Watching Bertolucci’s 1900

by Matthew Turner

Opening credits
Opening credits

Warning: mildly NSFW images after the fold.

Dedicated film fans everywhere know that there is something immensely rewarding about devoting an entire day to watching a lengthy piece of epic cinema, surrounded by like-minded film obsessives. For me in the last decade, such experiences have included: the Apu Trilogy (at the Curzon Soho), the full version of Heaven’s Gate (at the BFI), Tarkovsky’s Stalker (the BFI again); and, although not quite cinema, all 11 episodes of Robert Altman and Garry Trudeau’s Tanner ’88 (also at the BFI). The associated pleasures are heightened still further if the film in question is rarely screened in the UK. So it was with the full-length cut of Bertolucci’s 1900 (Novecento), which clocks in at an epic 320 minutes (plus a 45 minute interval, plus a 30 minute wait for a pre-film fire alarm evacuation) and which screened at the BFI a couple of weeks ago as part of their exhaustive Bernardo Bertolucci season.

1900 is one of the strangest epics ever committed to celluloid, and it has duly amassed a cult following as a result.

There is no real plot to speak of, at least, not in the traditional sense. The film begins in January 1900, on the day of Verdi’s death (Verdi’s music plays throughout the film), with two children born a few hours apart: one, Alfredo Berlinghieri (Robert De Niro), the grandson to landowner and “padrone”, Alfredo (Burt Lancaster); the other, Olmo Dalco (Gerard Depardieu), the bastard grandson of Leo Dalco (Sterling Hayden), patriarch of the peasant family that works Berlinghieri’s land.

As the two boys grow up, they embrace their oh-so-symbolic positions, with  Afredo becoming the master (embarking on an early life of hedonism and then returning to his estate) and Olmo the peasant worker (fighting in World War I, returning to the estate and becoming a communist and union leader). Accordingly, the two are first friends (and possibly lovers, but more on that later), then enemies, then finally friends again. Meanwhile, fascism is on the rise, symbolised by Alfredo’s black-shirted foreman Atila, played with relish by Donald Sutherland.

Aside from Alfredo’s disastrous marriage to the beautiful Ada (Dominique Sanda), there is not much more to the plot than a series of vignettes based in and around the Belinghieri estate and the city of Parma. Bertolucci is only interested in making the same observation, over and over again, namely that the landowners stood by and allowed the rise of fascism, leaving the fight against fascism to the heroic communists. This is clearly illustrated in one of many overtly symbolic shots, below.

Depardieu (worker) and Sutherland (fascist) clash as DeNiro (master) refuses to intervene. SYMBOLISM.

That said, there is a nominal structure to the film: Bertolucci claimed in an interview that the main four sections of the film (the boys’ childhood, Olmo and Alfredo as young adults, the Fascist takeover and the end of World War II) correspond to the four seasons, though you’d be hard pressed to make that connection in the finished film.

Like most films of epic length, wildly different cuts and a cult following, 1900 had a tortuous journey to the big screen. Its own distributor, Paramount, boycotted the film until Bertolucci eventually (reluctantly) cut the film down to the three hour version that was released in the USA (and promptly panned by critics).

Still, you have to admire Bertolucci’s balls, making an overtly pro-communist epic with funding from no less than three American studios. United Artists, Paramount and 20th Century Fox each chipped in  $2 million apiece and the film subsequently went over budget by a further $3 or $4 million, depending on which source you believe. Principal photography was equally epic, lasting from July 1974 until May 1975, but with various bits of extra filming continuing through to September 1975, adding up an unprecedented 14 months in total.

The differences between the three hour version and the five hour version include a long list of things that would cause outbreaks of apoplexy over at the BBFC. The most famous example is the scene (pictured below) where DeNiro and Depardieu get simultaneous handjobs from the same prostitute (Stefania Casini), with both men lying naked on either side of her.

De Niro and Depardieu get simultaneous handjobs

An equally controversial scene involves the two young boys (played by Paolo Pavesi and Roberto Maccanti) comparing their erections. In fact, this cock obsession turns into something of a theme – even Sterling Hayden gets his cock out at one point (to urinate on THE LAND or something). Thankfully, we are spared a glimpse of Little Burt, but there is a scene where he gets a milkmaid to stick her hand down his pants to prove that he can’t get an erection anymore. According to imdb, the other differences include an extended sequence where Olmo graphically kills and butchers a pig (no cutaways – that pig really gets it) and  the crowd rejoicing at Alfredo Snr’s suicide.

Interestingly, the three hour version plays in English (reviewers complained about De Niro’s New York accent), while the five hour version plays in badly dubbed Italian, as with most Italian films of that period (see also Visconti’s The Leopard). The dubbing is so bad, in fact, that it occasionally seems as if they only bothered employing three actors to do the voices for all the characters.

