There is something to be said for unbridled ambition. No matter its accepted outcome, no matter how it scores at the box office or what instantaneous praise it receives, a film can still be admired for its fearless commitment to scope and the best of its intentions. If it’s passionately executed with personal conviction, even a faulty feature can be respected for aspiration alone. And if said film happens to also be very good, so much the better. This, on more than one occasion, has defined the best of Bernardo Bertolucci, a filmmaker who thrived in the realization of such grand cinematic enterprise. From Before the Revolution (1964) to Last Tango in Paris (1972), from The Conformist (1970) to The Dreamers (2003), his films have been fortified by a visual potency and an overt thematic prominence—big ideas, brazenly presented. Even when they’re a tad self-important, the stirring spirit of his work is impressively demonstrable.
Then there’s a film like 1900. Bertolucci’s multinational, yet distinctly Italian opus is, in many ways, the pinnacle of his idiosyncratic artistry, suffused with sociopolitical insight, artistic flourish, and an unambiguous authorial confidence. This 1976 release is the definition of ambitious filmmaking.
Some may point to his Oscar-winning The Last Emperor (1987) as the more obvious example of a complete Bertolucci epic, with its lavish production design and historical bearing. And it, too, is a great film. But there is also something exceedingly obvious about its epic intentions. Its conventional aims, however appreciable, are immediately evident, and the viewer is instantly immersed in an elaborate realm of light and color, pomp and pageantry, and clearly dominant consequence. From start to finish, it just looks like an epic. 1900, by comparison, is progressively consummated. It takes time to soak in, to evolve, to generate the enveloping perception of cultural upheaval. For all its grand political posturing, 1900 remains almost modest in its leisurely headway. While it encompasses a substantial topical register into nearly five-and-a-half-hours (in its complete version), that ample duration acts as a buffer, a narrative filter for a film that never feels rushed or burdened by its variable implications.
Still, there is no doubt Bertolucci makes clear the gauge of his thematic aims. Beginning with a slow zoom out from Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo’s Il Quarto Stato, (“The Fourth Estate”), 1900’s examination of encroaching modernity grows from the connotations of this symbolic 1901 painting and is subsequently applied to not only the technological tactics that affect and afflict the film’s agrarian populace—a direct, concrete concern—but it confronts the more abstract notions of mutable morality, strained public division, and the contested dogmatic amendments of its time. Situating his film in the years 1901 to 1945, Bertolucci stages the central drama against a vastly complex historical backdrop, covering a contentious array of seemingly destined disorder. Amplified by Ennio Morricone’s magisterial, swelling score, 1900 proceeds with an enthralling, episodic advancement, an ethereal journey through a half-remembered dream of days gone by; indeed, Bertolucci called 1900 “an oneiric film, very nearly conceived and structured like a dream, made to the measure of the dreamer, that is to say, the public.” The film’s evocation of transient recollection is, however, both vivid and incomplete, and the resulting imprint of an engraved patchwork memorial is what primarily carries the picture. The emerging narrative is, in this sense, subordinate to an atmospheric rendering, a rhetorical essence, while those who form the dramatic core of 1900 are themselves archetypal figures, their beliefs and actions more dependent on their equally representative station in life than as an outgrowth of their almost casually defined character.
The fundamental plot of 1900 derives from a coming-of-age tale concentrated on two contrasting friends embroiled in encircling sociopolitical chaos. It’s a common enough construction, but is no less effective because of its familiarity. As noted by Roger Ebert, in an otherwise derisive review (and maybe this is also a grievance), the synopsis of 1900 “might resemble Genesis, filled with marriages and births, deaths and murders, rivalries and betrayals and thefts and passions.” And so it is. Written by Bertolucci, his younger brother Giuseppe, and Franco Arcalli, who also wrote Last Tango in Paris and would work on the story for Bertolucci’s Luna (1979), 1900 opens on Liberation Day, April 25, 1945, where the impending end of World War II is abrupt and unexpected (so unexpected that a young man is instinctively shot as an enemy combatant before he can scarcely mutter, “The war is over…”). As word of liberation spreads throughout the countryside, so too does a vengeful reckoning. It first takes down, most vehemently, the vicious Fascist couple of Attila Mellanchini (Donald Sutherland) and his female companion Regina (Laura Betti). The retribution then reaches resident padroné Alfredo Berlinghieri (Robert De Niro), whose pensive expression upon confrontation hints at the reflection to come, a subdued cue that sends 1900 back to the turn of the century when two children are born on the same day, the day, as it happens, of Giuseppe Verdi’s death: January 27, 1901.
