic tour de force that defies easy categorization. Each critique stands as a testament to the film’s enduring ability to provoke thought and stir emotions. Join us as we traverse this enthralling path of discovery, understanding, and appreciation of Bertolucci’s “Before the Revolution.”

“Before the Revolution,” or “Prima della rivoluzione,” in its original Italian, is an exploration of the journey of a young man named Fabrizio (played by Francesco Barilli) who is transitioning from adolescence to adulthood. Leaving the traditional norms of the Church in Parma behind, he is on a quest for a life path that can truly engage and ignite his imagination. The film opens with the tragic death of his friend Agostino (Allen Midgette), which may or may not have been suicide. Fabrizio’s life is filled with other friendships and even potential marriage, but he yearns for more.

Review by Tom Wiener

Director Bernardo Bertolucci’s film can be seen as an homage to the French New Wave, reflecting its innovative cinematic approach. Drawing inspiration from Jean-Luc Godard, the film’s storytelling style may seem obscure unless the viewer has a grasp of Bertolucci’s distinctive artistic concerns. Yet, the film’s striking black and white imagery, with detailed and lingering shots of faces, bodies, architecture, and nature, clearly demonstrates Bertolucci’s assertion that visuals are as significant as the underlying messages.


Fabrizio finds himself grappling with a challenging paradox that his Marxist friend instilled in him – the bourgeois society to which he belongs doesn’t hold the answers he seeks. These New Wave themes are interspersed with prolonged political discussions over the soundtrack, while Bertolucci showcases different features in a tranquil, deliberate manner, contrasting with the vigorous discourse of some characters.

As a form of rebellion, Fabrizio finds himself growing more attached to his Aunt Gina (Adriana Asti), who is not significantly older than him. This preference for his aunt over his potential love interest, Clelia (Cristina Pariset), leads to the development of a forbidden sexual relationship. This exploration of sex as an act of defiance is a theme Bertolucci would often revisit.

While this controversial element may have caused a stir in Italy upon the film’s release in 1962, it is unlikely to garner the same reaction today, due to the passage of time and the evolution of societal norms. Yet, if this aspect troubles you, it may make your viewing experience less comfortable.

Bertolucci’s characters, with their extended political dialogues and emotive moments, may feel alien. They represent a group focused on revolution, a concept that seems distant as most prefer to grapple with the realities of their world. Through Fabrizio’s experience, viewers may recognize that societal transformation is a complex process and maintaining the status quo is often the inevitable outcome.

Despite the challenging themes and character relationships, “Before the Revolution” can still be appreciated for its visual beauty. With time, it may come across more as a historical piece than the urgent work it was in the 1960s, yet its artistic contribution remains noteworthy. The film is complemented by the musical score from Ennio Morricone.

Review by Philip Strick, Monthly Film Bulletin, April 1969

When comparing the work of Bernardo Bertolucci and Pasolini, Pasolini’s body of work is more extensive. However, what made Bertolucci’s debut film compelling remains captivating in “Before the Revolution” – his remarkable ability to both exaggerate and understate, and convincingly achieve either. Initially, the flurry of images, landscapes, and declarations in the film’s opening scenes, including a Talleyrand quote, a critique of Catholicism, and an up-close, urgent scene of Fabrizio running, may appear chaotic.

However, the arrival of Gina and the delicately captured scenes of Fabrizio’s parents in mundane life help to arrange the scattered pieces. As the tale unfolds, the passionate chant of Fabrizio’s revolt gives way to a different kind of ardor, embodied by Agostino and his reasonable yet utterly impractical schemes. Pasolini’s fervor may not have taken this course, but Bertolucci’s adaptation of popular cinema elements aligns perfectly with the Pasolini dialectic.

Gina, as a character, embodies alluring distress in a captivating way; her interactions, whether it’s an awkward exchange with a singing girl, her compulsive collection of every magazine at a newsstand, or a desperate late-night call to a psychiatrist, help vividly paint the picture of her instability. The narrative may be unfair to Fabrizio’s ambitions as they get tangled with Gina’s erratic behavior, but the importance lies in how these events impact Fabrizio.

Like many middle-class individuals, Fabrizio finds himself disoriented when he attempts to be either more sophisticated or more basic. Bertolucci’s depiction of Parma, his hometown, appears to be the quintessential bourgeois stronghold. Perhaps, it’s better to appreciate the composed elegance of Clelia, who remains silent, and follow the simple storyline and traditional composition of Verdi’s ‘Macbeth’.

Fabrizio’s disillusioned remark, “I thought I was living the Revolution, but they turned out to be the years before the Revolution. For my sort, they always are,” seems to encapsulate the mood of the new generation of Italian filmmakers. Bertolucci cleverly mocks this sentiment in the film’s ending, as Cesare begins indoctrinating a new group of restless students, Gina dotes on the next Fabrizio in line, and a blissfully wedded couple depart in a sleek, seemingly conservative limousine.

While the style, narrative, and message of “Before the Revolution” may not be especially revolutionary themselves, it showcases Bertolucci as a director brimming with potential, committed to his craft.

Review by Geoff Andrew, Film: The Critics’ Choice (New York: Billboard Books)

Bernardo Bertolucci’s second feature, crafted when he was just 22 and released in 1964, may not have garnered the same attention as his later works “The Conformist” (1969) or “Last Tango in Paris” (1972). Yet, despite its somewhat disjointed storytelling, “Before the Revolution” may indeed be the most impressive offering from Bertolucci’s portfolio.

