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1900
cast: Robert De Niro, Gerard Depardieu, Donald Sutherland, Burt Lancaster, and Dominque Sanda

director: Bernardo Bertolucci

327 minutes (18) 1976
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
20th Century Fox DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 3/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Ah the crush! The hype! When 1900 (aka: Novecento) premiered at the Cannes film festival in 1976 expectations could not have been higher. Bernardo Bertolucci was seen as the greatest Italian filmmaker since Fellini, and he had just come out of the huge international success that was Last Tango In Paris (1974). When it first screened, 1900 was over six hours long and the critical response was less than rapturous. Here was a film that had clearly gone very, very wrong. Due to its bloated running time and heavy-handed trumpeting of socialism, the film struggled to find an audience in America, prompting the producer to make his own shorter cut.

For a while it looked like 1900 would never be screened again but then Bertolucci proposed a compromised cut which was an hour shorter than the version on this DVD but it managed to include every single scene. The fact that Bertolucci was able to cut an hour out of this film simply by trimming speaks volumes of how out of control this project clearly was. Over 30 years later, it is easy to see why Cannes audiences were under-whelmed as, despite its large cast of characters, epic time-span and romantic themes, 1900 struggles to say anything in the least bit interesting.

The film begins on an Italian farm on the day of Verdi's death. Two boys are born on the same day; one the grandson of the local landowner and the other the grandson of the patriarch of the family of peasants that work the land. The two boys grow up side by side and, despite their social differences, become firm friends. Meanwhile, Alfredo's (a sleepy Robert De Niro) land-owning father dies, leaving the farm in the hands of his more ruthless and greedy son. When the harvest fails, Alfredo's father cuts the peasants' wages in two and starts off a war between the landowners and the communist-backed peasantry. Before long, the landowner has hired ruthless foreman Attila (the magnificently evil Donald Sutherland) and then prompted both him and the other landowners to embrace fascism in the hope of crushing the nascent farming unions.

At this point, Alfredo and Olmo (a remarkably thin and non-physical Depardieu) are grown men, trying to find their way in the world. Sick of his father's brutality, Alfredo travels to the city where he lives with his uncle and meets his future wife (a predictably underwritten but well filmed Dominque Sanda). When Alfredo's father dies, he returns to the farm to find it overrun by the fascistic black shirts who spend their time doing absurdly brutal things like head-butting a cat to death, and twirling a child around and around and then smashing its head repeatedly into a wall (and no, I'm not joking or exaggerating... how else could we be expected to know that fascism is evil?).

However, despite the protests of his youth, Alfredo accepts the burdens of his new position of 'padrone' and tolerates the actions of Attila as long as he keeps it out of the sight of his wife. The tensions between the socialist peasantry and the fascist-backed landowners grow stronger and stronger until the rage erupts and Attila is pelted with manure, an action he repays by randomly shooting a number of peasants. As the film ends, the action moves forward to the end of the Second World War when the downfall of the fascist government results in the peasants making their move for freedom and taking over the land they have long worked. Alfredo is found and put on trial for his crimes as a landowner but Olmo decides that it is only the boss inside him that is dead... Alfredo must remain alive.

This is a film that deals in broad sentimental brush strokes rather than the psychology of fine characterisation or the analytical structure of a film that examines proper political issues. There's never any doubt in Bertolucci's mind that the peasants are morally superior to the owners of the land. Alfredo's father and Attila (the hun... geddit?!) are greedy, self-serving sadists who engage in actions of absurd and comical brutality as their moral status is driven home again and again in the most heavy-handed way imaginable. Faced with such unreconstructed evil, it follows naturally that any revolution would be justified no matter how ridiculous the justification or brutal the means of overthrow.

Obviously, this is the type of logic that has been used to justify every act of barbarism in man's history. First you demonise the opposition, then you can crush them safe in the knowledge that no matter what you do, you can't be criticised as you're not one of the evil people. Clearly, Bertolucci's political naivet´┐Ż is without limits. When the time comes for arguments to be heard, the only justifications put forward for killing the boss is that he's rich and the peasants are poor. But Alfredo is ultimately spared because Olmo suggests that if you remove him from the position of padrone then he will become the good man he once was again. So on the one hand, we have a film that deals in moral absolutes so simple you'd think you were in an action film, but on the other, Bertolucci wants to plead mitigating circumstances for one of his characters. If it's the position of padrone which turns good men towards evil, then what of the other landowners? What of Alfredo's father? What of Attila the foreman? 1900 offers no answers to these questions... it prefers to wrap itself in the red flag, and gloss-over the details of revolution.

Obviously, the film is beautiful to look at. In the film's five hours there are a number of memorable scenes and Bertolucci beautifully frames each section of the film in the colours and atmosphere of the seasons. Aside from Sutherland killing a cat there's also Depardieu killing a pig, a white horse that's brought into a wedding, a young boy walking down a long trestle table whilst talking to his grandfather and the local peasantry rejoicing under a gigantic red flag composed of all the home made flags of the socialists, in the hope of protecting themselves from fascist aggression. However, as beautiful as the film is it fails to say anything or explore any of the characters in any depth. Instead we have things happening and looking beautiful but there's no sense of any progress or any conflict being resolved. Stuff just happens. The film's lack of direction and point is perfectly summarised by its ending, where an elderly Olmo and Alfredo wrestle each other before Alfredo summons up the courage to throw himself under a train. Silly, throwaway and clearly a desperate attempt to make a final point, the ending perfectly suits a film that was clearly so completely and utterly out of control.
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