(Note: contrary to various sources, the 5 hour Region 1 DVD includes both an English dub with the actors’ real voices and the Italian dub used for the BFI print. According to Bertolucci, there is apparently an even longer six hour cut. God knows what’s in that)

The film would have become a cult classic based on Donald Sutherland’s performance alone. He’s first glimpsed in the opening scene, as a balding middle-aged man in 1945, receiving one hell of a pitch-forking from some angry villagers, like some kind of Frankenstein’s monster. At that point you wonder what on earth he could have done to warrant such treatment. And then, over the next five hours, you find out.

Sutherland gets a pitchforking

Atila first appears smirking in the background as Alfredo’s father bosses the peasants around (he’s the foreman to the Berlinghieri estate), but such is Sutherland’s onscreen charisma, your attention is drawn to him immediately.  Shortly afterwards, he is seen trying on a fetching black shirt (he’s not really given to subtlety, Bertolucci) and then immediately commits the first of several onscreen murders by HEAD-BUTTING A CAT TO DEATH (‘Imagine this cat is a Communist…’).

Donald Sutherland, just after head-butting a cat to death

That’s pretty shocking, but it turns out Atila is just getting warmed up. Later on he kicks another cat to death (some people just shouldn’t be allowed to keep pets) and murders poor old Alida Valli (something of a Bertolucci regular) just because he wants her house. His partner in crime is the splendidly evil Regina (played by Laura Betti), cousin of Alfredo, in love with Atila – but also fiercely jealous of Ada, so a little bit in love with Alfredo too. Together, Regina and Atila commit the film’s most shocking act, by first jointly raping a young boy (son of one of Atila’s aristocratic supporters) and then dashing his brains out (accidentally?) by swinging him around by his legs in a small room. Then they blame the rape and murder on poor old communist Olmo, because 1900 is nothing if not SYMBOLIC.

Sutherland, incidentally, later claimed that he couldn’t watch his own performance, because it upset him so much. A shame, because although it’s obviously, deliriously over-the-top, it’s also one of the best performances of his career.

Another intriguing element to the film is the exact nature of the relationship between Olmo and Alfredo. Despite being filmed some 30 years before the term “bromance” started being bandied around, this is a proper, full-on bromancing of Biblical proportions. This is most evident in the scene where the young men are reunited as adults and begin rolling around in a hay loft. Olmo is so pleased to see Alfredo that he kisses his face repeatedly and then kisses him on the lips.Then Bertolucci cuts to this shot (see below), indicating that a significant amount of time has passed.

Did they or didn’t they? DeNiro and Depardieu.

The construction of the shot is familiar from many a post-coital scene, so it seems, at the very least, a deliberate suggestion on Bertolucci’s part. There is a (weak) pun to be made here about Olmosexuals but I doubt it will survive the rigorous Mostly Film editing process.

Considering that there’s so little in the way of actual plot, it’s amazing that 1900 manages to hold your attention as closely as it does for five hours. Bertolucci does this by packing the film with weird and wonderful episodic scenes, full of memorable imagery and bizarre moments that wouldn’t be out of place in a David Lynch movie.

Gift Horse. Just don’t blow up its nose.

Highlights include: one of the children (Olmo) decorating his hat with live frogs; Alfredo and Ada being presented with what can only be described as a gift horse (called Cocaine) at their wedding; Alfredo’s reactions to trying cocaine for the first time (Alfredo is possibly the happiest character that De Niro has ever portrayed on screen; it’s actually weird to see the young De Niro this joyful); and an astonishing, Brechtian moment in the climactic scene where Depardieu breaks the fourth wall and directly addresses the audiences, espousing the virtues of Communism.

Depardieu appeals to the audience. Pretty sure Depardieu just made me a Communist

Of course, the other element that holds your attention throughout the film is the level of artistry on display, from the score by Ennio Morricone to the stunning cinematography by Vittorio Storaro. In particular, Bertolucci displays a genuine love of wildly over-the-top crane shots (something of a Bertolucci trademark): there’s a brilliant and justly celebrated one at the end of the film (panning over the estate with Depardieu and DeNiro fighting in one corner while the workers run away with a SYMBOLIC flag in the other) but there’s also an utterly bizarre one which soars into the air during a sex scene between De Niro and Sanda, ending on the rather comical image of a tiny De Niro’s naked bottom bobbing up and down in a haystack.

‘No, don’t worry about me – you just keep humping.’

The Bertolucci season at the BFI (which continues throughout May) has been extremely illuminating when it comes to identifying recurring motifs in Bertolucci’s work. Well, motifs is probably the wrong word – they’re less motifs and more Things Bertolucci Likes. In particular, he has a fondness for opening credits being played over paintings (the painting in 1900 is Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo’s “Il quarto stato” from 1901 – see top picture); he likes using Alida Valli in his films (she also appears in The Spider’s Strategem (1970) and La Luna (1979). He likes setting his films in his home town of Parma or, failing that, using Parma locations to stand in for other places – the central courtyard in 1900 makes cameo appearances in several other Bertolucci movies.

