Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 12/28/06.
Following the success of the controversial but brilliant erotic drama Last Tango in Paris, Italian auteur Bernardo Bertolucci finally has the chance to create an epic film about Italy's history into the 20th Century. Telling the story of farmers and landowners and their parallel lives through the years of political turmoil from the perspective of two different men. The resulting would be an epic film that explored the innocence of men in their discovery of sex and politics through times of turmoil as Bertolucci called the film 1900.
Written by Bertolucci along with his brother Guiseppe and longtime editor/Last Tango co-writer Franco Arcalli, 1900 tells the story of two boys born on the same day in different parts and classes of Italy as they eventually formed a friendship that would eventually tear them apart through the political turmoil of the times. An epic tale told in four different parts through different seasons, Bertolucci reveals how two different men start out as friends only to see everything that their grandparents have taught from the environments they come from. With an all-star cast that includes Robert de Niro, Gerard Depardieu, Donald Sutherland, Burt Lancaster, Sterling Hayden, Laura Betti, plus previous Bertolucci sirens Dominique Sanda and Stefania Sandrelli. 1900 is a brilliant, epic film from the always amazing Bernardo Bertolucci.
April 25, 1945 in Italy which was known as Liberation Day. A group of peasants and workers suddenly revolt as the remaining numbers of Nazis and Fascists are dwindling. Leading a pack of female workers is a young woman named Anita (Anna Henkel) who runs after a couple leaving on bicycle as they're captured. Meanwhile, a young farm boy has taken an old man as his hostage where the old man is revealed to be the farmland's patron named Alfredo (Robert de Niro). Suddenly, Alfredo begins to recall the day and his friend Olmo (Gerard Depardieu) were born on the same day in the summer in 1901. Olmo was born illegitimately to a woman named Rosina (Maria Monti) where he would be raised by a large family of peasants including his grandfather Leo Dalco (Sterling Hayden). Minutes later, Alfredo was born with his patron grandfather Alfredo Sr. (Burt Lancaster) looking over as his grandson is born to wealth and dignified parents in Giovanni (Romolo Valli) and Eleonora (Anna-Maria Gherardi). Despite the differences of class and wealth the rich owners and peasants have, Leo and Alfredo Sr. have an understanding toward each other as they celebrate the birth of their grandsons.
Years later as the boys grew, a new age of progress has emerged where the young Alfredo (Paolo Pavesi) and young Olmo (Roberto Maccanti) are friends despite their class differences. Though Olmo doesn't have a lot, he works hard in capturing frogs and having pride instilled by him from his grandfather. He also watches over some silkworm nests and things for the patron in which, he's often been praised by him. Alfredo meanwhile, doesn't understand Olmo's vast knowledge on things, especially sex. Despite the differing lifestyles they live in, Olmo is often treated with much kindness and love. Alfredo on the other hand, with the exception of his grandfather, has often been treated with harsh discipline and the idea that he will run the farm soon. Alfredo's grandfather doesn't like the way his son has treated Alfredo yet Giovanni often feels that he's not as loved as his brother Ottavio (Werner Bruhns). After the sudden death of Alfredo's grandfather, things in the farm land are changed where though Alfredo's grandfather wasn't always fair, he knew how to ran things. With Giovanni now running things, the peasants feel uneasy as they strive for socialism and change.
After Leo dies, the young Olmo takes part in the strikes where he along with several young children leave. Several years later after World War I, Olmo returns to his home realizing that the farm he's known to live has changed. Machines have started to replace things while everything else is now ran by a vicious foreman named Attila (Donald Sutherland). Despite everything, Olmo was glad to see his old friend Alfredo, who prefers to play the part of a soldier as Olmo meets a young teacher named Anita (Stefania Sandrelli). With working conditions and things not going well, peasants begin to revolt as Anita teaches Olmo the ideology of communism that begins to strike things down. With the tension between peasants and landowners rising, Giovanni organizes a meeting with other owners including Aranzini (Jose Quaglio) about a plan to hurt the rise of communism.
Alfredo decides to take Olmo to the city where they encounter an epileptic hooker named Neve (Stefania Casini) where what happened doesn't work. Alfredo later goes to meet his uncle Ottavio where he was introduced to a worldly yet eccentric young woman named Ada (Dominique Sanda). Alfredo takes Ada to a dance where she pretends to be blind as her behavior makes Olmo and Anita uncomfortable. Suddenly, an incident involving the burning death of four men makes a rise in a socialist revolt as Attila leads the newly-found Fascist party to help rid of the rising communist order. Following the years of courtship just as Fascism has gone underway, Alfredo decides to marry Ada where upon telling Ottavio, he receives news that his father has died. Returning home to attend the funeral, Alfredo learns that Olmo, after years of disappearance was at his father's office. Olmo tells him the news that he's now officially the new patron as Olmo tells Alfredo that Anita has died from childbirth where she gave birth to a baby girl named after her.
