1900 artwork by Mister G


1900 artwork by Mister GDirector: Bernardo Bertolucci / Screenplay: Bernardo Bertolucci, Franco Arcalli & Giuseppe Bertolucci / Editing: Franco Arcalli / DP: Vittorio Storaro / Music: Ennio Morricone

Cast: Robert De Niro / Gérard Depardieu / Dominique Sanda / Laura Betti / Werner Bruhns / Stefania Casini / Sterling Hayden / Anna Henkel / Ellen Schwiers / Alida Valli / Romolo Valli / Donald Sutherland / Paolo Pavesi / Roberto Maccanti / Burt Lancaster   

Year: 1976


Peasant’s Gate


Over its five-and-a-quarter-hour running time, 1900 tilts at more targets than it will ever hit, yet lands squarely on just two. First, this is a Picture as opposed to a mere ‘movie’ and Second, this epic is an example of the sprawling mess Directors often deliver in-response to a surprise hit. Glory and Hype are all very well, but when Directors start believing their own legend, they’re making Heaven’s Gate (1980) and bankrupting the studio. Or John Carter of Mars (2012) and single-handedly tarnishing a classic of adventure fiction. Or, in the case of Bernardo Bertolucci, following Last Tango in Paris (1972), with a sprawling saga about a barely-contained homo-erotic relationship between two men from opposite sides of the tracks. 

Spanning forty-five years. 

In Italy. 

During its turbulent emergence into the first half of the Twentieth Century

Not a premise that’s going to sell many tickets in Duluth, I’d imagine…

Inevitably, 1900 is messy. Baggy. Sloppy. Occasionally beautiful, occasionally transcendental in its portrayal of characters burdened with feet of clay. In other words, it’s very Italian

GlassesA lifelong Socialist, Bertolucci (1941-2018) had always wanted to make a film that explored the rise of Socialism among Italy’s peasant class in the early Twentieth Century and how the ruling elite cemented their opposition by encouraging a counter-balancing force in Fascism. Unsurprisingly, finance for such an ambitious project (one likely to provoke strong reactions as much as bomb at the Box Office) was not forthcoming, so plans were shelved. That is, until Last Tango found international success and brought Bertolucci a degree of legal & artistic scrutiny; such notoriety proving the adage that ‘any publicity is good publicity’.

With his stock now rising, both from Last Tango and two earlier pictures that’d been well-received (The Conformist & The Spider’s Stratagem, both 1970), Bertolucci’s producer Alberto Grimaldi (himself experienced in working alongside such auteurs as Fellini & Pasolini) struck a deal with Paramount, United Artists and 20th Century Fox, who each put up $2million in exchange for a 195-minute cut of the eventual picture. This alone would cause problems for distributors, who’d be unable to schedule more than one screening a night, instead of the usual two, but such was Bertolucci’s international reputation by this point, that the risk was deemed worthy.

After a mammoth shoot, on-location in Emilia (that inevitably went over-budget by $3million), Bertolucci showed his initial, preferred Director’s Cut out-of-competition at the 1976 Cannes Festival. Running to a whopping 317-minutes, this version was accepted for European distribution in two distinct parts with an intermission, but for the USA, the backing studios refused to take it. The result? Grimaldi ‘locked Bertolucci out of the editing suite’ and trimmed the picture himself, down to ‘just’ 180-minutes. This roused Bertolucci to action, prompting him to re-edit the film himself and produce a ‘compromise’ cut of 247-minutes (4 hours, 7 minutes). It was this version that eventually received U.S. distribution and became the best-known version of the film. That is, until a few European TV broadcasters showed the original, more sexually-explicit version in the early Nineties; a move which prompted Paramount to release the full version on DVD in 2006. For this review, I watched the Masters of Cinema Blu-Ray release, representing the most complete restoration of the full-length picture, currently available in Europe.

GlassesEnough talk: what of the film itself? After a preamble that shows how certain characters end-up, we open with a hunchbacked peasant, dressed as a Medieval Court Jester, bemoaning the death of Giuseppe Verdi (January 27th, 1901, fact-fans). It’s auspicious for other reasons too, as that same day, two boys are born: Alfredo Berlinghieri Jr, Grandson of the owner of a great estate and Olmo, the bastard son of an extended clan of peasants – the Dalcó family – who work for the Berlinghieri’s.

