Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Film Review: 1900

"1900"  *** (out of ****)

"1900" (1977) directed by Bernardo Bertolucci was suppose to work. It was suppose to be a masterpiece. An epic, ambitious story showing us the first half of Italy's history in the 20th century. It was suppose to be a sprawling, lyrical, emotional tale. But it's not. Well, not completely.

There will be a part of you that feels you should like this movie. It's important. It's about something. It's tempting to look past the movie's flaws and cave in. To call it a great film because you don't want to be judged harshly. You don't want people to say you are someone that is not capable of appreciating high art. But be strong. Stand up for yourself. The truth shall set you free.

Bertolucci premiered "1900" at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival, where it was shown out of competition. It originally ran five-and-a-half hours. The film was met with a lot of controversy at the festival and afterwards. There was also an issue with the movie's running time which became an issue for discussion. In his review for the New York Times, film critic Vincent Canby wrote the following:

This 245-minute version of 1900 is not to be confused with the five-and-one half hour version that was shown at the 1976 Cannes festival, nor with the five-hour, ten-minute version that was later released in Europe, nor with the four-and-one half-hour version that Mr. Bertolucci once said was as short as the film could possibly be, before giving his full approval to this even shorter version.

Prior to releasing this movie Bernardo Bertolucci directed "Last Tango in Paris" (1972), "The Spider's Stratagem" (1971) and "The Conformist" (1971). When he emerged on the world scene with his debut film "The Grim Reaper" (1962), at the age of 25, he was in awe of one of the leading directors of the French New Wave, Jean-Luc Godard. All of Bertolucci's early films were Godard-lite. Bertolucci seemed to share Godard's left-wing views. He too wanted to make films which served not only to entertain but to make political and social commentaries.

That may have been the hope Bertolucci had with "1900". On the day of Verdi's death two children will be born on the Berlinghieri plantation; Alfredo (played as an adult by Robert De Niro), the grandson of the plantation's padrone (master) Alfredo (Burt Lancaster) and Olmo (played as an adult by Gerard Depardieu), an illegitimate peasant, who will grow up to be a communist.

The movie explores their friendship as young children. They instantly understand the differences between  their social class. The world represents different things to them. One day young Alfredo will become the padrone while Olmo will always be a worker.

The years go by and WW1 begins. Olmo enlists in the army while Alfredo is lucky enough to have his father buy his way out of serving. When Olmo returns to the planation, Alfredo expects a joyous reunion but Olmo has just seen war. He has seen men die. He has outgrown the childish games of his youth. Alfredo has been sheltered. He hasn't experienced life's hardships. Olmo has developed his political ideas. He is a communist. The workers should unionize. They have all the power. The landowners need them. It is the workers that take care of the land but reap none of the benefits. Alfredo hasn't had much time to think about such things.

And there lies one of the problems with "1900". Only one character is actively participating in the events of history, the other character serves no purpose to the story. The movie becomes a clash of ideologues; communism v.s. fascism. The workers v.s. the landowners. Alfredo stands for nothing. He is not a fascist. He is not a communist. Olmo is his friend. He sympathizes with him but he is not political. This type of character can only serve one function. If he is not going to participate in the plot than he must serve as an outsider looking at the two sides. He must represent the audience. He then becomes the narrator, the movie's conscience. But Alfredo is not that character.

Now, if Olmo represents the workers; the communist, there must be a character representing the opposite, the fascist. That character is Attila Mellanchini (Donald Sutherland) a foreman on the plantation, a man with a sadistic nature. It is with this character Olmo will clash. This is the character Alfredo should have been thus giving him a purpose to exist in this story.

Love finds both men however when Alfredo meets Ada (Dominique Sanda) and Olmo meets Anita (Stefania Sandrelli). Ada is a beautiful woman who has lead a privileged life. Anita believes in worker's rights. On the surface it would seem these men found their perfect counterparts.

Another problem with "1900" is Bertolucci doesn't give us enough history. "1990" doesn't put events in a historical context. How are the issues these characters are talking about reflective of where the world was? At more than five hours Bertolucci could have told a lot of history. But he doesn't. The only other option would have been to limit the movie's scope. Deal with a smaller piece of history instead of the first half of the 20th century. A better example would be the 2005 Italian movie "The Best of Youth".

And finally the last problem with the movie; it is too damn long! Five hours is too much to sit through when you don't have a story that needed all that time to be told. When I first saw "1900" I saw a three hour version on VHS. At three hours the movie felt a bit choppy. At five-and-a-half hours the movie feels too long. It is an obligation to watch.

But it sounds like I am being very critical of Bertolucci and his movie. Why am I recommending it? Well, "1900" does have some good moments. When the movie works, it works well. The sum isn't greater than the whole but I would want audiences to see the worthwhile moments in the movie rather than skip the whole thing.

The best parts of the movie are in the beginning when we see Alfredo and Olmo as children. The movie goes into great detail building character development. It does a wonderful job establishing what life is like on this plantation. Burt Lancaster is very effective in his role. Later on in the movie I like the political discussion. Bertolucci being a leftist himself makes us sympathize with the plight of the workers.

The last issue with the movie is the language. Because there is an international all-star cast the movie has been dubbed. If you listen to the movie in the English dub you will hear De Niro and Lancaster's voices but everyone else sounds awful, since it is not their real voice. If you listen to it in Italian (another option on the DVD) everyone is dubbed. What is the point in assembling this magnificent cast if you can't hear the actors deliver their lines? If you believe none of this matters, you are mistaken. Listening to the original actors deliver their lines makes all the difference in the world. Their words are part of their performance. To have someone else deliver the lines will affect your feelings of the movie, whether or not you realize it at the time.

I wish "1900" would have worked better. I wish Bertolucci would have been able to show more restraint. Limit the story a bit. Define certain characters better, giving them more depth. I wish he would have originally shorten the running time and not release so many different versions. I wish he would have had something to say in this movie. But, it is too late for that. "1900" is a missed opportunity with some interesting moments.