by Pauline Kael
At a certain point in their careers—generally right after an enormous popular success—most great movie directors go mad on the potentialities of movies. They leap over their previous work into a dimension beyond the well-crafted dramatic narrative; they make a huge, visionary epic in which they attempt to alter the perceptions of people around the world. Generally, they shoot this epic in what they believe is a state of super-enlightenment. They believe that with this film they’re literally going to bring mankind the word, and this euphoria conceals even their own artistic exhaustion. Afterward, in the editing rooms, when they look at the thousands upon thousands of feet of film they’ve shot, searching for ways to put it together, while the interest on the borrowed money rises and swells, and the businessmen or government representatives try to wrest control from them, their energy may flag and their confidence falter. Their euphoria had glossed over the initial compromises that now plague them—an unresolved, unfinished script, perhaps, or an international cast with no common language—and there is always the problem of excessive length. Griffith with Intolerance, von Stroheim with his ten-hour Greed, Abel Gance with his three-screen Napoleon, Eisenstein with his unfinished Ivan the Terrible trilogy, Bertolucci with 1900, perhaps Coppola with his Apocalypse Now still to come—no one has ever brought off one of these visionary epics so that it was a hit like the director’s preceding films that made it possible. Yet these legendary follies that break the artists’ backs are also among the great works of film history, transforming the medium, discarding dead forms, and carrying on an inspired, lunatic tradition that is quite probably integral to the nature of movies.
Artists of an expansionist temperament are drawn to work in this medium, because movies are capable of being the closest thing there is to a total art. If success and personal acclaim win these artists their freedom, their love of the unexplored possibilities can’t be contained; it spills over into dream epics. In movies, sanity is too neat, too limiting. Huston, Riefenstahl, Pudovkin, Welles, Dreyer, Fritz Lang, Visconti, Dovzhenko, Pabst, Max Ophuls, Francesco Rosi, Fellini, Peckinpah, Bondarchuk, John Ford, Altman, Scorsese, Kurosawa, Pontecorvo—does anyone doubt the sell- destructive fulfillments that these artists would have reached out to if they’d had the chance? And isn’t it a tragedy for us all—and for those who come after us—that they haven’t? The calamity of movie history is not the follies that get made but the follies that don’t get made.
Everybody knows that it is essential for there to be low-budget movies; how else can new young artists get their chance? And directors who work big carry the burden of guilt for the many smaller films that could have been made on the money they’re spending. Not that they would have been anyway—though generous-minded directors sometimes manage to use the power derived from their own success to help other filmmakers along. But even for the directors who profess belief in economy production, the contradictory aesthetic drive toward the big plunge is like a fever that passes from one great talent to the next. It may be that anyone with a large enough imagination who works in movies will catch it, unless, like an Ingmar Bergman, he reaches inward, downward, or, like Lubitsch, toward elegant condensation. The impulse is essentially the same as the one that led Tolstoy to write War and Peace; but in movies, no matter how great the director’s talent and imagination are, he becomes swamped in the physical details of the production. He has to give so much of himself just to hold the production together that he can’t sustain his creative energy. Writing a nineteenth- century novel on film—which is what this epic usually comes to be—means that you have to be a great con man, a great general, and a great artist, and if you weaken in any of those functions your golden bowl is cracked, perhaps shattered.
This form of gigantism is not to be confused with the producer-initiated or studio-initiated big-budget pictures (Cleopatra, Doctor Dolittle, The Towering Inferno, the forthcoming The Swarm, and so on). The artist-initiated epic is an obsessive testing of possibilities, and often it comes out of an overwhelming desire to express what the artist thinks are the unconscious needs of the public. It comes, too, from a conviction, or a hope, that if you give popular audiences the greatest you have in you they will respond. The moviemaker has an idealistic belief that no matter how corrupted mass taste is, people still retain the capacity to receive a vision. These epics try to vault over the film industry and go directly to the public.