Burt Lancaster was cast as Alfredo Sr. Watching him in his white linen suit, strutting about the place and dispensing celebratory bottles of champagne liberated from his root cellar, it brought echoes, not of the Man From Del Monte, but of his earlier spellbinding performance in Visconti’s Il Gattopardo (‘The Leopard’, 1963). Indeed, Lancaster signed-on to the project ‘for free’ having read the script, as a way of re-interpreting this archetypal role of an Italian nobleman, albeit using looser moral reins than Visconti was able to get away with. 

Over a decade had passed between the films and as Last Tango had shown, Bertolucci was unafraid of exploring aspects of sexuality in his films, no matter how uncomfortable they might appear at first-blush. In an interview, he explained that (and here I’m paraphrasing) ‘sex was an openly experienced & commonplace part of rural life back in the day and so, naturally, these characters would behave accordingly’. Prudish attitudes have no place in Bertolucci’s films. As a result, critics have either lauded his single-minded vision or dismissed it as tawdry. I come here to praise, rather than dismiss the Director, but watching Lancaster attempt – and fail – to seduce a young peasant girl as a prelude to his death, made for uncomfortable viewing: which was probably Bertolucci’s intention and, just maybe, the reason for Lancaster’s presence in the first place. Rarely, do actors get a chance to subvert their public persona, so often leap at the chance when opportunity presents itself.

GlassesAs this endless Summer plays itself out, we’re presented with scenes of indelible beauty and impact. Take the sequence where a young Olmo (who looks like an Italian Huckleberry Finn) is teasing Alfredo Jr in an escalating game of ‘Dare’, whilst wearing a straw-hat into the brim of which, has been threaded twenty live frogs caught from the river; watching them wriggle in discomfort induced similar feelings; again, prudism has no place here. 

Another sequence occurs in a grove of Poplars, as peasants dance with each other, whilst accompanied by wandering minstrels playing nothing but Ocarinas. The dreamlike photography here, stands testament to DP Vittorio Storaro’s ability at conjuring mood. In this land of burnished gold, the one-lensed man is king.

Through it all, runs two themes. First, the age-old bond between the Padrone (the landowner) and his Foreman (head of the Dalcó clan). Each man knows – and accepts – his place; each is as hidebound by tradition & expectation as the other. It’s the ‘way it’s always been’. 

Second, that as the script has it, there’s more unity, honour & honesty among the peasantry than their masters. When you’re accustomed to having very little, what there is goes further when shared between everyone. Olmo learns this lesson early, when Leo, Head of the Dalcó clan confiscates the few coins he’d made from selling the frogs. For the part of Leo, Bertolucci cast Sterling Hayden. A colourful character actor (and ex-WW2 Marine), best known for roles in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964) and The Godfather (1972), Hayden made an effective counterpoint to Lancaster’s Alfredo, playing Leo as someone attuned to the rhythms of the seasons. He’s seen it all. Even when he walks into the cowshed and spots Alfredo’s lifeless form dangling from a rafter, Leo gives his erstwhile master little more than a sideways glance, before castigating him for having unchained the cows to provide the means of his own departure. Alfredo’s unthinking selfishness creates hassles for Leo, even in death. Such detail is peppered throughout the film, yet though it engorges the running time, I think the sensorial impact would be lessened in their absence. As Leo puts it: ‘Maybe, the truth is, when a man does nothing all his life, it leaves him too much time to think. And thinking makes him stupid’.

Spoken like a true peasant.

GlassesIn the wake of Alfredo Sr’s death, the family will undergo a seismic shift, as one sibling usurps the inheritance of the other; such skullduggery ushering-in Autumn and dispelling bucolic Summer. Soon enough, a hailstorm destroys the main crop on which the estate – and the Dalcós – depended. When the new heir – and Alfredo Jr’s father – Giovanni (Romolo Valli) opts to cut wages rather than sacrifice his own treasure, it sparks a wave of resentment not seen under the old man’s time in-charge. One of the Dalcós, is even driven to cutting-off an earlobe in defiance of Giovanni, whom the script now paints in unflattering colours. He emerges as a weak-willed, vain, manipulative character, temperamentally unsuited to the role he has cheated his way into. Such is his misguided folly, that it’s led to the Dalcó’s forming a worker’s union.

