Paramount // 1976 // 315 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Ryan Keefer (Retired) // December 5th, 2006
An epic masterpiece of friendship and betrayal.
You've got to hand it to the Italians, they know how to make their sprawling, decades-long films. In between The Best of Youth and this, there are almost 12 hours of film to enjoy. Top that runtime, Peter Jackson! Anyway, after years of never seeing the light of day for one reason or another, the full-on director's cut of 1900 finally appears on DVD, the way director Bernardo Bertolucci (The Last Emperor, Little Buddha) intended. How does it stack up?
Written by Bertolucci, his brother Giuseppe (Luparella) and Franco Arcalli (Once Upon a Time in America), 1900 is the birth year of Alfredo (Robert De Niro, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) and Olmo (Gerard Depardieu, Cyrano de Bergerac, Green Card). Alfredo is the son of a wealthy landowner who ritually treats the servants on his farm poorly, paying them slave's wages while he enjoys the fruits of their labor. Olmo is the charismatic young peasant boy who is raised by his grandfather (Sterling Hayden, Dr. Strangelove). Alfredo despises his father -- who frequently treats the help poorly -- and finds more in common with his Uncle Ottavio (Werner Bruhns, The Odessa File). Despite the obstacles of each class, the boys find friendship with each other for the most part, but it fades away when Olmo eventually goes to the army. The film follows the boys into manhood, living their lives in Italy during German occupation, then liberation, and into their golden years.
Having not been exposed too much to the works of Bertolucci (aside from the later stuff), the only things I'd really known about 1900 were what Alexander Payne (Election) and others told me from an interesting documentary called Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession. The market for this film is for many an art house, but to briefly sum up the history of the film as far as I understand it, when the film was first released, the concept of showing it in two halves just wasn't feasible, so Bertolucci compromised with producer Alberto Grimaldi (Gangs of New York) to release a shorter cut. So now, all 315 minutes of Bertolucci's vision finally come to American video buyers.
Having never seen the original version, there are a lot of startling scenes in it. Animals are killed, sometimes for necessity, and other times to viciously illustrate a point of view on a government system. And Alfredo and Olmo have a tendency to compare themselves with each other early on in their lives. At first, the comparison is to help illustrate the means each child has (or doesn't have).Up until the time the boys become men and visit a prostitute, the difference is more in their personalities.
Complicating things a little bit more is the rise of Attila (Donald Sutherland, Space Cowboys, M*A*S*H*), a fascist who is a symbol of the Mussolini rise in popularity that occurred during that time. Sutherland is a mean, vicious character obviously designed to mirror the hatred Italians had towards Mussolini, but it seems like Olmo, who grows up to be a communist organizer, even if he's not a very influential one, is the comfortable alternative. Now, is Bertolucci saying that communism is a decent alternative? Well, against capitalism, we can discuss it for another time, but compared to fascism, I'd certainly eat fly-ridden pieces of polenta with anchovies, as opposed to the tyranny and cold-blooded nature with which Attila goes about his life.
However, Bertolucci does manage to withhold some reservations about communism, which appear at the end of the film. Alfredo says a small sentence to Olmo, that sets him off, and the pair physically tussle for the last few minutes of the film, but it's the unstated things that happen in what's said that offend Olmo. He's wasted his whole life and doesn't even know it.
The performances aren't terribly bad, though they do seem a little inconsistent. Depardieu is suitable, De Niro is pretty good but tails off a little bit towards the end, but it's Sutherland's actions that really make him out to be a despicable character. For the short time he's in the film, Alfredo's grandfather (played by Burt Lancaster, The Leopard) is nice, despite a scene near the end that washes away some of the goodwill he exhibits.
On a technical level, the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation that 1900 sports isn't too bad, which leads me to think that the uncut film was still in pretty good shape when it was recently released in Europe. The audio gives you a choice of English, French and Audio options, which are passable. On the supplement side of things, the only things of note on the disc are two separate interview segments with Bertolucci and Director of Photography Vittorio Storaro (Reds, The Last Emperor), who each recall how the production went and their opinions of the story, then and now.
Well, obviously a commentary is out of the question, but the practical part of the film that did exasperate me was the clash of American and Italian dialects. Call me nutty, I'm one of those people who enjoys watching a film in its (dominant) native tongue, and listening to the American actors against the Italians just didn't mesh for me. It never does. It's a small gripe, but a gripe nonetheless.
After seeing some decent recommendations of 1900, maybe my expectations were a little bit high when I popped this into the player. But where Best of Youth focuses more on the characters and the story the film tells, 1900 seems more in love with the ideas that are suggested, but doesn't provide many compelling things for the characters to do. I feel bad saying that I didn't like this, but c'est la vie.
Bertolucci is found not guilty for the intent, but guilty in the execution. My apologies to the jury, this one just doesn't tickle the fancy of the court.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Italian)
Running Time: 315 Minutes
Release Year: 1976
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Interviews with Director Bernardo Bertolucci and Director of Photography Vittorio Storaro