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.

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

Nicolas Roeg | 2hr 19min

Perhaps the first thing we notice about David Bowie’s off-beat, androgynous alien, Newton, is how remarkably human he is. There is no suggestion of him being an extra-terrestrial in the title The Man Who Fell to Earth, nor do many of the people he comes across suspect that his biology is any different to theirs. In stark contradiction, the second thing we might realise is his innate, irreconcilable foreignness. With his mismatching eyes, blazing red hair, alternative fashion sense, and British accent setting him apart from the rest of New Mexico, the social concept of the ‘Other’ is manifested here as a lone, tangible figure. Though we get the odd glimpse of his true visage – a white, hairless figure with yellow eyes and vertical pupils – it is primarily Bowie’s natural, otherworldly presence which reveals the sheer distance between Newton and his Earthly surroundings, literalising the alienation felt by citizens of a material, modern world.

Quite unusually for the science-fiction genre, The Man Who Fell to Earth is not based on high-concept hypotheticals or dazzling production designs, but rather seeks to understand its central alien character from a sociological perspective, built through an eccentric array of montages, flashbacks, and cutaways. There is no surprise that this is the work of Nicolas Roeg, whose piecing together of disjointed visual fragments picks up where Jean-Luc Godard’s avant-garde editing left off, and goes on to assemble an image of existential isolation within maximalist environments.

Roeg has a commitment to avant-garde visuals, turning his actors towards the camera and stretching their faces in mirrors.

Newton is further than ever from his home planet of sprawling, arid deserts, and though Roeg’s exotic mise-en-scene is notably bizarre with strange train-like hovels and a particularly striking spaceship interior of protruding, black cylinders, intricate world building is not the aim here. Instead, it is Earth that becomes the playground of our exploration, experienced through the eyes of an alien whose soul is torn between two worlds. Finding and bringing water back to his drought-stricken home planet is Newton’s goal here, and although he encounters an abundance of it when he first comes crashing down in a New Mexico lake, it doesn’t take long for him to get side-tracked. On Earth, this precious, life-giving resource is taken for granted, while the luxuries of television sets and alcohol tempt its people into escapist fantasies, paradoxically uniting them under an indulgent disconnection.

World building is not necessarily Roeg’s main focus here, but he still crafts bizarre alien scenery in Newton’s many flashbacks.
Even greater production design in Newton’s spaceship, looking like a wine cellar of black bottles with a giant, white orb in its centre.

Newton is not impervious to this either. For all the wholesome facets of humanity he absorbs with an open mind, he equally keeps falling deeper into its cheap decadence, even going so far as to set up an entire room of television sets for maximum exposure to the outside world. Animal documentaries play next to comedy shows and old Hollywood movies, forming a kaleidoscopic backdrop of sorts behind his human lover, Mary Lou, as she furiously chastises him for his indulgence, and is ultimately drowned out by their incomprehensible noise.

Rooms and walls lined with televisions, packing these scenes with a great deal of social commentary without hitting it too hard.

Within Newton’s mind, this ability to perceive so much information at once is simultaneously a remarkable neurological gift and a crippling weakness, shifting his attention away from his original goal and bouncing it around splinters of memories, diversions, and worldly pleasures. Just as montages cut rapidly between the various images flickering across his television sets, so too do they tenderly unfold his new, settled life with Mary Lou, seeing them play together naked and seek out his home planet with a telescope. Red lens flares and camera zooms often unexpectedly punctuate these scenes too, developing a curiously agitated aesthetic that Roeg blends well with his mix of jump cuts and long, dreamy dissolves, pushing his violently jagged pacing to its limit. With several sequences displaying a skilful intercutting between locations, characters, and timelines to top this off, his bold exercise in avant-garde style and structure effectively matches the erratic mind of an alien who can barely settle on a single train of thought.

Red lens flares become a formal motif tied to Newton’s alien character.
The greatest feature of Roeg’s film – the editing, diverse in the techniques he employs but always potent.

In this way, further connections are built between Newton’s culture and the one he is discovering on Earth, drawing surreal parallels between human and alien sex as vaguely common ground. Upon discovering her lover’s true identity, Mary Lou initiates awkward, passionless foreplay with him, though Newton’s mind can’t help drifting back to grotesque images of his species’ version of the act, seeing pale, extra-terrestrial bodies flipping around each other and drip with a viscous, white fluid. Through Roeg’s inventive collision of these sexual rituals, we understand how the differences between both races can be reconciled on a basic, biological level, and yet the moment that the truth of his identity comes light, there is no recovering the connection they shared before. As Mary Lou suffers a breakdown over this realisation, Roeg swaps out his regular lens for a fish-eye effect, briefly warping what was once a familiar space into a twisted, extra-terrestrial world.

