For his thirteenth film Bertolucci wanted to express what he saw as Italy's "multi-culture" society becoming a "mono-culture," due to the influence of the industrial revolution, and capitalism more precisely. The thick-layered chronicle doesn't sweep across time so much as it escorts the audience through indelible composite events that bristle with personal, social, and political characteristics. Luchino Visconti's influence, as well as that of Bertolucci's favorite director Jean Renoir ("The Rules of the Game"), arouse "1900's" particularly authentic sense of time, place, and attitudes of its decades. Bertolucci mentions following Renoir's advice to, "always leave a door open on the set, to allow reality to enter into the film." The result is a defiant naturalism and erotic candidness that colors the film with bursts of shocking emotional energy.
Present also is a connection to Bertolucci's mentor Pier Paolo Pasolini, and his film "Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom," with which "1900" shares elements of style, form, and themes of fascist oppression. Bertolucci's first film job was working as an assistant to Pasolini on his first film "Accattone" (1961), and Bertolucci has pointed to Pasolini's death in 1975 as signaling the end of his utopian vision. Bertolucci's familiar cinematographer Vittorio Storaro ("Last Tango") captures an inspired color palate for a distinctly utopian vision in "1900" that goes from Van Gogh-inspired hues of golden hay to cold gothic grays that follow the story from spring through winter, from youth to old age.
The film's Italian title "Novecento" ("Twentieth Century") clarifies better than its American designation Bertolucci's bold intention of embracing the first half of Italy's 20th century through a utopic prism of poor Northern Italian socialist farmers living and working on the expansive country vineyard estate of their Padroné masters. We follow the trajectories of Olmo and Alfredo, born on the same day from opposite social classes. Three generations of historic Italian experience expose rural life in war-torn Italy. As "1900's" iconic deco-themed red and black poster implies, the story is a complex study of social decay under Mussolini's fascist ideologies. In spite of what some critics saw as a failed leftist screed, Bertolucci had no illusions regarding the potential for "1900," or any movie for that matter, to effect any degree of social change. For as passionate as Bertolucci's depiction of the peasant struggle is, he remains surprisingly ambiguous in representing matter-of-fact narrative threads that defy misinterpretation. For the sprawling amount of time the story covers, "1900" achieves an escalating, concussive dramatic punch through Bertolucci's magnificent use of montage to position polished scenes of a fictional history as translated from stories shared by local Parma farmers.
"1900" is a movie that few audiences will ever properly see even if Robert De Niro, Gerard Depardieu, Bert Lancaster, and Donald Sutherland working together on a Bertolucci epic about fascist Italy might sound like a surefire recipe for box office success. Bertolucci's casting of Bert Lancaster as the Padroné Alfredo Sr. was as much a way of securing American production financing as it was a hat-tip to director Luchino Visconti who used Lancaster opposite Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale for his great film "The Leopard" (1963), about a dying aristocracy in 1860's Sicily. In it, Lancaster plays the 19th-century aristocrat Prince of Salina, whose luxurious way of life is on its last gasp. Bert Lancaster also appeared in Visconti's "Gruppo di famiglia in un interno" which was released in the same year as "1900," although it was made in 1974.
Lancaster's performance as Alfredo Sr. in "1900" functions as a kind of Spaghetti Western abstraction, briefly giving the film a sense of Hollywood familiarity. A scene of Alfredo Sr. aiming rifles inside the main house at imaginary family members with his grandson, displays a lacking connection with his own son (played by Romolo Valli). The role of the secular Berlinghieri patriarch carries with it indelicate actions that would have been difficult for a less established actor to make as empathetic mark on the audience as Lancaster does in the role. In a white suit and matching hat Alfredo Sr. calls a pubescent peasant girl named Irma away from the outdoor afternoon festivities of her community to follow him into his estate barn. He grabs the nubile girl but is unable to get an erection. "Hey Senior Alfredo, nobody can milk a bull," Irma tells him after he asks her to put her hand inside his pants. Disgusted, he sends Irma away and tells her to report to the others when the dancing is over that he is dead. The Padrone's consequent suicide-by-hanging inside the barn indicates the end of an era that Bertolucci later completes with the self-satisfied death of the peasant leader Leo Dalco (Sterling Hayden) from old age while relaxing under a tree. In the competition of death, the peasant wins.
