Sunday, 27 March 2011

1900 (Novecento)

source: IMDB

* * * * * * 

1976 - Italy/France/West Germany (Produzioni Europee Associati)

SCRIPT: Franco Arcalli, Bernardo Bertolucci, Giuseppe Bertolucci
PHOTOGRAPHY: Vittorio Storaro
MUSIC: Ennio Morricone  

   So there you go. Only second film on the list and I'm already struggling to come up with something witty to kick off with. But there are two options though. I could take all the blame, go down the sackcloth and ashes route, admit publicly that I'm nothing more than a half-wit pretending to know anything about cinema (or anything at all for that matter), or... well, blame the film. But can you? Can you actually turn around, rise your head and face the behemoth of a film, backed up by names like Bertolucci, Storaro, Morricone, Lancaster, De Niro, Depardieu, Sutherland? Can you stand confidently in the way of a pounding train that this five-and-a-half hour of historical, political, social, nostalgic, coming-straight-from-the-heart epic of a movie is and still hope to survive? Wouldn't it be a blasphemy? A lunacy? An attention-seeking stunt? Would my family, my friends, my friends' pets ant their fleas not be cursed to oblivion by the lynching mob of film critics with their steaming Starbucks cups and cheap Biros raised in angry, clenched fists?

Maybe. But it's still better than admitting that it was me, who didn't get the brilliance of 1900.

   To be honest, I'm still baffled how on earth such a conglomerate of truly genius filmmakers and actors did not produce a film that would immediately blow me out to infinity and beyond. I mean, there has to be a catch in there somewhere, no?
   Oh, there is, worry not. A whole flock of various catches, sins, mistakes, and unfortunate events. And it starts, paradoxically enough with the production and cast. Now, I can (metaphorically, there's no need to actually yell at your monitor) hear the cries of shock and horror. How can anyone condemn such a cast? And what for? First, let us have a look again at the year of production and parties involved in financing this feature. From the early seventies Italian cinema suffered a wave of recession and even for people like Bertolucci the previously generous stream of lira started drying up. To keep on the momentum, minimize the costs to the domestic industry and at the same time maximize the box office takings two things have happened. Italian filmmakers were forced to make their films as co-productions and employ international (meaning Hollywood recognized) stars. As a result (and 1900 is here one of the best examples) films were made by international crews where very often communication would have to be provided by the interpreters. I could also imagine that with a few different studios dispensing the coin, there could have been also some conflicts of interests or even non-complimentary artistic concepts as where the picture and its message should be going. Maybe, just guessing, even though in the brief materials I've read on this film so far no such thing was indicated. Still, what a mess it must have been. I strongly believe that some of this film's ailings come directly from that lack of homogenic working environment. And let us not forget the scale of this film. If we were talking about an intimate drama with a handful of international stars, it would be a trick that was pulled off successfully on many occasions already, but an epic of such magnitude? Difficult. Extremely difficult. As a result we end up with fantastic performances from each of the main actors (especially the trio: De Niro-Depardieu-Sutherland does absolutely magnificent job) but there's simply not enough gel to make them interact in a manner that would be believable enough. And this particular problem runs much, much deeper when it comes to more episodic characters and/or extras. Especially when some clearly Italian actors and actresses have to engage in dialogues with their English and French speaking colleagues. All that is pushed even deeper into the miserable viewer's experience by a truly atrocious English dubbing. Now, I don't know if Dominique Sanda speaks in this film with her own voice but I really hope she is not. It would make all the difference between a wild (sixties style), beautiful French actress and a hysterical hag. Unforgivable.
   And it isn't the only problem with the cast either. Now, again, I don't know what exactly was the reason behind it, but there can only be two anyway - cutting costs or wrongly-perceived care for authenticity but personally I'm not sure that a mix of high profile Hollywood stardom and honest-faced, wrinkle-ridden, toothless Italian country folk makes up for a believable entirety. Nit picking? Well, maybe, but in a film that long every imperfection that otherwise would be easy to ignore suddenly becomes a bit of a sore like a cowboy with haemorrhoids. But let us move on.

