1900 has a portentous ring to it as a title, befitting a grand-scale epic, but director Bernardo Bertolucci’s original Italian title Novecento was more appropriate; translated it means ‘nine hundred’, signifying the 1900s as a century. The story starts in 1901 and runs until 1945, with a brief coda three decades later. If you settle in to see the uncut version, you may feel like you’ve passed a half-century: it runs 317 minutes. That’s five hours plus, signore e signori.
Using the seasons of the year as a framework device, the story covers the intertwined lives of two men: ‘Olmo Dalcò’, born a bastard as well as a peasant, and ‘Alfredo Berlinghieri ‘, son of the aristocrat padrone who owns the estate the Dalcò’s labor on. Though often at odds, since childhood their friendship holds, across the bitter divide of class and the tumult of society fracturing and reforming. The Summer segment shows them as kids, wild and curious but bound by tradition. Autumn has them young men facing World War One. Winter deals with their positioning on opposite camps in the rise of Mussolini’s Fascism. Spring reveals their dealing with the WW2 collapse of the Fascists and the Old World and the relief/threat of a Communist alternative. *
Bertolucci co-wrote with his brother Giuseppe and Franco Arcalli, put together an international cast and spent $9,000,000 (at the time, an Alp-load of lira for an Italian production), shooting for 45 weeks, mostly in the northern Italian region Emilia-Romagna. Released in Europe in 1976, in two parts, it came to the States a year later as a unified piece, but cut down by nearly an hour to a still-daunting 247 minutes. I recall being quite impressed seeing it in a theater some 40 years back. A recent revisit on disc of the longer cut left me sort of 60/40 positive: for this toiler in the fields of fancy (under a dark new dawn of fascism) it played better in the edited version. As it was, its episodic nature allows for watching over several sittings, like a mini-series, which was actually Bertolucci’s original idea when he first conceived the project.
Magisterial and unpleasant, rich and overripe, packed and sloppy, evocative and excessive, it’s a bulging case of Good, Bad and Ugly. Some hail it as a masterwork, which it no doubt set out to be, but substantially more reviewers faulted it, both when it came out and later in the restored version. For sure, it wasn’t an audience-grabber; while it did quite well in Europe, it was weak in the States, 97th place for the year with an anemic gross of $3,300,000.
The Good—it’s gloriously rich in production details of the locales, the class differences and the time changes; the costumes, sets and props are almost secondary characters; the sense of place palpable in the excellent cinematography under the eye of Vittorio Storaro. There are five standout performances. Despite the handicap of dubbing, Gérard Depardieu as the adult Olmo vibrates with energy and sincerity; it’s a tonic to see him as a robust young man of 27 given the veritable walrus he’d gradually morph into. Donald Sutherland, 40 during the filming, is memorably vile as the Fascist foreman ‘Attila Mellanchini’, so perverse with power sickness he’s practically a vampire. Also gripping is Laura Betti as ‘Regina’, Attila’s equally venomous lover. The first part of the saga gets a huge boost from the imposing presence of lusty old timers Burt Lancaster, 62, as ‘Alfredo the Elder’, patriarch of the estate where most of the story takes place, and Sterling Hayden, 59, as the oak-like ‘Leo Dalcó’, unquestioned leader of the peasant laborers.
The Bad—much of the dubbing, which calls more attention to how awkward it sounds than to the dialogue, which itself wobbles between sharp and sloppy. Acting-wise, Robert De Niro is just miscast—he’s obviously got the heritage down but that’s about it; his delivery is stilted, and it doesn’t help that his unlikable character is one of the least well written in the script (he was fresh off Taxi Driver, where everything he did clicked). Worst, though is Dominique Sanda, ill-cast, her badly written character wildly overacted. She was likewise a liability in Damnation Alley and Caboblanco, though to be fair those were both tankers. With all the sprawl and hours to play with, the scattershot narrative has some curious holes in it. We get plenty of De Niro behaving like a jerk, but little sense of how this fellow commands respect, and the romance with the trying Sanda doesn’t convince. Italy suffered greatly in the First World War, the worst conflict in their history, but the movie oddly glosses right over it. The last part goes into such goofy Marxist joy overload that it’s almost comical. It doesn’t stir because beyond the cheese factor, it looks like the oppressed common folk are just as nasty as their bosses (horrid Attila & hideous Regina excepted).
The Ugly—after a few morsels of coarse humor from Lancaster and Hayden, there are scant moments of felt happiness or relief over the slow course of five hours. There is, however, plenty of brutality, un-sexy sex and generally sordid in-your-face behavior.
Ennio Morricone did the music, and it draws a fair amount of praise. Ordinarily, I’m a fan, but this score didn’t faze me any; lackluster, even cornball for such a big project. An ear is an ear, though, so if it works for you, then giusto.
In the cast swarm, performing with brio: Stefania Sandrelli, Romolo Valli (Lancaster’s cur son, De Niro’s father), Alida Valli, Stefania Casini (the pitiful epileptic prostitute in a needless and off-putting scene), Paolo Pavesi (Alfredo as a child), Roberto Maccanti (Olmo the boy), Werner Bruhns, and a ton of lived-in-faces.
* 1900 gets off to a fittingly proletarian beginning with its credits shown against a slow zoom-out shot of the painting “Il quarto stato” (“The Fourth Estate”), depicting a workers strike, done in 1901 by Giuseppe Pelizza de Volpedo.