While much has been written about American auteurs of the ’70s derailing their careers with overly indulgent projects, the phenomenon was not exclusive to the United States. After notching a major international hit with the controversial Last Tango in Paris (1972), Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci created 1900, a five-hour epic tracking the course of Italian politics from the beginning of the 20th century to the end of World War II. The movie has all the heaviosity and scale it needs, and Bertolucci’s central contrivance—following an aristocrat and a peasant who were born in the same location on the same day—gives the sprawling narrative a pleasing shape. The film’s images are lustrous, with regular Bertolucci collaborator Vittorio Storaro applying his signature elegant compositions and painterly lighting, and the film’s music is vibrant, thanks to the contributions of storied composer Ennio Morricone. Beyond that, however, 1900 is frustrating.
The presence of American, Canadian, and French stars in leading roles diminishes the authenticity of the piece; a subplot about a sociopath becoming a sadistic Axis agent leads to laughably excessive passages of gore and violence; and Bertolucci indulges his sensuous aspect to such an extreme that he comes off like a fetishist obsessed with, of all things, excrement and penises. The movie has too much of everything, eventually devolving into a lumbering procession of strange scenes expressing a trite political message about poor people having morals and rich people being assholes.
The first stretch of the picture, essentially a lengthy prologue, introduces the grandfathers of the protagonists. Alfredo Berlinghieri the Elder (Burt Lancaster) is the benevolent padrone of an estate, and Leo Dalcò (Sterling Hayden) is a peasant in his employ. Both welcome grandsons on the same day in 1900. The children grow up to be close friends, despite one enjoying privilege and the other doing without. Later the boys become young men. Alfredo (Robert De Niro) has learned from both his humanistic grandfather and his scheming father, so he enjoys crossing class lines while also treasuring power and wealth. Olmo (Gérard Depardieu) is a political firebrand, resentful of the ruling class no matter what face it wears.
As life pushes the childhood friends apart, they watch Italy split along similar lines, with aristocrats forming the backbone of the Fascist movement while laborers suffer. Personifying the rise of the Fascists is Atilla Mellanchini (Donald Sutherland), whom we first meet as an enforcer helping Alfredo’s father maintain discipline on the estate. Naturally, the movie has a love story, revolving around Alfredo’s relationship with the unhinged Ada Chiostri Polan (Dominique Sanda). After many twists and turns, the story transforms into a politicized morality play as vengeful workers reclaim power from the Fascists.
Bertolucci and his collaborators present some meaningful insights about important historical events, so the film is strongest when it sticks to polemics. Matters of love, lust, and madness are handled less gracefully. The most extreme scenes involve Atilla performing grotesque acts of violence. Rather than shocking the viewer, these sequences render Atilla so inhuman as to be one-dimensional, which stacks the political deck unfairly. Bertolucci is just as undisciplined with bedroom scenes. It’s quite startling, for instance, to see an actress playing an epileptic hooker manually pleasuring De Niro and Depardieu in full view of the camera. Wouldn’t suggesting the action have communicated the same narrative information? Similarly, do viewers need to see the actors playing the younger versions of the leads examining each other’s genitals? And what’s with the scene of Lancaster stalking a young girl into a barn, asking her to milk a cow because it turns him on, rhapsodizing about life while squishing his feet up and down in pile of feces, and then forcing the poor girl to slide her hand into his pants?
It’s tempting to believe there’s a clue about the source of the film’s excess during an elaborate wedding scene, because a character presents the gift of a white horse named “Cocaine.” After all, doing too much blow was the creative downfall of many a Hollywood director.
Whatever the reason, Bertolucci lost control over 1900 as a literary statement fairly early in the movie’s running time. Perhaps no single moment captures the ugly bloat of 1900 better than the harshest Atilla scene. After Atillia rapes a young boy, Bertolucci shows Atilia killing the child, lest a potential witness to his crimes survive. Fair enough. But instead of simply shooting the child, Atilla picks up the boy by his feet, spins him around the room, and repeatedly smashes the boy’s head against a wall until it cracks open like a watermelon. In the twisted aesthetic of Bertolucci’s 19oo, too much is never enough.