On the day of the wedding for Alfredo and Ada, what was supposed to be a great day only darkens with the presence of Attila and his new love, Regina (Laura Betti), the cousin of Alfredo. Regina's hatred for Ada becomes clear while Attila's presence becomes uncomforting to Alfredo. After a warning from Olmo about Attila, Alfredo becomes unaware of what Olmo was trying to say after a violent murder of a boy happened in which Olmo was accused of but became cleared since he was with Ada as she was riding her new horse. Seeing that Alfredo is starting to become accustomed to the lifestyle that his father and grandfather lived on, Ottavio decides to leave and never return to Ada's dismay. Immediately, the cold winters of the coming years reflect on the dark mood as Olmo hopes to start another revolution but is overpowered by Attila's forces as he decides to give his attention more to his daughter. Alienated by the rich, lifestyle that Alfredo has been secured by, Ada hopes to break away from her lifestyle, especially from alcohol, to give Anita a fine education.
With Alfredo trying to deal other businesses including one with an old family friend Pioppi (Pierto Longari Ponzoni) and his wife Ida (Alida Valli) are seeking help to keep their house despite their lack of money. Alfredo does all he can while he tries to reconnect with Ada where one winter night at a tavern, the two make an attempt with the help of the old hooker her met years before in Neve. Unfortunately, the murder of Ida only emotionally troubles Ada as she begins to isolate herself. With the years passing by and Alfredo becoming conflicted over his powers to stop Attila, Olmo finally revolts against Attila as he and Anita banish themselves separately. Just as Alfredo was going to fire Attila, Ada has finally disappeared. With Alfredo now taken hostage in 1945 after the fall of Fascism, Olmo returns as Attila and Regina are punished severely by the peasants in which the political realism of Italy comes face to face where Olmo and Alfredo are forced to deal with their futures.
While the film is a drama set in the first forty-five years of Italy in the 20th Century, in some ways, it's a historical revisionist on Italy's poverty and the rise of Socialism and Communism and how Fascism started. Still, the core of the story is in the characters of Olmo and Alfredo and how their lives paralleled. Since it's a film told in forty-five years with the film's final scene set in 1976, it is told in an epic scale in four-parts and in two acts. A third act was supposed to be made of the years after 1945 but Bertolucci scrapped it since the film was already long enough. Still, what Bertolucci and his writers bring is a tale of friendship and betrayal through the years of Fascism and Socialism. The only real flaw in the script that Bertolucci was trying to tell was the film’s politics. While he did reveal of how Fascism got started, there was never a clear idea of the idealism of Socialism and Communism and how it paralleled with Fascism. The only thing he did made clear was that in the end, both didn't work out at all for Italy as the film ends with a bit of irony.
Still, what Bertolucci told was interesting tale where it starts out innocently as two boys explore their own sexuality and their penises. Yet, it also revealed in the first part of the summer of the early 1900s of the lives that Olmo and Alfredo lived. There, it's the difference of their lives and what they've been taught that would mark their own development in character. Olmo, despite being poor yet happy home life, became a revolutionary as he hopes to make things right for his own people. Alfredo, tries to understand the joys of life despite not having a lot to be joyful for where in the end, he becomes a colder person than his father and grandfather before him. While the two try to bring their own perspective on life together, they couldn't due to their upbringing. Especially through the political situations they live in where by the film's end, Alfredo's coldness and his inability to lead gets him in trouble while Olmo's idealism starts to get the best of him.
While the script is really a character study as well as an epic tale of politics, it's in Bertolucci's direction that really gives the film a sense of look and style. There's several scenes in the film that reveals his genius like in the film's first part of the summer, there's a scene of how the people walk up to the party filled with joy as Alfredo's grandfather looks on with sadness. Other scenes including a hilarious moment where the epileptic prostitute Neve performs a sexual act on both Olmo and Alfredo that reveals a bit of humor but something horrifying in its aftermath. While the film's sexual content is a bit explicit, it's nothing compared to the film's violence. Particularly in the way it's done by the character of Attila who reveals the evilness of Fascism. Bertolucci doesn't exaggerate or understate the violence of the times as it serves as a part of Italy's troubling history and how powerless Alfredo deals with it. For Olmo, he uses violence as a way of defense but towards the end of the film, the violence becomes almost as brutal as the way Fascist are in terms of what Olmo and his socialists are trying to do. In the end, it's a strong yet entrancing direction from Bernardo Bertolucci in the way he tells the story.
