After Last Tango In Paris, Bernardo Bertolucci became mired in controversy. That magnificent film had seen him face worldwide censorship problems and even briefly brought him, in a ludicrous case of governmental philistinism. a suspended prison sentence for pornography. Many directors would feel like a bit of a rest after such times but instead, Bertolucci plunged himself into a huge project; an epic of Italian history entitled Novecento which translates as ‘the New Century’ and is usually known internationally as 1900. The result is one of cinema’s greatest follies, a term which refers to those huge, mad films which great directors produce when they’re allowed to do whatever they want. These films are sometimes good and sometimes bad – often both at the same time – but the usual definitions of quality somehow don’t seem to apply to them because you’re too busy wallowing in an overdose of visionary insanity. The line of great follies runs from D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance through Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible and John Huston’s Moby Dick, and up to movies such as Apocalypse Now, Heaven’s Gate and Once Upon A Time In America.
1900 is squarely in this tradition because it tries to do too much and inevitably falls apart in the process, going off the rails with alarming speed during the second half. It’s a film which almost forces the viewer to get annoyed and niggled at its problems and failings. But anyone who loves movies will be able to get past these petty irritations and respond to the overriding impulse behind the whole work, which is a deep, passionate love of the possibilities of cinema.
What Bertolucci attempts here is nothing less than an intimate epic which covers, in varying depth, the first four decades of Italian history through the eyes of two men born on the same day in January 1901 – the upper class landowner’s son Alfredo (De Niro) and the illegitimate peasant Olmo (Depardieu). Growing up on the same estate in the northern countryside, the two boys become friends but historical events overtake their friendship and Olmo becomes a communist while Alfredo is a tacit supporter of fascism, employing a brutal Blackshirt named Attila (Sutherland) as his estate foreman. Historical events are background to the narrative – the peasant strike of 1908, the end of the war and the subsequent peasant uprising, the March on Rome in October 1922, Liberation Day in April 1945 – and we see them through the effects they have on the people in the film.
The film is set in the rural area of Parma, a city in the North of Italy where Bertolucci grew up. This might lead one to think that the film is substantially a nostalgic paean to his upbringing and there are certainly elements of a yearning romanticism which suggest the vision of a wistful artist craving his youth. But Bertolucci grew up in the 1940s and was part of a heavily academic family – his father Attillo was a poet, art expert and film critic – so he wouldn’t seem to be placing himself as either Olmo or Alfredo. His childhood seems to have been relatively tranquil and studious and he began writing at the age of 15 before beginning his film career as an assistant to Pasolini in 1961. There is, however, nostalgia for the locale and I think some of this comes from both Bertolucci’s own childhood and the early life of his father, who grew up as part of a middle-class agricultural family in San Lazzaro, a province of Parma.
The first half of the film contains some of the most beautifully lustrous images of growing up ever put on screen, courtesy of the great DP Vittorio Storaro. It’s a heightened portrait, something akin to Wordsworth’s The Prelude, in which everything is filtered through a sensibility which is infused with the memory of a hundred movies. Bertolucci uses very broad brushstrokes – another stylistic trait which reminds one of Leone - and the result gives his portrait of childhood a universality which makes it emotionally overpowering. It exerts a tremendous nostalgic pull, which makes you think of your own youth while watching that of Olmo and Alfredo. Many directors have achieved this – successful examples range from Robert Mulligan in To Kill A Mockingbird to Fellini in Amarcord - but none have done it, I think, with quite so much emotional force. The use of colour is extraordinary throughout – the rich hues of summer and autumn shading into chilly winter as the film progresses.