   In a way, all I've mentioned so far I would still be willing to forgive. Maybe not the dubbing as that's just pure sloppiness, but I can understand the limitations and the circumstances that led to these and not different production decisions. What I can't forgive is the story itself and some of the means that were used to put it into the picture. And to discuss that, we need to step another step back and put things into context again. And that context is Bertolucci's political and social view which personally, I find hugely problematic, to say the least. There is a saying, that who's never been a Marxist in their youth becomes a filthy swine when older. And I can nod my head to that. I'd go even further, as I've seen many a Marxist in their grey-haired years still firmly standing by social justice for pure and idealistic reasons and we can only regret that 70 years of communism in Europe taught us nothing more than treat them with disdain. But a Marxist, who even in mid-seventies is still unable to acknowledge the crimes and bestiality of Stalin, his legacy and true face of communism, is nothing more than an idiot. There is simply no excuse for the way Bertolucci depicts the political struggle in Italy. Such a simplified, one-sided account is nothing more than violating history and would be more at home at the Soviet Ministry of Truth, not within a piece of work of an educated member of Western intelligentsia. Not after Stalin's sadistic regime was condemned by the Soviets themselves, not after the interventions in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. And not after the wave of antisemitism of 1968 either (how ironic, that the communist partisan leader looks Jewish enough to be Woody Allen's shrink). And yet, despite all that, everything in this film, from the very beginning seems to be nothing more than a pretext to serve us with five hours of propaganda. The moment the two main characters are born, the way Bertolucci sets the stage is already biased. While there's nothing exceptional about the padrone's grandson, his peasant counterpart has to be not only poor, but also a bastard child, just to show his existence in that just a bit more miserable light. From now on, it's a world of contrast, a black-and-whiteism so vulgar it actually insults the intelligence of the viewer. Bertolucci loves his peasants like a good communist should. They might not be a proper proletariat, but they're definitely the second best. Come the years after the October Revolution, they'll be waving their red hammer-and-sickle flags all the same. But somehow, when it comes to politics I just simply don't believe in an unconditional love. Bertolucci should know better than that.
   In his quest to show only one side of the story Bertolucci is very consistent and keeps an eye on every detail. There's no space left for us to start to like any of the filthy capitalists and landowners. When old padrone (Lancaster) wants to celebrate the birth of his grandchild with the workers from his farm bringing to them champagne, he is met with hostility and disdain. The harvesters, led by their elder (Sterling Hayden), behave like one and refuse to drink. Even though we have no information on how the padrone used to treat his workers in the past. For what we know, he might as well have always been fair and respectful and yet Bertolucci can see it only one way - old Berlinghieri is mocking poor farm workers with his meaningless gesture. Foul play, Bernardo, foul play! When later on we find out that the old man truly loathes his no-good son and his wife, just in case we started cheering him up, Bertolucci sends him to try and sexually abuse a young peasant girl. Remember, no liking the enemy! They're all leeches and even if some of them appear to be more decent than others, it's only a deception. It's only to lull us into a false sense of being safe before they try to take their perverted dicks out! And young Alfredo (later to be played by De Niro) is no better. He might be best friends with the bastard Dalco (Depardieu to be), he might himself despise his father (he's with his grandpa on that one) and try his tantrums of early adolescence but at the end of the day, he's just as bad as all of the rest. Little Olmo Dalco is the braver one, has to work hard catching frogs when Alfredo flirts with girls, and has to put up with his friend's outbursts of class discrimination. It shouldn't surprise anyone then, that when the Great War starts, out of those two the only one who actually gets to smell some gunpowder is Olmo while Alfredo, being rich family's little boy, becomes an officer without even leaving the grange. I honestly, can't stress enough how irritating this polarization is. There's no point to carry on with these examples as I would have to tell the whole story in great detail but believe me, there are no exceptions. While young Dalco has to struggle throughout his life, Alfredo turns into a man, who's never worked for what he's got. While Olmo is brave, just, altruistic, unfavored by fortune, De Niro's Berlingheri becomes more and more cowardly, hedonistic, opportunistic, spineless. While the peasant stands up for the rights of the farm workers, the landlord tolerates a fascist foreman. And while within those two characters there are bucket-loads of potential for more complex, gray-scale, deeper personalities, Bertolucci (shamefully!) decides to completely disregard that opportunity. He simply doesn't like us to like Alfredo, he can't allow us to have doubts about Olmo. Historical objectivism? Non ho mai sentito parlare...