There is, first, Olmo Dalcò, an illegitimate peasant boy whose primary male paradigm is his grandfather, the local laboring foreman Leo (Sterling Hayden). Next comes Alfredo. Born to a family of wealthy landowners, his father is Giovanni (Romolo Valli), but more significant is his namesake, his grandfatherly parallel to Leo, Alfredo (Burt Lancaster). Leo has an uneasy alliance with the elder Alfredo, who ingenuously asserts that because the boys were born together, it “must mean something.” Though they will, in fact, share an associated future because of their proximity—physical and in age—the boys are to be forever poles apart in terms of class and consequent upbringing, in terms of their psychology, their ethics, and their idealistic notions of national necessity. If he is somewhat naïve in his hopeful assertion of camaraderie, it’s because Alfredo doesn’t entirely buy into the value of his family’s upper crust facade. Played with stately, slightly dissipating elegance by Lancaster (who apparently told Bertolucci he would act for free just to see how the young filmmaker worked), Alfredo is, in his waning years, beyond such high-class conceit; he has, for all intents and purposes, given up on his class and what they strive to endorse. Hayden’s Leo, on the other hand, begrudgingly embraces the prospect of renewal. Though he decries the technical innovations that will aid the famers’ arduous harvest, he catches the Socialist spirit toward the end of his life and relishes in the times that are surely changing.
It was no doubt a coup for Bertolucci, the ardent cinephile, to cast Hollywood legends Hayden and Lancaster, both of whom lend 1900 an imposing air of preliminary significance. But beyond the strength of their commanding poise, and in 1900’s earliest scenes especially, Bertolucci makes no attempt to downplay the film’s arresting reach, a risky decision as the film wears its pretensions gloriously on its sleeve. And yet, although its blatant tone of sweeping socialist melodrama could easily topple over into the realm of hackneyed farce (and some may argue it does anyway), 1900 is leveled by the genuinely discreet citizenry of its Emilia setting, which included actual locals adding immeasurably to the authentic flavor of the picture (and appearing in marked contrast to the iconic presence of Hayden and Lancaster). Bertolucci savors this provincial portrait of rustic humility, appreciating the textures of sweat and dust, the earthy grittiness, the grass stains and the dirty faces, legs, and feet. At the same time, enhanced by Vittorio Storaro’s resplendent cinematography, the imagery is lush and colorful, in sun-kissed hues of sumptuous agricultural virtue. The fields are bathed in an effusive warmth, highlighted by the yellows and oranges of a summer dusk, and the painterly wide shots embrace an expressive view of nature’s greenery, its waterways, and its flowing fields. The camera continually cranes and tracks with a fluid grace, moving alongside the farmers as they toil in the northern Italian valley or sing and dance amidst its lofty trees. Continuing in his review of 1900, Ebert acknowledges Bertolucci’s camera—“always moving, swooping, gliding effortlessly from one stunning composition to another”—but uses this embellishment to argue, “It’s as if the movie has a beauty apart from its content, and Bertolucci dazzles us visually as an apology for the narrative mess he’s in.” Beautiful and dazzling, no doubt, but there is no apology needed—if this is a mess, then all messes should be so compelling.