The crazed utopian romanticism of Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900 reaches a new high pitch in movie idealism. A director dies on a picture of this magnitude with this degree of personal commitment; he has to be brought back to life so that he can move on. In the history of movies, 1900 represents a triumph, because after losing control of his movie the director regained it. After years of dissension and litigation (and that’s par for the course), 1900 was finally shown at the New York film festival, and will open in a theatre on November 4th. The producer, Alberto Grimaldi, acknowledges that the film has been doing reasonably well overseas and will not lose money, and Bertolucci, treating the over-five-hour European version as a rough cut, has been able to refine it and release it here in his own four-hour-and-five- minute cut—so we don’t have to try to piece out his intentions from a mangled version. This film is his; it represents almost five years of elation and anguish in the life of one of the three or four greatest young talents working in the movies.
1900 is about two boys born in the North Italian region of Emilia-Romagna on the same day in 1901. Alfredo (Robert De Niro) is the heir to the vast landholdings of his grandfather (Burt Lancaster), and Olmo (Gérard Depardieu) is the bastard grandson of the patriarch (Sterling Hayden) of the peasant clan that lives on those holdings and labors for a share of the crop. 1900 opens on Liberation Day, April 25, 1945, then goes back to the birth of the boys and follows the course of their ambivalent friendship. Accepting the romantic convention that there is a lifelong bond between people who swam naked in a stream together as children, the film uses that bond as a dialectical opposition.
Alfredo inherits the estate after the death of his father (Romolo Valli) and marries a French girl, the neurasthenic sylph Ada (Dominique Sanda). But she is aesthetically repelled by his passive acquiescence in the Fascist takeover and leaves him. Olmo, “the elm tree,” becomes a Socialist and lives with a comrade—a teacher, Anita (Stefania Sandrelli)—who is a militant peasant leader; she dies in childbirth, leaving him a daughter. The film includes the upheavals of a peasant uprising in 1908, the end of the First World War and the rise of the Fascists, who came to power in 1922, and the Fascist era. Then it returns to that pivotal day in 1945 when in fact the conquering Allies were “liberating” Italy from Fascism but when in Bertolucci’s utopian fancy an agrarian revolution takes place. The peasants seem to be under the delusion that the liberation from Fascism means that they now own the land—they might be playacting a revolutionary spring festival (of the future). They stage a mock trial of Alfredo, the padrone, pronouncing him dead. Then, at the end of the day, the soldiers of the provisional government come and take away the peasants’ guns, and Alfredo goes on as before. In an epilogue, he and Olmo are doddering old cronies, wrestling, quarreling, hugging each other in love and in anger—in bafflement at the emotions and the social forces that have thrown them together and thrown them apart.
Bertolucci is trying to transcend the audience appeal of his lyrical, psychological films. He is trying to make a people’s film by drawing on the mythology of movies, as if it were a collective memory. 1900 is a romantic moviegoer’s vision of the class struggle—a love poem for the movies as well as for the life of those who live communally on the land. (It may be that Bertolucci believes that he loves movies so much because they are the people’s art.) Though in form 1900 is an opera-novel, and its homage is to Verdi, the great Emilian who died on the day (January 27, 1901) of the two boys’ birth, the characters of the two grandfathers (Lancaster and Hayden)—giants of an earlier era—are drawn from American Westerns and adventure films. 1900 represents an attempt to fuse the American movies that fed Bertolucci’s imagination and the visionary agrarian paean Earth, made by Dovzhenko, the most lyrical of all Russian directors. Bertolucci attempts to do this while taking another look at the Fascist material that he dealt with in his 1970 films, The Conformist and The Spider’s Stratagem. The latter was also shot in Emilia, in a town near Parma, and was about the need for myth. It dealt with a man, born in 1900, who was killed during a performance of Verdi’s Rigoletto and became an anti-Fascist martyr-hero. In that film, set in a town that Bertolucci called Tara, he used the town itself as an opera stage, and in a memorable sequence Rigoletto was heard pouring forth from loudspeakers in the ghostly, floodlit streets. The staging of 1900 is often similarly theatrical: This movie never goes farther from the estate than a city in Emilia, and the courtyard of the landowner’s manor house is used, like Tara, as a giant set. Opera is in Bertolucci s blood and hones. When he stages scenes of peasants eating, die hearty bacchanalian imagery is out of Brueghel, but you wait for them to swallow their fake food and start singing. Bertolucci uses his peasants—actual Emilian peasants—as if they were a chorus, and as the film progresses they upstage the stars. (There is even a hunchback among them dressed as a jester and called Rigoletto.) He apparently believes that he can make the peasants larger than life by using the romantic conventions of opera, movies, and painting. He’s trying for a “naïveté” like that of Verdi, who stayed within a tradition, adapting conventional forms, and he adapts the characters and devices of such movies as Anthony Adverse and Gone with the Wind. He knowingly risks grandiloquence, believing that this is the path to a people’s art—that moviegoers want romance, myth, and their own struggles turned into poetry and fantasy.
