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1900 Reviews

Reviewed By: Michael Costello

Bernardo Bertolucci's massive epic, a history of Italy from 1900 to 1945 as reflected through the friendship of two men across class lines, is one of the most fascinating, if little seen, of his films. After beginning with Robert De Niro as wealthy landowner Alfredo, and Gérard Depardieu as labor leader Olmo, the film returns to 1901 with the death of composer Giuseppe Verdi and the birth of the two friends. The opposing class interests of their grandfathers, padrone Alfredo Berlinghieri (Burt Lancaster), and laborer Leo Dalco (Sterling Hayden), is quickly established in the enmity between the characters. The director is graphic in his depiction of ownership as exploitation, and makes the craggy Hayden character a figure of nearly Biblical proportions as he rouses his fellow workers to maintain solidarity and demand self-determination. As they grow, the boys become friends, mystified by the tensions that separate their families. But as time passes and Alfredo assumes the role of padrone, while Olmo works the land, their relationship becomes strained. With the rise of fascism, the director spells out its complicity with business interests, as the diffident Alfredo falls under the spell of a vicious and degraded fascist farm manager played by Donald Sutherland. Bertolucci, as he has in The Conformist (1970) and The Last Emperor (1987), brilliantly uses characterization to imply and contrast the crippling emotional effects of wealth and power. At over five hours in the restored version, the stately film has a kind of cumulative power now rare on the screen. In fairness, parts of the film's second half lack some the richness of the earlier sections, and a number of simple, almost uninflected scenes, seem excessively didactic, even for a leftist polemic. Among the large cast, the two leads are exceptional, with De Niro evincing an unusual vulnerability. Sutherland gives a disturbingly brilliant performance, and Lancaster is also memorable as the stern landowner. Vittorio Storaro, Bertolucci's longtime collaborator, and one of the greatest of cinematographers, produces images of breathtaking beauty, so much so that the rapturous shots of the vast fields almost make one forget the oppression of the workers. One comes away from this majestic undertaking with a sense of wonder, and awareness that it's not likely to be replicated any time soon.