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.
Epic, episodic movie following the lives of two Italian men, a poor peasant and a wealthy landowner, spanning over 40 years detailing their personal conflicts with each other as friends, then enemies, and friends again amid the social upheaval in Italy during the first years of the 20th century.
Rural Italy, early 1900s. Two boys, Alfredo and Olmo, are born on the same day - one to the owner of a large estate, the other to one of his labourers. There is a massive divide between the classes in Italy, to the point of antagonism. Despite this, and despite some disagreements along the way, Alfredo and Olmo become best friends. We see them grow up, go to WW1 and their adult lives. Eventually their different upbringings and social standings come back to haunt them, as Italy is plunged into class war - the Socialists (workers) vs the Fascists (supported by the middle- and upper-class). Alfredo and Olmo find themselves on opposite sides.
The epic tale of a class struggle in twentieth century Italy, as seen through the eyes of two childhood friends on opposing sides.
- Born the same day at the turn of the 20th century Italy, January 1, 1900, two best friends, Alfredo Berlinghieri (Robert De Niro as an adult) and Olmo Dalcò (Gérard Depardieu as an adult) come from opposite ends of the social spectrum. Alfredo is from a family of wealthy landowners led by his abusive but populist grandfather Alfredo the Elder (Burt Lancaster), while Olmo is an illegitimate peasant son off the estate whose grandfather Leo Dalcò (Sterling Hayden) is the foreman and peasant strong man who verbally and spiritually carries a duel of wits with both the peasants as well as his employer, but without ever reaching violence with Elder Alfredo's bidding. While growing up, the young Alfredo is somewhat rebellious and despises the falseness of his family, in particular his weak but cynical father Ottavio (Werner Bruhns), he befriends Olmo, who was raised as a socialist.
The two become friends throughout their childhood, despite the social differences of their families. Alfredo's grandfather, suffering from gout, senile dementia, and other ailments, commits suicide by hanging himself in the dairy barn. As a result, Ottavio inherits the plantation.
In 1917, the teenage Olmo enlists with the Italian army during World War I and goes off to fight on the front lines in northern Italy while Alfredo stays behind to learn how to run his family's large plantation. Olmo returns from the war over a year later and his friendship with Alfredo continues. However during Olmo's time away, Alfredo's father has hired Attila Mellanchini (Donald Sutherland) as his new foreman following the death of Olmo's own grandfather. Attila is sadistic man who becomes taken with fascism, especially after the fascists come to power in the early 1920s, Italy.
Attila eventually incorporates his new belief system in his dealings with the Berlinghieri workers; he treats them cruelly and later cages them in the Berlinghieri compound and accuses them of treason against Fascist Italy. Several are killed by Attila himself. Alfredo's father, Ottavio, eventually dies from an illness and Alfredo inherits the vast estate as its sole heir. As the new padrone (master) of the plantation, Alfredo does little to challenge or halt Attila's evil actions.
During the late 1920s and early 1930s, the intimacy and lack thereof in their respective relationships with others is highlighted in their love lives as both Alfredo and Olmo cannot seem to hook up with the right woman to be with. Alfredo eventually marries a gorgeous, demure woman, named Ada (Dominique Sanda), while Olmo marries Anita (Stefania Sandrelli), a fellow idealist who, like him, shares in the enthusiasm of the cause of workers' rights in the vein of socialism. Ada, however, sinks into alcoholism when confronted with the reality of the emptiness of her relationship with Alfredo.
Anita dies tragically in childbirth, bringing another member into the community; a daughter whom Olmo names after his late wife. As Olmo takes on his fateful role of leader among the poor farmers and their families, he clashes with Attila several times as the years go on. Olmo's daughter, Anita the Younger (Anna Henkel-Grönemeyer), grows into a young and resourceful teenager whom is supportive of her father's socialist beliefs.
The power, however, shifts after World War II in 1945, and the ruling class is at the mercy of the jovial and bitter peasants in the agricultural estate. As padrone, Alfredo is captured by a teenage peasant boy carrying a rifle. Attila is also captured when he and his wife, the equally cruel and sadistic Regina (Laura Betti), try to flee the region. Attila is stabbed, non-fatally, several times by women wielding pitchforks and is imprisoned in the Berlinghieri pig sty. He is later executed by the peasants (while they cut off most of Regina's hair), who have discovered that Attila had raped and killed a young boy (ironically, the son of one of the most fervent supporters of fascism as an antidote to socialism) several years prior in a fit of rage and had also murdered a wealthy landowner's widow, Mrs. Pioppi (Alida Valli), whose husband had been economically ruined by Alfredo, in order to steal her land and home.
Alfredo is brought before Olmo's workers tribunal to stand trial. Many workers come forth and accuse Alfredo of letting them suffer in squalor while he (and his social class) profited from their labors and on top of that, he did nothing to stop the sadistic Attila. Alfredo is sentenced to death, but his execution is prevented after Olmo explains that the padrone is already dead even though Alfredo lives... that is, the social system has been overthrown with the end of the war. As soon as the verdict overturned, however, representatives of the new government, which includes the Communist Party, arrive and call on the peasants to turn in their arms. Olmo convinces the peasants to do so, overcoming their skepticism. Alfredo declares to Olmo: "The padrone is alive."