There are sequences in 1900 as great as any ever filmed. The childhood scenes are steeped in memory—honeyed. Once again Vittorio Storaro is Bertolucci’s cinematographer, and the lighting suggests that moment in art history when the Barbizon school gave way to the summer sun of Impressionism—when color burst open and became diffused, as if nature, like a film director, could no longer control its own exuberance. The little hellion Olmo, skinny-faced and barefoot, collecting frogs to sell to the manor house and wearing them tied together, still alive and wriggling, around his hat, is like Huck Finn in a surreal pastoral calendar. His freedom is balanced against the image of the plump-faced, spoiled, rich Alfredo, forced to eat those frogs’ legs at dinner, and throwing up. The camera moves constantly, even in the interiors, which suggest a 1930s idea of fin de siècle; they have the tawny light of the Italian Impressionist Fattori—or a tilted, fuzzy Maxfield Parrish. In the most prodigious sequence, which appears to be one continuous shot, Bertolucci presents the peasant uprising of 1908 as a panoramic mural: poplars in the mist; the landowning hunters shooting ducks, which fall in the river; peasants who have been evicted from their land leaving on loaded wagons while, of those remaining, the men prepare to resist and the women stretch out on the road to block the oncoming cavalry, who ride up to their bodies, turn around, and leave. The camera executes almost a figure eight in this lyrical panning, tracking crane shot; it sweeps over the Po Valley, showing you the different, conflicting elements in the landscape. You’re given the components of a novel at a glance, and every one of them is shown in relation to the others. Bertolucci has perhaps the greatest spatial-temporal sense of all film directors. The simultaneous actions that other directors have achieved only by cutting he puts in the same shot. The effect of this hunters-peasants-cavalry sequence is of a passage of visual music. Bertolucci is satisfied by its visual completeness, and he moves on to the next thing that interests him.
But for us in the audience his great sequences don’t achieve their full power, because there’s no follow-through. Years pass between sequences, when we want what happens next. Did the cavalry return? (Has there ever been a film that dealt successfully with so long a span of time? Maybe the Godfather films, jointly.) It s true that one remembers the great scenes from the nineteenth-century Russian novels, not the passages in between; but the greatness of those scenes derives from their meaning in the narrative, from the way they reverberate through what we have already read and what follows. There’s a consistency of vision in Turgenev or Dostoevski or Tolstoy; we’re told what we want to know. Bertolucci’s great sequences don’t make us think back or anticipate. He’s attempting to achieve that Verdian naïveté, but, like many other directors now, he reproduces only the poetic form of the great moments from old movies (the cavalry sequence is an expansion on John Ford). There is a scene of a peasant celebration along the riverbanks which has a nostalgic yearning for simplicity; Bertolucci wants to make us feel the goodness of simplicity, the way John Ford did when he shot the frontier dance on the foundation for the church in My Darling Clementine, with Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda), his hair pressed flat for propriety’s sake, innocently hopping up and down with his lady. But there are too many divided emotions in 1900 for the riverbank scene to have its effect; Bertolucci does not have the gift of simplicity. After the Liberation Day opening, the childhood section—the first hour—flows seamlessly, until the sequence in which the boys go into town to a workers’ Punch-and-Judy show that is broken up by mounted police. At this point, the continuity weakens. Yet even when the movie is flowing along there’s an unease inside the virtuosity.
