1900 (1976)
a.k.a. Novecento

D: Bernardo Bertolucci
S: Robert De Niro, Gerard Depardieu, Donald Sutherland

Peculiar epic charting some forty five years of Italian history in the twentieth century, opening on scenes of liberation at the end of the Second World War, then backtracking to follow the years from the turn of the century, marked by the birth of two children on a sprawling vineyard estate; one the grandson of the master of the house (Burt Lancaster), the other the grandson of the patriarch of the workers (Sterling Hayden). The destinies of the two boys are intertwined throughout the film, though this unabashedly left-wing polemic is at pains to point out that they remain eternally separate in every essential. As adults they are played by Robert De Niro and Gerard Depardieu respectively. De Niro is the largely well meaning aristocrat who is unable to transcend his destiny despite his hopes to be different. Depardieu is the angry proletarian who despite the friendship which he allows to develop between the two of them remains aloof and espoused to his political principles.

Though its texture and tone is of the sweeping historical epic, and running at over five hours it often attains a stately quality which suggests the gradual passage of time and history through shifts and changes which alter the perception of both, it is ultimately a very focused portrait of the evolution of ideas of social class in twentieth century Italy. Narrative storytelling is not its strongest element. On the contrary, the film is structured around a series of significant incidents which illustrate the points Bertolucci is eager to make regarding political and social inequality rather than a tightly-constructed story of family drama. It is a political film, not an entertainment. The viewer is not allowed to become lost in the happy haze of a gripping story well told, but is reminded constantly that these fictional characters are elements of a discourse which comes to an end with a rather absurdly literal coda which portrays them as old men still squabbling without resolution like boys wrestling in the tall grass for no reason other than because that is what they are.

Given this premise, it is not unexpected to find that the film does not so much detail Italian history as illustrate it in abstract through its characters. It assumes that viewers are generally familiar with the facts, and takes no time to establish the broader geo-political contexts of the two world wars, the Russian Revolution and the rise of fascism. Instead it concentrates on how the lives of its central characters intersect with these things, dealing mostly with the build up and aftermath rather than the events themselves. It is mostly set in the confines of the plantation estate and its satellite town, with momentary interludes in other locations. This enhances the idea that it is offered as a microcosm of Italy, further emphasised by its constant referral within itself to the fields, buildings and courtyards at different points in time which show how things have changed.

Visually rich and mostly well acted, the film does offer some pleasures despite its heavy demands of concentration and political allegiance. Its initial stages are marked by wonderful characterisations by Hayden and Lancaster which establish the fundamentals of the class drama which defines the film. Lancaster's Lording over his estate is not malevolent, yet he controls the lives of the workers by dint of his ownership of the property upon which they work. Hayden is adamant in his assertion of the workers' right to self-determination within these parameters, and raises them all to live as one family sharing everything equally with no illusions as to where they come in the order of things. In later years, De Niro is seen to continue his grandfather's legacy (though his avaricious father contributes to the worsening of worker/master relations during the crucial WWI period), yet to be equally unable to truly touch the lives of his employees. His is a state of denial and retardation, a refusal to acknowledge that his would-be kindness is equally as cruel as his father's suppression of a strike and cutting of workers' pay, because he remains 'master'. Depardieu meanwhile is portrayed in terms of maturation, translating his initial anger and necessary entrepreneurship into political consciousness with the development of organised socialism. He becomes a hero through positive action and resistance, not least of all against evil fascist farm manager Donald Sutherland, hired by De Niro's father to run his business. Both De Niro and Depardieu are effective playing these complex roles, and one eventually feels a great deal of sympathy for the former despite the level of anger directed towards him in the course of the narrative. Sutherland is quite unhinged in his role, matched by Laura Betti as his equally demented wife. Their sexual and violent excesses are, like the dramas of De Niro and Depardieu's characters, an obvious symbol of the degradation of fascism rather than a particular example (indeed, their scenes frequently threaten to turn the film into a giallo type horror).

Obviously in order for the film to work, the viewer must accept this kind of deliberate and transparent hyperbolic characterisation. Searching for believable and understandable behaviour is not rewarding. Dominique Sanda (from The Conformist) suffers particularly badly as De Niro's society wife, who abruptly transforms from a wild beauty with a 1920s free spirit to a tortured and lost soul when brought to live on the estate in what is clearly a polemical contrivance rather than a mark of true character development. Stefania Sandrelli (also of The Conformist) does not fall victim to this fate, but is equally a cipher of intelligent, committed socialist educationalist policies rather than a genuine personality as Depardieu's romantic interest and comrade. Her death takes place off screen in years lost to the narrative, and does little but provide the film with a daughter character to serve as a continuity of socialist principles in Depardieu's subsequent absence (following a run in with Sutherland involving horse manure).

This is the problem with the film which ultimately defeats it. Its points are well taken, but they are made rather too heavy-handedly. Its elephantine running time does not seem excessive given the scale of the enterprise, but it does seem unnecessary. It establishes its premise quickly, and then proceeds to beat it to death for five hours, ultimately ending where it began having proved little that was not obvious from the outset. Its interplay between the various characters or character-symbols is interesting, and the film is careful to offer as many configurations of political and social relations as is possible in five hours, but it does become redundant after a time. It is also slightly naive given its wholehearted endorsement of socialism, with only its final scenes portraying the surrender of proletarian arms to Liberation authorities and De Niro's chilling summation that "The master is alive," suggesting that the ideals of socialism remain frustrated by the realpolitik of the twentieth century.

For some it will still have value as a fully articulate socialist interpretation of twentieth century history, but as cinema it has relatively little to contribute. It is beautifully shot and decorated. It has many memorable scenes (and some unforgettable ones) and is a tribute to the craftsmanship with which it has been assembled. But for such a grand project it does little that has not been done before, and so finds itself a footnote to Bertolucci's own preceding, groundbreaking work in The Spider's Stratagem and The Conformist. Its length alone will also damn it to restricted audiences (though a shorter version running just over four hours is also available), further relegating it to a sub-stratum of cinema history. It seems that Bertolucci's vision for the film was greater than this, but that its destiny is not to join Battleship Potemkin and The Birth of a Nation at the vanguard of cinematic meditations upon history and political consciousness, but to disappear into the sui-generis wasteland of European Art House and film education.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.