This is Bertolucci’s way of making a wider point, for it’s clearly not just the Dalcós here, who’re making a principled stand against unfair treatment: they merely represent archetypes and ‘their’ barricades stand for all those seen across Italy – and beyond – at this time. DP Storaro again excels himself in some of the shots, suggesting later work by Malick on Days of Heaven (1978); all livid, open skies and a golden-hued pastoral harmony. It’s an almost painterly work of composition at-times, with Bertolucci’s shots lingering for as long as necessary to cement their impact.

The strike continues, to the point where Giovanni & the family Berlinghieri are having to do a little manual work themselves. Such role-reversal, as the Dalcó’s look idly on and watch their masters toiling, is bittersweet, given Leo then passes away. He might’ve seen it all, but witnessing the Berlinghieri’s acquire blisters? It proves too much, even for him…

GlassesEvents then shift to 1918 and the end of the First World War. In his transition, Bertolucci echoes a moment in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962). If you’ve seen it, chances are you’ll recall a famous dissolve between a lit match and a shot of the burning desert sunrise? Here, Bertolucci has his camera in the aisle of a railway carriage, as it carries a load of peasant children away on a Socialist-sponsored respite, away from the trials of ‘revolution’. This is in 1908. The train then enters a tunnel and goes dark. Someone strikes a match with which to light a cigarette and in that moment, we glimpse a glossy black moustache. As the train leaves the tunnel, we see that now, we’re aboard the SAME TRAIN, only it’s now carrying soldiers back from the war, some ten years later: an impressive trick. 

An older Olmo is aboard. Now played by a leonine Gerard Depardieu, he returns to the estate and discovers much has changed beyond the acquisition of a steam-powered thresher, not least that BFF Alfredo Jr. now resembles Robert De Niro… Uncomfortable truths are then revealed: unlike Olmo who actually DID fight, Alfredo Jr wore the uniform but his father paid good money to keep him from the Front… I’m uncertain about the casting of De Niro in this picture. I can’t put my finger on what exactly bothers me about his performance, other than a vague sense that he’s out of his depth here. Against Depardieu, who enjoys an effortless love-affair with the camera and who seems at-ease with Bertolucci’s direction, De Niro seems flat and uncertain.

‘Flat and uncertain’ certainly can’t be levelled against Donald Sutherland for his interpretation of Attila Mellanchini. Destined to become the villain of the piece Attila – in Sutherland’s hands – is a wolfish, masochistic opportunist, who will evolve into a murderer along with his partner Regina (Laura Betti); the pair of them putting their energies into a Macbethian tribute act. It’s said that, for many years after, Sutherland was ‘embarrassed’ by his performance here, but it’s clear that the Attila character has to be monstrous in order to fulfil Bertolucci’s grand themes of grass-roots social change & resistance from the Establishment. Someone has to be the Pantomime villain

When first we see him, Attila is merely the new Foreman, but he quickly rises to become the Berlinghieri’s ‘watch-dog’ and, ultimately, a leader in the emerging Fascist movement: could his character be anything BUT an embodiment of evil? Too many shades of grey would blur the edges between the sides. For his panto to work, Bertolucci opted to keep the two sides black & white (or I should say Black and Red)…

GlassesBy the time we get to that phase of the story, Bertolucci has moved the season on again, into Winter. The bleak mood and look of the film reflects the sombre material. Giovanni has died. Alfredo Jr. thus inherits, soon marrying Ada (Dominique Sanda); a girl he met whilst staying with his ‘artistic’ Uncle Ottavio (a suave version of Withnail’s ‘Uncle Monty’). Ada’s a curious development in Alfredo’s story, being a breath of eccentricity in his somewhat cloistered life. In the part, Sanda is disappointingly mannered, expressing attitudinal extremes as if Bertolucci was directing her to lampoon an over-privileged – yet enlightened – member of her class… That’s one interpretation. Another, might be that Ada is of the bourgeoisie, representing a link to the past; a vanished ‘gilded age’, glimpsed in The Leopard; she can see what lies ahead and can’t bear to face it, hence why at-times, she pretends to be blind… By avoiding reality, Ada is also avoiding the painful truth.