There is something off in the tone of 1900 right from the start. Partly it’s the sound. In order to get the film financed (it cost eight million dollars), it had to be made with an international cast; there is no “original-language” version. The Italian version was all dubbed, but so many Italian directors employ visual effects they can achieve only by shooting silent and adding the sound later that Italians (and many other Europeans) ignore dead sound. We don’t. In the English version that Bertolucci has prepared, Lancaster’s performance has particular force, and that may be because his dialogue seems live. The track is a mixture of synch sound, post-synch sound, and dubbing, so within a scene there will be a shift in ambience—different hollows and bouncebacks, which weaken the emotion. Depardieu and Stefania Sandrelli are the only major performers whose voices are dubbed; De Niro, Dominique Sanda, Hayden, Donald Sutherland (who plays the Fascist Attila), and Laura Betti (who plays his paramour, Regina) all speak their own lines, but the post-synching has a slightly removed sound—and, of course, the minor players and the peasants who fill out the cast are dubbed. Visually and thematically, the film is conceived with so many contrasts, clashes, allusions, and symmetrical variations that one can see where the years of preparation went. The actual dialogue seems almost an afterthought, and the actors speak their lines without much confidence that they’re worth saving. And so we’re aware of the actors as actors, and of their different cultures. They’re not all sure what they’re meant to be conveying. And we’re not, either.
The principal actors are characters but they’re also puppets in this gigantic class-struggle puppet show, and so if we ask why it is that Alfredo, a decent, friendly fellow with an amused, wry glint in his intelligent eyes, is so weak that he allows his overseer Attila to tyrannize the peasant workers, the explanation can only be that at this point in history the landowning class had lost its strength, and had become passive collaborators in evil. Bertolucci doesn’t show that Alfredo needs Attila—psychologically or economically. Alfredo’s decision to keep the Fascist monsters Attila and Regina under his roof seems some sort of historical fatalism—as if he had the director’s game plan in mind and behaved accordingly. And De Niro, acting the historical role assigned him—the withered seed of a once proud line—looks small, shrunken. As a child, Alfredo even has trouble with his penis: his foreskin is tight, while that of the peasant Olmo is loose and flexible. Alfredo is ineffectual—it’s the Ashley Wilkes role—and De Niro, who might have tried to summon up some hamminess to see him through, didn’t. He gives an ineffectual performance. There’s an interior continuity in it, but there isn’t any excitement—how could there be?
As a spokesman for the Socialist dream, Depardieu has the advantage of heroic physical presence; he has his wary jugface—he stares out at us like the rough-sensitive Botticelli in his self-portrait in The Adoration of the Magi. But he seems emblematic—without any clear personality—and his role is fragmented over the years. Some of his screen time is wasted in dangling scenes involving the theft of a gun—scenes we expect will connect with a later event. A larger disappointment is that the child Olmo, the fearless, unmanageable gamin who is the despair of his mother, doesn’t grow up to be the firebrand one expects. When he returns from the First World War, he’s a clear-eyed solid-peasant citizen, firm in the ways of courage and virtue. Bertolucci has set up the childhood sequences so that the boys seem destined to become the heroes of his epic—the carriers of history. We wait to see their lives become focussed, but then he pulls a dialectical switch. He de-emphasizes them, to indicate that they are not vital to the historical events of their time—they are merely figures borne along by the flood of history. Olmo may be a peasant leader, but it is those he leads who are the heroes. How many different games can a director play in a movie? Using two young stars known for their volatile, “dangerous” presence and turning them into supporting players—denying us individual heroes—Bertolucci betrays the romantic epic form.
Because of the switch from the two men to the peasants, the only characters who register fully are those who are allowed their movie-derived mythological roles—the grandfathers, Lancaster and Hayden, and, surprisingly, at moments Dominique Sanda. There is, mercifully, no capitalist class in this movie—only the remnants of feudalism. And as the feudal lord who still likes to sink his toes in earth and cow dung Lancaster expresses declining physical vigor with all the command of his thirty-odd years of movie heroics. He isn’t the polished lord he played in The Leopard; he’s a peasant at heart, a crude, honest man who despises Alfredo’s father—his greedy hypocrite son who cheats the peasants and squeezes them dry. There’s love in Bertolucci’s portrait of the profane, raging old bull; even though he hangs himself in the stables, in disgust at his own impotence and the collapse of his world, there’s no contempt for his act. And, though this isn’t intentional, his death has more conviction than that of the man he respects and would like to consider a friend—the leader of the peasant clan, Hayden. This old peasant sits down to rest under an oak tree and slips away. Visually this is fine, but it’s priggishly programmatic. Still, they’re both old oaks, and if Hayden’s performance isn’t as strong as Lancaster’s, he has his noble, weather-beaten presence. His hair is worn short, cut way up high on his head, and his neck is long and straight, with cords like organ pipes; he resembles the famous photograph of Dovzhenko that is reproduced in Agee on Film.
