1990 (a.k.a. Novecento) was one of the most eagerly awaited movies at the Cannes Film Festival in 1976. Bernardo Bertolucci intended it to be, as the definite Italian answer to Gone with the Wind, an epic story about Italy, the first half of the twentieth century, the rise and fall of fascism, and the emergence of the communist and socialist movements. 1900 was also Bertolucci’s very much anticipated follow-up film to the very successful Last Tango in Paris, a film that was hailed by the New Yorker’s lead critic Pauline Kael as the most important artistic event since Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring”. With so much at stake Bertolucci was given all of the money and resources in the world to create his next masterwork and in terms of scope and ambitions there are very few films that can compare to 1900. Unfortunately soon after its premiere, most critics and audiences failed to appreciate Bertolucci’s vision, criticizing its massive length, socio and sexual politics and unorthodox approach towards drama. An although it is true that this epic tries to bite more that it can at times it is also one of the most exciting and daring artistic films ever made.
1900 covers half a decade of Italian history opening on scenes of liberation at the end of WW2, then backtracking to follow the years from the turn of the century, marked by the birth of two children on a sprawling vineyard estate; one of them Alfredo, the grandson of the master of the house and the other Olmo, the grandson of the patriarch of the estate peasants. The young men grow and become heirs to the ancient customs and feuds of the region, their destinies intertwined throughout the film, their relationships to their families and to each other, beautifully detailed, but as the years progress the rise of Mussolini and the town's fascist black shirts end up destroying the balance of this idealistic estate.
Robert De Niro is the largely a well-meaning aristocrat who is unable to transcend his social role despite his hopes to be different. Gérard Depardieu is the angry proletarian who despite his friendship with De Niro becomes more distanced due to their opposite political principles. The film is filled with marriages , births, deaths and murders, rivalries and betrayals and loose passions all wrapped up in a socio political thesis that sometimes works against the drama and true enjoyment of 1900.
Bertolucci is not as concerned in presenting a textbook approach on Italian history as to illustrate its themes through intellectual and abstract terms. Bertolucci, a well-known left-wing intellectual sets up his thesis with the deliberate and hyperbolic characterization of the bourgeoisie and fascists characters. He populates the screen with bigger than life villains, extreme behavior, unexpected bursts of shocking violence and psychosexual heavy breathing that illustrate the conflicts and decadence surrounding his story. The film begins as a realistic examination of three generations of landowners and peasants and then slowly congeals into a pseudo-operatic political debate and the psychological effects on its protagonists. The new bourgeoisie are impotent, spoiled, ineffective and when really wicked, alcoholics and drug abusers. The Italian Fascists are ignorant, corrupt, perverse, sodomizing little boys, exploiting epileptic females, and murdering defenseless widows and peasants.
Where Bertolucci falters is in the poorly developed portrayal of the Communist peasants. They are presented as a generic group of cinematically decorative victims with no individual personality that earn very little sympathy for the audience. They work the fields, sing lots of Italian folk songs and constantly utter statements about communist ideology, but we simply don’t care about them. Bertolucci’s villains are clearly drawn and fascinating to watch but the peasants are a dull bunch. It is an obvious problem when I found myself sympathizing more with the masters and the fascists than the laborers, not for what they represented but because they acted more like real people as opposed to their cardboard counterparts.
But that aside, there is so much to recommend about this film. There are some great performances. Burt Lancaster is the most effective as the aristocrat patriarch Berlingeri. Some of his early scenes are among the best executed on this movie, including a shocking but sad scene in which the old man comes to realize that he can't have his way with a young peasant girl anymore. Both De Niro and Depardieu are effective playing these complex roles, and one eventually feels a great deal of sympathy for both despite their lack of heroic traits. Dominique Sanda (from The Conformist) is sexy and intriguing as Ada, De Niro's society wife, who abruptly transforms from a wild beauty with a 1920s free spirit to a tortured lost soul in the second half of the film. But the most fascinating, if farfetched performance belongs to Donald Sutherland in his role of Atila the fascist , matched by Laura Betti as his equally demented wife. Their sexual and violent excesses provide with the film’s more shocking and perverse sequences that can only be categorized as of pure horror film genre.
Bertolucci can direct great set pieces. His camera is always moving, swooping, gliding effortlessly from one stunning composition to another as in the way that he stages the ongoing triangle between Alfredo, his wife Ada and his uncle Ottavio, the camera continually rotating to place Ada as the pivot in the middle; the early childhood scenes in which children pop out of haystacks while others frolick in the fields; the scene when Ada takes off her white veil at her wedding reception and places it on the head of the bitterly jealous Regina; Octavio's entrance into the wedding reception with Ada's wedding gift-a beautiful white horse named Cocaine; the sudden act of violence by Sutherland, crushing a live cat with his own head, and the spectacular outdoor peasant dances in the woods.
The visual palette by cinematographer Vitorio Storaro is fascinating, using the different seasons as a template to indicate the progression of the narrative and the mood of the story. Storaro depicts the early childhood section by using summery sun drenched tones at times highly nostalgic and dreamy. Then he moves to fall using rain, clouds, and greyish tones during the peasant's strike and early revolt scenes. The wedding sequences are wintry leading to sharp dark tones as Alfredo and Ada’s relationship deteriorates and finally returns to spring colors for the liberation finale. Whether we're watching fields and meadows stretching out to infinity, war torned landscapes, or the streets of the town of Parma, Storaro frames bring spectacular clarity to complex sequences involving hundreds of extras.
1900 is a marvelous movie, filled with many haunting images and ideas, gigantic in scope and in running time. It is also uneven and misguided at times, alternating its brilliance with scenes that go on forever for no reason at all, and other times breezing through critical moments that at times result in confusion and logic gaps. Even with these flaws, Bertolucci has accomplished artistically with 1900 more than what many others directors ever dream to accomplish in their entire careers. 1900 is an ambitious, challenging and complex piece of work and one of the most stirring family sagas and epic-style films ever made.
This review is based on the original version released in Cannes with a running time of 5 hours and 20 minutes currently available on Region 4 DVDs. This same version received an NC-17 rating in the U.S. when re-released in theaters in 1993.