A five-hour crash course in Italian history that's also great filmmaking
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A five-hour crash course in Italian history that's also great filmmaking
Watching “1900”: The photographer Tania Franco Klein recreated the languorous and breathless feeling of consuming this epic film, Long Beach, N.Y., April 30, 2020. Robert De Niro and Gerard Depardieu lead an international cast in Bertolucci’s bloody, sexy “1900.” Tania Franco Klein/The New York Times.

by A.O. Scott

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- “Long live Stalin!”

“Verdi is dead!”

These two proclamations, separated by a few minutes of screen time and 44 years of Italian history, are sounded early in “1900,” Bernardo Bertolucci’s luxuriously long, persistently underestimated 1976 epic. The opening scenes take place on April 25, 1945, a date identified as Italy’s Day of Liberation from German occupation and homegrown fascist rule, and understood by at least some of the characters to herald the arrival of a long-delayed, much-desired communist revolution. That’s where Stalin comes in, his name invoked ironically by a wealthy landowner captured in his study by a very young partisan. Meanwhile, the boy’s comrades prepare to enact rough justice on their former oppressors.

In the midst of the turmoil, our attention is turned backward, to the night “many years earlier” (sometime in early 1901) when the news of Giuseppe Verdi’s death reaches this rural valley in Emilia-Romagna, the composer’s native region as well as the filmmaker’s. A drunken fellow in striped pantaloons, going by the Verdian name Rigoletto, is the designated mourner. Nothing will ever be the same.

It would be an exaggeration to say that the rest of “1900” — four hours or five, depending on the version — unfolds under the clashing banners of Verdi and Stalin, but only a small one. Bertolucci’s understanding of history is fundamentally Marxist, but his way of rendering it is operatic as well as dialectical, and always more sensual than dogmatic. You feel the decades slipping past, and before you’ve checked your watch, the world has changed. History is long, but it moves quickly, and “1900” is somehow both languorous and breathless, taking its time in a feverish hurry.

Class struggle may be the driving force in human affairs, the train whose unstoppable movement across the landscape serves a recurring metaphor, but relations among the passengers are complicated by desire, affection and other subjective passions. Class struggle in the Italian countryside is shown to be an intimate affair, almost a family quarrel.

On the night Verdi’s death is announced, two boys are born on the Berlinghieri family estate. One is the eventual heir to the land, the other a peasant of uncertain paternity. Alfredo Berlinghieri will grow up into Robert De Niro, while Olmo Dalco, whose first name means “elm,” will mature into Gerard Depardieu at the peak of his sturdy ’70s sexiness.

This is an Italian movie of a particular vintage and style, in which most of the principal roles are played by non-Italians. Before De Niro and Depardieu take over, the poles of worker-boss antagonism are embodied by Sterling Hayden and Burt Lancaster as a pair of charismatic and cantankerous grandfathers. Lancaster, channeling his indelible performance of a decade before in Luchino Visconti’s “The Leopard” (in which he played a Sicilian prince in an earlier era of revolutionary upheaval), is the old padrone, overseeing his domain with effortless aristocratic command. Hayden, the patriarch of the sharecropping Dalco clan, is his antagonist, a proud man who accepts the unjust order of things without fully submitting to it. The two of them, drinking to the births of their grandsons, at least understand each other.

Alfredo and Olmo’s relationship, from boyhood into middle age, through the agrarian strikes and partial reforms of 1908, World War I and the rise and consolidation of fascism, is at once closer and more rivalrous. It’s not out of the question that they might be half brothers, although it’s also possible that Olmo’s real father is an ideological abstraction, but in any case they are something more than friends. From the start, when Olmo is hunting frogs destined for Alfredo’s family dinner table, their bond is elemental, even erotic.

Their friendship both defies and fulfills the social codes and political expectations that govern their interactions. The ruling class likes to imagine a state of familial harmony between those who own the land and those who toil on it, but not necessarily the free and easy companionship that Olmo and Alfredo sometimes enjoy. And the enmity that socialist theory posits between capital and labor is largely a structural, impersonal matter rather than a drama of sexual jealousy and fraternal treachery. Olmo and Alfredo, in other words, don’t behave like allegorical figures.

Thank God — or Marx, or Bertolucci — for that. “1900” is not a bad history lesson, although it does take some liberties with the timeline and the record. Like “The Conformist,” Bertolucci’s adaptation of an Alberto Moravia novel, “1900” is partly a study of the psychosexual dynamics of fascism, here personified by Donald Sutherland’s Attila. A snaggletoothed sadist who seems to materialize out of nowhere to take over the management of the Berlinghieri property, Attila completes the film’s triptych of male sexuality and provides a foil for both Olmo and Alfredo. Sutherland, like Lancaster a veteran of Italian cinema (having played the title role in Fellini’s scorned and celebrated “Casanova”), relishes the character’s over-the-top villainy, communicating not only the cunning and cruelty of fascism but also its strutting theatricality.

And “1900” revels in its own sense of spectacle. Bertolucci’s undulating long takes, his voluptuous attention to the movement of human bodies and the beauty of the natural world, the palpable lust and hunger of his eye rescue “1900” from the sterility of costume drama. The fine-grained, naturalistic feeling of place is enhanced by the use of nonprofessional actors from the region and also marvelously undermined by the cacophonous presence of movie stars.

In addition to De Niro, Depardieu and Sutherland, there is Dominique Sanda as Ada, the decadent aesthete who marries Alfredo, and Stefania Sandrelli as Anita, Olmo’s comrade in love and struggle. They are all dubbed into English or Italian, depending on how you choose to watch. Neither option is what you would call authentic, but both have their attractions. It’s never bad to hear De Niro’s voice, or Burt Lancaster’s, although you also might miss the music of Italian in its various idioms.

The sheer excessiveness of Bertolucci’s undertaking was a turnoff for some critics in the ’70s, who were quick to point out the ways the movie fell short of its Tolstoyan ambitions. Vincent Canby, in The New York Times, judged it a failure, as did Roger Ebert. Pauline Kael, who had embraced Bertolucci’s “Last Tango in Paris” a few years before as a world-historical aesthetic event on a par with Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” was vigorously ambivalent about “1900”: “The film is appalling,” she concluded, “but it has the grandeur of a classic visionary folly.”

“1900,” Kael wrote, “is a romantic moviegoer’s vision of the class struggle — a love poem for the movies as well as for the life of those who live communally on the land.” I can’t argue with that judgment, which explains some of my own fondness for the movie. But I’d also reverse the current of Kael’s argument, which is essentially that the beauty and sweep of Bertolucci’s art overwhelm his political and ethical concerns. The romance that surges through the story is his principal tool of historical analysis, setting facts and feelings into a dialectical dance that doesn’t conclude when the story ends. The class struggle wasn’t over in 1945, and it isn’t over now. The movie, if anything, is much too short.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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