Bernardo Bertolucci’s “1900" (at the Nuart for a week) is truly what the French call a film maudit , or “cursed” film.
The original Italian-language version of the film ran five hours and 11 minutes, but in its 1977 U.S. release, it was in English and cut by more than an hour. Now, Paramount has restored the footage--under the guidance of Bertolucci’s master cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro--and re-recorded the soundtrack in Dolby stereo. But it’s still in English.
Only subscribers to the now-defunct Z Channel ever saw the full-length Italian version. It was aired by that innovative L.A. pay-cable service six years ago, using English subtitles, and that is by far the best way to see the movie.
Yet even in the full-length Italian version, “1900" is too emotionally extravagant ever to be considered a masterpiece. Rather, it’s a monumental achievement like such original and impassioned but scarcely flawless screen epics as D. W. Griffith’s “Intolerance,” Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” and Abel Gance’s “Napoleon.”
Bertolucci and his collaborators, you may recall, attempt to trace the political and social history of Italy from the the turn of the century to the end of World War II through the lives of two friends, landowner Robert De Niro and peasant Gerard Depardieu. Although told with an unyielding Marxist fervor, “1900" overflows with an abundant love of life in all its beauty and pain, sensuality and despair. Not for Bertolucci is the detachment of that other aristocratic Italian leftist, the late Luchino Visconti.
Burt Lancaster and the late Sterling Hayden are their usual robust selves as the grandfathers of De Niro and Depardieu, respectively, and leave the film fairly early on. But over the long haul, Donald Sutherland’s sadistic, all-but-drooling Fascist foreman verges on Simon Legree caricature. He is not helped by being teamed with Laura Betti (speaking heavily accented English) in an over-the-top performance as De Niro’s jealous, raving cousin, a hysteric who marries Sutherland out of vengeance.
As exciting as it is to see De Niro and Depardieu working together, De Niro in this version seems miscast. His street-wise New Yorker’s voice is hardly that of a landed Northern Italian aristocrat, and it’s hard to buy him as a weakling as well. Faring best is Dominique Sanda, cast as De Niro’s beautiful, extravagantly self-destructive French wife.
Where the film is an unalloyed triumph is in its visuals, for Storaro’s images are awesomely gorgeous whether Bertolucci is expressing joy or sorrow, triumph or tragedy or intent on recording poverty or luxury, unspoiled vistas or elegant interiors. Camera movement, too, is as baroque and full-bodied as Ennio Morricone’s score.
Bertolucci, reached by phone in Rome, diplomatically avoided expressing a preference between the two full-length versions; the film and its fate clearly remains a painful subject for him. However, to hear De Niro, Sutherland, Lancaster and Hayden speaking English in their own natural voices, none of them attempting Italian accents, makes them seem all the less Italian. To American ears, Depardieu dubbed into Italian is less distracting than hearing him dubbed into English. (There are several Germans in the international co-production as well as Italians, French and Americans.)
While it is true that there’s lots of dubbing in the Italian version, starting with the American stars, it sounds on the whole more natural. Although the English dubbing in Paramount’s restored version is about as good as dubbing gets, this “1900" retains inevitably an aura of artificiality and, as a result, invites stretches of tedium. (Significantly, the film’s politicking seems lots less heavy-handed filtered through subtitles.)
The belated release of Bertolucci’s cut of “1900" has also effected an entirely appropriate change of rating from R to NC-17, for also restored are some scenes of non-exploitative but nonetheless quite candid sex scenes. Note also that the complete film is being screened only on Saturday and Sunday, with only the first or second halves shown on weeknights.
Robert De Niro: Alfredo Berlinghieri
Gerard Depardieu: Olmo Dalco
Dominique: Sanda Ada
Burt Lancaster: Alfredo Berlinghieri I
Donald Sutherland: Attila
Sterling Hayden: Leo Dalco
Stefania Sandrelli: Anita Dalco
Alida Valli: Signora Pioppi
A Paramount release of a P.E.A. Produzioni Europe Associate, Roma. Director Bernardo Bertolucci. Alberto Grimaldi. Screenplay by Bertolucci, Franco Arcalli. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. Editor Arcalli. Costumes Gitt Magrini. Music Ennio Morricone. Art director Ezio Frigerio.
Running time: 5 hours, 11 minutes (plus intermission).
MPAA-rated: NC-17 (no children younger than 17 admitted).