1900 (1976)

Bernardo Bertolucci | 5hr 17min

Most of Bernardo Bertolucci’s grand historical epic 1900 is set over a huge expanse of roughly 44 years, and none of them are the one referenced in the title. The death of Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi in 1901 marks the date that Alfredo Berlinghieri is born to wealthy landowners, and that Olmo Dalcò is born to a poor labouring family working on their estate, signposting the melodrama with an operatic landmark right at the start. So too does a significant piece of Italian history mark the major turning point in their relationship as adults, with their nation being liberated from the fascists at the end of World War II, and Alfredo being ousted from his inherited position of padrone. The title 1900 does not refer to a year, but the cultural and political shift of a century, condensed into a gloriously vivid 5-hour epic by Bernardo Bertolucci and a line-up of America and Europe’s greatest cinematic forces.

Simply assembling a creative team consisting of composer Ennio Morricone and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro already points 1900 towards success, but with a cast led by Robert de Niro and Gérard Depardieu, and featuring Donald Sutherland, Burt Lancaster, Hayden Sterling, and Alida Valli, the sheer abundance of talent is tremendous. Outside the world of cinema, Bertolucci draws heavy inspiration from Italian painter Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo in his visual staging and composition of rural Italian country sides, even using his most famous work, ‘The Fourth Estate’, as a backdrop to the opening credits. As the camera slowly zooms out from the face of the man in its centre, we slowly grasp the extraordinary scope of the workers’ strike behind him, and Bertolucci immediately lays out the film’s socialist politics which will dominate every aspect of his characters’ lives.

Through the opening credits, Bertolucci slowly zooms out from the painting ‘The Fourth Estate’, depicting a labor strike led by three workers.

The effect that this radical movement has on the two friends on either side of the class divide becomes the primary point of tension in 1900, building brilliant form in the constant counterpoints of privilege and poverty. Both their grandfathers, Alfredo the Elder and Leo, lead their respective divisions of the estate, one being the kind padrone who owns the land and the other being the spokesman of the peasants. Like their descendants, there is a mutual respect between them only barely concealed by Leo’s show of disdain, though when their grandchildren end up sharing the same birthday, little can hide the shared joy they feel.

The game these friends play on the train tracks becomes a recurring motif of unity and courage, returning at key points in their lives.

Before de Niro and Depardieu take over the parts of Alfredo and Olmo, we spend a full hour and a half in their childhoods, observing how completely opposite circumstances drive them closer together. In the large hall where all the workers eat, the food is plain, the community is strong, and Olmo is condemned by his own father to always be a bastard, “son of peasants, doomed to hunger.” His lowly station in life is as ingrained his identity as Alfredo’s entitlement, whose patrician feast of cooked frogs in his family’s countryside manor stands in direct contrast. Storaro relishes using the murals of flowers and plants as stunning backdrops to the aristocratic drama, where Alfredo is disciplined by his parents and distanced from any warmth. The dynamic camera movements that float down from ceilings and through walls instil both scenes with equal liveliness though, and ultimately bring both boys to each other in search of companionship away from adults.

Excellence in production design from the workers’ hall to the lavish dining room, formally comparing both sides of the wealth divide.

The match cut which jumps forward in time to the end of World War I lands with immense power, as the interior of a train carrying boys with red flags is darkened by a tunnel, before emerging again in an almost identically blocked image – though this time with de Niro’s Alfredo at the centre, surrounded by black-uniformed soldiers. The visual impact is huge, immediately sapping Bertolucci’s costumes and scenery of the rich colours which defined the film’s cinematography up until now. The bright country landscapes of verdant grass, thriving livestock, and golden sunlight fall away to bleak war camps, grey fog, and withering trees reflected in the large, silver lake, accompanying the rise of Italy’s fascist paramilitary group, the Blackshirts.

A smooth match cut leaping several years into the future, even arranging the actors in a similarly staged arrangement.
The colour palette changes drastically too, sapping the scenery of its warmth until the stark, lifeless forests are virtually monochrome.

It is a very different world to the one Olmo and Alfredo grew up in. The patriarchs of both families have passed, leaving Alfredo’s cruel father, Giovanni, to take over the role of padrone, who in turn hires the psychopathic Attila to replace Olmo’s father as foreman. In place of the warmth that both Lancaster and Hayden brought to their roles, we instead find Donald Sutherland’s toothy snarl, projecting a purely evil sadism out into the world that compensates for the lack of character complexity with sheer, brutish terror. Over the course of 1900, we will see him brutally headbutt a cat to death, swing a boy around a small room until his head caves in, and kill an elderly woman to take her property, each time getting away with it due to his powerful influence. Like Giovanni, he is sympathetic to the fascists taking over Italy and their hostility towards workers, though perhaps the most chilling part of it all is how easily Alfredo gives in to his will when he finally ascends to the role of padrone.

