Bertolucci’s 1900 came out in 1976. Originally 301 minutes long, it was shown as two separate films released in Italy a few weeks apart. An abridged version, a single film 248 minutes long, was shown over Bertolucci’s protest in the United States. The complete version was screened in major U.S. cities in 1982, but did not have a nationwide release. The director’s cut, which we are able to show tonight, requires a warning: “This film contains graphic sex, extreme violence, flamboyant profanity, child abuse — and Communism!
I’ve been joking, of course. 1976 was a very important year both in Italian history and in the history of Italian cinema. It was the year the Italian Communist Party almost won the elections after decades of Christian Democrat domination. They came very close and, thanks to the leadership of the secretary of the Italian Communist Party, Enrico Berlinguer, what had once seemed a threatening ideological force was now perceived as acceptable, even by Catholics. At the same time, 1976 saw the emergence from the extreme left of the terrorist Red Brigades, with all the social turmoil this would provoke.
It was an important year for Bertolucci as well, as he was coming from a succès de scandale after the release of Last Tango in Paris. Its explicit sex upset Catholics, and the censors not only decided to ban the film but, for the first and only time in Italian film history, they decided the film should be destroyed — that the negative itself should be burned. Fortunately, this decision was never implemented.
Neither did this decision intimidate Bertolucci. He wanted to do something to celebrate what seemed at the time to be an historic moment: he wanted to put together a big, populist epic, a left-wing version of Gone With the Wind; a film that would be remembered as marking the triumph of left-wing ideology in Italy. He therefore conceived 1900 as something between a political statement and a popular movie, a film that would appeal to the masses. So there had to be action, adventure, sex, melodrama — you name it. There had to be, most important of all, class conflict.
The story is of two people born on the very same day: January 27, 1901. One is Alfredo, who comes from a very wealthy family; the other is Olmo, who is the illegitimate son of a very poor family. They are friends but, because of political events following World War I, they become enemies. One is a capitalist, the other an idealistic left-wing activist. The dialectic between these two personalities becomes the dialectic between the ruling classes and the working classes in Italy at the time, but the film was meant to be an even larger allegory of class conflict in history.
In addition it was meant to be a populist epic: Bertolucci wanted to paint a big fresco of the history of Italy’s social unification. So, putting aside the race issue, 1900 can very well be considered the Italian Birth of a Nation. The comparison with Birth of a Nation works, first of all, because of the amazing filmmaking in 1900: it contains breathtaking sequences and truly amazing photography. But it is also an Italian Birth of a Nation because of its excess, its inordinate length and its ideological ambition.
When the film came out, critical reaction was mixed. There were very predictable reactions. Left-wing critics hailed it as a masterpiece, obviously because of what the film was and what it represented. Catholics were very upset by its explicit content, except those who read between the lines and managed to see that there was room for a marriage between the Catholic Church and the Communist Party, in contemporary Italian politics as much as in the story. Then there were clever conservative critics who argued that Catholics should shut up because in protesting the film they were bringing too much attention to something that could more effectively be ignored and left to fade away: “Let’s make no scandal, don’t try to censor this film, just leave it alone and it will die by itself.”
But the film didn’t die because it was the object of very heated discussion, again about sexual politics and violence. From then on it became an object of discomfort for the critics, who otherwise loved Bertolucci because of both the wonderful things in the film and its political commitment. The problems besetting the left became evident a few years later; in 1978, Christian Democrat leader Aldo Moro was kidnapped and killed by the Red Brigades. The turmoil following such traumatic events broke the dream of a true left-wing government in Italy.
The dream was to fail but, as Bertolucci said, this film is an expression of desperate optimism. It is an expression of the hope that something was really going to change in Italian society. It was an expression of the hope that the utopia of a progressive society could become reality out of the ruins of the war, out of the ruins of forty years of Christian Democrat government. Unfortunately history went in another direction; there was another twenty years of conservative government, and then the Left came to power in a way that is still quite contradictory.
I would like to invite you to look at this film as a great work of art, either despite or because of its excesses, but, most importantly, I invite you to look at it as an historical document from the last time an Italian artist expressed the hope for a left-wing government with a joy derived from the political events of the time.