At the time that Bertolucci contacted Gerard Depardieu to play the peasant socialist leader Olmo, the Gallic actor was already a major film star in Europe. Not one to pass up an opportunity to work in a challenging atmosphere, Depardieu brings to his characterization an earned sense of integrity that matches Lancaster's performance of dramatic weight. It is impossible to envision anyone other than Depardieu playing Olmo. The actor's muscular yet nuanced portrayal is on a scale with the best work of Marlon Brando or James Dean. He gives Olmo a beating heart of youthful consciousness that comes across effortlessly, even if it's another actor that dubs his voice. In the scene where Olmo returns home from war and sees his mother for the first time in ages, Depardieu generates volumes of silent subtext that's reflected in the eyes of Maria Monti as his mother. Bertolucci's use of the long conveyor belt of a noisy hay-bailing machine, where the mother and son come together, denies the family couple the peace they deserve, and puts a distinct price on their existence and ability to communicate.
Bertolucci was impressed with Robert De Niro's performance in Martin Scorsese's "Mean Streets," and hired the young actor over his other possible choice, Harvey Keitel. It was during this same period that De Niro would film "The Godfather II" and "Taxi Driver." As the upstart Padroné, Alfredo (Alfredo Sr.'s grandson), Robert De Niro peacefully coexists within the Italian setting of Parma but has the wrong voice for the part. His rhythms are too modern, and carry too much of New York's influence to convince us that he is the ineffectual Italian heir to vast riches. Nonetheless, De Niro's balancing act between Alfredo's masculine and feminine tendencies expresses Alfredo's unclear motivations and inner turmoil. De Niro's constant game of catch-up with his character works to imbue Alfredo with a sense of self-doubt and impotency that enables his unconventional charm to gradually pry apart at the character. The dubbing of Depardieu's voice works in a peculiar way to compensate for De Niro's inappropriate accent, and equalizes the unified characters in a sonic reality that could be construed as an intentional abstract touch by the filmmaker. That's not to say I wouldn't rather hear Depardieu's actual voice in the film but, all things considered, it works surprisingly well thanks in a large part to the talented yet unnamed voice-over actor that performed Olmo's voice.
The film's producers failed to appreciate the saga's ability to create a unique bond with an audience, and releasing the film became a matter for the courts. Problems arose primarily from conflicts between the film's production and distribution companies (Artemis Film, Artistes Associates, Produzioni Europee Associates, and Paramount Pictures) which each owned shares of the 5-hour-30-minute film's nearly $7 million-dollar production cost--a fortune at the time. A trial ensued over the film's duration, and an Italian judge was given three different versions to choose between. Apart from Bertolucci's long version, there was a 4-hour-40-minute edit in which many scenes were shortened but none eliminated, and a 3-hour-15-minute version that the studios edited themselves, and which Bertolucci considered to be "garbage." The presiding judge chose the 4-hour-40 minute rendering to represent the film's commercial product, and on November 4, 1977, "1900" was given a limited release in America.
Predictable box office failure coincided with neglect from the studios to advertise, market, or distribute the film properly. "1900" was christened an "outsider art film" destined to be lionized as a masterpiece of grand "folly" (Pauline Kael's word for it). When "1900" premiered at Cannes in 1976, its duration made critics like Roger Ebert believe it signaled the communist filmmaker's lack of control over a movie encompassing too much breadth of Italian experience. Since then, "1900" has come to stand as an organic cinematic journey through chapters of a rich apocryphal history that evinces an ongoing struggle between the world's rich elite and everyone else.
Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo's famous oil painting "Il Quarto Stato," ("The Fourth Estate" - 1901), representing Italy's progressive movement, announces "1900's" ripe climate of social struggle as a background for the opening credit sequence. A lush Ennio Morricone horn motif plays as the camera pulls back slowly from the squinting eyes of a bearded peasant who breaks the painting's fourth wall, staring directly at the viewer while surrounded by his drably dressed kith and kin. A sad-eyed woman, most likely the man's wife, walks behind the headstrong leader of the socialist group, holding a baby boy, with her free hand outstretched in a pleading gesture. Her troubled physicality is reflected in the many tens of oppressed farm workers that follow their self-assured leader marching them toward inevitable conflict. The painting foreshadows Bertolucci's brilliant eye for creating vast painterly compositions of communal action whose scale, tone, and palate reflect Italian art of the period. Ezio Frigerio's exemplary art direction and Gitt Magrini's precise costume designs aid in fleshing out cinematographer Vittorio Storaro's serene framing that envelopes everything in the camera's scope. Storaro's artistic compositions and inspired use of natural light speaks to a deep understanding of the visual material at hand. Storaro would go on to shoot Warren Beatty's more commercially constructed epic "Reds" in 1981.
