Bernardo Bertolucci is no stranger to controversy. His Last Tango In Paris caused quite a bit of noise when it was released. Novecento, as 1900 is known in its original Italian, has been a subject of controversy for decades. Since its 1976 original Italian release, American studios have been cautious about releasing the film in the states, at least as it was originally intended. First there is the running time. The film clocks in at over 5 hours. Theaters in the US face fierce competition for movie goers’ dollars. The economics of the industry make such a long film simply impracticable even in 1976. There were other problems. A short version was eventually brought to the United States, but the unprecedented violence and sexual images required the then dreaded X rating. Even with today’s more forgiving mores, 1900 would certainly have received an NC-17 rating. The political subjects are also problematic. Americans need good guys and bad guys. This film blurs those lines. The competing forces here are Fascist and Socialist. Neither group is embraced here by anyone other than the far left wing of the Democratic Party. Finally, foreign language films serve a very small niche even with today’s public. Mel Gibson broke down some of those barriers recently, but the hardship remains. I must confess, I am not drawn to films requiring subtitles. I find relying on reading the dialogue a distraction. I watch films with a careful eye toward detail. Reading subtitles simply doesn’t allow me the luxury to observe the subtle nuances of a film. It is these minute details that more often than not create a great film. Enter 2006, and the DVD has removed each of these problems. Sitting in the comfort of my own theater, I can pause when I wish and take multiple breaks. The DVD offers me an English dubbed version which allows me to see those magical details that a film like this requires. The dubbed version also has the added bonus of allowing me to hear Robert DeNiro’s and Donald Sutherland’s voices. Like many film connoisseurs, I had only heard of this film. Now I had the chance to enjoy it in comfort and style.
1900 benefits from an extraordinary cast. American staples Robert DeNiro, Donald Sutherland, and Burt Lancaster lead a mostly Italian supporting cast. Sutherland is absolutely evil as the Fascist enforcer, Attila. His mutilation of a cat is quite an infamous scene. Although it wasn’t quite as graphic as legend had proclaimed, it is disturbing just the same, made more so by the gleeful way Sutherland revels in the act. Robert DeNiro shows flashes of the brilliance that would become his trademark. The character is often moody and perhaps not written with as much passion as DeNiro provides. Burt Lancaster has a small but potent role as Alfred’s grandfather. It helps to establish some historic place mark for the film. Finally, French actor Gerard Depardieu provides an uneven portrayal of Olmo. At times he provides incredible passion and depth in the role. Still, there are moments he seems almost uninterested. The chemistry with DeNiro is a little awkward and never really clicks. This is a huge shame, as this relationship is vital to the story.
The epic nature of the story is presented remarkably by nearly every aspect of the production. The lush Italian locations provide immediate credibility to the actions on the screen. The Ennio Morricone score is eclectic and fits the needs of such a grand range of times and settings. The cinematography is inspired, although did we really need to see a an extended close-up of a horse’s ass crapping? Where the film suffers is in the pacing. The movie gets painfully slow at times. Bernardo Bertolucci takes his time, demonstrating a patience much of his audience simply won’t have. While I don’t necessarily consider this a flaw, it hurts the picture’s ability to maintain its urgency. Give Bertolucci credit for not imposing his political views, whatever they might have been, on the film. He treads a potentially fatal line with the subject matter here. This is a time in Italian history that can still excite tempers. American filmmakers have something to learn here. Unfortunately political heavy-handedness has become the standard here. Liberals and conservatives are constantly being pigeonholed into portrayals of good and evil. They seem to want those of us in the conservative camp to somehow feel ashamed of what we are and repent. This film deals with true evil and manages to present it in a subjective way. This is an art forever purged from the human gene pool, I’m afraid. Finally it appears too often the film gets lost within itself. Did we really need to spend so much time watching young boys compare their private parts? I know I’m speaking from another cultural viewpoint, but it is obvious this film was intended to play to American audiences. Sometimes you simply must acknowledge your base.
1900 is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The print shows obvious signs of wear and decay. The master prints have been cut and recut for decades with little thought to preservation. With that said, this transfer is well done. Print artifacts are rare. Compression artifacting is certainly a problem, however. There is the expected high grain count and a dark edge to the color. Still, the Italian settings remain realistic. Detail is strong as well as contrast. Black levels are weak, however, and the picture suffers greatly during darker scenes. Flesh tones are often a little too pale, in sharp contrast to the darker shades of most other colors. Given what was likely left to work with, the print condition comes off serving the story well. If anything, the print’s age and condition help to give the movie a more realistic feel overall.
You can watch the film in its original Italian, English, or French. All of these language options are Dolby Digital 2.0. There is a certain amount of warble in the score that I can attribute to age. Dialogue is usually easy to hear, but not always. This is more a problem with the master recording than anything to do with the transfer. Expect some harshness to high levels and a lack of any real bottom end to the sound. This film lives and dies in the mids and therefore does tend to sound a little muddy. .
“1900: The Story, The Cast” Both features are to be found on disc 2 and require you to access the main menu first, which is not the menu defaulted to on the disc. Bertolucci speaks to us, in English, lovingly about the film. My greatest surprise is to see how much the Italian title is not translated properly with the English title. Bertolucci explains Novecento is meant to refer to the entire 20th Century, while 1900 is a specific year. He also originally intended a third act that completed the century. He addresses the film’s politics and running time as contributing factors in its lack of success in America. He also talks about each of the casting choices. The 14 minute feature is full of wonderful insights that honestly I missed during the film. It might be helpful to view this first. I wish I had.
“1900: Creating an Epic” This is another 14 minutes that honestly if not for royalty issues could have been cut together with the first. Here Bertolucci addresses the violence and sex controversies. He also talks about the symbolism of the seasons in the film. Finally he discusses the 3 versions of the film released over time.
Whether through pacing or failures within the script, there is no denying that this film is often hard to follow at times. Here it loses some of the impact it might have had. I went into this film unprepared for what I actually saw. Enough had been written about the work that it was impossible to approach it without expectations. I’m sure my own Italian heritage had something to do with the approach as well. I think it gave me a bit more patience than I believe I otherwise might have had. I watched it with a friend who cut the running time down to about 2 hours or so with naps. There is a brilliance under the surface here. Like a diamond in the rough it shows us just enough of its potential to maintain our interest. Still, I have to be honest here that I could not accomplish this task in one sitting. It is a long film, overdramatic at times, disgusting at others. But underneath it all, that diamond is there just the same. It’s there to be seen in all of its glory, if you can “learn to be patient”.