1900 - Film (Movie) Plot and Review


Italy, 1976

Director: Bernardo Bertolucci

Production: TCF, PEA, Artistes Associés, and Artemis Productions; Technicolor, 35mm; running time: originally 320 minutes, US version is 245 minutes, usually shown in two parts. Released Cannes Film Festival, 1976.

Producer: Alberto Grimaldi; screenplay: Bernardo Bertolucci, Franco Arcalli, and Giuseppe Bertolucci; photography: Vittorio Stovaro; editor: Franco Arcalli; art director: Enzo Frigiero; music: Ennio Morricone.

Cast: Robert De Niro ( Alfredo, the grandson ); Burt Lancaster ( Alfredo, the grandfather ); Romolo Valli ( Giovanni ); Anna-Marie Gherardi ( Eleonora ); Laura Betti ( Regina ); Paolo Pavesi ( Alfredo, as a child ); Dominique Sanda ( Ada ); Sterling Hayden ( Leo Dalco ); GĂ©rard Depardieu ( Olmo Dalco ); Roberto Maccanti ( Olmo, as a child ); Stefania Sandrelli ( Anita Foschi ); Donald Sutherland ( Attila ); Werner Bruhns ( Octavio ); Alida Valli ( Signora Pioppi ); Francesca Bertini ( Sister Desolata ).



Bertolucci, Bernardo, and others, 1900 , Turin, 1976.


Casetti, F., Bertolucci , Florence, 1975.

Hunter, Allan, Burt Lancaster: The Man and His Movies , New York, 1980; Edinburgh, 1984.

Kuhlbrodt, Dietrich, and others, Bernardo Bertolucci , Munich, 1982.

Ungari, Enzo, Bertolucci , Milan, 1982.

Kolker, Robert Phillip, Bernardo Bertolucci , London, 1985.

Cameron-Wilson, James, The Cinema of Robert De Niro , London, 1986.

Lacombe, Roland, Burt Lancaster , Paris, 1987.

Kline, T. Jefferson, Bertolucci's Dream Loom: A Psychoanalytic Study of the Cinema , Amherst, Massachusetts, 1987.

Tonetti, Claretta, Bernardo Bertolucci , New York, 1995.


" 1900 Issue" of Filmcritica (Rome), July 1976.

Le Puyat, S., and M. Olmi, in Téléciné (Paris), October 1976.

Bickley, D., and others, in Cinéaste (Paris), Winter 1976–77.

Elbert, L., in Cinemateca Revista (Montevideo), 1976–77.

Gilbert, B., "Bertolucci's 1900 : Stormy Beginnings," in Cinema Papers (Melbourne), January 1977.

Schepelern, P. in Kosmorama (Copenhagen), Spring 1977.

Alemanno, R., in Cinema Nuovo (Bari), March-April 1977. Filmfaust (Frankfurt), April-May 1977.

Netzeband, G., in Film und Fernsehen (Berlin), June 1977.

di Bernardo G., interview with Bernardo Bertolucci, in Skrien (Amsterdam), July-August 1977.

De Vico, F., and R. Degni, "Bertolucci: Interview 2," in Skrien (Amsterdam), September 1977.

Canby, Vincent, in New York Times , 8 October 1977.

Cornand, A., in Image et Son (Paris), November 1977.

Young, D., "History Lessons," in Film Comment (New York), November-December 1977.

Quart, Leonard, " 1900 : Bertolucci's Marxist Opera," in Cineaste (New York), Winter 1977–78.

Erikson, S., in Filmavisa (Oslo), no. 1–2, 1978.

Sevensson, A., in Filmrutan (Stockholm), no. 1, 1978.

Paret, R., in Cinéma Québec (Montreal), no. 4–5, 1978.

Dean, D., in Films in Review (New York), January 1978.

Forbes, Jill, in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), January 1978.

Aitken, W., in Take One (Montreal), March 1978.

Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey, in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1978.

Gow, Gordon, in Films and Filming (London), April 1978.

Karaganov, A., "Vom Monolog sum Epos," in Film und Fernsehen (Berlin), April 1978.

Arbasino, A., in Cine (Mexico City), May 1979.

Horton, A., "History as Myth and Myth as History in Bertolucci's 1900 ," in Film and History (Newark, New Jersey), February 1980.

Firas, I. Leon, in Hablemos de Cine (Lima), November 1980.

Filmcritica (Rome), October-November 1984.

Burgoyne, Robert, "The Somatization of History in Bertolucci's 1900 ," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Autumn 1986.

Burgoyne, Robert, "Temporality as Historical Background in Bertolucci's 1900 ," in Cinema Journal (Austin), Spring 1989.

Alion, Yves, "[ Novecento ] 1900 ," in Mensuel du Cinéma , July-August 1993.

Castoro Cinema , November/December 1995.

Jenkens, E., "Charivari Rituals and the 'Revoltist Tradition," in 1900 ," in Cinefocus (Bloomington, Indiana), vol. 4, 1996.