"The War is over." These objectively promising words from Liberation Day, April 25, 1945, are the first ones spoken in the film. A socialist peasant soldier crosses into the woods from a grassy field where a heard of cattle mill about on an otherwise peaceful and sunny day. A presumably Nazi soldier shoots a machine gun across the young man's belly; the boy stumbles back into the pasture carrying his guts in his bloody hands as the bell-rattling cows disperse. War is not over.
Fires burn in the distance and a peasant farmer on a bicycle passes rifles out to other farmers. A skinny young boy chases the man, begging for a rifle. "I want to kill too," he shouts after the man hands him a gun. The emboldened youngster goes into the home of the farm's white-haired Padroné, a complacent Alfredo Berlinghieri (Robert De Niro), and takes the elderly landowner prisoner to stand trial in the estate's open courtyard by peasants whose numbers have dwindled due to two World Wars, and an oppressive government that has imprisoned many of their number over the years. Bertolucci took inspiration for the impromptu tribunal that arrives in the film's final act from photos of the Chinese revolution. The red flags of revolt that Bertolucci uses as an image system of socialist solidarity and revolution are a repeated motif throughout several of his films, such as "Before the Revolution" and "The Last Emperor."
Peasant women carry pitchforks and chase an elderly man dressed in a suit escaping with his frumpy wife on bicycles loaded down with heavy suitcases. The besieged man turns back to shoot at the approaching women with a small caliber pistol; they catch up with him and impale his arm and leg with pitchforks that they leave stuck in him so that he swings the long handles wildly while stumbling down a steep hill toward an angry peasant woman waiting with weapon in hand. Our initial reaction is to take pity with the elderly couple being attacked by a gang of blood-thirsty farm workers. Bertolucci crafted the sequence to engage the audience with a sadistic situation whose context will obtain a different response the second time it comes around in the framework of the story.
Broken into four periods to reflect the passing seasons, and split into two acts by an intermission, the story picks up in 1901, forty-four years before Liberation Day. A drunken hunchbacked jester (ala Verdi's "Rigoletto") breaks the silence of dawn with a tearful announcement of composer Giuseppe Verdi's death. Rigoletto's archetypal voice of exposition establishes an operatic theatricality that bookends the picture. Symphonic music swells over night's lingering blue light in 1901 when the peasant bastard Olmo Dalco, and Alfredo Berlinghieri, the landowner's heir, are both born. Olmo slips from the womb before Alfredo, causing sincere consternation in Bert Lancaster's uber Padroné, Alfredo Berlinghieri Sr. who complains vociferously.
Bertolucci suspends the boys' parallel childhood friendship in a capsule of familiarity when each are burgeoning on puberty. Against Storaro's wide-lens landscape, Olmo is a vision of an Italian Huck Finn, full of vigor with a brown floppy felt hat adorned with twenty squirming frogs on a piece of wire. These are the same frogs that Olmo uses to chase off a girl who insults him, and that Alfredo will later spit out that night at his family's perfectly set dinner table.
Olmo plays a game of oneupsmanship with Alfredo by lying down between railroad tracks to let an oncoming train pass over him. The dangerous act becomes a leitmotif regarding Olmo's emotional and physical connection to the sun-kissed Italian terrain, as emulated by Alfredo when Olmo digs a hole in the ground to "screw the Earth." It also establishes the intimate nature of Olmo's and Alfredo's friendship, which will reoccur when the men share a epileptic prostitute after returning from serving in WWI.
"Ding Dong, Ding Dong. The Devil cares, the Padrone's scared." Olmo replies to Alfredo's question about whether he's dead or alive after letting the speeding locomotive roll over him. Unable to overcome his fear of the oncoming train, Alfredo has escaped from Olmo's side before the train arrived. Olmo's authentic children's rhyme carries an impression of childhood voodoo that Olmo uses as a prelude to spitting in Alfredo's face. Nothing is sacred in Olmo's world.
Paradoxically, a girl cries inconsolably because the seminary wants to take Olmo away to the priesthood. Olmo's grandfather Leo Dalco (Sterling Hayden) publicly strikes down the idea and silences a heckler who calls Olmo a "bastard" at the peasants' nightly communal sunset dinner. Hayden's imposing patriarch quells the verbal abuse and seizes the moment to ceremoniously indoctrinate Olmo into manhood with a directive speech that fulfills Bertolucci's thick narrative tapestry of theme, character, and plot lines.