For all of Ada’s fickle charms, the picture’s true – and unrequited – love story, is between Olmo & Alfredo, so the latter’s attachment to Ada feels superfluous. That their union is barren and ends with Ada mysteriously vanishing, just adds more doubt over the character’s inclusion or purpose. It seems to this reviewer, that Ada’s only purpose is to act as a distraction – a wedge – between the two men. Worse, I’ve seen more chemistry between crash-test dummies than is on-screen here…

Which brings us to the crux of 1900: the battle for Italy’s soul. As Bertolucci deftly shows us, Fascism was created in Italy, by the agrarian bourgeoisie – the landowners – who feared the repercussions of class struggle. Fascism was a thuggish, right-wing reaction intended to counter-balance, if not curb, Socialism. In-practice, it rode a wave of popular nationalism and triumphed in Italy, Germany and elsewhere, but didn’t last. It couldn’t last, because Fascism has no soul. It scratches the itch of a society but doesn’t soothe; it doesn’t console. 

Or reconcile. 

Or make good neighbours of its people. 

The engine of Fascism is jingoistic militarism, yet when there are no wars to be fought (or even invented), what then? What Bertolucci shows, in the film’s fourth season of Spring, is that – in the end – it’s always The People who call the shots when motivated to do so. When they’re not? When they’re disorganised & disunited? Only then can disruptive elements take hold. 

GlassesYet even here, Bertolucci’s having fun with our expectations. While certain characters are despatched as-per, he leaves us Alfredo. By now an older, lonely man, he faces a ‘People’s Court’, led by a returned Olmo. His old friend has no intention of giving him to a mob hell-bent on revenge, so instead, Olmo calms them by killing ‘the symbolic title of Padrone’. Alfredo-the-man now lives as proof, that the Padrone is dead: a concept Bertolucci took from watching footage of the makeshift trials held in China, in the wake of Mao’s ‘Cultural Revolution.’ The final irony, comes in the form of an emissary from the new ‘Post-Liberation Provisional Government’ who arrives, along with a truck, to collect every weapon used by the Partisans to fight the Fascists… Plus ça Change, as some might say. 

Black for Red. Rich For Poor. Equality For All. Every slogan as meaningless as the last.

It’s around this point that Bertolucci fluffs 1900’s ending, opting for a quasi-mystical sequence in the Present-Day, but if we set aside this ill-advised coda, what are we left with? The film is an undeniable achievement in-terms of its sheer length, being unquestionably the longest single work I’ve ever watched, let alone reviewed. It’s inevitably baggy, with too many ideas that sleepwalk through the picture, in search of resolutions that will never come. One or two key leads are badly miscast and at times, I think it loses sight of its tone and the notion of what kind of film it wanted to be. 

GlassesAgainst this, I think the picture is at-times exquisitely staged & photographed, with certain sequences that’ll live long in the memory. Depardieu made his mark on the film and there are times, when I could see what Bertolucci was going for, in his broad-brush depiction of Left vs. Right. So it’s a shame when these themes appear too lightweight in their bald simplicity, to escape the film’s gravitational pull. 

So, did he get away with it? Is 1900 a hubristic, defiant middle-finger of a movie? Sorry, I mean picture?

Err, no. While no means an artistic disaster as it stands, its sheer length will prove an obstacle for many. For those brave enough to dive-in, there are gems to be found within its capacious folds, but they’re tucked-away and you might miss them at first glance. For all the missed chances, 1900 DID unlock a sense of spectacle – and the possibilities of scale – in Bertolucci’s work, that would reach perfection in The Last Emperor (1987) a decade later.

I’m an orphan. Three years ago, my parents had the bright idea of organising an Alpine expedition for millionaires. They disappeared into a crevasse on the Matterhorn. They died the way they lived: beyond their means…

 1900  Triple Word / Score: BEAUTIFUL / BAGGY / TRICKSY / SEVEN

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