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Set in Italy, the film follows the lives and interactions of two boys/men, one born a bastard of peasant stock (Depardieu), the other born to a land owner (de Niro). The drama spans from 1900 to about 1945, and focuses mainly on the rise of Fascism and the peasants' eventual reaction by supporting Communism, and how these events shape the destinies of the two main characters. Written by
Ed Sutton <email@example.com>
Bernardo Bertolucci himself cut the 3.5 hour version that was originally shown internationally, which he did to appease the studios and financiers, who wanted to use an even shorter cut that was never released. He still says he prefers the original 5 and half hour cut. His main complaint with the international release was the English title "1900". With the original title "Novecento", he meant to imply a tale of the 20th century. See more »
As Attila Mellanchini is shot by the communist partisans on VE Day, a close-up is shown of a man's hand holding the pistol to Attila's head. The pistol in his hand is a Beretta M951, which only began production circa 1953 - eight years after the war ended. See more »
As satisfying as the best classic novels; shame about that touch of political revisionism
All in all, I loved Bertolucci's 1900. By the end of it (I watched the uncut, 318 minute version and it was an effortless, engrossing, never over-long experience), I found myself feeling as satisfied as someone who's just finished reading one of those wonderful, very long classic novels. There are, however, some major flaws, not just in narrative structure but also in content, and this is why I've given it "just" a 9/10. It's rather disjointed and all over the place, like a huge, gangly foal rather than a harmoniously-formed horse.
However, I don't agree with one accusation I heard that was leveled at it, regarding its change of tone. In my view it was unavoidable and appropriate when dealing with a historic period going from the beginning of the 20th century to the rise to power of Mussolini (1922), and finally to the culmination of full-blown Fascist oppression. The "change of tone" in the film perfectly captured the profound and shocking changes that swept over Italy, as if bitten by something that had made it go mad.
My main problem with the film, however, was of content rather than structure: the over-simplification of its politics, not to mention the inaccuracy in the way it portrays the reasons for the rise of Fascism. These smack of just a little too much historical revisionism even for a tendentially left-wing person like me. But then, 1900 was made in the 70s, smack bang in the middle of a decade in which the Italian left wing had a strong hold on the country's artistic and cultural institutions. After decades of poverty, ignorance and forced silence, these institutions voiced their views with a more earnest tone than they would have had if they'd never been repressed. Pasolini, Bertolucci, Moravia and several others producing art during the 50s-70s in Italy are a prime example of this kind of voice. Inevitably, it was tinged with a political agenda it couldn't have been otherwise, as political freedom was a new toy and everyone was so keen to play with it.
Bertolucci's film would have us believe that the rich landowners (represented here by the Berlinghieri Robert De Niro's character's family) were responsible alone for sponsoring the Fascists. Keen to maintain the country in an archaic state of feudalism with the poor, ignorant multitudes working their estates as semi-slaves, they encouraged or turned a blind eye to the violent cruelty of the blackshirts. They employed them as "guard dogs" (as De Niro's character Alfredo refers to Attila, Donald Sutherland's Fascist bully character at one point), giving them official charges as managers of their estates and oppressors of any sign of rebellion, etc. Though this has effectively happened, a more objective historic version will take into account that for Fascism to spread so rapidly and so well, it must have had some hold on the "common people", too. Just consider that the rich landowners were a tiny, tiny minority of the population and not all were sympathetic to Mussolini originally a Socialist himself. The rich often supported the monarchy and/or church instead (and Mussolini aspired to a lay state, not a religious one). It was indeed so many of the common men and women of Italy who responded well to the young Mussolini, who was neither particularly cultured nor a member of the elite, yet was a charismatic go-getter who could speak to the crowds in a way that made sense to them for the first time ever. The landowners and aristocrats, decadent and totally out of touch from reality (as Bertolucci's film shows so well), had no idea how to relate to the masses. In contrast, Mussolini wanted to harness the energy of the multitudes, giving them a sense of worth for the first time ever. What a cruel irony this turned out to be for all those people!
What Bertolucci's film is successful at putting across is the fact that neutrality, turning a blind eye to and staying passive to Fascism was in itself responsible for allowing it to thrive. ****SPOILERS****: Alfredo does nothing to stop Attila and his stooges beat Olmo, Gèrard Depardieu's character, to a bloody mess, despite the fact he knew that Olmo was innocent of having killed the child at the wedding party. This scene is so effective in creating a sense of frustration in the viewer. Watching that scene, it comes naturally to ask oneself: "Why didn't anyone do anything to stop it?" EXACTLY! ****END OF SPOILERS.****
Regarding the accusation leveled at the uncut version of the film containing pornographic sequences: I thought pornography's sole purpose was to titillate and arouse. Do any scenes in this movie try to achieve this? Most certainly not! Naked human bodies can be representative of so much more than just sex. They are not just about the degree of their ability to arouse or otherwise, but also about a whole other spectrum of human states and feelings. Strength, vulnerability, tenderness, compassion, closeness, distance, receptiveness and whatever else is sometimes just not possible to express in so many lines of dialogue. Why shouldn't a sexual encounter even one featuring genitals in view speak volumes about so many other aspects of men and women's humanity?
I could write so much more about this movie! Though not as mesmerisingly beautiful to look at as Bertolucci's 1970 film Il Conformista, it is none the less a testament to Vittorio Storaro's genius photography once again. I will probably be watching this movie many more times and discovering more layers, more beauty and even more imperfections which is all worthwhile when confronted with such amazing material. Whoever's been comparing 1900's portrayal of Fascism with the way it was dealt with in Il Conformista isn't being entirely fair: the latter takes a far more intellectual approach (after all, Fascism was a multi-faceted phenomenon) and is a less ambitious film anyway, therefore less likely to fail.
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