   One area where I am willing to let go ever so slightly is when the opposition communism - neofeudalism is replaced by that of communism - fascism. This is when I do feel that I understand, where Bertolucci is coming from. I'm not an expert on history of Italy but from what I do know I believe it was not that different from how things turned out in Spain. The young and confident in its strength communism was the only real opposition to Mussolini's Fascismo. And even though Bertolucci seems to (very conveniently) forget that both Italian fascism and communism shared the same origins - poverty, exploitation of the working class, social injustice, I can totally relate to the fact that he'd rather wear a red shirt than a black one. It can't be easy, when being a Hitler's ally is part of your own country's history. And with Bertolucci himself being born in 1940, last five years of the film's story happened while he himself was already a part of it. He seems to be pointing that out as well in a way, since the action takes place in the part of the country where Bertolucci's family comes from. It wouldn't be unjustified to think that a lot of frolicking we see young Alfredo and Olmo do together was indeed a part of little Bernardino's life as well. There is no denying how personal that story is to Bertolucci - he's been giving evidence of that himself from the moment 1900 was released. But such approach always brings the risk that an artist venturing deep into his/her own personality, experiences, memories etc. may reveal more than we, the impartial viewers, do not actually care about. Every work of art is a subject to public evaluation, criticism and judgement. When too much of an creator seeps through into creation, all that judgement is on him/her. The propaganda vulgarly attacking us from the screen is far too obvious, too notorious, too in-your-face to be simply attributed to particular characters. It comes directly from Bertolucci and speaks of him far more than it speaks of the film he's directed.