Skilful cross-cutting between human and alien sex, tying both species closer together.
A fish-eye lens as Mary Lou breaks down in the kitchen, perhaps seen through Newton’s alien eyes.

Much like the ‘human zoo’ of 2001: A Space Odyssey where Dave spends the final years of his life, the stark, white room where Newton is ultimately captured and studied by scientists becomes a prison of sorts, passing several decades in what feels like minutes. Where Dave ages and eventually evolves into a new life form though, Newton’s fate as a perpetually youthful, unchanging being carries sadder implications. He continues to indulge in the alcohol and entertainment of the human world, and his contact lenses are even fused to his alien eyes by accident during one unfortunate operation, keeping him from appearing as his natural self ever again. Ultimately though, the lonely space he occupies between the two species is impossible to ignore. The title of Roeg’s film may suggest a science-fiction tale of great wonder, but with this ending, it describes a darker, more urgent social allegory – this is a man who could have been great, but fell to Earth’s worldly distractions, cheaply imitating a life he can never truly embrace.

Newton’s prison designed much like the ‘human zoo’ of 2001: A Space Odyssey, seeing the decades fly past in what feels like a short expanse of time for our protagonist.

The Man Who Fell to Earth is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

The Scar (1976)

Krzysztof Kieslowski | 1hr 52min

Somewhere deep in the heart of Poland, loggers, developers, and civil servants are hard at work discussing plans. Their silhouettes stand behind columns of trees, splitting the frame into fragments that will soon coalesce into whole images as the natural vegetation is cut down. It might look as if the forest is collapsing in on itself, though down below we can clearly see men with chainsaws carving out a blank canvas for their associates to build on. Krzysztof Kieslowski had experimented in the realm of documentary and television before this point, but his theatrical feature debut The Scar acts as a launch pad for an illustrious career that would only go on to reach grander heights, probing questions in the realm of politics, metaphysics, and religion.

Relative to his great masterpieces of 80s and 90s cinema, The Scar is a modest piece of social realism, so grounded in the details of Communist Poland’s bureaucracy and use of non-professional actors that one might mistake certain scenes as being entirely real. At town forums where locals protest the development of the new chemical factory, dialogue spills out chaotically, and it isn’t hard to believe that the constant stumbling and interruptions might just be authentic expressions of anger. Though we are sympathetic to their plights, it is Party member Stefan Bednarz whose journey is placed at the forefront here, struggling against both the short-term thinking of the angry townspeople and the inefficient administration of his own co-workers. Kieslowski’s scathing critiques of Poland’s attempts at progress are organically woven into these interactions, each one chipping away at Stefan’s idealism until all we are left with is a frustrated, disillusioned man.

From behind glass windows, Stefan looks out at the industrial results of his efforts. Steel beams and towering concrete structures imprint against the frigid white landscapes of the Polish winter where trees once stood, like colossal monuments to human progress. Though The Scar is rooted in a realistic style like most of Kieslowski’s early work, there is something a little otherworldly in his sparse musical score, particularly memorable in the scene of Stefan switching the lights on and off from within his office. When it is dark, we can see the industrial architecture outside, though when the lights come up we catch his reflection in the glass, infused with the modern development that, depending on any character’s perspective, has either destroyed this small town or given it a future.

“We haven’t accomplished all we wanted to here. And neither have I,” laments Stefan towards the end of the years-long project, wishing to leave it at the earliest possible opportunity. Seeing his colleagues kick out a reporter with whom he has developed a casual friendship is one of the last straws. The government’s lack of openness not just with the public but within its own ranks is its ultimate downfall, failing to connect with the state of the world in any meaningful way.

That detachment is one that pays off towards the end as the men in suits stand multiple storeys above the congregating factory workers below, staring in fear at what possible unionisation might be taking place to dethrone them from their tower. The sequence is wordless but powerful, delivering both a sense of unease and a taste of hopeful change on the horizon. Perhaps this potential uprising could have been averted had there been more men like Stefan in the Party, though that may be too optimistic for Kieslowski. As far as we see in The Scar, Poland’s soulless, corrupt bureaucracy is operating exactly as it was intended.

The Scar is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.