The final sequence in 1900 is a bizarre little coda with no dialogue, intended to symbolise the eternal stuggle between landowner and peasant.

The penultimate scene (with the crane shot out of the courtyard) ends with Olmo and Alfredo play-fighting, just after Olmo saves Alfredo from a show-trial. After the crane shot, Bertolucci cuts to 1976 (present day when the film was released), with an elderly DeNiro and Depardieu stumbling along in old age make-up and pushing each other around, as if they’ve never stopped fighting in the 30 years since the closing scene. Bizarrely, the film then ends with Alfredo’s suicide by train as he lies down on the train tracks in imitation of the game they played as children. Whilst in keeping with the heavy-handed symbolism of the rest of the film, the sequence is unintentionally hilarious, because their old man acting is so bad that it looks like something out of a Benny Hill sketch (and neither actor looks anything like the actual 60-plus version of himself). At any rate, it’s pretty certain that Bertolucci didn’t intend the end of his glorious five hour epic to be met with gales of inappropriate laughter, with even Roger Ebert describing the final scene as ‘a note of throwaway goofiness’.

The eternal struggle continues. SYMBOLISM. (De Niro and Depardieu as old men)

The full 5 hour version of Bertolucci’s “1900” is available on R1 DVD.

The second half of the Bertolucci season will screen at the BFI in May.

Matthew Turner (FilmFan1971 on Twitter) is the film reviewer for View London.

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About Matthew Turner

Matthew Turner (@FilmFan1971 on Twitter) is a freelance film journalist. His favourite film is Vertigo and he hasn't missed an episode of EastEnders since 1998.

6 thoughts on “Watching Bertolucci’s 1900

  1. Holy shit, young Depardieu was beautiful! What happened to his face??

    Great piece, Mr Fan. Good to see you let loose from your View London format once in a while.

  2. Le vin is what happened to his face.

    I disagree about Regina. It’s all about power with her. She was the poor relation who had no real standing in the family. She grew up in the same house as Alfredo, and as such considered herself the rightful mistress of the estate, not Ada. She despised Alfredo as much as she despised and manipulated the other members of the family.

    I actually saw the film as a portrait of a declining aristocracy, rendered useless by decadence and alienation from the source of its wealth. The landowners’ support of fascism (personified by Atila and Regina and their little friends) was a last gasp attempt to suppress the increasingly politicised and assertive peasants.

    1. I have the full length of 1900 on DVD and every so often I watch it.

      When I first saw the censored version, in 1977, I was enthralled.

      Yes, the film is about the declining Italian aristocracy, but there are many other powerful themes running through it eg:

      * the divide between the rich and powerful and the poor

      * the exploitation of peasant workers and the cruelty shown to them by the ruling class

      * workers’ rights and the struggle against exploitation

      * the nature of fascism and the struggle against it

      * the dilemma of the left in Italy (as well as elsewhere) and the question of surrendering arms to the Allies and fighting for a socialist society

      The thing that disappointed me about the film was the ending (the elderly Olmo and Alfredo lying on a rail track waiting for a coming train after having had a fight). I thought that this trivialised some of the important concepts that the film touched on.

      Further, I think that the film would have received greater support if some of the scenes of violence and sex scenes were not so explicit.

      Many years after first seeing the film, I visited Italy. In Bologna, I saw the memorial to the anti fascist partisans and the victims of fascism on the “piazza maggiore” as well as the memorial to the 1980 fascist bombing at the railway station.

      I later discovered that Bologna was one of the Italian cities most affected by World War 2.Between September 1943 and April 1945, the city was occupied by the Nazis. The people suffered from cold and hunger, Allied bombings and Nazi reprisals. Throughout this period, the courageous action of groups of anti-fascist partisans kept the people’s hopes alive.

      A high toll was paid by the Bolognese. The number of civilian deaths under the bombing was 2481, while 2064 partisans were killed. On the morning of April 21 1945 Bologna became free.

      Women’s groups began to lay flowers and put up pictures of their loved ones in Piazza Nettuno, on the wall where many partisans had been shot .

      Thus was born the shrine of the partisans.

      Later, Bologna became the place where many progressive Italians pushed for women’s, workers’ and other human rights – often resisting the dictates of the Vatican.

      All of this makes me think that the film “1900” was also a tribute to those Italians who fought against fascism in their own country.

  3. You’re right about Regina and I considered devoting a paragraph to her, but the piece was approaching CaulorLime length as it was…

  4. I had heard of 1900 through various Twitter posts but had no real interest in seeing it. After reading this blog I am now desperate to view it, so well done you Mr Film Fan! Passionately written, humorously executed, an all round great piece of writing.

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