   As for directing, cinematography and production, it's a mixed bag again but the disappointments here are few and far between. The way this film is made is the only factor actually, that scores it any positive rating from me. Most of that kudos goes without a moment of doubt to Vittorio Storaro. There's nothing new and original in what I'm about to say, but since we're talking about one of the most important cinematographers of all time,  there's hardly any room left for anything that's not been said before, and hundreds of times at that. It does need to be shouted from the rooftops though - when it comes to light and colour, Storaro is an utter genius, full stop. 1900 is filmed absolutely beautifully. There are no digital tricks, applying effects at random in Premiere Elements and deciding what looks fancy. This is oldskul. What you see comes from knowledge, experience, skill and natural brilliance. And Storaro has them all. I don't think I could recall, from the top of my head, another cinematographer who'd have such an understanding of natural light. As far as I know, the action takes place in south of Italy, where the sun is not easy on colours. Anyone ever taking pictures in a middle of a day during their holidays in Spain, Italy or Greece will know that. But Storaro still manages to achieve incredible saturation by filming in low sun in the evening or in the morning. Now, I've not read on this film enough to confirm that but I feel quite confident about it. Should I be talking rubbish though, feel free, Dear Reader, to remain silent as I really like my theory. Another thing that blew me away is, how artistic some of the shots are. There are scenes, nearly static, which resemble those nostalgic romantic paintings of everyday peasant life that decorated walls of many aristocratic manors at the end of the XIX century. That approach is probably shared between Storaro and Bertolucci and seems to bear another stigma of baffling naïvety but the aesthetic effect is simply staggering.
   The performances, again, vary greatly. The main characters are played for most part brilliantly, even if sometimes slightly exaggerated. The one that sends authentic chills down the spine and stands out even above De Niro and Depardieu is that of Sutherland. As Attila, the fascist foreman, he takes everything what the script and director throw at him and then makes his own. And in a very disturbing way, at that as well. It needs to be said though, that with this character Bertolucci's really gone to town. Attila doesn't seem to have anything human left in him. He headbutts kittens, rapes boys and impales widows. He's also a stranger and together with the black shirt and lack of any human feelings Bertolucci insists that we should never believe in 'normal' people becoming fascists. They're devils from nowhere, not our friends, neighbours, cousins... And while De Niro and Depardieu do sometimes seem to loose the firm directions for their characters, Sutherland is so convincing it is actually difficult to believe that he's never sought a career in serial killing. Then on the other end of the spectrum we have the extras - those down to earth poor souls who sometimes just appear in front of the camera and deliver a random piece of propaganda on class conflict and miracles of communism. And they do in in a truly ghastly fashion. Special mention should also be awarded to the two lads portraying young Alfredo (Paolo Pavesi) and Dalco (Roberto Maccanti). If their acting was any more wooden, they'd be called furniture.
   And last, but not least, there is another thing that impressed me, probably more than anything else - a totally uncompromising approach to storytelling. Bertolucci has been accused many times of being over the top, especially when it came to sexuality. Let's not forget that for it's anal sex scene, Last Tango in Paris was banned in many countries (in Chile for nearly thirty years). Things like that do not happen accidentally, but to focus only on the sinful bits would be highly unfair. Bertolucci doesn't treat sexuality any different than the rest of physiology, carnality any different than spirituality. It is all just very organic, naturalistic and cringe-worthy for us but still, can't blame an artist for showing life as it is. In some weird way it's also incredibly refreshing. When young Dalco catches frogs and spears them on a piece of wire, or when the rich hunt for ducks, they're real frogs and ducks and we do watch them die. When teenage Alfredo and Dalco look at each other's willies and discuss the foreskin removing techniques (as you do...), the camera does not get embarrassed. It doesn't shy away either when as young adults both are being masturbated by a girl showing to the world what a fine looking young gentlemen De Niro and Depardieu were in 1976. It's amazing to see and realize that in times when real intercourses in Big Brother are shown on the television and pop stars perform in nothing more than underwear to tens of thousands of people, such scenes still shock us. Or maybe it's just me being jealous.
This way or the other, it is a fantastic testimony to how films were made in those glorious times, when Hollywood did not rule the Earth.

   And for those brave enough to have read this far, one more thing. I can't believe what made the editors of  1001 MOVIES YOU MUST SEE BEFORE YOU DIE to include this five hour slab on their list. The only people who should really see it are cinematography students and film critics who sinned and now must suffer. There are outbursts of brilliance, there are some good parts. But after seeing it, do I feel like this was one of the films I should definitely watch before it's my time to kick the bucket? Hell, no. Considering how many incredibly good films didn't make it into the book (I'm still thinking of doing something about it...), 1900 even if interesting, is a mistake. Be warned.

1900 on IMDB
Rent it from LOVE FILM
Get it on AMAZON

Previously on 1001 FILMS TO SEE AND NOT DIE: 12 Angry Men

Next on the list: 2 ou 3 Choses Que Je Sais D'Elle (Two or Three Things I Know About Her) - Jean-Luc Godard, 1967


  1. Wait till you watch 'The Conformist' where Bertolucci really deals with Italy's fascist history. I haven't seen '1900' yet (I will someday) but believe me, you will find some much worse films among the 1001... They're gonna make you cry.