In the limited radius of 1900’s central farming estate—a “microcosm,” in Bertolucci’s words—there are early signs of communal dissent. Alfredo pays lip service to the undeniable contributions of his operative workforce, but the realities of their situation are held in check. Given ostensibly amiable treatment, the laboring class is nevertheless kept in their place, crammed in dilapidated homes with dining tables forty people deep. As a result, the enforced intimacy reinforces an enduring solidarity, and what emerges is a combative band of peasants with an utter contempt for the landowners (and a healthy distain for priests). While women figure only slightly in this worldview—Alfredo’s early observation about baby Olmo hints at the place of feminine assignment: “He may be a bastard, but at least he’s a boy”—the inequities of a patriarchal society, marred by the aggression and agitation that goes along with it, are ancillary to the economic disparities of the region. Spurred by the convincing philosophy of an embryonic labor league, a call for strike echoes through the night, reallocating the perpetual oscillation of power, confronting issues of worker reform, and delineating the definition of socialist progress. Oppressive authoritative abuse soon falters in the face of revolutionary zeal, moving men and women alike to march under the waving red banners that emblazon an operatic crusade, leading some, like Ebert again, to comment on Bertolucci’s use of peasants “as if they were a chorus.” Sure enough, they are the assembled embodiment of romantic pastoral vibrancy, as well as the infectious power of blossoming resistance.
1900 has an unquestionably idealized beginning, with a purity and clarity that is soon stripped away by a wartime gravity that seeps in and engenders an increasingly ominous tenor. This is now the world where we find the adult Olmo, played by Gérard Depardieu, who enlists with the Italian army during World War I, while Alfredo, now De Niro, remains home to help manage his family’s land. In the midst of a remarkable run of films (Mean Streets , The Godfather: Part II , Taxi Driver , The Deer Hunter , and Raging Bull ), De Niro plays the young Alfredo as a privileged, immature scoundrel. Spoiled by a penchant for frivolity and a lackadaisical disinterest, he disregards the dangers of decadence and a domain drifting out of his control. While the acting in 1900 is often stilted and awkward, in no small part due to the film’s imperfect dubbing, De Niro’s performance is a particularly erratic combination of childishly manic behavior, hasty cruelty, ardent sexuality, and physical plasticity (as when Alfredo is first exposed to the effects of cocaine). Depardieu, even more prolific than his American counterpart, with two films released in 1975, five in 1976, and six in 1977, assumes a comparably credible heroic role, verified in Olmo’s sincerity and his temperate practicality.
Between the two, there is a resilient familiarity, but there is also persistent animosity. Olmo, Alfredo’s “alter ego,” according to Bertolucci, harbors a deep-seated resentment of Alfredo’s blameless ambivalence and has no illusions about his rank in the social hierarchy, no matter the moments of amiable interaction. Alfredo mocks the “country bumpkin” Olmo, who remains adamant in his cause; with a reason to fight, his devotion exceeds Alfredo’s complacency. They concede conflicting hardships and courtships (when they’re not sharing an epileptic prostitute). Olmo romances the politically savvy schoolteacher Anita (Stefania Sandrelli), while Alfredo turns his amorous attentions to Ada, a woman, he gushes, who “smokes, drinks, and writes poetry.” Played by Dominique Sanda, who had appeared in The Conformist and was Bertolucci’s initial choice for Maria Schneider’s role in Last Tango in Paris, Sanda expresses self-destructive guile, enticing danger, and cold radiance. But while Ada rides a white horse on her wedding day, galloping through the wispy mist, Anita, portrayed with solemn persuasion by Sandrelli, is more at home in the streets, protesting and parading her zealous activism.
