Between Revolution and Reflection: Bertolucci’s Italian Films Return

Here’s a chance to see these works of formal daring and melodramatic abandon on a big screen


“He who has not lived in the years before the revolution cannot know what the sweetness of living is,” goes the quote from Talleyrand that inspired the title of Bernardo Bertolucci’s Before the Revolution — a hell of a thing for a young Italian Marxist to call a film in 1964. As youth and countercultural movements across the world were beginning to reimagine a radical new future, here was a brief evocation of what might be lost — of a world that, for all its iniquities, still had a wistful romance to it. The film followed a young Parma man (Francesco Barilli) whose revolutionary activities conflicted with his bourgeois milieu, but it largely focused on his amorous relationships — with his aunt (an incestuous affair, borrowed loosely from Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma), with the beautiful daughter of another wealthy family, and possibly with a suicidal young male friend. The director was fervently political, but he had feet planted firmly in both revolution and nostalgia. And he made that tension the central animating force in his work, as the Quad’s brief but packed retrospective of the director’s Italian movies, “Pictures From the Revolution,” makes abundantly clear.

Bertolucci’s great achievement was to marry the great formal experiments of his time with a revitalized approach to melodrama and narrative: He understood not just the lessons of Jean-Luc Godard and Pier Paolo Pasolini (his mentors and spiritual fathers) but also of Douglas Sirk and Vincente Minnelli. We talk a lot about how the New Hollywood directors of the 1960s and ’70s bore the stylistic influences of the French New Wave in their work. But Bertolucci understood better than anyone else how undercutting viewer expectations, disorienting us out of our narrative complacency, was the key to deeper engagement. Coppola and Scorsese revered him for this reason: Before he left for the Philippines to shoot Apocalypse Now, Coppola promised Bertolucci that whatever he made would be one minute longer than the Italian director’s 1976 historical epic, 1900. Fat chance: Apocalypse Now clocked in at a still wide-release-friendly 147 minutes. 1900, in its director’s cut, was 317 minutes; the compromised version released stateside in 1977 was 245. The whole thing nearly ended Bertolucci’s career.

If there’s one movie in this series I’d urge you to do whatever you can to see, it’d be The Spider’s Stratagem, made in 1970 for Italian television but released here theatrically and extremely hard to find in any kind of decent version, thanks to Byzantine rights issues. (There are old VHS dupes floating around the internet, which is absolutely no way to experience Vittorio Storaro’s astonishing color cinematography.) The Spider’s Stratagem tells the interlocking stories of a father and son, with Athos Magnani Jr. arriving in the desolate, tiny hamlet of Tara to investigate the death of his Partisan hero father, Athos Magnani Sr., at the hands of local Fascists decades ago. As the son wanders through a town that seems stuck in time — characters keep repeating actions, as if trapped in the most existential of Greek myths — the film flashes back to the father’s tale.

Both men are played by the same actor (Giulio Brogi) with just a minimal change in costuming. To make matters even more confusing, the father’s three Partisan co-conspirators are played in both timelines by the same actors, without any aging (or de-aging) effects. They look, in other words, exactly the same — which enhances the idea of this town being forever preserved in cinematic amber, but also creates a sweet confusion on the part of the viewer. Bertolucci avoids any of the typical stylistic flourishes to introduce his flashbacks; the film might cut to the past (or forward to the future) at any moment. History never goes away. The father’s actions influence the son’s — and, dare I say it, vice versa. In the hands of other directors, this might have dissolved into a Brechtian wank, an eat-your-vegetables dissolution of narrative suspense and viewer interest, but Bertolucci manages to make the story more involving through his formal play. The film takes on a dream logic that pulls us in further. It helps, also, that the movie is visually ravishing.

The Spider’s Stratagem and The Conformist, both released in 1970, represent a one-two punch like no other. The latter effort — the work that truly put Bertolucci on the international map — could be thought of as a Citizen Kane for the second half of the twentieth century, the movie that united the preceding decades’ achievements in technique all in one film. The story of Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a closeted, bourgeois man who joins the Italian Fascist party in an effort to achieve some sense of normality, The Conformist is the ultimate example of a film whose form is the key to its effect. Its present-tense action takes place over the course of one car ride — from the protagonist’s Paris hotel to the snowy mountain road where he will help murder his former college professor, an Italian Resistance leader living in France — but it constantly cuts back to his past, to an abusive and murderous incident in his childhood, to his wedding to the blandly adorable Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli), to his joining the Fascist party, to his Paris honeymoon, which doubles as an assassination mission.