  2. I don't think I've got any particular problem with anyone dealing with fascism, but some artistic subtlety would be more than welcomed :) And as for crap films, well... bring them on. I'm yet to find one I'd hesitate to slate if slate-worthy I find it :>

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. Yup, it's very Uma Thurman-like. Not even remotely as attractive as people seem to think. But I tell you what, Dominique Sanda seems to be (in 1976 she was) pretty much like a good-looking version of Uma :p

  5. Equating Marxism with Stalin is the same as equating Nietzschean philosophy with Hitler. The Georgian robber probably never even read Marx, just as the failed painter never read Nietzsche. I suppose you probably have never opened Capital but as all apologists of capitalism are ready to swallow easily digestible cliches. Interesting, how no one on the left has ever entertained the idea of blaming Adam Smith for the continuous atrocities of capitalism. The fallacy of 'your' over-repeated-Cold War-crusader argument deserves no attention. It's fucking 2013 for Christ's sake! When will the parrots stop being parrots and grow some brains? If you could have paid more attention to the film you could have learned something.

    1. Hello!

      Since you're my first hater, I would like to thank you and greet you on my humble blog. I also feel that I should address your points, since there is some potential for amusement there.

      You say:

      Equating Marxism with Stalin is the same as equating Nietzschean philosophy with Hitler.

      - I totally agree. It's exactly the same. Although I'd personally probably say that equating the LINK between Marxism and Stalin is the same as equating Nietzschean philosophy with Hitler. Your opening sentence has no relevance to my blog post about 1900, but, like I said, I pretty much agree with its meaning.

      You say:

      The Georgian robber probably never even read Marx, just as the failed painter never read Nietzsche.

      - And your point is? There were millions of Marxists who never read the Capital, and there were at least hundreds of thousands of Nazis who never read Mein Kampf. So what? I never knew Dzhugashvili was a robber though. I know about his abusive alcoholic of a father and his unfinished scholarship at the seminary in Tibilisi due to not being able to pay the tuition fees, and I presume he might have nicked a thing or two here and there in his time, being poor and that, but even if he did, calling him a robber for that is probably a little bit unfair. As for Adolf Hitler, I thing I wouldn't call him a failed painter either. You know, his watercolours were actually quite pleasing, I guess he just wasn't very successful at selling them. But I'm getting petty here.

      You say:

      I suppose you probably have never opened Capital(...)

      - No, I didn't. My dad did his degree on Marxist economy, so that's as close as I got to it myself. We had it at home though. And the complete works of Lenin at my gran's. These were extremely useful when we wanted to sit the whole family around two tables that were different height. Accidentally some of the Lenin's volumes were absolutely perfect to put under the shorter table's legs. Now, your point being?

      You say:

      (...)but as all apologists of capitalism are ready to swallow easily digestible cliches.

      - I don't know who you're referring to here. I, myself, have never been nor ever will be 'an apologist of capitalism'. You are making a hugely mistaken assumption and you get it soooooo wrong, it completely undermines any point you are trying to make. Shame. All that venom wasted.

      You say:

      Interesting, how no one on the left has ever entertained the idea of blaming Adam Smith for the continuous atrocities of capitalism.

      - I don't know. Don't they? Are you sure you're competent enough to make such a bold and definitive claim?

      You say:

      The fallacy of 'your' over-repeated-Cold War-crusader argument deserves no attention.

      - And yet you've paid some yourself. Touching. I wish I knew what you meant by 'over-repeated-Cold War-crusader argument'.

      You say:

      It's fucking 2013 for Christ's sake!

      - I know. Crazy, innit? Also, in 2011 I wrote a blog post that commented on a film from 1976 referring to even earlier times. Having that in mind, I still find my text pretty sound and your arguments missing the point by a nautical mile (since it's longer).

      You say:

      When will the parrots stop being parrots and grow some brains?

      - In a couple of millions of years, if ever. Evolution cannot be rushed, you see.

      You say:

      If you could have paid more attention to the film you could have learned something.

      - Funny you say that. Where exactly in my text do you find an indication that I have NOT paid attention to the film? Or maybe it's you who hasn't paid attention to my post? When you do, however (and I really hope that you do), please come back and I'll be happy to have a proper conversation with you. The blog is a bit stagnant and, as you can see, I'll take any opportunity to have a discussion going, but given a choice (if I ever get that spoiled) I'd rather have an intelligent one.

      Best regards!