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DeNiro and Depardieu in 1900Every filmmaker should make a 1900. Not necessarily as long or expensive or overwrought, but a self-testing film that requires stretching and the risk of being overwhelmed by your ambition. A confrontation with your limitations may be the best insurance against both stagnation and hubris. 1900 is particularly fraught because of the conflicts about its loaded political subject and running time. The DVD provides the five hours-plus cut, not the initial North American theatrical release that was “only” four hours and change. I saw that version when it was new and was at best bemused. While I have grown almost to “like” the full length version, it isn’t because of the additional footage. Rather, it is because of a deepening admiration for Bertolucci’s audacity. The film is a disaster, horribly flawed, with moments that are utterly unconscionable. And yet…

Bertolucci attempts nothing less than a synoptic overview of 20th century Italy, using the conceit of two men born on the same day, but at opposite ends of the social spectrum, to vivify the historical canvas. He wants to show the roots of Fascism, while entertaining in a “popular” format—meaning, unfortunately, a grossly simplified division of the world into larger than life “types” that convince neither as individuals nor as embodiments of objective historical forces. (Even the politics are screwed up. In this supposedly Marxist “analysis,” there’s no bourgeoisie or proletariat, only a decaying aristocracy and peasantry.)

To trick these diagrams into life, Bertolucci resorts to an unstable mixture of stylization and grubby detail. Of the former, the most obvious examples are the grotesque portrayals of the fascists, particularly Attila (get it?) played by Donald Sutherland. It isn’t enough that Attila be on the wrong side of history. He has to be a poseur, a bully, a pedophile, a coward, greedy and corrupt to boot. As for the grubby details, there are gratuitously graphic moments like the Burt Lancaster character wriggling his toes in cow manure before he dies, or the protracted slaughtering of a pig. To put it gently, there’s more.

Bertolucci’s virtuoso film making would normally override a lot of my reservations, but while 1900 looks sumptuous, nothing about the execution is so extraordinary that it makes up for the truly awful moments. What has made me more sympathetic is the expansiveness of Bertolucci’s ambitions. The desire to write an essay about history with the full resources of the cinema is just about irresistible to anyone who yearns to use the medium to its full potential. Artists don’t often get a chance to work with a big budget, major stars and first rate technicians on a deeply personal and political subject. It is my intense identification with what Bertolucci is trying to accomplish, in other words, no matter how uneven or grotesque the results, that makes me cut him some slack. That drive to do something inconceivable to others, to astonish, to burst the seams of merely trim entertainment—that’s what great film making is about.