“1900” is a movie that is at once very large and very small.
It was Bernardo Bertolucci’s self-conscious attempt to create an epic film about Italy’s struggle between fascism and socialism. He framed his tale around two characters, the son of a rich landowner, or padrone, and the son of a peasant, who were born on the same day and raised together. We watch them from boyhood to middle age to dotage, striving against each other, eternal friends and combatants.
The title is somewhat confusing. In Italian it was known as “Twentieth Century” to indicate the scope and sweep of the story, but perhaps they thought American audiences would confuse it with the studio. So they came up with “1900,” which itself is something of a misnomer, since the movie explicitly begins on the day Giuseppe Verdi died, in 1901, when both boys are born.
Released nearly 40 years ago, “1900” is known today for three things.
There is the sexual content, which at one point earned an NC-17 rating during a 1991 re-release. It includes a scene where fully nude stars Robert De Niro and Gérard Depardieu are masturbated by a women simultaneously — one (obstinately flaccid) cock in each hand.
There are the various edits of the film, all of them long. Bertolucci fought with his financial backers, at one point being literally locked out of the editing room, and different iterations of “1900” have been shown at different times and venues. Traditionally the movie has been exhibited in two parts, though the run time has varied quite a bit. I saw the full director’s cut, a hair over 5¼ hours, which places it among the longest narrative films ever released.
(There is no official intermission, and my viewing took place over several days, by necessity.)
Lastly, there is the pretty uniform perception that the film is a dog, a disaster even. Right after “Last Tango in Paris,” Bertolucci was being hailed as the new European master. Many people were expecting the Italian equivalent of “The Godfather” parts 1 & 2, and were left sorely disappointed by the shambling narrative.
Roger Ebert put it succinctly in his review: “Bertolucci had his pick of actors, a free run with his budget, the freedom to make a personal film. And he blew it.”
I think it’s still a worthy cinematic experience, and certainly it is a very beautiful film to gaze upon. Ennio Morricone, one of my favorite film composers, came up with a lush score to back up the visuals of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. The rustic, slightly dreamy look of it reminded me very much of Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven.”
The main problem with the film is that it wants to use the two main characters, Alfredo Berlinghieri and Olmo Dalcò (De Niro and Depardieu, respectively), as representatives of the competing aims of fascism and socialism, and neither one is a particularly good fit.
Olmo is a born troublemaker who instinctively identifies with the collectivist agrarian ideas of his large clan, who have worked the Berlinghieri lands for generations, essentially as indentured servants. He has a tendency to provoke conflict but then shy away from the consequences, so he doesn’t make for a very heroic leader of the proletariat. When he finally stands up enough to make the fascists respond, he runs away, so their punishment is visited upon his family instead.
Alfredo is even thornier. As played by De Niro, he’s a pampered rich boy who takes his wealth and status for granted, but is more sympathetic to the socialist sentiments of his workforce than are his fellow landowners. When we first meet him in young manhood, Alfredo is extremely cocky and hedonistic, preferring parties, booze and cocaine over the dull homestead. Later, after taking his place as padrone, he becomes defined by his indecision. A main character who won’t make a choice is rarely a compelling one.
He won’t stand up to the local leader of the fascist blackshirts, Attila, even though he is Alfredo’s employee. Donald Sutherland plays Attila, a snarling, depraved man who sees the fascist movement as the proper vehicle in which to express his masochism and lust for power. We see him use his forehead to smash the life out of a helpless cat, and later he sodomizes and then kills a young boy in a similar fashion.
Sutherland is arresting in the role, by far the most vivid character in “1900.” But narratively he’s problematic.
It’s much the same issue I had with the Michael Fassbender character in “12 Years a Slave.” By making a single person the representation of all evil in a movement that entailed millions of people, you end up making that character a cartoon. And you let the multitudes who embraced fascism/slavery/the Holocaust, etc. — or were complacent in its atrocities — off the hook.
