Saturday, May 19, 2012

On Blu-ray/Reissued on DVD: 1900 (1977)

(Italy/France/Germany, 1977)

Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci.  Written by Franco Arcalli, Giuseppe Bertolucci, Bernardo Bertolucci.  Cast: Robert De Niro, Gerard Depardieu, Dominique Sanda, Burt Lancaster, Donald Sutherland, Stefania Sandrelli, Francesca Bertini, Laura Betti, Werner Bruhns, Stefania Casini, Sterling Hayden, Anna Henkel, Ellen Schwiers, Alida Valli, Romolo Valli, Giacomo Rizzo, Paolo Pavesi, Roberto Maccanti, Maria Monti, Jose Quaglio, Pietro Longari Ponzoni, Piero Vida. (Unrated, 315 mins)

In recent years, Paramount hasn't been known for showing an interest in making its back catalog available, so they've been licensing titles out to the upstart Olive Films label (recent releases include a batch of Jerry Lewis comedies and the '70s cop thrillers HIT! and BADGE 373).  Back in 2006, Paramount listened to fan requests and made the surprise decision to release the uncut version of Bernardo Bertolucci's European political epic 1900 on DVD.  It wasn't in print very long and now they've farmed it out to Olive Films for a DVD re-release (minus the bonus features on the 2006 DVD but with a 2002 documentary on Bertolucci that wasn't on the previous release) and a debut on Blu-ray.  It looks mostly good on Blu-ray, framed at 1.78:1, a change from the DVD's 1.85:1 (IMDb claims the original aspect ratio is 1.66:1, so who knows?).  The difference is pretty minor, and I only noticed one shot where the change made a difference and something seemed oddly-framed (we should just be thankful that cinematographer Vittorio "2.00:1" Storaro wasn't put in charge of the Blu-ray transfer)  There's some scenes where there's a bit too much saturation and the caked makeup and wig-cap glue lines on the actors' heads are plainly obvious, but overall, the colors are bolder and the textures better-defined than the occasionally washed-out DVD.  Probably worth the upgrade for fans of this long-neglected masterpiece, but the transfer is not perfect. If ever a film deserved to be rescued by a Criterion restoration, it's this one, but the Blu-ray's visual inconsistencies may be inherent in the film itself.  You know how sometimes the higher-resolution of Blu-ray doesn't help?  This might be the case here, depending on one's tolerance for grain.  Still, this Blu-ray is probably as good as it'll ever get for a film that may come to be regarded as either Bertolucci's finest work or his ultimate act of madness.

De Niro and Depardieu as best friends torn
apart by political upheaval in 1900
I do think it's Bertolucci's masterpiece and it's also one of the great epics in all of cinema.  It never ceases to amaze me that a film this mind-bogglingly expansive and ambitious even got made, let alone distributed by a major Hollywood studio, but after LAST TANGO IN PARIS, Bertolucci clearly had enough clout to do what he wanted.  It's a densely-plotted, graphically violent, sexually explicit film with major Hollywood stars and a pro-Communist agenda and it's over five hours long and took over a year to shoot.  Of course, the US release was cut down from 315 minutes to 243 minutes, losing a little over an hour but still running four (a 255-minute version also exists).  Bertolucci didn't cut any scene in its entirety--he just shortened them or toned down some of the more graphic material to avoid an X rating.  The 2006 DVD and this new Blu-ray have the director's complete 315-minute version, restored and shown in the US for the first time in the mid 1990s and given an NC-17 rating, which was dropped in favor of simply going without a rating.  How graphic is this film's content?  I don't know what necessarily constitutes an abundance of nudity, but even Sterling Hayden's dick gets some screen time.

Burt Lancaster as the padrone
Beginning in 1901 on the day of Verdi's death, the film chronicles the following 44 years of political turmoil in Italy, centered on the wealthy, landowning Berlingheri family and the peasant Dalco family who work their wheat fields and their farm.  The patriarchs--padrone Alfredo Berlingheri (Burt Lancaster) and peasant leader Leo Dalco (Hayden) have grandsons born on this very day.  As youths, the boys, the Berlingheri child also named Alfredo (Paolo Pavesi) and Olmo Dalco (Roberto Maccanti) are close friends and despite his bourgeois upbringing, Alfredo feels more at home with the field workers than with his family, especially his cold father Giovanni (Romolo Valli).  The boys grow, and Alfredo (Robert De Niro) and Olmo (Gerard Depardieu) eventually find themselves at the center of a Fascist uprising, started by greedy Giovanni, who uses religion and patriotism to rope in the rich in his quest to keep profits high and the peasants under their thumbs.  Giovanni hires a sadistic foreman, Attila (a demonic Donald Sutherland) to lord over the Dalco clan, who see jobs eliminated and wages reduced while the Berlingheris get richer and more decadent by the year.  All the while, the politically active Olmo fights the Fascist movement while Alfredo passively steps aside and looks the other way while Attila's power grows.

