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Bertolucci in London

BFI Southbank's Bernardo Bertolucci season opens this evening with Before the Revolution (1964), features an onstage conversation with the director on Saturday night — perhaps he'll say a few words about that adaptation of Niccolò Ammaniti's novel Me and You he's planning to shoot in 3D in the fall — and closes on May 31 with The Dreamers (2003).

Here's Tony Ryans revving up his accompanying piece in Sight & Sound: "The mission I rashly chose to accept was to look back 50 years to the arrival of Bernardo Bertolucci on the Italian film scene, and to examine how he came to terms with influences from two disparate spiritual mentors, Pier Paolo Pasolini in Rome and Jean-Luc Godard in Paris. Easier said than done: even without the gargoyle of Berlusconi to muddy everyone's view of Italian culture and politics, it's a daunting challenge to get a fix on the time when the young Bertolucci emerged. Factors in play include the political uncertainties of Italy's post-war recovery (the residual taint of fascism), the way that regionalism and factionalism prevailed (running counter to the image of Italian unity), the disputatious intellectual climate of the day and the surprising developments in Italian pop-genre cinema in the 1960s (horror movies, muscle-queen exotica, westerns) — all on top of Bertolucci's own desire to establish a distinctive voice of his own."

For Time Out London's David Jenkins, Bertolucci hadn't found that voice quite yet when he made Before the Revolution: "A leisurely, verbose and stylish film made by thinkers for thinkers, Before the Revolution 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). He juggles with too many influences, to the point where the film feels like a compendium of nods and winks: we've seen these loping, well-heeled types in Antonioni's films filling the void of social responsibility with art, religion and politics. We've seen snap-talking cinephiles touting Nicholas Ray's use of a 360-degree pan in Godard. Still, that doesn't detract from the virtuoso camerawork, Ennio Morricone's rippling score and the melancholy reminder that for the young and politcally engaged, the 'revolution' is always just over the horizon."

For more, turn to December's roundup on the occasion of MoMA's retrospective. Related: Remembering the late Maria Schneider, who co-starred with Marlon Brando in Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris (1972).

Updates, 4/8: The Telegraph's Sukhdev Sandhu notes that Bertolucci saw Before the Revolution "as a form of exorcism: 'I was a Marxist, with all the love, all the passion, and all the despair of a bourgeois who chooses Marxism.' Made in 1964 and based, very loosely, on Stendhal's 1839 novel The Charterhouse of Parma, it follows the broody, agnoistic struggles of a young man called Fabrizio (Francesco Barillio) who is trying to work out his relationship to the Communist Party… The politics aren’t so much dated as underwhelmingly dramatized… What makes the film worth reviving is its stylistic elan, some channeled through Godard, Fellini and Antonioni, but all fresh and vigorous: its jump cuts and dynamic editing; its expressive, freestyling take on neo-realism; its powerful lighting."

"A cerebral and involving film whose vigour is undimmed after 47 years." 4 out of 5 stars from the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw.

Ed Howard: "Partner is obviously derived from the example of Godard's late 60s political films, especially La Chinoise and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, both of which loom large over Bertolucci's Godardian pastiche. Ostensibly based on the Dostoevsky story 'The Double,' Partner is actually an attempt to ape Godard's radical essay-film style. It is, for the most part, an unsuccessful attempt."

Update, 4/9: Sight & Sound runs Philip Strick's 1969 review of Before the Revolution for the Monthly Film Bulletin: "The style, the narrative and the message may not be particularly revolutionary in themselves, but Bertolucci as a director with enormous promise is still in there, pitching away."

Update, 4/10: For the Observer's Philip French, Revolution "is altogether a dazzling film, both continually vital and something of a time capsule. I think, however, that his best movies are The Conformist, The Spider's Stratagem, the first part of 1900, and, with reservations, his version of one of my favourite novels, Paul Bowles's The Sheltering Sky."

Updates, 4/11: "As well as Luchino Visconti's Rocco and His Brothers, [Adriana] Asti, who's still acting, had appeared in the pimp's tale Accattone, directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini," writes Graham Fuller at the Arts Desk. "Asti would become the achingly beautiful muse of Before the Revolution, which traces the interlocking romantic and political failure of a 20-year-old bourgeois Communist wannabe, Fabrizio (Francesco Barilli), whose dream of 'a new sort of man' to inhabit the world is as idealistic as his incestuous love for his hopelessly seductive young aunt, Gina. The film prophesied the collapse of Bertolucci and Asti's own marriage — in that sense she is Anna Karina to his Godard — but as a symbol of rebellion, however forlorn, it was successful, providing a famous rallying cry in the 1968 student revolt in Paris."

The Cannes Film Festival has announced that it will be awarding an Honorary Palme d'or to Bertolucci during this year's opening ceremony on May 11. "In the recent past, Woody Allen, in 2002, or Clint Eastwood in 2009, were awarded this distinction by President Gilles Jacob, on behalf of the Board of Directors of the Festival de Cannes. Now, the act becomes tradition, will be annual… 'The quality of his work, which appears today in all its uniqueness and the extent of which we receive every day intact, the strength of his commitment to cinema and the ties that bind make this for Cannes the first legitimate recipient,' say President Gilles Jacob and Thierry Frémaux General Delegate."

Updates, 4/14: The Telegraph's David Gritten interviews Bertolucci: "'For the last two or three years,' he confides, 'I'd been thinking I wouldn't be able to do any more movies. The condition of my back caused me ferocious pain. Now recently, mysteriously, the pain has diminished — so I am preparing something new. I hope to start shooting in Rome in September.' The new film, Me and You, is based on a novel by Niccolo Ammaniti, a coming of age story in which a 14-year-old boy tells his parents he is taking a skiing holiday, but instead hides himself in the basement of the family home. His secret is discovered by his 25-year-old half-sister…. 'I started thinking how it would feel to have seen a great film, like Ingmar Bergman's Persona, in 3D. That got me excited, so I started to imagine Me and You in 3D. Because it happens in the basement of a house, the 3D would give a kind of additional magic. I would like to make viewers feel they are in the middle of the set, not facing it from the front.'"

"The Spider's Stratagem," writes Ed Howard, "made in 1970, the same year as his masterpiece The Conformist, is another look at fascism, heroism, betrayal, and the lies and secrets of history. Like Bertolucci's more famous (and more fully realized) fascist parable, this film examines the deformation of character that occurs under fascist oppression, as well as the ways in which such regimes inevitably prey on the weaknesses and flaws of the people they subjugate… The film has a striking, beautiful look, a distinctive aesthetic, the beauty of which can't even be obscured by the slightly faded quality of the existing copies that can be seen. The imagery of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, Bertolucci's DP on The Conformist as well, is simply gorgeous, if in a very different way from the bold colors and broad palette of The Conformist." Still, "The Spider's Stratagem is thematically rich but narratively slack, its characters archetypal and minimally defined, with little personality or specificity."

Update, 4/18. Viewing (25'09"). Sight & Sound Web Editor Nick Bradshaw talks with producer Jeremy Thomas about working with Bertolucci.

Join the discussion. Image above: Bertolucci on the set of Before the Revolution; photo by Giovanni Lunardi. For news and tips throughout the day every day, follow @thedailyMUBI on Twitter and/or the RSS feed.

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