During the time of its creation, Bertolucci was requested to adapt a story by Pier Paolo Pasolini into a screenplay and direct it (“The Grim Reaper” or “La commare secca”), an homage to his key Italian influence. He also released his first poetry volume, “In Search of Mystery.” Interestingly, “Before the Revolution,” a nod to his primary French inspiration, Jean-Luc Godard, resonates more as a compilation of poetry than a novel. This is despite the characters being named after those in Stendhal’s “The Charterhouse of Parma” (1839), Bertolucci’s favorite novel at the time, with Parma serving as the main setting.

The film’s eclectic set-pieces are as vibrant, fleeting, and disconnected (via their Godardian jump-cuts) as a collection of accomplished lyrical poems. Few, if any, other Bertolucci movies, apart from “Besieged” (1998), are so meticulously constructed around discrete pieces of music, spanning pop, jazz, and classical genres, and culminating in the off-camera premiere of Verdi’s opera, “Macbeth.” Mirroring John Cassavetes’ “Shadows” (1960) — directly referenced in a romantic scene between the inexperienced hero Fabrizio (Francesco Barilli) and his slightly older, neurotic aunt Gina (Adriana Asti) — “Before the Revolution” captures the vivid emotional fervor of youth in full force. The theme of bisexuality, more explicitly explored in later Bertolucci films, subtly manifests here in Fabrizio’s affection for his friend Agostino (portrayed by Allen Midgette, a regular Bertolucci collaborator), who takes his own life just before Fabrizio’s affair with Gina commences.

As with many of Bertolucci’s works, this story attempts to harmonize Marx and Freud, portrayed here through Fabrizio’s struggle to balance his “nostalgia for the present” with his Marxism, and his idealism with his social class. The result is an emotional exploration of everyday life, from Gina and Fabrizio shopping to the strains of a poignant Italian pop tune, to the tragicomic scene of Agostino repeatedly crashing his bike while clowning for Fabrizio, underscored by a melancholic circus melody. Even an altar boy’s stifled laughter during Fabrizio’s marriage to a conventional bourgeois debutante adds a touch of realism to this deeply touching tale.

The magnitude of Bertolucci’s accomplishment in “Before the Revolution,” despite his young age during its creation, is undeniable, though the film poses a challenge for analysis. This is largely due to its deeply autobiographical content (with Fabrizio essentially representing a 22-year-old Bertolucci), and its emotionally nuanced navigation of its central themes. Its themes may not be as intricate as Bertolucci’s later works, but the personal elements and the sincere effort to reconcile Bertolucci’s privileged upbringing with his communist ideals add depth. One could draw parallels between Bertolucci’s work and Visconti’s, particularly in the way it addresses class disparity and the anguish that can arise from it – evident in Agostino’s turmoil and subsequent suicide, revealing to Fabrizio that his privileged status excludes him from truly understanding the pain of the working class.

Using Stendhal’s “Charterhouse of Parma” as a narrative foundation, the film explores its themes through the doomed love affair between Fabrizio and his Aunt Gina. The relationship thus serves as a dual device: a metaphor for the film’s central themes and an intriguing, tragic romance in its own right. This dual role provides a framework for nuanced insights. When Fabrizio and Gina meet again a year later, they bemoan the societal constraints that hinder their relationship. Due to the political context established earlier, their situation effectively juxtaposes the broader societal pressures they face. This allows Bertolucci not just to depict these constraints but also to demonstrate their emotional impact on the characters.

Interestingly, this film gained significant popularity in France before the tumultuous events of May 1968, despite its unclear and ambiguous portrayal of the “revolution’s” fate. The notion of failure resonates even more when Fabrizio encounters an ex-landowner facing an uncertain future, a sobering mirror image of Fabrizio’s potential trajectory. The film subtly suggests that the “revolution” will end in disappointment, similar to the outcome of May 1968, and that affluent leftist idealism can morph into casual neoliberalism – a theme Bertolucci would revisit later in his career. This transformation is paired with critiques of institutional power structures, specifically the Catholic Church’s role as a suppressive force against leftist ideology. By the film’s end, these concepts circle back, but with an added emotional dimension, culminating in a heart-wrenching scene: a wedding.

As our exploration of Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Before the Revolution” concludes, it’s clear that this film’s entrancing tapestry of personal struggle, political ideologies, and poetic romance endures in its resonance. A captivating journey that blends stark societal critique with deeply personal narrative elements, the film continues to incite contemplation, admiration, and animated discussion more than five decades after its release.

If you’ve yet to take the cinematic plunge into the stirring world of Fabrizio and Gina, we wholeheartedly invite you to do so. Experience the power of Bertolucci’s imagery, the poignant resonance of his storytelling, and the evocative depth of his characters. Whether you find yourself moved, challenged, or simply entertained, “Before the Revolution” is a testament to the transformative power of cinema.

Bernardo Bertolucci
Bernardo Bertolucci was an Italian film director and screenwriter. He was born on March 16, 1941, in Parma, Italy, and passed away on November 26, 2018. Bertolucci was known for his innovative and visually striking filmmaking style. He gained international recognition for directing films such as "The Conformist," "Last Tango in Paris," "1900," "The Last Emperor," and "The Dreamers." "The Last Emperor" won nine Academy Awards, including Best Director and Best Picture, solidifying Bertolucci's status as a prominent figure in world cinema. Bertolucci was celebrated for his exploration of complex themes, psychological depth, and his ability to push cinematic boundaries. His films often tackled political, social, and existential issues, and his storytelling was marked by intricate character development and rich visual aesthetics. Throughout his career, Bernardo Bertolucci left an indelible mark on cinema with his unique artistic vision and contributions to the art of filmmaking.

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