Except for her work with Bertolucci, and in De Sica’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Dominique Sanda’s performances have been stilted, amateurish. With Bertolucci, she is all visual: the image, the essence, of movie glamour, Garbo without depth—a trifling Garbo. As Ada, she has a weird, boneless seductiveness, like the young Lauren Bacall become a wraith. She’s all curves, her body a crescent and her crushed upper lip conveying ironic secret promises. It may be that Bertolucci doesn’t know what to do with his “thinking woman”—the militant Anita, whose exhortations to the peasants have no conviction. But when this gauzy vamp Ada slithers across the screen, with her gowns floating half off, or with a soft big-brimmed hat framing her come-hither smiles, she’s the past recalled, all right, and you don’t want to let it go. Ada, a virgin Futurist bohemian who smokes furiously and drives a Bugatti, is all affectation—self-dramatizing spoofery. She composes free verse, but if she has an art it’s the art of the moue, and she has been given the funniest lines in the picture. She and Alfredo’s homosexual uncle Ottavio (Werner Bruhns) represent charming, frivolous decadence, and the film doesn’t try to turn them into villains.
Fascism here is demonological—so lewdly melodramatic that it makes Visconti’s excesses in The Damned seem courtly. In the second half of 1900, when Attila and Regina—the Fascist Macbeth and Lady Macbeth—come to power, the imagery changes to the dark mists of autumn and winter. Their posturings are like a hurdy-gurdy variation on the strident, Expressionist horror of Eisenstein’s mad Ivan the Terrible. It’s Fascism as a strain of diseased, perverted sexuality, and it explodes in a couple of scenes of shocking, Kabuki-wild violence. Attila and Regina are everything dirty, and we can almost hear the hiss of electric sparks shooting out of their heads. (Is it relevant that Bertolucci s father’s name was Attilio?) These two are meant to embody the aggressive forces of the bourgeoisie; Alfredo and Ada’s white wedding is followed by Attila and Regina’s vile rites—they sodomize and murder a child. (The sequence would mean more to an audience if Bertolucci had indicated that the wedding aroused in Attila and Regina a need to defile it. When they go off to their debauchery, it’s as if they did this every afternoon before tea.) Dressed all in black, at six feet four and with pale-blue eyes, Sutherland is already somewhat hyperbolic, and with a grotesque false high forehead he’s a black-shirted vampire. All this curling of lips, baring of jagged teeth, and flashing of demented eyes must be what the director wanted, but only a very dedicated liberal would play a Fascist in this manner. Bertolucci wove a Hammer-Films gothic thread into his tapestry. What Attila and his guttural, leering accomplice Regina represent is what Fascism and Nazism became for those who made lampshades out of human skin, but it doesn’t account for the attraction of Fascism and Nazism as political movements. The nightmare sadism gives 1900 a spaghetti-Western view of class struggle. This, too, must be partly intended: Bertolucci, who worked on the story of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, has used Leone’s composer, Ennio Morricone; his creamy elegiac score heightens the emotion in the first half but suddenly, in the second, takes a dive into Peyton Place schlock-Chopin piano music.
The framing device—that pivotal Liberation Day—is the allegorical aspect of 1900, and its worst stumbling block. Alfredo, held prisoner, is detached in his attitude; shuffling along in a cardigan, with a slack, dumb grin and a mustache two inches wide, he’s no more than a nose-picking clerk. His trial, with the complaints of his accusers, who hold him to account for their rotting teeth and missing fingers, is coyly didactic, telling you that you should live right—under a playful veneer that makes you squirm. There are echoes of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book. It’s a Maoist-Brechtian judgment Day. Bertolucci’s utopian future, with Olmo’s daughter skipping among the haystacks, doesn’t improve on the shots of little girls playing in the sun which were used by Griffith to demonstrate how beautiful life would be once people stopped being intolerant.