* * *

Bernardo Bertolucci's 1900 (Novecento) is an attempt at a "popular," accessible film presenting the complexities of the social and political history of Italy between 1901 and 1945, specifically in the region twenty miles from Parma, where the director was born and brought up. It exists in two versions—an original Italian-language epic, five and half hours long, and an abridged English and French version, 75 minutes shorter and often shown in two parts, which is what most viewers have seen. In either version the central themes of this epic film are the same: the local struggle between the peasants and the feudal landowners and, on the national and local levels alike, the rise and fall of Fascism. In taking on such an ambitious set of themes Bertolucci raises high expectations; unfortunately, he does not fulfill them.

The structure of 1900 is premised on a flashback from the opening scene—set on Liberation Day, 25 April 1945—telling the story of a friendship spanning forty years between Alfredo (Robert De Niro), from the landowning class and Olmo (Gerard Depardieu), from the peasantry, both born on 27 January 1901, the day (as we are told in the film) that the great Italian operatic composer Guiseppe Verdi died. The date presumably symbolises the end of the 19th century, but it also hints that the film is to be seen as within the tradition inaugurated by Verdi's tragic operas. The first part of the film, dealing with the relations between the two boys' families, unfolds against the background of a major peasant revolt in 1908, which includes Alfredo's grandfather, the padrone Berlinghieri (Burt Lancaster), among its targets; the First World War, in which Alfredo and Olmo both fight; and their witnessing of the beginnings of Fascism. Although Alfredo is shown to be sympathetic to the poor and degraded peasants, he follows the destiny of his class, while Olmo's slow development of political consciousness does not go so far as to affect their friendship. In this part Bertolucci's depiction of the peasantry, though it is said to have been largely based on memories of his own years as a middle-class child in a rural setting, is highly romanticised, with the spectacular cinematography of Vittorio Storaro, especially his long shots of the wheat fields, enhancing the picturesqueness of rural life while, ironically, cutting some of the ground from under the seriousness of the peasants' protests against their exploitation.

In the second part of the film the change in the political climate is symbolised by the wintry setting of the opening scene: the Fascist march on Rome (in 1922) has already taken place and the Berlinghieris' steward Attila (Donald Sutherland) has become head of the Black Shirts in the area. Bertolucci here uses colour and lighting effectively for atmosphere, with bright reds and yellows for the peasants and workers and darker hues for the Fascists, but the suspicion that this is simplistic and manipulative is reinforced by the presentation of the main Fascist characters, Attila and his wife Regina, as sexual sadists hungering for power. One example of this sadism is when Attlia enjoys killing a cat by smashing its head against a post. This equation of Fascism with purely individual sadism serves only to present it as a psychological manifestation, when in fact it was (and still is) a highly developed, complex and subtle ideology, and all the more dangerous because of these features. Bertolucci's caricatures, though no doubt well-meant, only undermine his attack on Fascism and what it represents.

If the peasants are portrayed as little more than figures in a landscape, and the Fascists as figures out of horror comics, what of the central figures of Alfredo and Olmo? Alfredo marries a wealthy girl while Olmo marries a politically radical school teacher and becomes involved with politicising the peasants. After the death of his father, Alfredo becomes the padrone and suffers a disintegrating relationship with his wife Ada (Dominique Sanda), who has become an alcoholic. Although fundamentally a liberal, Alfredo is too weak to resist the influence of Attila and thus slowly distances himself with Olmo. The story comes full circle and recounts events on Liberation Day and after, as the victims of Fascism seek revenge. In these sections we are at least presented with plausible human beings, whose emotions are mixed, whose characters develop over time and whose views cannot be reduced to slogans; yet their plausibility, well-served by the work of the principal actors, functions in a vacuum, since the external events which influence their lives are so sketchily conveyed and the other characters they deal with are so fundamentally implausible.

In short, in either of its two versions, 1900 is a fatally disjointed work. Foreground and background do not fit together; landscapes and sets threaten at times to swamp the human stories being told; epic detachment alternates with intimate narrative, psychological melodrama with broadbrush social history. It is not surprising that the Italian Communist Party, which at that time Bertolucci sympathised with, criticised the film's historical inaccuracies and ideological inconsistencies, as did many other Italian critics and groups. The party's specific criticism—that Bertolucci shows, in the scene of Alfredo's trial, an event that never happened—produced the revealing response that this scene was a fantasy. Yet nothing in the film itself indicates this—which suggests, as do the romanticisation of the peasants, the simplification of Fascism and the alternation between sympathy for Alfredo and sympathy for Olmo, that at the heart of the film is the director's own political confusion. 1900 particularly suffers by comparison with Bertolucci's earlier attempt to depict the Fascist era, The Conformist . Perhaps because of the discipline imposed by relying on a single literary source (Alberto Moravia's novel), perhaps because the story is small-scale and yet complex, the earlier film can make viewers ask themselves what they might have done under Fascism, while watching 1900 makes them ask what Bertolucci really thinks Fascism was about.

In 1900 , the first of Bertolucci's series of historically based epics, he evidently bit off more than he, or his audience, could chew. For all its visual beauty, its frequent scenes of convincing and moving personal drama and its occasional moments of well-composed and exciting political narrative, 1900 is ultimately disappointing, an incoherent and frustrating film unworthy of the cast and crew involved in its making.

—Monique Lamontagne

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