Helping Bertolucci in his visual presentation in terms of compositions and style is his longtime cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. Storaro's work is brilliant in every way as he gives the look of the film a variety of styles. From the natural look of Olmo’s childhood home, which was shot with no electric lights, to the artificiality of Alfredo's home in where the style of light is filled with more colors but to represent the blandness of Alfredo's lifestyle. Storaro's work is brilliant in every way to the grayness of the fall/winter parts of the film to convey the sense of doom to the colorful looks of green and yellow in the film’s spring/summer sequences where it's all done. The color of red is also prominent in all parts of the film where Storaro's photography captures the energy and horrors of the political revolution. If there's any technical achievement that should be praised and worth seeing, it's in the brilliant cinematography of Vittorio Storaro.
Editor Franco Arcalli does some amazing work in the shifting of scenes and structure as his job to edit a film as epic and long as this one. Still, Arcalli's editing is masterful to the perspective of characters but having it start out in 1945 and then going back in time to 1901. Arcalli's work is wonderful in giving the film a nice, leisurely pace despite its original five-hour, fifteen-minute running time. Production designers Maria Paola Maino and Gianni Quaranta along with art director Enzo Frigerio do wonderful work in the differences of the upper class world and the world of the peasants through the changing times with wonderful design of the villas and farms to the world of the Italian cities and taverns. Costume designer Gitt Magrini also does wonderful work in the film's costumes, notably the clothes of Dominique Sanda that reveals a European style of worldly clothing to the more militant clothing that Donald Sutherland wears. Sound editors Michael Billingsley and Alessandro Peticca do wonderful work in the atmosphere of the times through sound from the quietness early on to the world of machinery and revolution towards the film's end.
The film's music features a couple of compositions from Guiseppe Verdi but many of the film's score and themes come from the brilliant Ennio Morricone. From its wistfully opening theme to the wide range of Italian folk music, Morricone brings a diverse score filled with melodic romanticism and elegant arrangements. Through the film's suspense, Morricone brings a swift, intense piano score that gives the idea of suspense and horror. Aside from Storaro's photography and Bertolucci's direction, the score of Morricone is a real highlight as the famed composer brings another memorable score that goes up there with his work for the films he did with Sergio Leone as well his score work for The Mission and Terrence Malick's 1978 classic Days of Heaven.
The film's cast is very large and wonderfully performed with notable small, memorable performances from Bertolucci regulars Jose Quaglio and Anna-Marie Gherardi, plus Giacomo Rizzo as the hunchback Rigoletto, Francesca Bertini as Sister Desolata, Ellen Schwiers as Aunt Amelia, Clara Colosimo as a woman who accused Olmo, Patrizia De Clara as a woman friend of Olmo named Stella, Maria Monti, and Pierto Longari Ponzoni. The late Anna Henkel gives a wonderfully memorable, small performance as the adult Anita Foschi while Werner Bruhns is excellent as the worldly uncle Ottavio. Paolo Pavesi and Roberto Maccanti are wonderfully brilliant in their respective roles as the young Alfredo and Olmo. Stefania Casini gives a memorable, strange performance as the epileptic Neve while Romolo Valli is good as the greedy Giovanni. Though not up to other great performances, Burt Lancaster is excellent in his role as Alfredo's grandfather who begins to see the emptiness of his world that leads to tragedy while Sterling Hayden is even better as the opposite with such restraint and wisdom as Hayden shines.
Stefania Sandrelli is enchanting as the quiet yet intelligent Anita who shines in her scenes with Depardieu. The late Laura Betti is wonderfully over-the-top as the mean, greedy Regina who is definitely evil in the way she treats Ada. Alida Valli is also great in an over-the-top scene in which she tries to fight for her house from the evil Attila. Dominique Sanda is amazing in her role as the worldly yet troubled Ada with her enchanting beauty and wandering presence. Sanda's performance is wonderful in how she can manipulate people without meaning to while trying to find some kind of meaning to her life as her performance is a huge standout. Donald Sutherland is the film's most psychotic performance as Attila. Sutherland's performance can be described as over-the-top but given the psychotic nature of his character, it's one that is filled with a lot of horror and evilness that the scenes of him doing bad things are shocking. It should be noted that Sutherland himself couldn't watch the film for years after seeing his own performance.
Gerard Depardieu gives a brilliant, harrowing performance as Olmo. Depardieu brings the kind of determination and drive to his role as well as a realism to his character when dealing with small things. It's handled wonderfully as it's one of the most memorable roles from the iconic French actor. Robert de Niro gives another of one of his great performances of the 1970s as the playful yet powerless Alfredo. De Niro brings a realism and naivete to a man who starts out living in a fantasy and not wanting to be his father but once he becomes the patron, he betrays everything only to become a man comfortable with his social upbringing failing to realize the role of being a patron. It's de Niro's performance that's really notable as in the same year, he would give a far more troubling performance in Martin Scorsese's classic Taxi Driver.