Again, Bertolucci shirks the usual methods of indicating that he’s cutting to the past, so that the viewer often has to play catch-up. The Conformist’s structure effectively becomes a study of psychological displacement: Clerici’s flashbacks and his flashbacks-within-flashbacks all suggest that he is placing the blame for his own murderous actions on the men who have stirred his hidden longings. But the film, a political thriller and a Freudian fever dream all at once, isn’t so much about sex as it is about the corrosive power of burying one’s true nature.

You can also see this in the way Bertolucci shoots Clerici. A tightly wound man — with his jerky, hectic motions; his perfect posture; his dark, angular silhouette — he’s set against visions of decadence and lushness. Bertolucci’s camera glides through massive corridors and between cluttered rooms, and along glowing Parisian boulevards; it sweeps over whirlwinds of scattered leaves, or hovers over an army of dancers in a bar, as they playfully circle, then ominously crowd our protagonist. (Few directors are better at taking mundane, ostensibly realistic scenarios and turning them into surreal, symbolic moments that still maintain their narrative charge.)

The flashback structure of Bertolucci’s most ambitious film, 1900 (Novecento, screening here in its full version), at first is a bit more conventional: His epic opens on April 25, 1945, the day of liberation, as we watch a group of peasants rebel against the landowners in the closing days of World War II, then cuts back across the previous few decades. The story follows two men born on the same day: Olmo (Gérard Depardieu), the child of peasants, and Alfredo (Robert De Niro), the child of the local landowner (the padrone). Their intersecting stories reveal their different statuses in life: Olmo as a boy catches frogs by the river and torments Alfredo with them; that evening, Alfredo’s parents, who bought the frogs from Olmo, force him to eat them. Olmo gets shipped to the front for World War I; Alfredo gets a crisp new officer’s uniform but never comes anywhere near combat. Olmo is terrorized by Alfredo’s foreman, Attila (Donald Sutherland), the local Fascist, whose political maneuverings and murders render Alfredo powerless even as they preserve his wealth and status.

Bertolucci toys with our attraction and repulsion as viewers. Alfredo is a total milquetoast, but in a relatable way. (The fact that he’s played by mid-1970s De Niro, right around the time he also did Taxi Driver, simply adds to the disorientation.) Olmo is a gentle, idealized figure, his oppression having given him wisdom and purpose. As we watch the film, we realize that we’re witnessing the two sides of Bertolucci’s own soul war with each other: The revolutionary firebrand, the unapologetic Marxist who has made a red flag–waving epic on Hollywood’s dime, and the comfortable child of an elite, upper-middle-class family. He wants to be Olmo, but he knows he is condemned to be Alfredo.

Much of 1900 unfolds as a pastoral that turns into a noirish psycho-thriller. The film is organized around seasons: The soft light of Alfredo and Olmo’s childhood has a nostalgic glow, while the dark days of Fascist rule are expressed as a muddy, grim expanse of wintry night. But in the final hour, when the narrative effectively melts down, we again see Bertolucci’s structural daring. With the Fascists vanquished and the peasants finally in charge, the film becomes a boisterous, unironic show trial, as the revolutionaries sit Alfredo down and allow his workers to confront him.

I’ve seen many people enraptured by the first four hours of 1900 bail during this final act, when the red flags pop out, the Marxist slogans start to get tossed around, and an individual padrone is called to account for the crimes of an entire class. These sequences are indeed tough to watch: Having spent several hours with Alfredo, we feel some sympathy for him. But here’s the thing: Nothing like this actually happened after the war in Italy. Bertolucci has acknowledged that he’s indulging in a bit of historical fantasy here. More than that, he is putting himself on trial, effectively exploding his elegant historical epic to do so. It is to this day one of the most impressive and beautiful acts of cinematic self-annihilation I’ve ever seen — a film that is at once terrified of, and longs for, the brutal, horrifying clarity of a revolution that never came.

‘Pictures From the Revolution: Bertolucci’s Italian Period’
Quad Cinema
November 22–30