Part Of The Picture: The Sweetness of Life

Posted on May 28, 2010

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THE SWEETNESS OF LIFE

MAY 29, 2010 – OVER A BLACK SCREEN, a voice states, “Many things had to happen. I had to suffer, you had to suffer so much. I existed because you existed. Now that I am at peace, tied to my roots, I feel I no longer exist.” The speaker, the man who has returned to his roots, is Fabrizio (Francesco Barilli), and his monologue is directed at his aunt Gina (Adriana Asti), with whom he had an affair. The opening credits unfurl in silence. And then this quote from Talleyrand: “Those who have not lived the years before the revolution cannot understand the sweetness of life.” The film, now, picks up from the present, “a Sunday in April 1962, just before Easter, in Parma.” Fabrizio walks towards us, his face held in close-up. He begins to jog, and his shoulders sneak into the frame, revealing his “roots” – the lapels of a suit and a tie, the stamp of the bourgeois background about which he is currently conflicted.

His words, subsequently, address this conflict. “Damn those who do not know that this Christian faith is bourgeois, in its every privilege, every surrender, every subjugation.” At this mention of Christian faith, organ music begins to play in the background, and the camera moves away from Fabrizio, the individual, in order to take in the sprawl of the city. Over overhead shots of Parma, Fabrizio returns to voiceover, “As if in a dream I find myself before the city’s gates, the bastions, the toll gates, the bell towers like minarets… and through the middle the river, the Parma, which divides the two cities, the rich from the poor.” The image of the particular (namely, an individual), followed by images of the general (evocative of the contents of the individual’s voiceover) – that is the schema that these opening minutes lay out, and that is the schema that two subsequent “set pieces” will emulate.

First, the fragile Gina, the other half of the romantic equation, muses, “First of all forgive me. And please… don’t ask questions. I’m too sensitive, I’d feel as if I were in prison… There is only one cure for my pain. The others. People. You. The ‘medicine of boredom’ brought me all the way here. From far away Milan. Running parallel with the villas rushing by. Clouds chase other clouds. You chase me chasing you. My little nephew from Parma… Without saying anything I’ve told you everything. Don’t ask questions. Don’t ask questions…” Unlike the organ music that underscored Fabrizio’s voiceover-vistas, Gina’s are set to silence. But the soaring violins are reserved for Puck (Cecrope Barilli), who, in the now-established fashion, is revealed in close-up before the camera takes off to scout for images that evoke the contents of his voiceover. (He’s a landowner in danger of losing his heavily mortgaged estates.)

The manipulations of the music hint that this is the true tragedy – not the self-absorbed angst of Fabrizio, and not the sensitive sighs of Gina. Puck’s is the larger picture – and over the lift of violins, he renders the film’s elegy. “No more river! Enough of the river! One must forget it… They’ll come here with their machines… Nothing will remain. The fish traps… There will be no more summer. The canals… There will be no more winter… No more coots! No more flocks of wild geese! You see, my friends? This is where life ends and survival begins. And so… Goodbye Lombardo pond… Goodbye, river. And goodbye… Puck.” In the face of impending loss, he appears to know – more than Fabrizio or Gina – what the quote that opened the film is all about, that those who have not lived the years before the revolution cannot understand the sweetness of life.

Prima Della Rivoluzione (1964, Italian; aka Before the Revolution). Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. Starring Adriana Asti, Francesco Barilli, Morando Morandini.

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Posted in: Cinema: Foreign