This isn’t, to put it mildly, a subtle film, something which becomes a problem in the second half, but in the opening sections, the lack of subtlety has a kind of childlike immediacy. Even the events which are not seen from the perspectives of the children are made iconic. A lot of this has to do with the casting of Burt Lancaster and Sterling Hayden as the two grandfathers. Lancaster was remarkable in a lot of films but it’s interesting that two of his finest performances should have been for Italian directors (the other one being for Visconti in The Leopard). As the patriarch of the family, he brings a tremendous life-force to a familiar role, filling the screen with warmth and humour. He is larger than life, a figure that comes straight out a bedtime story told to his descendants. Sterling Hayden’s character, the peasant padrone Leo Dalco, is not quite so well defined, tending to drift idly in and out of the frame, but the way he looks is just as totemic – hair swept back, trim, muscular, he is the very definition of the noble peasant.
Both figures are granted death scenes which are almost primal – one hanging from the roof of a cowshed, the other slipping away beneath a tree. These are the kinds of deaths that are remembered and which are fit for such kings. The key visual influence – as underlined by the picture under the main credits – is the painter Brueghel but there are echoes too of earlier Italian cinema, works by Visconti and Rossellini.
Another relevant Italian influence is Sergio Leone and he is a significant figure because while his final film seems somewhat indebted to those of Bertolucci (along with the whole of cinema in general), 1900 is largely conceived in the terms of a Spaghetti Western; not just those of Leone but also the political Spaghettis of Sergio Corbucci and Damiano Damiani where Marxist dialectics are played out through a very broad good/evil framework. The sheer scale and ambition of the film is intimidating and this certainly resembles Once upon A Time in The West, a movie which wanted to be both a Western in itself and a commentary on all other Westerns. It’s important in this regard that Bertolucci’s credit as co-deviser of the story of Leone’s film involved a year of watching and discussing significant westerns with the director and the other writer, Dario Argento. Ironically, the film seems to have influenced Leone in turn. Once Upon A Time In America shares many similarities with 1900; the lengthy childhood section; the view of history as an inextricable tangle of the personal and the political; and particularly the use of two childhood friends growing up to very different destinies.
During the first half of the film, everything goes gloriously right and had Bertolucci been able to maintain his grip for the remainder then we would be talking about 1900 as one of the greatest films ever made. But during the second half, something goes awfully wrong and the film careers off the track into disaster. There are warning signs in the first three hours – Donald Sutherland grinning with the remains of a cat stuck to his head – but it’s when Sutherland takes the main stage, along with Laura Betti, that the film heads straight into the territory of melodrama. The intention was presumably to suggest the violent theatricality of grand opera but the results are more like soap opera. This isn’t intended as a criticism of the actors per se, but of the way that they are directed. Donald Sutherland, in particular, is allowed to zoom over the top; baring his teeth, popping his eyes in the worst Giancarlo Giannini manner and laughing wildly at every opportunity.
Attila and Regina are hardly characters anyway, they are merely comic-book ciphers designed to perpetuate the myth, popular in Italian cinema, of an inextricable link between Fascism and sexual perversion. This is made plain in the most repellent scene of the film when, during Alfredo’s wedding reception, they rape and murder the son of a local dignitary. It’s a peculiar scene, played for queasy horrific effect, and Sutherland and Betti are so wildly hammy in it that it’s impossible to know how you’re meant to react. It’s not a scene which sits comfortably with the rest of the film or even in its own part of the narrative. It’s clear that Attila and Regina feel the need to defile the wedding but the sheer physical violence of their urges comes out of nowhere and isn’t prepared.
However, it seems that this effect of the villains being insanely caricatured is entirely intentional and part of the political schema of the film. This is, after all, a Marxist epic in which the Blackshirts are the scum of the earth and it’s hard to imagine Bertolucci or his fellow screenwriters having any desire to make Attila and Regina three-dimensional human beings. By the time Regina is cackling in the attic like some fairy-tale witch, any claims which the film has to be taking place in any kind of historical reality are firmly crushed. Tediously even-handed as it might be, it’s fair to say I think that an accurate portrayal of Italian history would accord the Blackshirts more complexity of characterisation. However, there are some interesting insights here. If one sees Attila as a surrogate for Mussolini, Alfredo is clearly King Victor Emmanuel III, unable or perhaps unwilling to move against the Fascist threat. This makes Alfredo, notably in his dealings with Attila, an irritatingly impotent and passive character, especially compared to the vibrant Olmo – and again, this is a political statement. Olmo, the salt of the earth and leader of the peasants, is the courageous decision maker and the cards are stacked in his favour. When he comes to a kind of power during the final act of the film, the implication is that, like Leo Dalco, he is a natural leader. There are also, incidentally, problems with the women's roles which remain nebulous - Dominique Sanda has a wonderful, dreamy presence but she seems to be neglected in the scenes following the wedding as if Bertolucci has lost interest in the character. Olmo's woman, Anita - played by the beautiful Stefania Sandrelli - fares little better, being killed off-screen during the intermission.