"Now that you are grown, remember this: you will learn to read, you will learn to write, but you will still remain a son of peasants. You will go off to the army, you will see the world. You may even learn to obey (with kicks in the ass from morning till night), you'll take a wife, you will work for the lives of your children. But you will always remain a peasant."
Leo Dalco represents the old guard of the socialist farmers' relationship to their employers when he later preaches against "striking." Dalco warns his fellow farmers that their "league" (union) won't prepare them for the grass they will have to eat when they are not working. It's a tune that he soon changes when he's relaxing in the summer shade watching the Padroné and his wealthy friends and family working in the fields because the workers are on strike. Dalco passes away peacefully on a sunny hillside under the shade of tree knowing that his life has reached a new and different day. Even in death, the peasant Leo Dalco wins out against the Padroné, Alfredo Sr. (Bert Lancaster), and with more dignity.
When a storm wipes out the farm's crops, Alfredo Sr.'s son Giovanni (Romolo Vali), the estate's acting Padroné, calls the workers together to tell them that they must sacrifice half their pay to help compensate for his loss. The peasants reply that,"When we harvest double we don't get double pay." The insolent Padroné makes a pointed verbal attack at the day-laborers and goes too far when insults a farm worker about the large size of the man's ears. Without hesitation, the peasant takes out a sickle-shaped knife, raises it to his left ear and slices it off in one swift motion before putting his severed ear into Giovanni's hand. It's a gut-wrenching moment that clarifies the desperation of the workers and their level of outrage with their Padroné. The seed of revolution is sewn. We follow the wounded worker back to his family's hovel where he quietly delivers a few pieces of bread that his mother, father, wife, and children will rub against the dried carcass of fish that hangs over their old dinner table with flies swarming around it. He quietly refers to the incident as an accident, and carries on with his life, singing to his children to make them forget their hunger. The self-destructive act shows a wretched attempt to hold onto a deeply rooted human dignity that will overshadow his enormous sacrifice. There is no urge or time for self-pity.
To Alfredo, Olmo describes himself a "socialist with holes in his pockets," and Alfredo later carries the enigmatic phrase with him after he returns from war, because it's how he wants Olmo to think of him. Alfredo could never in a million years be a socialist, even if he does refuse to contribute to a group of "New Fascists" at a church meeting he's persuaded to attend. The compliance of the church in fomenting fascism registers as part of the patriarchy that the community observes.
From a scene of the two boys watching a pro-revolution puppet show disbanded by stick-wielding police, to a red-flag adorned train platform where Olmo and Alfredo depart for war, Bertolucci establishes the shift of Olmo and Alfredo into grown men returning home from World War I, once again by train.
Still wearing his army uniform, from the window Olmo witnesses his old friend Toro being hauled off by military police for striking.
Toro sees Olmo and yells, "Olmo, Olmo, The bastards got you. The country's in the hands of murderers! Goddamn the whole nation! Goddamn the King!"
It's a very short scene that contrasts the speed of modern transportation (Olmo's train), as a secondary form of cinematic movement, to emphasize the reality playing out in Olmo's beloved pastoral home that he is powerless to affect. The motif of peasants being inexplicably arrested repeats itself when Olmo's sense of purpose is stronger, and yet he is still just as unable to interfere.
The film's intermission comes with Attila (Sutherland) and his Black Shirts staring out into a vast public square where a battalion of soldiers on horseback have replaced red flag protesters, led by Olmo and his wife, yelling for the city to "Wake up!" while pulling the charred bodies of their families and friends burned to death by Mussolini's cold blooded military. Olmo's and Anita's desperate pleas fall on the deaf ears of their frightened neighbors.
Act II marks a dark turn that finds the once bright Berlinghieri estate putrefying into a gothic and macabre atmosphere of fear and poverty. Alfredo ends having sexual trysts with his cousin, Attila's conniving wife Regina (Laura Betti), in favor of pursuing romantic love with a manic-depressive socialite beauty named Ada (exquisitely played by Dominique Sanda). The couple's budding romance is kindled by Alfredo's wealthy uncle Ottavio Berlinghieri (Werner Bruhns) who indulges the couple in a glowing golden afternoon of luxury and cocaine. At their wedding, Ottavio gives Ada a white horse for her wedding present. The horse carries a sub-textual meaning of control and mastery, and also serves to convey an omen of darkness in Ada's soon-to-be traumatized psyche. Bertolucci also uses the equine symbol to embody a fleeting example of agrarian culture that is symbolically trapped in Olmo's hunting net ("a trap for brides") in which Olmo captures Ada as she takes her wedding present for a ride moments before a terrible act of violence puts a blood stain on the post-wedding festivities.
