Review: Novecento (1976)


Bernardo Bertolucci’s historical epic 1900 (Novecento) is the final film in Kino Klassika’s “A World To Win: A Century of Revolution on Screen.” Inspired by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ famous declaration in The Communist Manifesto, the season aims to educate and inform the public on the wave of Soviet Film that had swept Russia for a hundred years. The season ran from 17th February to April 15th at the prestigious Regent Street Cinema.

With 1900 (Novecento) Bertolucci has constructed a tight wire act of a film; combining interpersonal drama that has archetypal resonance, a generational struggle between rich landowners and impoverished farmhands as well as the political turmoil that had swept Italy across a forty-four year period. This is combined with a permeating bawdy operatic flair that comes dangerously close to derailing the ambitious endeavour. However, in its epic 317 minutes running length; Bertolucci deftly illustrates an interesting metaphorical rise of particular populist ideologies that were prevalent in the 20th century.

The early part of the film is dedicated to the childhoods of Alfredo Berlinghieri and Olmo Dalcò. They are both born at the same time in 1901 and are on opposite ends of the social/economic hierarchy. Alfredo is born into a wealthy land-owning family and is named after his grandfather. Whereas, Olmo is the son of a poor foreman and is named after a man who had recently passed away. One does get a sense that Bertolucci’s heart resides in this stretch of the film. Trackings shots reveal sumptuous feasts and familial traditions; natural sun-soaked radiance washes over the lush green, and straw covered environments and Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo’s painting “Il quarto stato” (The Fourth Estate) boldly accompanies the opening credits.

At the same time, Bertolucci presents pivotal moments that fundamentally shape deeply ingrained ideological beliefs. A particularly striking scene is when a young Olmo walks barefoot across crowded dinner table towards his father. (Leo) His paternal figure states that no matter what Olmo becomes he should never forget his poverty-stricken roots. The scene culminates in the nine-year-old boy saying his friend gave him a single gold coin and Leo simply retorts “whatever is yours belongs to us all.” The moment feels like a secular and humanist baptism as the sun shines on the boy in a particularly breathtaking manner that reminds one of the great Renaissance paintings of yore.

By his own admission, Bertolucci has amusingly said that “I don’t film messages. I let the post office take care of those.” However, at the core of 1900’s structure is the emergence of Fascism and Communism within the confines of a family and its agricultural business. With this in mind, one can read the film as a directorial grappling of both forms of ideology. In regards to Fascism, Bertolucci has paralleled the conditions for its emergence in the narrative to that of Europe. Crucially, Alfredo (At this point in the film, the character is played by Robert DeNiro) is ineffective in dealing with the escalating abhorrent acts of violence in his community.

In the final act, Olma (At this point in the film, the character is played by Gérard Depardieu) and the workers’ community he oversees put Alfredo on trial for his passive behaviour and profiting off the labour of the workers. Through the character of Alfredo, there is a clear historical brush being used to suggest that Fascism emerged in Europe because it went unchecked and was allowed to grow by weak leadership. Cinematically, Bertolucci also effectively illustrates the rise of Fascism in the narrative. One sequence makes the blackshirts feel like an unforeseen force in a horror movie as we get fleeting glimpses of the army that are cut like lightning as they emerge on constructed boats, land and the surrounding countryside. The mutated colour palette that is chiefly made up of grey and black also make the violent squad seem like a terrifying mythological entity that is an affront to nature.

In tandem is a Biblical idea of the sins of the father passing onto the son as Alfredo’s father hired Attila Mellanchini (Donald Sunderland) as a foreman and fanned the flames of his violently held beliefs. In lockstep with his father, Alfredo keeps Attila on as a foreman and is oblivious to his continued violent crimes and the fact that his new belief system is being incorporated into his dealings with the workers.

In the history of cinematic villainy, Sunderland’s performance is singularly unsung. His primary facial expression of sadistic glee and manic energy match Italian cinema and its fits of frantic, energetic emotion. And his quiet moments of contemplation, drunkenness and aloofness imbue the character with a humanity that has a steadfast commitment to an extreme authoritarianism.

Robert DeNiro is simply spellbinding as the affluent older Alfredo. There is a scene when the character is wearing a fur coat that is too big for him and the small moment perfectly encapsulates DeNiro’s performance. He plays Alfredo as though he is a ten-year-old child who is playing dressing up. He is easily bored, foolishly idealistic in his approach and quickly resorts to brash action. More noteworthy is the stark contrast between his paternal warmness and numbness in the tail end of the film. In the context of DeNiro’s entire acting oeuvre, 1900 represents his most fascinating performance. The common perception of the actor that comes from his crime films is subverted here in favour of a jovially foolish and ultimately nebbish portrait of a man.

In the aftermath of the trial, the workers’ community disappears into the fabric of the newly regulated government that was established in the final days of the Second World War. With this act, Bertolucci suggests that Communism was like a short-lived hurricane that swept Europe; it never truly caught on or got its vindication due to the pragmatism of many world leaders.

In a recent introduction to the film, Bertolucci said “I wanted to show the birth of Communism in the Po valley and the repression of the {blackshirts} of Mussolini” From this statement, one does get the impression that the director favours one ideology over the other. Consequently, the film’s point feels one-note in its exploration and thematic resonance. It is for this reason and the elusive nature of the central relationship (Bertolucci is indecisive on what to do with the underlying homoeroticism between Alfredo and Olmo) that the film never reaches the richness of the director’s last film- Last Tango In Paris.

Fundamentally, 1900 is a raggedy epic with the import of a boisterous elderly uncle at a wedding who feverishly recalls his youth with captivating enthusiasm and mesmerising detail.


About Sartaj Govind Singh

Notes from a distant observer: “Sartaj is a very eccentric fellow with a penchant for hats. He likes watching films and writes about them in great analytical detail. He has an MA degree in Philosophy and has been known to wear Mickey Mouse ears on his birthday.”
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