So why exactly won’t Alfredo simply fire Attila and banish him from his lands, given that they essentially existed in a feudal system with himself as lord? It’s never really answered, or even explored.
The best part of the film is the first 90 minutes or so when Olmo and Alfredo are rambunctious boys. Roberto Maccanti and Paolo Pavesi play them as youths of about 12, and are both terrific. (They have their own controversial nude scene in which they compare their foreskins.)
They have all sorts of spats and adventures, such as Olmo lying underneath a passing locomotive. (Alfredo takes up the dare but then balks.) In one of the film’s most visually memorable moments, Olmo catches live frogs from the farm’s irrigation canals and ties them, alive and wriggling, to his hat.
Two figures who lord over this section with magisterial sweep are the boys’ grandfathers. Leo Dalcò is played by the great Sterling Hayden, while Burt Lancaster is Alfredo Berlinghieri the elder. Each man has an intuitive grasp of his place in the world, and their relationship to each other. In some ways it mirrors that of their grandchildren, a strange brew of respect, affection and antagonism.
Leo is initially hostile to the socialist movement, teaching Olmo that he will always be a peasant and to accept his fate. Still, his heart is with the land and the people, so it doesn’t take much to convince him to join a strike. Leo is a servant of capitalist tradition, but socialist ideals aren’t much of a stretch for him: “If it’s yours,” he tells young Olmo, “then it belongs to all of us.”
The older Berlinghieri has traits of both nobility and venality about him. He sees his workers as chattel, much like the stock in his milking pen, but he’s also the sort of man who believes in treating his animals well. His own son, young Alfredo’s father, inherits all of the man’s pride and entitlement but none of his wisdom. In another seminal moment from the film, when the new padrone tells the workers he’s cutting their wages in half, one of the men slices off his own ear and offers it to the master as a symbol of his lost dignity.
“1900” loses focus and momentum in the second half. Much of it is taken up with Alfredo’s relationship and marriage with a half-mad Parisian woman, Ada, played by Dominique Sanda. Her face and low, dusky voice reminded me very much of Lauren Bacall. She’s one of those women who insists on being the center of attention in any room she occupies, even if she has to act completely batty to force the limelight. Predictably, she becomes resentful of life in the country and turns to drink.
Olmo’s own wife, Anita (Stefania Sandrelli), checks out of the movie midway, dying in childbirth. She is actually Olmo’s instructor in the ways of socialism, but their relationship doesn’t have much spark outside of that.
The other significant character is Regina, Alfredo’s cousin and childhood playmate. She clearly expected to become his wife one day, and when he chooses a wan foreigner over her, it drives Regina into the arms of Attila. She becomes his hate-whisperer, urging him on to ever more destructive acts as a way to spite Alfredo.
Regina is played by Laura Betti. About 20 years older than De Niro and Depardieu, with a matronly build and stout face, Betti’s presence is an incongruous one, seeming more like the witchy aunt than the third leg of a supposed love triangle.
It’s interesting to note that Bertolucci filmed “1900” with actors from America, France, Italy and other nations, and instructed them all to speak in their native language. This was a not uncommon practice with international productions of the 1960s and ’70s; Sergio Leone did so with his spaghetti Westerns. So watching the film on video poses a dilemma.
In general I prefer to view non-English films in their own language with subtitles. But doing so meant watching De Niro, Lancaster and Hayden with obviously dubbed voices — and not very good ones, either. Meanwhile, Depardieu speaks in French, the Italians in Italian, and so forth.
So I opted to watch mostly in English, but would switch to French for Depardieu’s long dialogue scenes and occasionally to Italian. (This revealed that Sanda, with her distinctive low moan, apparently did her English and French lines herself.)
It was somewhat distracting, but not much. I can only imagine how it complicated the give-and-take between actors on a set.
“1900” is a flawed film, but it’s certainly a noble failure. Seeing it is obviously not a thing to be undertaken lightly, given the sheer investment in time alone. But I am glad I did so.