Monday, March 23, 2009

1900 - NOVOCENTO - a magnificent hymn to class struggle

1900 is the mistranslated title of Italian auteur, Bernardo Bertolucci's political epic, NOVOCENTO - more literally, 20th CENTURY. It's a majestic, sprawling film that was financed lavishly on the back of the success of LAST TANGO IN PARIS, but even then exceeded its budget by millions. A source of controversy and initial disappointment when it played Venice and Cannes, even it's heavily reduced 3 hour cut is a marathon experience. Granted, the movie has moments of seeming self-indulgence. It is blatantly partisan, and is often poorly dubbed. But this is more than compensated for by beautiful visuals from DP Vittorio Storaro, unforgettable dramatic set-pieces, and the honesty and courage with which Bertolucci examines male friendship, moral cowardice and the mob mentality.

Essentially the movie is a story of childhood friendship turned to betrayal and anger. As the movie opens, an icon of unified Italy, Verdi, has died and two boys have been born. They represent the twin political forces that will split the newly unified country in two, and define the politics of twentieth century Western Europe. Alfredo is the rich son of the local landowner, a beneficiary of conservative politic interests; Olmo is the poor son of the local farmers, downtrodden, disenfranchised, but ripe for radical politics. Their child-hood is played out during endless summers: the fields are fecund, the sun always shines, and life is good. The young boys discover their sexuality together and are firm friends. Alfredo's home life is stunted by a cold and exploitative family - best symbolised by his lecherous grandfather (Burt Lancaster) who leers over a buxom milk-maid - exploited sexually and financially. By contrast, Olmo is raised by his community, in one particularly striking scene, standing atop a well-laden table as the village eats supper and the sun shines behind him giving him a halo. He is metaphorically the blessed son of the land.

As teenagers, the two boys are wing-men, visiting whores together, but politics and economics pull them apart in the autumn of their lives. Olmo (Gerard Depardieu) is a Communist and Alfredo (Robert de Niro) is his class enemy. His life is decadent - he marries a beautiful but distant wife - and his character callow. On his wedding day he allows a fascist mob to hound Olmo for apparently murdering a child. And so we are introduced to the most terrifying and memorable character in the movie, Atilla Mellanchini (Donald Sutherland). If Alfredo is upper class and Olmo working class, Atilla represents the middle-class response to class struggle - a radical movement to create a new elite and keep both decadent aristos and the mob oppressed. Nowhere is the brutality and egotism of Fascism better and most horrifyingly depicted on screen than in Sutherland's Oscar-worthy portrait. Winter has truly settled upon Italy.

As the war ends in humiliation, scores must be settled. The mob turns on the Fascists: Bertolucci seems to indicate that a necessary destruction preceeds the Spring of renewal and rebirth for modern Italy. Alfredo and Olmo are reuited as old men, fighting, literally, as the movie ends, transformed into little children again. Bertolucci's class struggle continues - it is historically determined and inevitable.

1900 - NOVOCENTO played Venice 1976 and was released that year. It is available on DVD.

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