1900 was director Bernardo Bertolucci follow up to the Italian masterpiece, The Conformist, and his legendary work, The Last Tango in Paris. Like Michael Cimmino's similarly flawed-epic, Heaven's Gate, it shows what happens when an acclaimed director gets control of the ultimate cast and an unlimited budget, and is allowed to go over-schedule on a sprawling personal project, without the interference of the studios. As a result of this, 1900 is a deeply flawed film, really falling apart somewhere towards the end and to some extent, slipping away from Bertolucci's grasp as a result of the sheer epic scale of the project. The story begins in the year 1901, on the day of Verdi's death. As the people mourn, the backdrop to the story finds two boys born on the same day - the first boy, Alfredo, is the son of a wealthy landowner... the second boy, Olmo, is the bastard son of a farm labourer - as the story progresses, the two boys become central to the ultimate story, developing a strong friendship that will play-out against a backdrop of war, socialism and the rise of the Fascist party in early twentieth-century Italy. Bertolucci confuses matters further by having the film begin during the 1945 Liberation Day; using this pivotal moment as a framing device to launch into his epic back-story, only to emerge at the end of the story some many years in the future.
The story isn't quite as confusing as it sounds, with the director anchoring the story throughout to the characters of Olmo and Alfredo. In the early scenes, we see the two boys living an idyllic "Huckleberry Finn" style existence, catching frogs, play-fighting, testing each other's bravery with a series of dares... whilst, all the while, succumbing to the lifestyle of their respective families. This will eventually, to some extent, tear the two friends apart, as the hard working Olmo sides with the communists whilst Alfredo, torn by loyalty and greed, allows the fascists to operate on his land. As you would expect from an epic, the film introduced lots of background characters, with the film taking in three generations of Italian history over the course of its vast, five-hour running time. Some of the history of the film is glossed over... with Bertolucci falling into an uneasy habit of switching between oblique, allegorical metaphors (the use of different animals to act as a symbol for each type of character, for example; the socialists as cats, head butted to death by the fascists who are portrayed as pigs, bloated, self-righteous beasts there to be gutted by the labourers) and almost bludgeoning political ideologies (the penultimate speech from Olmo is delivered literally to camera). Also, we're never really sure of whom we're supposed to be rooting for; clearly, Bertolucci wants us to side with the socialists, but they come across as spineless cowards who can only afflict revenge on the fascists and the landowners once they have been stripped of all their power. For the most part, the socialists wander around singing songs to each other, never once trying to convince us of their suffering, whilst Bertolucci seemingly thinks that if he makes them dirty enough, or ugly enough, we'll feel sympathy for them regardless. It doesn't quite work.
However, despite these flaws, the film is still (as many other critics have also noted) a monumental achievement. This is an epic in the classic sense, recalling films like The Godfather and Visconti's The Leopard (Burt Lancaster plays a role here that is very similar to the role of Don Fabrizio Salina, which he played in that particular film). It's also very similar to that other flawed Italian filmmaker's epic, Once Upon A Time in America, with both films employing the use of a flash-back/framing devise, as well as a thematic scope that covers a similar period in history (albeit, this is about Italy rather than America). Like Leone's film, 1900 is vast and sprawling, though anchored to two characters (who are best friends since childhood) and their personal relationships (...whilst, superficially, they both feature Robert DeNiro). Like Once Upon A Time... 1900 is a very brutal and confrontational film, with many violent sequences and scenes of outrageous sexuality. The version that I have (the one shown on Film Four) is as close to uncut as can be shown in this county (only one shot, the one in which the young Alfredo plays with himself in order to achieve an erection, was digitally darkened around the genital areas so that nothing could be seen); with Bertolucci taking almost every scene and characterisation completely over the top. This method is most apparent with the character of Attila, the lead-fascist in the film, who, in one of his earliest appearances, ties a kitten to the wall and then head buts it. This prefigures a later scene, in which Bertolucci implies that Attila has raped a small boy, only for Attila to then pick the child up by the ankles and swing him around the room until his skull shatters against a post.
Some of the performances in the film are very strong, particularly DeNiro as Alfredo, Gérard Depardieu as Olmo, Dominique Sanda as Ada, Sterling Hayden as Olmo's grandpa Leo, Burt Lancaster as the patriarch Berlinghieri and Donald Sutherland as the snarling "villain" Attila, whilst that gorgeous cinematography from Vittorio Storaro is just exquisite (...the camera always moving, blocking, tracking, revealing, swooping around the characters with the most gorgeous colours imaginable). It's easily one of the most beautiful films ever made, adding to the epic nature of the story and the feelings evoked through Ennio Morricone's great score. 1900 might not be the greatest film ever made, but I feel that it is an important film, both in terms of style and ambition. It's a definite flawed masterpiece, with a great cast and a talented director at the height of their creative prowess. As both an outrageous, overblown melodrama and as a political allegory/treatise on loyalty and friendship, it's worth looking out for and is an interesting relic to one of the most-important eras of cinema history.