Romantic though it can be, 1900 is also astonishingly coarse. Food and drink figure prominently in the picture, as one might expect for a film so entrenched in Italian culture, but so too do more carnal aspects of human exchange. The film is preoccupied with piss, shit, and spit, with lewd sexuality and an unpleasant brutality toward animals. The children can even be innocently crude, as when young Olmo flaunts his frog trophy (a ring with still-squirming amphibians pinned around his hat) or when a competition between he and Alfredo ends in his humping of a hole in the ground, “screwing the earth,” as he says. Although it’s ascribed early on to youthful curiosity, where its candidness is nonetheless surprising (certainly by today’s standards), 1900’s explicit sexuality carries over into a hedonistic adulthood. There are also haunting, searing images of death and violence: Lancaster’s Alfredo hanging himself in chains above a cluster of loose cattle; a disgruntled worker coolly lobbing off his ear; the gutting of a hog, shown in gruesome detail. Yet nothing compares to the shocking severity of Sutherland’s Attila. Between head-butting a restrained cat (pulling away, his face smeared with blood) and the staggering sequence where he and presumably Regina rape a young boy before viscously killing the child in a disturbing, graphic frenzy, Attila simply “feeds on evil,” as on peasant remarks. He may receive his comeuppance, pelted with horse manure in a spark of worker insurrection and then stabbed with pitchforks by wrathful farmers (pitchforks that remain jutting from his fumbling, feeble body as he attempts to flee), but Atilla encapsulates a ferocious Fascist depravity that ranks second only to Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), the grueling triumph by Pier Paolo Pasolini (a Bertolucci idol), in sheer sadistic aberrance. Sutherland is hypnotic and maniacal, utterly terrifying and perversely fascinating.
It’s no surprise 1900 was a controversial production, on both sides of its premiere at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival. The thorny editing process pitted Bertolucci against his renowned producer, Alberto Grimaldi, with disagreements centering on the film’s cumbersome length, and later, critical opinion grappled with the outcome of Bertolucci’s artistic indulgence. Grimaldi had worked before with such flamboyant luminaries as Federico Fellini and Luchino Visconti, but here was a filmmaker, and a film, that was a little bit of both. And some, like Pauline Kael, saw in the synthesis “the thinking of someone who grew up at the movies and accepted the myth that all problems can be brought to a happy resolution,” that “Communism is going to usher in a folk utopia, and an artist who loves style above all else can make a people’s film by drawing upon the standard metaphors of American and Soviet movies.” (Seeking a “harmony between Marx and Freud,” Bertolucci admits it was “maybe an impossible thing to do.”) Alluding to its undoubtedly simplistic propaganda, 1900 had, Kael wrote, a “crazed utopian romanticism,” and was so melodramatic it made “Visconti’s excesses in The Damned seem courtly.” Bertolucci certainly exults the sway of histrionic gesture, and the exacting commotion of 1900’s lively production design, with foreground and background action presented in a breathtaking expanse of compositional breadth and depth. His realization of generational corruption and eternal social struggle is directed with bold, broad strokes, so that although there are definitely discrepancies over historical accuracy, those quibbles are reduced and enveloped by a resounding dramatic supremacy. With a fervent tension that at times evokes the intensity of a wartime thriller, the film’s prototypical characters give voice to poetic declarations of solidarity and defiance, making the picture something of a cautionary manifesto on the perils of lockstep conformity and partisan divide.
A “desperately optimistic film,” according to Bertolucci, “but not a triumphant one,” 1900 concludes with Olmo and Alfredo in their diminishing old age. Their indelible friendship has been marred by a disproportionate allotment of fondness and fortune, but here they are, forever fighting, forever together. Accordingly, among its more pronounced features, 1900 conjures the lucid impression of passing time, and by film’s end, Bertolucci has conveyed an exhaustive appreciation of having been through something momentous, of witnessing a bygone era emboldened by the gradational unfolding of conflict and resolution. Divided into roughly four sections, each reflecting a seasonal shift, 1900 is like a mythic cultural snapshot. It is didactic and allegorical, and its Italian title of Novecento, or “Twentieth Century,” better suggests Bertolucci’s conceptual objective. Just 35 years old, he had crafted a sensational film, for and of the ages. In a filmography of superior distinction, it is a masterpiece among masterpieces.
Bernardo Bertolucci's 1900 is showing February 22 – 28, 2019 at New York's Film Forum.