FOCUS European Art Cinema Film as Political Art the Epic

1900 is undoubtedly 'epic' - it celebrates a century, it displays generations in conflict and (in its original version) lasted five and a half hours. The film's $6 million budget was supplied by three different sources: $2 million from United Artists, $2 million from Paramount and $2 million from 20th Century Fox. Thus 1900 can be seen as an impressive example of the Holly wood / Europe synergy - as usual the relationship was not unproblematic. The production went $3 million over budget, which might seem slight in this day and age until we consider the brutal fact that the film went 50 per cent over budget.

Bertolucci was already a famed European auteur owing to Before the Revolution (1964), The Spider's Stratagem (1969) and The Conformist (1970) as well as the succès de scandale of Last Tango in Paris (1972). Bertolucci ('European', with all that involves, including possibly 'difficult') had proved himself capable not only of making very stylish films but also of attracting great attention to himself and his movies. Thus he found himself fêted by Hollywood at a time when the studios were going through a decade where they attempted forays into financing original talent (before the blockbusters soaked up all the finance). Bertolucci collected a large amount of studio money, his favoured cine-matographer Vitorrio Storaro and an international cast around him to begin filming on location in the countryside of Parma and Lazio (Rome). He aimed to make a film about collective memory -specifically the collective memory of working people rarely explored in cinema and certainly not in epic terms (see, for example, the work of the Italian neo-realists or more recently Ken Loach and Mike Leigh in the UK). If anything, 1900 is closer in visual style to Days of Heaven (Malick, USA, 1978) or in sentiment to John Sayles' s Matewan (USA, 1987), but as an expression of epic sensibilities 1900 is closer to Coppola's The Godfather Part II (USA, 1974).

Set in Italy from the birth of the century to the end of the Second World War, the film follows the lives and interactions of two boys/men, one born a bastard of peasant stock (Depardieu), the other born to a landowner (De Niro). The drama spans from 1900 to 1944 and focuses largely on the fortunes of the two contrasting families, set firmly in the decadent/threatening atmosphere of the rise of Fascism, which threatens any hope of peace between the classes. Finally the peasants seize the opportunity to rise up and assert their communist faith. Espousing Stalin, their socialism is really rather more a form of rural anarchism. Their victory reasserts the moral strength of the peasant patriarch Leo (Sterling Hay den).

The politics of the film are clearly displayed in the opening shot, when the agenda of the film is set by the image of workers as classical heroes. The style of presentation - i.e. painterly - (and the musical accompaniment) give to the working man a sense of dignity that he will hold throughout the film. The opening text, thanking the peasants for their spirit, songs and culture, hammers the didactic points home (in a way reminiscent of the silent films of Sergei M. Eisenstein).

The opening moving images of the film show us the fall of Fascism. Even as the Fascists retreat, they engage in senseless savagery (a continuing theme of the film). The workers are now armed and dangerous. A young boy shouts 'I want to kill too, Long Live Stalin!' This same boy 'arrests' Alfredo, the landowner, telling him: 'There are no bosses any more.' The rest of the film deals - in elongated detail - with how this situation has come about.

In 1976 this rather romantic left-ism was still fashionable enough (rather than the exclusive territory of Warren Beatty and Tim Robbins) to give the film counter-culture cachet. Hollywood thrived (and continues to thrive) by packaging the semi-dangerous - e.g. Bonnie and Clyde (Penn, 1967) and Easy Rider (Hopper, 1969) - rather than the genuine radicalism of, for example, JeanLuc Godard - e.g. Weekend (France, 1967) or Sympathy for the Devil (France, 1968). 1900 went rather too far for its paymasters. Financed by Hollywood, Bertolucci still managed to produce material that was way beyond their ability (or nerve) to distribute - not least because of its length. Bertolucci's version of the film included a scene of sexual activity featuring Alfredo, Olmo, and an epileptic prostitute, which European distributors could handle but that would never have been certified by the MPAA.

In the original version of the still surviving scene of Olmo and Alfredo in the fields, the pubescent boys go beyond 'screwing' the ground and examine each other's erections. Not only would this have removed any possibility of a certificate in the United States: it would probably have qualified as child pornography, thus leading to charges against United Artists, Paramount and Fox - as well as Bertolucci never being allowed into the USA. Most of all, 1900 is (for commercial and to be fair formal purposes) too long and too political - and just too foreign for American audiences. By the time of The Last Emperor (1987), Bertolucci had got the length and the opulence under control and the politics was more 'palatable' (being about personal tragedy and arguably an i/-communist), added to which English-speaking audiences did not have to struggle with tricky subtitles all through the film. The result was a cartload of Academy Awards and a major international success. By the time of The Sheltering Sky (1996) and Stealing Beauty (1996), only the opulence was left.

Some Things to Watch out for and Consider

• Bertolucci begins the film with a number of graphic images of violence by the peasants against the Fascists. How does this fit with or develop in the flashback narrative that follows?

• Notice how the personal often unites as well as separates characters in this film, particularly the two central male characters. Bertolucci is thus able to make what could be rather dry polemic into engaging cinema.

• Consider the effect of music in this film - both diegetic (the songs and classical pieces) and non-diegetic (the swelling romantic orchestral score).

• The relationship between Hollywood and Europe goes back to the 1920s (see Nosferatu, chapter 2). Notice the ways in which European films and film-makers (including Hitchcock) influenced, for example, De Palma, Malik, Schräder, Scorsese and Tarantino.

• Has cinema ever been a successful medium for political messages? When? On what terms would we define success?

• Is Hollywood the most successful ideological machine of all?

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