Two boys are born the same day, January 1, 1900, on the same Italian estate—one the grandson of a noble peasant, the other the grandson of a weak-willed aristocrat. One will grow into a rabble-rousing Communist, leading his extended family through strikes and the upheaval of Mussolini’s rise; the other will grow into an ineffectual fop who sits on his hands as the fascists take over. Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900, a Marxist epic that’s one part grandeur to two parts folly, posits the lives of these two characters as nothing less than the symbolic tussle for the soul of Italy in the first half of the 20th century. (And in case the point is missed, the two are shown literally tussling throughout the ages.) It is not, by even the most generous possible metric, a subtle piece of work, and certainly far from the standard set by Bertolucci’s 1970 masterpiece The Conformist, which sketches a fascist stooge similar to the aristocrat with a more delicate hand. But 1900 intends a much larger vision of the country’s political evolution, one that has more in common with the revolutionary silent films that came out of Russia in the ’20s or even D.W. Griffith’s The Birth Of A Nation. It views history through the broadest possible lens.
After its première at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival, 1900 suffered its own epic tussle between Bertolucci and producer Alberto Grimaldi, who was contractually obligated to deliver a 195-minute version to Paramount Pictures and booted Bertolucci from the editing room to achieve it. It was eventually released at 245 minutes, still butchered from the original 317-minute behemoth, which was finally revived and rereleased (with an NC-17 rating) in America in two parts and now comes to Blu-ray at that same length unrated. The Bertolucci cut is, by and large, a cohesive piece of storytelling, but it’s nonetheless an unwieldy blob, with flashes of brilliance scattered between the many grueling longueurs. It goes Icarus as only a film from the auteur ’70s can.
The two families in conflict are the Berlinghieris and the Dalcòs, the former wealthy landowners and the latter peasant workers on the Berlinghieris’ plantation. After nearly 90 minutes documenting their childhood on the estate, Robert De Niro and Gérard Depardieu play a grown-up Berlinghieri and Dalcò, respectively, each having risen to the status of patriarch. The two maintain a tenuous friendship throughout the years—getting a simultaneous handjob from an epileptic hooker is nothing if not a bonding experience—but the rise of the fascists, to say nothing of the beautiful Dominique Sanda, drives a wedge between them. Though De Niro doesn’t take an actively oppressive role as “padrone” (master) of the Berlinghieri family, his passivity allows a sadistic foreman, played by a sneering Donald Sutherland, to bring in his black-shirt buddies and impose fascist rule over the estate. The end of World War II brings with it a retribution that sweeps all parties up in historical forces much larger than themselves.
The first part of 1900, before the war and before De Niro’s disastrous marriage to Sanda, is considerably more compelling than the second, which gets bogged down by suffocating scenes of domestic turmoil. With characters this broadly and programmatically drawn, it’s always better when Bertolucci works on a large canvas, making full use of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and composer Ennio Morricone for great sequences like the peasants gathering forces to stop a brigade of armed strike-breakers, or the Dalcòs finally taking up pitchforks against the fascists on Liberation Day. There’s a shred of complexity, too, in De Niro’s performance as a spineless man who wants to be friends with all parties, but winds up alienating them with his neutrality. But Bertolucci’s failure to develop his characters beyond insultingly simple types becomes a deeper problem in the film’s second part, which is dominated by clunky interiors before concluding with Depardieu just laying out the film’s politics directly to the camera. By then, after 300 didactic minutes, every bullet point in the speech is redundant.
Key features: The third disc in the three-disc package has the lone supplement, an illuminating hourlong compilation of Bertolucci interviews called “Bernardo Bertolucci: Reflections On Cinema.”