A solemn protest march ends the first half of the film: a funeral march displaying the charred bodies of four old men, who were in a casa del popolo—a workers’ meeting hall—that the Fascists set on fire. The march signifies the unity of the workers, and it is magnificently staged, with a uniformed brass band playing the “Internationale”; it is set off from ordinary events by being photographed in a simplified palette—but it’s Communist-color-coordinated! The caskets are lined in red, and every mourning marcher, every horse wears a patch of exactly the same shade. Ribbons, bows, scarves, furbelows—they’re all one ravishing, sumptuous red. This is visual Verdi; it s splendid—a Communist fantasy march. But a viewer doesn’t know whether to exult in the beauty or to laugh. Is Bertolucci a Communist for the sake of color? Are we rooting for a team? Red banners fly from the train that bears the young Olmo and the other striking workers’ children off to where they can be fed; a huge patchwork canopy—a rainbow of reds—is unfurled on Liberation Day. Isn’t this aesthetic Communism as flighty as Ada’s aesthetic anti-Fascism?
Bertolucci has somehow resolved his own political contradictions in a dream of a happy agrarian future that hasn’t budged beyond the turn of the century. The belief that permeates this movie is that Communism will preserve the folk culture of the peasants. Still nostalgic for life “before the revolution,” Bertolucci now thinks that that life can be preserved only after the revolution. His is an anthropologist’s Communism: he doesn’t want the peasants corrupted into selling native artifacts to tourists; he doesn’t want them exposed to credit cards and 100% virgin acrylic. It may be that in Emilia (the birthplace of Italian Socialism as well as of Verdi and Bertolucci), a prosperous region that has been partly administered by Communists since the end of the Second World War, the peasant culture has in fact flourished. But this film is addressed to the world outside Emilia, where the sumptuous innocence of Bertolucci’s vision suggests Marie Antoinette playing shepherdess. 1900 represents the thinking of someone who grew up at the movies and accepted the myth that all problems can be brought to a happy resolution. Communism is going to usher in a folk utopia, and an artist who loves style above all else can make a people’s film by drawing upon the standard metaphors of American and Soviet movies.
Bertolucci has said that all his films are “desperately autobiographical,” and in this one the desperation shows. He has cast De Niro, an actor whose responsiveness to the camera derives from his reserves of passion and, having cast this man as himself, has not allowed him any passion. Bertolucci, locking himself away, locked out De Niro as an actor—gutted him. His Alfredo is an unfinished man: a man who hasn’t tested himself. He’s too emasculated even to suffer. Alfredo is the pampered, bourgeois liberal that Bertolucci guiltily fears himself to be, while Olmo is his proletarian dream self, and at the end it’s as if the class struggle were just two boys trying to out-macho each other, still checking to see who has the bigger penis. Under the class struggle, that’s the theme all the way through. Most directors are at their best when they deal with what’s closest to them. In this film, Bertolucci is at his feeblest every time he gets near the adult Alfredo. He stays as far away as possible. This director has gone so much further than most movie directors that he’s run up against what novelists and dramatists run up against: the desire to escape oneself. He has fled to the lives of the peasants and put an optimist’s bland smile on top of the despair of his Last Tango in Paris. His utopia rests on the belief that peasants live in a pre-Freudian state; they have no conflict except with their oppressors. They’re not plagued with the problems of bourgeois artists—they have loose foreskins. There is a connection between the film’s blissed-out politics and the way Bertolucci treats the Fascist plunderers. He’s not afraid to show violence, but he doesn’t allow himself to identify with the person doing the violence. It is Dostoevski’s identifying more with the characters who go out of control than with the others that makes reading him deeply terrifying. Bertolucci rejects the vile, violent possibilities in himself. That’s why he lets Donald Sutherland go so far in his performance that human iniquity is turned into a cartoon. Bertolucci wants to believe in his peasants—who are so firm in their goodness, so split off from the Fascist criminality that they’re less than human.
This film is about Bernardo Bertolucci’s need for myth, and his self-denial. For those who are infatuated with what they loathe, the battle with themselves never stops. 1900 has all of Bertolucci’s themes and motifs; one could call it the Portable Bertolucci, though it isn’t portable. It’s like a course to be enrolled in, with a guaranteed horror every hour. 1900 is a gigantic system of defenses—human fallibility immortalized. The film is appalling, yet is has the grandeur of a classic visionary folly. Next to it, all the other new movies are like something you hold up at the end of a toothpick.
The New Yorker, October 31,1977