Donald Sutherland as the sadistic Attila

Many characters weave in and out of the story, which unfolds and progresses like a great novel.  With Storaro's stunning cinematography and a majestic score by Ennio Morricone, 1900 looks and sounds incredible.  And rarely has a film this long been so consistently engrossing.  It's truly a film like no other.  It's remarkably ambitious, grandiose, operatic, overwrought, and profoundly moving in equal measures.  Every few minutes, there's some beautifully-staged sequence or some inspired bit of crazed acting or some unexpected transgression happening.  The sexual content is surprising at times:  young Alfredo and Olmo compare erections in a controversial scene; as young adults, they visit a prostitute (Stefania Casini) who gives them simultaneous handjobs and there's no effects or camera trickery...she's really stroking both De Niro and Depardieu; there's a weird scene where De Niro's Alfredo uses the butt of a shotgun to masturbate his horny cousin Regina (Laura Betti), who's also seen going down on Sutherland while he rants about Fascist ideals.  There's also some almost-Pasolini levels of scatology:  Lancaster buries his feet in cow shit before asking a peasant girl to feel his impotent penis; Bertolucci gives us a close-up of a horse taking a steaming dump and the piles of manure get thrown at Sutherland.  The violence is also very disturbing at times, especially the fate of a little boy raped and killed by Attila and Regina, and a rough, non-faked scene where Depardieu kills and guts a large pig.

Sterling Hayden as peasant leader Leo Dalco
There are shocking elements in 1900, but it's never exploitative.  The film is not just a political history of Italy, but it also functions as a history of cinema.  Rarely has such an eclectic group of actors been brought together on the same film.  Young breakout stars like De Niro and Depardieu, an established box office star in Sutherland,  Hollywood legends Lancaster and Hayden, acclaimed European stars Dominique Sanda (as De Niro's wife), Romolo Valli, Alida Valli, and Stefania Sandrelli (as Depardieu's wife), and perhaps most interesting, the inclusion of Francesca Bertini in a rare screen appearance as Lancaster's older sister.  Bertini, born in 1892, was the first major star in Italian cinema, with a screen career dating back to 1907.  In her 80s and long retired by this point, Bertolucci talked her into taking a small role, and in a film with history as its central theme, Bertini's appearance, limited to maybe three scenes, really does feel special. Bertolucci also establishes a connection to his own inspirations in Lancaster again being cast in an Italian film as an aging patriarch lamenting the passage of time and the changing of values, which he'd portrayed so masterfully in Luchino Visconti's THE LEOPARD (1963).  With a mix of actors speaking English, Italian, French, and German (mostly English), the English-dubbed option is probably the way to go, as you get the voices of De Niro, Sutherland, Lancaster, Hayden, and a few others.  Depardieu is dubbed by someone else for the English version, but his voice can be heard on the French track.

De Niro's Alfredo, the landowner put
on trial by his field workers
1900 took over a year to film.  Shooting began in May 1974 and ended in September 1975.  De Niro had finished THE GODFATHER PART II but it hadn't been released when he started shooting 1900.  He made TAXI DRIVER immediately after 1900 (and late in 1900's shoot, he would fly from Rome to NYC on weekends to drive a cab to prep for his role as Travis Bickle), but TAXI DRIVER ended up coming out a full year before 1900's US release in late 1977, in its truncated 243-minute version.  It obviously didn't do well and vanished from sight for years until the 255-minute cut got released on VHS in the late '80s.  Even though the uncensored version was ultimately given a brief release in the '90s, it wasn't until the 2006 DVD that Bertolucci's full version was made widely available in the US.  It's an incredible, one-of-a kind film the likes of which we'll never see again, and one that still resonates today.  Decidedly not for all tastes, but adventurous cinema fans who have yet to tackle it should consider it essential viewing.  You've never seen anything like it.

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