“The new fascist movement doesn’t want vengeance. We want order first. We are the new Crusaders, and we must instil courage in our youth.”

Within the context of interwar Italy, Attila thus becomes representative of a huge cultural and political shift taking place, not just exploiting workers, but also those in positions of power who are too weak-willed to stand against the tide of fascism. Frequently implied in this anti-union sentiment is the rising trend of automation, taking jobs from horses and labourers, and giving them to machines that never grow tired or protest conditions. As such, it is just as much in the gradual technological developments as it is the historical landmarks that Bertolucci illustrates the passage of time in 1900, consistently raising the stakes for Olmo and his fellow workers across all five hours of the film’s colossal run time.

A daunting performance from Donald Sutherland as the tyrannical foreman Attila. A pure force of evil.

It is fortunate that Bertolucci’s craft is so dauntingly impressive in moments like these, as the second half of 1900 tends to falter at times, denying Olmo’s wife Anita a proper death scene, resurrecting her later in a very brief appearance, and featuring some poor dubbing. This is an undeniably ambitious film though, and while it is dotted with flaws which hold it back from reaching the heights of his greatest work, The Conformist, Bertolucci’s compelling narrative and sweeping scope is more than worthy of huge admiration.

Like so many socialist-minded films before it, 1900 is especially captivating to watch in those scenes where masses of common people unite in huge demonstrations of worker rights, as Bertolucci makes the most of his epic canvas to stage scenes of immense hope and pride. As the Blackshirts come riding down towards Alfredo’s farm in one scene, he tracks his camera along a wave of peasant women lying flat on the ground, guarded from behind by the men waving sticks to block the soldiers’ path. Later on, Olmo and Anita lead a protest in the town square calling out the names of the men murdered by fascists, and are soon joined by an entire procession of fellow workers adorning their dark mourning clothes with splashes of red tied around their necks, showing solidarity for a cause the Blackshirts just can’t seem to quell.

Marvellously staged scenes of worker protests against the Blackshirts, consumed in these dreary, washed out landscapes.

For every victory though, there is a crushing defeat, as Alfredo’s final decision to fire Attila for attempting to sell off Olmo is followed by a purely evil retaliation. Before he departs the estate, he rounds up peasants behind barbed wire fences in the pouring rain and shoots them, leaving them to lie in the muddy ground. This is perhaps the most dour, colourless scene of the entire film – a far cry from the bright palettes from the prologue, which we are incidentally on the verge of returning to in marvellous bookends four or so hours apart.

In 1945, where we open and end the film, rebellion surges like a flash flood from the moment Mussolini’s death is joyously proclaimed, seeing the peasants wield the tools of their own subordination against the ruling class, Alfredo included. Held at gun point by a farm boy, de Niro’s gentle repetition of the assailant’s mutinous catchcry is at once quietly hopeful for the peasants’ future, and despairing for his own.

“Long live Stalin.”

Almost as if in response to the preceding scene of Attila’s cold-hearted murder some years earlier, a rainbow shines in the sky, marking a new beginning for a nation that has long lived under the cloud of a fascist dictatorship. The barbed wire fences which doomed them to his brutal massacre are torn down, slogans are painted over in blissful victory, and from beneath a giant red flag, Bertolucci filters sunlight that wraps the liberated peasants up in the colours of their socialist movement.

A return to bright colours as Italy is liberated from its fascist dictatorship – yellow vegetation, clear skies, red flags.

Such bright-eyed optimism is short-lived though, as with the arrival of new authorities calling the peasants to turn in their arms comes a recognition that the class struggle may never die. Olmo only saves Alfredo’s life by convincing them that the role of padrone is dead, and therefore their fight is done. Alfredo, however, knows better.

“The padrone is alive.”

In the now-empty courtyard, a pair of boys clash, much like Olmo and Alfredo did decades before. Sometime in the future, the two men, looking significantly older, continue to play fight in vineyards and along train tracks. By the end of 1900, Bertolucci’s bold artistic statement comes full circle on the patterns echoed throughout the lives of friends from opposing sides of society, landing the full weight of their intrinsic connection as operatically as the decades of Italian history it represents.

A brilliant return to the train tracks to end 1900 – a formally astounding choice that brings everything back to this unconventional friendship.

1900 is not currently streaming in Australia.

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