There are, at least, two names in this movie from 1976 that would attract any die-hard moviegoer of nowadays: director Bernardo Bertolucci («The Conformist» (1970), «The Last Emperor»(1987))and actor Robert de Niro (no need to mention some of his films, I believe).
In words of the former «‘1900’ is a socialist ‘Gone with the Wind.'» After hearing this, one hesitates as to whether he meant that his movie had, like such a classic, an epic aura to it, or that he was just as ambitious as to placing his own movie on the same level as Victor Fleming’s 1939 classic.
I personally believe that it’s just hard for any consummated moviegoer not to idealize about what this movie is going to be, even before seeing it. I’ve read some reviews around here, and some people admit having bought a copy of this movie without having ever seen it before.
One primary yet crucial flaw in this movie is its interesting lack of commitment to being faithful to the story itself in relation to the characters. This movie is basically about Italy and some basic history that affected the natural course of the politics and the economy in that country during the first half of the 20th century (the crisis between the two World Wars and the rise of fascism and communism, as a consequence of the social and political turmoil that unfolded during those years). The movie features a luxurious cast with Robert de Niro, Gerard Depardieu, Estefania Sandrelli, Sterling Hayden, Burt Lancaster, Donald Sutherland and Dominique Sanda, among others; which very much ends up fusing away the entity of the film as an Italian epic. It is a mystery why Bertolucci opted to count on such a diverse and multicultural cast. While seeing the movie, one feels just awkward while seeing Robert de Niro speaking English and busting out his American accent, and other non-American actors speaking English with diverse European accents. One wonders why the director was not interested in emphasizing the epic and historic glow of the production he had between his hands, by making the actors speak some Italian, like De Niro himself did in Coppola’s «The Godfather II» (1974). Having shot the movie in Italian -or at least not having dubbed it into English-and having had more Italian stars would have helped this production have a more centered heart in relation to the place and the story. We can sense that this was an European movie somehow polluted by Made-in-. We are impelled to be constantly reminded that we are in Italy and that all the actors (even Sutherland) are playing Italians characters.
The movie has the ambitious premise of contemplating the relationship -during forty years-of a son of landowners (Robert de Niro) and a man from a family of peasants (Gerard Depardieu), who happen to have been born on the same day in the year 1900. All this is viewed letting the historical context glow. The movie intends to examine how the decisive changes that history would bring about during this period, are going to inextricably change the way these two men see each other. In a movie of this kind- with such strong pretensions and such wide lenses toward what it wants to capture-the editing is fundamental and a maximum priority. The original running-time of this movie was nearly six hours. Its producer, Alberto Grimaldi, reportedly wanted, at any rate, cut it down to four. Bertolucci resolved to do his best in order to both keep the magnitude of the story and soften the threatening perspectives that the studios had for his picture. The final result is a rough-edited movie, with a serious problem of continuity. The story is told, but it doesn’t flow. It wouldn’t be surprising if sometimes, while seeing it, you ask yourself, in disconcert, what you have just missed.
The music is a letdown too. Except for the central theme, which has a clearly Italian feel to it, the rest sounds awkward and out-of-place. This comes from the fact that this movie has a clearly left-winged bias which is manifested in the way it presents both the fascists and the communists. The communists are seen as primitive but good-hearted people, and the fascists are basically depicted as despotic, sadistic killers. At times, the characterizations of them are so stereotypical and uni-dimensional that somehow we feel as though we are viewing mere grotesque caricatures. The gloominess displayed in the characterizations of the decadence of the dominant class somewhat reminded me of another film directed by another Italian director, Luchino Visconti–«The Damned» (1969)–which tackled the irresistible degeneration of the upper class in Nazi Germany. Interestingly, Burt Lancaster’s role as the mentally disturbed patriarch of the family of landowners in «1900,» is a clear homage to another film by Visconti–«The Leopard»(1965)–in which the actor himself played the role of an Italian aristocrat who witnesses the moral decadence in his family during the unification process of that country against the Austrian-Hungarian Empire rule in the mid 1800’s.
After seeing «1900» and keeping in mind Bertolucci’s definition of the movie (above) one can quickly pick up on the fact that he was a communist (at least at the time he made this movie). This could bring both an obstacle to the way the story was supposed to be told (like it happened here) and a positive trait to it, bringing personality to the work. Unfortunately, the movie is so transparent in its ideals that it becomes uninteresting shortly after the beginning. The relationship between the two protagonists is so abrupt in its development (this is greatly due to the disastrous editing) that we do not have the time, at any moment, to grasp a picture of a friendship gone wrong.
The acting in this movie is just odd and no one comes out unscathed, partly due to a curious lack of general chemistry among the actors. One really gets chills when Donald Sutherland’s character (Atilla) is on scene. He is a servant for De Niro’s family who has turned into a «black shirt» (Fascist police). When his character appears, he is intended to be a sinister man and so he is. The bleak music in his scenes and the dark cinematography play an important role here. Most of his scenes expose him with an edgy personality that comes closer to a creepy horror movie-character than to a character with political yet disturbed qualities. Most of his scenes are awkwardly gruesome and off-the-wall (when he kills that little boy by busting his head against a wall, as he, playfully and violently, spins him around holding him by the ankles, is an example). Robert de Niro’s acting in this movie is hard to analyze, because he plays a character so different from the ones we would be most likely to remember him by. His character lacks focus and complexity and when he is on scene, we feel as though he were just «passing through.» Perhaps because his role called for it, he gives a performance with a curious mixture of unusual lack of self-control and an utter sense of hollowness– We all are familiar with his usual facial expressions and his palpable sense of self-control and rigidness. His performance in this movie is a total departure from the way he usually envisions his characters.
The cinematography is quite beautiful (work of Vittorio Storaro), but unfortunately, it also bears the same biased spirit as the story it is giving background to. It stands out, above all, red tones to underscore the essence of communism as «a big red curtain that promises to cover and protect the lives of decent, hard-working people for years to come.» This sentence finds its actual reflection at the end of the movie when, after WWII, the fall of fascism is a fact, and all the peasants celebrate the death of Mussolini and the liberation of the working class by holding all together a gigantic red carpet which colorfully displays the communist symbol of the time: a sickle and a hammer in an X-shaped cross.
«Novecento» (or its American title «1900») is like an ill-fated ship that risked too much of what had on board for the sake of going for the topical and typical left-winged propaganda. «Novecento»- in spite of its visual splendor and its notable, controversial echoes from the post-production room- is a movie that could have been more if only it had dared be more faithful to its own rebellious heart.