When it was first released, 1900, which had taken up three years of Bertolucci’s life, was highly controversial. Part of this was to do with its length which some saw as excessive. Certainly, there’s a sense that tighter editing might have helped in places and that the second act is allowed to drift towards the end – in particular, the capture and the people’s trial of Alfredo strikes me as the kind of windy, preachy set-piece that needs a pair of scissors taking to it. But the length has a majesty to it and brings the film into the tradition of those great 19th century novels which refused to say ‘enough is enough’ – War and Peace or Little Dorritt, say, as opposed to the more tightly structured Anna Karenina and Great Expectations. The other cause of controversy was the sexual content which is unusually strong for a mainstream film of the period. But Bertolucci, with his rural background, doesn’t seem to consider nudity and sex ‘dirty’ and there’s a natural quality which seems unexploitative – even in the riskier scenes which some may find offensive. This even extends to the extraordinary spectacle of Robert De Niro and Gerard Depardieu lying naked on a bed while a women gives them both a hand-job – it doesn’t seem strange somehow because it comes out of the characters. It seems natural that these characters who bathed together, discussed sex and compared parts as children would grow up to share a woman. But afterwards, it’s jarring because you don’t expect to see two international film stars showing their all.
Some viewers will look at 1900 and feel, like the critic writing in Time Out, that its just “a sad mess”. But while I admit that it’s a mess, I think it’s a glorious mess which makes most other movies, in the words of Pauline Kael, “look like something you hold up on the end of a toothpick”. It’s not a perfect, complete work of art which coheres and resolves. Indeed, it seems to just fade away when Bertolucci can think of nothing more to say. But it’s alive and vibrant with a love of filmmaking. No-one makes films like this any more of, if they do, they don’t do it on the same scale. That in itself should be enough to make 1900 absolutely essential viewing.
1900 has been available in Europe for some time but it’s been a very long time since it was available in a full-length version for home viewing in the USA.
Paramount’s new DVD is very impressive. It contains the full 315 minute unrated version of the film, Bertolucci’s own favourite of all the cuts which exist. The film is presented in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and has been anamorphically enhanced. The quality of the image is generally excellent with vivacious, rich colours and plenty of detail throughout. According to web reviewers, this is a considerable improvement on the European R2 release from MGM.
There are three soundtracks; English in Dolby Surround; and French and Italian in mono. The best of these to my mind is the English track, despite the remix, because that’s the only way you get to hear Burt Lancaster, Sterling Hayden, Dominique Sanda, Robert De Niro and Donald Sutherland speaking their own dialogue. The Italian dub lacks life to my ears and some of the voices used for familiar faces are somehow off. On the other hand, some may find the dubbing of Italian actors into English to be equally irritating. There is no ‘correct’ way of watching this film, so the choice is down to the individual viewer. All the tracks are very clear and there are optional subtitles provided – although the yellow font used for them is an eyesore.
The film is divided into two disc with the break coming naturally between the two parts of its theatrical screening. Surprisingly, Paramount have treated us to two short 14 minute featurettes in which Bertolucci and Vittorio Storaro discuss the making of the film. Neither of these is especially in-depth but both men are highly eloquent and have plenty to say, although there is, sadly, nothing about the very mixed critical reception which the film received.
1900 is a very flawed film but it remains a great one all the same. This DVD gives it a good, uncut presentation and can be bought for a very low price. Very highly recommended.