Bertolucci's '1900' is dense with ambitions


Expect a number of divergent opinions about Robert De Niro's latest directorial effort, "The Good Shepherd." But there is one aspect of this slow-burning thriller about the evolution of the CIA that everyone is sure to agree on: It's awfully long.

Watching "The Good Shepherd," one can't help but feel that De Niro was channeling all those massive, Italian-inflected, multigenerational dramas he appeared in during the prime of his acting youth, such as Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather: Part II," Sergio Leone's "Once Upon a Time in America" and Bernardo Bertolucci's "1900."

The last film is arguably the least successful of the three, although it is scattered with glorious moments and voluptuous images that bear consideration now that it has been reissued on DVD in a fatiguing director's cut.

When Bertolucci launched into his daunting 44-week shoot on "1900," he was riding a wave of international critical acclaim for "The Conformist" and "Last Tango in Paris."

Recruiting his co-writers from those two films, Bertolucci conceived a two-chapter scenario that would stretch from the death of Verdi in 1900 to the death of Mussolini in 1945.

A former country boy himself, Bertolucci wanted to do a kind of paean to Italy's peasant roots. This was his frame: On the same day in 1900, a wealthy landowner and a laborer who worked on his farm would both become grandfathers. Their grandsons would grow up as friends, and that friendship would prevail even as the privileged one gave into fascism and the poor one became a socialist.

In addition to linking social movements of the period through his characters, Bertolucci hoped to use his embattled Italian landscape as a "bridge" between the U.S. and Soviet Union filmmaking traditions he so admired by casting American and Russian stars in the lead roles. He eventually had to modify the Russian participation to a French star (Gerard Depardieu), after Soviet officials insisted on script approval.

The United States did not exactly open up its loving arms to "1900," a resistance the director tries to explain away in the accompanying DVD interviews (which also feature legendary cameraman Vittorio Storaro) by saying that it contained "too many red flags." He was referring to the plethora of Communist banners that spring up in the film's second half, but it could not have escaped the notice of stateside filmgoers that the movie's leading fascisti were played by Americans (De Niro as the estate's fat-cat padrone and Donald Sutherland as his foreman-turned-Black Shirt), while its victimized peasant class were led by Europeans.

To be fair, Bertolucci balanced the scale to an extent with other casting. But it is hard to watch "1900" without detecting a covert drop of anti-American venom.

It is also hard for us attention-challenged Yanks to take in this overextended five-hour, 15-minute version without multiple intermissions. If Storaro's cinematography is a feast for the eyes, Bertolucci's languid rhythms are antithetical to the dense plotting and operatic characterizations.

"1900" remains a wannabe masterpiece, far more compelling for its aspirations than for what it finally achieves.

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