The Region 1 2-disc Collector's Edition DVD from Paramount presents the film in its full, uncut, uncensored for the first time in the U.S. in the DVD format. Shown in widescreen for 16x9 aspect ratio for TV, the film looks brilliant thanks to a superb transfer. The film's sound in English 2.0 Surround Dolby Digital Sound plus Italian and French mono are optioned. The only flaw with that is given to the film's release and diverse cast, it becomes confusing on which language was the original. While Sanda and Depardieu are French, Lancaster, Hayden, and de Niro are American with Sutherland a Canadian, and the rest of the cast are Italian. The dubbing doesn't match the actor's speaking sometimes though the actors are mouthed in English. Still, it doesn't affect the performances the way The Conformist was released in its dubbed form. It's an option that's for those who want to hear the actors speak their language but with yellow, English subtitles available.
Due to the transfer of the DVD, the film is split into two discs yet, it's done right where after the first act ends, the first disc ends. Something that on the DVD to Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America, another 2-disc DVD, it stops abruptly. On the second disc of the DVD comes two special feature segments featuring director Bernardo Bertolucci and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. The first is the 14-minute 1900: The Story, the Cast where Bertolucci discussed about creating the story as an imaginary bridge between two imperialist countries, the democratic U.S. and the then-Communist Soviet Union. The reason he said there wasn't a third act was because the politics of Italy and his own politics had changed around the time he was making the film. Inspired by the likes of Jean Renoir, the early Soviet cinema, and American cinema, Bertolucci wanted to make a film reminding Italy of the world they once lived in the world of farms which Bertolucci was raised in.
He also talked about the casting where he got Gerard Depardieu since he couldn't get a Russian actor due to the Soviet politics at the time. He went to Los Angeles to find an American actor where he discovered Martin Scorsese's film Mean Streets and chose de Niro over Harvey Keitel, who he felt was a bit more working class. He met Donald Sutherland in Paris at a hotel with Elliot Gould and on a boat, they met Sterling Hayden. He got Burt Lancaster, who was working with Luchino Visconti, to do the film who decided to do it for not very much while the rest of the Italian cast were people he knew from movies from other famed Italian directors while calling Dominique Sanda and Stefania Sandrelli to be a part of film.
In the second segment, 1900: Creating an Epic, Bertolucci talked about the 45 week shoot where they went for the structure without a schedule where they started the film in seasons in relations to the world of farmers. Vittorio Storaro discusses the nature of light where the dinner scene of the peasants was shot just as sunset was starting. The next sequence of Alfredo's world was shot with artificial lights where Storaro talked about the shift of style and storytelling. Bertolucci talked about the sex where he wanted to present an innocent portrayal of the sexual discovery and the scene with Neve which confirms the last link of their childhood. On the violence, Bertolucci wanted to bring a sense of horror where he admitted into making the audience uncomfortable. The trial sequence Bertolucci said was inspired by the Chinese revolution between farmers and landowners.
Then Bertolucci talked about the film's finish and the different cuts. The final cut was at a staggering five-hour, fifteen-minutes which his producer Alberto Grimaldi disliked. Grimaldi made a three-hour cut that has been rarely seen. Though the film's long cut was a hit in Europe, the film did go through a lot of problems in getting a U.S. release as well as a release in the Soviet Union. Bertolucci made a compromised cut of four-hours and a few minutes in cutting several sequences a bit shorter. Some of the stuff cut involved some of the film's sexual scenes, especially the scene of the boys examining their own penises. If it had been released then in the U.S., it would've violated several laws concerning pornography and children. Though at the time, Bertolucci preferred that cut, he ended up going for his long, original cut that eventually was released in theaters in the early 1990s in the U.S. Bertolucci concludes that the experience of making 1900 was a glorious one where he described that being a director is like being a sculptor.
While it's not a perfect film, 1900 is still a superb, worldly epic from Bernardo Bertolucci and company. With a great cast led by Robert de Niro, Gerard Depardieu, Donald Sutherland, Dominique Sanda, Stefania Sandrelli, Alida Valli, Laura Betti, Sterling Hayden, and Burt Lancaster. Fans of European films will no doubt find this as essential, despite its flaws. Fans of Bertolucci should have this film, especially that now and The Conformist have just been released on DVD, in their intended formats. Though not up to par with the latter, Last Tango in Paris, and The Last Emperor, or as entertaining as his most recent film, The Dreamers. 1900 is still an amazing, huge achievement from Bernardo Bertolucci.
Bernardo Bertolucci Films: (La Commare Secca) - (Before the Revolution) - (Partners) - (The Spider's Stratagem) - The Conformist - Last Tango in Paris - (La Luna) - (Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man) - (The Last Emperor) - The Sheltering Sky - Little Buddha - Stealing Beauty - (Besieged) - The Dreamers - (Me & You)
© thevoid99 2011