Out of jealousy Regina insults Ada at the reception, but the gracious bride merely replies by taking off her veil and placing it on Regina's head in front of the crowd of on-looking party-goers.Regina rushes off in a fit of rage that culminates in taking Attila with her into the property's wine cellar where she demands that Attila make love to her. The dismal Gothic episode reveals the danger and anarchy of the fascist mindset. A boy named Patrizio, the son of one of Attila's Black Shirt accomplices, stumbles in on Regina and Attila in the midst of their coupling, and the pair seizes him to become the subject of their dubious affection. After Attila has sodomized Patrizio, he lifts up the child by his legs and swings him around in circles until the boy's head explodes against the beams of the circular cellar.
To find the missing boy, the wedding guests conduct a search of the estate grounds that lead them to Patricio's bloody corpse inside the musty wine cellar. Thinking on his feet, Attila publicly accuses Olmo of committing the murder, and his Black Shirt bandits encircle the peasant leader before ruthlessly beating Olmo to a pulp while Alfredo looks on without attempting to protect his friend. Alfredo's betrayal of Olmo comes as a profound signifier of a change in his character. Alfredo, now married, chooses to fill the Padrone's shoes just like his father. The crowd shouts for Olmo's death, and it's only when a mentally indigent drifter steps forward to take credit for the brutal murder of the child that Alfredo finally steps in to defend Olmo. Alfredo announces the end of the reception amid the damp wooded area around the cellar. Ottavio complains to Alfredo about allowing Olmo to be beaten and observes that Alfredo "is becoming like them" [the fascists]. As Ottavio leaves, Ada begs him to stay; to which he replies that he will never set foot on the estate again. Ottavio's homosexual character serves as a thematic symbol of liberty and independent thinking. His self-exerted exile from the story comes as a bellwether of cultural collapses yet to come.
Although it encompasses the snaking reach of two World Wars, "1900" is not a war film. Bertolucci has said that he made "1900" as "a kind of dialogue" with his former mentor Pier Paolo Pasolini. By limiting the physical reach of the story, Bertolucci approaches his characters through a regional awareness of their communal significance as it diminishes against the developing industrial society around them. It is a story made from bits and pieces of anecdotal experience of people living in Parma over a long period. Bertolucci created a cinematic style to contain and fill decades of experience telescoped through the images captured by Vittorio Storaro's observant camera. The filmmaker used local farmers as extras in the film, and their presence adds another layer of historic knowledge to the authentically tempered narrative. Just as Orson Welles created a new scale of film with "Citizen Kane," so to has Bertolucci defined what the epic cinematic form is capable of containing.
"1900" took a heavy toll on Bertolucci. Making the film was a Herculean effort that went largely unrewarded, even if it did turn a respectable profit in Europe where it made 18 million dollars. Bertolucci's passion for showing the struggles of the people that he grew up around resulted in an inevitably bittersweet dialogue between two sides of the same coin--Padroné and peasant-- Alfredo and Olmo. Bertolucci's films are famous for splitting audiences. For every person who thinks "Last Tango In Paris" is a masterpiece, there is another who thinks it irredeemable. Bertolucci's social analysis in "1900" festers inside the bodies of its characters. The devastating destruction that Attila reaps on his neighbors is nothing short of a one-man war against humanity that works insidiously, under the guise of a political abomination, to gut a community already treading a delicate truce with poverty.
For the film's coda, Bertolucci alleviates the ongoing struggle between Olmo and Alfredo (peasant and Padroné) with a stroke of envisioned magical realism that allows the aged friends to bully each other as representatives of their social classes. Their relationship is at once fierce and forgiving. The two old men fight near the railroad tracks where they once shared their childhood together. Their collective memories give them a public common ground to communicate in a primitive way that releases their anger and mistaken ideas. But whether or not Olmo or Alfredo ever wakes up with an epiphany about resolving the nature of their disagreements matters not, because they continue to live in a collective spirit that represents the opposite of greed, without being patronizing to the other.