Fabrizio (Francesco Barilli) is a young man leaving his teenage years behind, and thus searching for a path to take through life he will find satisfying. Now that he is able to make up his own mind about things, he sees little use for the Church in Parma, where he has been brought up and still lives with his family, so wishes for something more radical to fire up his imagination and fervour for taking his existence by the scruff of the neck and giving it a good shake. Alas, the one friend who could have helped him out in that fashion is Agostino (Allen Midgette), and he has left him behind by drowning in an incident that may have been suicide. Fabrizio has other friends, and is even looking to get married, but there must be more to this...
Very much a young man's film, Before the Revolution, or Prima della rivoluzione as it was called in its original Italian, was director Bernardo Bertolucci's love letter to the French New Wave which was a revolution in itself, if only in cinematic terms. He appeared to be very interested in Jean-Luc Godard, so this was very much in that style, which also had the effect of rendering it incomprehensible unless you were especially attuned to his concerns. Even so, and perhaps even more than his idol, he was keen to craft imagery of striking beauty in its black and white photography, with his camera lingering over faces, bodies, architecture and nature in a manner suggesting visuals were as important as messages.
Fabrizio finds himself in a dilemma that even from the beginning it seems futile to try to escape from: his Marxist friend has indoctrinated him with the belief the bourgeoisie the young man belongs to is not in possession of the answers he wants, a very New Wave theme, and there were scenes where political discussions droned on the soundtrack while Bertolucci explored various features in a calm, measured approach at odds with the rhetoric espoused by certain characters. As an act of rebellion, Fabrizio becomes very attached to his Aunt Gina (Adriana Asti), who is not some blue rinsed old biddy but only a few years older than him and she becomes preferable to the girl he's intended to be romancing, Clelia (Cristina Pariset).
To the extent that Fabrizio and Gina begin a sexual relationship of the taboo sort that Bertolucci would return to time and again, telling us sex could be as much an act of rebellion as it was a way of escaping the pressures of the world bearing down on his characters. Naturally this was made in 1962 so he was not as explicit as he would get in his later efforts such as Last Tango in Paris or The Dreamers, but if there were many things indistinct about what was occurring in this, we could at least be clear incest was on the cards, an aspect which threw up a scandal in Italy when this was released but now barely bats an eyelid because too much time has passed for it to drum up much controversy for a film so far back in the twentieth century. Now pointing out that plot will likely bring about a wrinkle of the nose and dismissal without much contemplation.
Although if it bothers you, and there should be no reason it shouldn't as all signs are the director wanted to implement it as an attention grabbing device, then it does make for a less than sympathetic experience. With their long political monologues interspersed with moments of emotion, Bertolucci's subjects seem to hail from another planet as the revolution indicated by the title was never more than the obsession of a minority as most preferred to get on with things and cope with them as they were; sure, events were going to get a lot more socially fraught with conflict between church, state, young and old, but we can see, and Fabrizio can too by the end, that this kind of change is beyond us now and the status quo will ever be imposed. Then again, it's not too easy to feel sorry for him as he's a bit of a bore, and a bore who's in a seriously unhealthy relationship to boot, so it could be better to regard Before the Revolution for its pictorial attractiveness than its aims for the mind. Even so, it looks more of a museum piece than the vital work it did back then. Music by Ennio Morricone.