(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2007)
I started watching the DVD of Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900 on December 6 of last year, and finished it 19 days later, on Christmas Day. This viewing stretched across four locations – Toronto, Heathrow airport, a London hotel, and finally my parents’ house in Wales – and migrated from considerable initial boredom to ultimate near-exaltation (and not just because of seasonal goodwill). It seems to me that very few people have seen the film, but all who love cinema should. This is not the same as saying you’ll appreciate it, let alone enjoy it, but the film ultimately repays the investment you make in it, despite (and in large part because of) that investment’s very grueling nature.
Given all of this, there were certainly times when it seemed unlikely I would ever reach the end of 1900, not that I was sure it would even have an ending. The film starts in 1901, following two boys born on the same day, one to a wealthy landowner and the other to a peasant on his estate. The two become friends, but Italy is evolving, and one finds himself drawn into Fascism (depicted here mainly as capitulation to his psychopathic land supervisor, who uses ideology as a smokescreen for grotesquely self-serving excesses) while the other becomes a hero of the proletarian resistance. Their turbulent relationship, encompassing many personal ups and downs, takes them to the end of WW2, when Mussolini is deposed and the tide finally turns; their friendship survives the reckoning, and the film ends on a snapshot of the two years later, still jostling, almost to the death, their lives still helplessly intertwined.
History and Sexuality
Most writers seem unconvinced of the film’s merits as history, and Bertolucci himself seems diffident on this point (saying for instance of the ending: “I can’t even explain the poetic license”). At the time he was an outspoken Marxist, and the film is at least in part a knowing fantasy on the corrupt malevolence of Fascism and the inherent goodness and inevitable historical triumph of socialism. It’s become increasingly clear though (through films like Stealing Beauty) that Bertolucci has a basic comfort level with the traditional Italian good life, and 1900’s broader ambitions consistently give way to affectionate, dawdling immersion in (visually stunning) historical recreation, usually with a rustic or pastoral inclination.
Bertolucci is also known of course for his interest in sexuality. He made 1900 right after Last Tango In Paris, and he spoke in one interview at his regret for not having depicted Brando full frontally naked in the earlier film. 1900 does almost everything possible to remedy that wrong, working in quite an eye popping collection of erotic and scatological imaginings (it also has some quite shockingly raw violence, particularly in the actions of that evil land supervisor). Some might find this material ugly and self-indulgent, and yet the imagination and conviction Bertolucci brings to it is rather stunning. There’s a recurring sense of investigation and curiosity and self-imagining, whether it be two young boys examining each other’s genitals, or a wealthy young woman imagining herself as blind, and this intersects with a Pasolini-like earthiness and sense of authenticity (the most notorious example perhaps being a scene where the peasants, in a brief episode of release, attack their tormentors with fresh cow dung). Contrasting with the sweeping grandeur of other aspects of the film, this builds a cumulative sense of immense variability, and of a more than merely impressionistic engagement with at least some aspect of the Italian soul.
The film is also notable for its amazing cast. The DVD comes with three soundtracks, depending on whether you’d rather hear the American (Robert De Niro, Burt Lancaster, Donald Sutherland), French (Gerard Depardieu, Dominique Sanda) or Italian actors (just about everyone else) in their native tongues (I chose the Italian, with English subtitles). The cast doesn’t really “work” - the mesh of styles and languages is a bit too obvious, and the weight of so many star images and allusions is more than the premise can bear (Bertolucci said he wanted to make “a dialectic movie, between Hollywood actors and peasants, prose and poetry, money and red flags”). De Niro (who by the way exposes himself as never before or since) doesn’t really create the tragic sweep that his character seems to require (in contrast for example to the later Once Upon a Time in America, which has a similar structure in some respects). But all these caveats aside, it’s the kind of group that will seldom if ever be assembled again, and it’s fascinating to watch throughout.
It’s plain from the above that I’m not really inclined to try “analyzing” the film, even to the extent I ever analyze anything. The film sprawls, overflows, sputters, flourishes, lives and dies. Its director seems to be as much in control as he wants to be, but I’ve always found Bertolucci’s directorial persona (while fascinating and admirable) a little hard to summarize in any event, and 1900 might be the ultimate example of something you vaguely recognize as reflecting “genius” while (at least after one viewing) finding little means of expressing what that actually consists of. Maybe this is just capitulation to size and scope and sheer weirdness. But what’s wrong with that once in a while (if five and a half hours can ever be termed a “while”)? According to the Senses of Cinema website, Bertolucci “has often described the experience as akin to having all his bones crushed,” and you may often feel that way too, but then they reassemble, and it’s all rather stimulating.