Combustible Celluloid
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With: Robert De Niro, Gerard Depardieu, Dominique Sanda, Francesca Bertini, Laura Betti, Werner Bruhns, Stefania Casini, Sterling Hayden, Anna Henkel, Ellen Schwiers, Alida Valli, Romolo Valli, Bianca Magliacca, Giacomo Rizzo, Pippo Campanini, Paolo Pavesi, Roberto Maccanti, Antonio Piovanelli, Paulo Branco, Liù Bosisio, Maria Monti, Anna Maria Gherardi, Stefania Sandrelli, Donald Sutherland, Burt Lancaster
Written by: Bernardo Bertolucci, Franco Arcalli, Giuseppe Bertolucci
Directed by: Bernardo Bertolucci
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 315
Date: 08/16/1976

1900 (1976)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Children of the Century

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

How many stories are there of short-sighted businesspeople meddling with a film and ruining it? Hundreds, easily... perhaps thousands. Bernardo Bertolucci's 1900 -- also known as Novecento -- is certainly one. Bertolucci's finished film runs 315 minutes, or five and a half hours, and he was asked (forced?) to cut it down to 3-1/2 hours for its original release. That's roughly two-fifths, gone. I haven't seen the shorter version, but imagine any movie, or any work of art, missing an entire two-fifths.

Thankfully the real version is back, on a beautiful new Blu-Ray from Olive Films. It brings us the full-length version, transferred from the negative, no less. The sumptuous cinematography by Vittorio Storaro and the beautiful score by Ennio Morricone are reason enough to rejoice.

Like most epics, Bertolucci's movie is far from flawless, yet it contains some truly glorious moments, little marriages of cinema and storytelling that make the entire whole worth seeing. It takes place roughly over the first half of the 20th century, with two boys born on the same day, January 1, 1900. They grow up to become Alfredo (Robert De Niro), the son of a wealthy landowner, and Olmo (Gerard Depardieu), the son of a peasant farmer. Though Alfredo claims friendship with Olmo, their ideals are radically different. Alfredo employs a vicious fascist (Donald Sutherland) and lacks the courage to keep him under control. Olmo, meanwhile, begins to embrace socialist ideals.

Burt Lancaster and Sterling Hayden appear as old-timers in this all-star epic, as well as international stars like Alida Valli and Dominique Sanda.

Bertolucci and Storaro keep their camera moving, illustrating the changing moods with emotional suggestion rather than dialogue. When the characters clash, they usually clash over something personal; characters rarely discuss politics openly. Where the movie falters is -- oddly -- in the performances. Thought De Niro and Depardieu are highly accomplished actors, neither of them appears very comfortable here; they often overact or underact, as if they're not quite sure where they are in this gargantuan story. Sutherland is the most problematic, playing a typical one-dimensional sneering villain (in one infamous scene, he kills a cat by smashing his forehead into it). This is all the more peculiar when we consider that Bertolucci had recently coaxed the finest performance from the finest cinema actor, Marlon Brando, in Last Tango in Paris.

Compared to Bertolucci's later epic The Last Emperor, 1900 feels quite a bit less calm and cohesive, though its recklessness is certainly appealing. 1900 falters most in its final half hour, when the socialists face their newfound victory and try to figure out how to punish the fascists. It's a bit too much preaching and yelling, and it feels like one of those endings that refuses to end. Moreover, it's not clear whether Bertolucci supports the socialists, or if he's trying to suggest that they're just as doomed.

Overall, though, 1900 is a powerful achievement. Olive Films has released it split onto two Blu-Ray discs, with optional language tracks and subtitles. It includes a third disc, a DVD, with a 2002 documentary on Bertolucci.
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