Saturday, March 03, 2007

The padrone is dead! He told me to tell you!


The films of Bernardo Bertolucci follow protagonists who find their individual desires in conflict with the changing world around them. In Last Tango in Paris, this theme is played out in microcosm, as a middle-aged man and a young woman demolish standards of sex, love and propriety within the confines of a cramped apartment; his next film, Novecento (1900), occupies a far more sprawling canvas. The film follows its characters over the first half of the 2oth century, set against the backdrop of the struggle between Communism and Fascism in a newly unified and rapidly changing Italy. It's easy to see why this story would be appealing to the director, and intriguing to consider the ways that the film itself is a struggle between Bertolucci the classicist and Bertolucci the revolutionary. While the result is not always successful, it is endlessly fascinating.

1900 begins at the end of WWII before moving to its titular year, on the day of Verdi's death, as two children are born to two different families. The aging padrone (Burt Lancaster) of a wealthy land-owning family invites one of his laborers (Sterling Hayden) to drink with him to celebrate the birth of their grandsons on the same day. The film follows these two boys as they grow into men, the wealthy Alfredo (Robert de Niro) reminiscent of Henry V as he leads a naively hedonistic life before inheriting his role as the new padrone, and his childhood friend Olmo (Gerard Depardieu) becomes a leader in the Communist movement. Olmo and Alfredo's story, which follows them from their childhood friendship through old age, would be enough for one film, but Bertolucci's vision is staggering in scale. 1900 unfolds deliberately, allowing plenty of time for supporting characters like Lancaster and Hayden's patriarchs and stopping to observe moments like the killing and butchering of a pig. There's no doubt that Bertolucci, fresh off the international success of Last Tango in Paris and equipped with a cinematic "Get Out of Jail Free" card, is being wildly self-indulgent. But I must confess that for me, self-indulgent is not always a dirty word; a film should be to some extent a catalog of a filmmaker's preoccupations, desires and turn-ons. So while 1900 often sacrifices narrative clarity in favor of spectacle, the result is a uniquely immersive cinematic experience that is as emotionally rich as it is intellectually rewarding.

The images in 1900 are painterly yet unsentimental, evoking a kind of clear-eyed nostalgia for the then-recent past. Bertolucci and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro linger on sweeping landscapes and bucolic scenes from life in rural Italy - the frame is filled with soft greens, yellows and browns that recall the early modernists (the opening credits play over Pellizza da Volpedo's "The Fourth Estate"). At the same time, the camera often stops to linger on the grungy details of everyday life - a horse defectating, frogs twitching on the end of a string, the juice of a smashed watermelon dripping down the lens. Bertolucci uses these details to portray the Communists as more vital, connected as they are by their livelihoods to "milk and shit" (Lancaster's summary of the earth's fruits), while the bourgeois live a relatively cloistered existence, their refinements disconnecting them in some elemental way from their humanity. And yet it's clear that the director is in love with the beautiful surfaces of the aristocracy, going so far as to eroticize wealth in the form of Alfredo's petulant but mesmerizing wife Ada (Dominique Sanda) while allowing Olmo's wife (Stefania Sandrelli) to disappear without warning during the intermission. At the center of the film is the conflict between Olmo and Alfredo as the former becomes driven by his cause while the latter grows apathetic, doing nothing to help his friend; while Bertolucci's political allegiance is with the former, it's clear that he has sympathy for the latter, and 1900 is perhaps best viewed as a filmmaker's battle between his moral convictions and his aesthetic fetishes.


And this being a Bertolucci film, sex is used as a means to lay bare the characters' motivations and unspoken desires. This is most apparent when Olmo and Alfredo end up in bed together with a prostitute (Stefania Casini) - the scene leaves nothing to the imagination, yet it is not at all exploitative. It makes clear Alfredo's unspoken attraction to Olmo, and in particular Olmo's life, and Olmo's provincial morality, which prevents him from becoming a total radical. Both actors are winningly vulnerable (De Niro in particular is surprisingly earnest), and Bertolucci's lens renders them not only physically but also spiritually naked - the rest of the film hinges, in a sense, on this scene. In particular, it establishes the separation of both men from Attila (Donald Sutherland), the leading fascist in the town. Sutherland is incredible in the role, an embodiment of the Reichian notion of sexual repression as the root of fascism (an idea that also drives Pasolini's Salo). When Attila traps and does perverse things to a young boy in response to a slight from his employer, Alfredo, the gory climax of the scene is an orgasm of sorts, demonstrating in stark terms how sex has been transformed into violence. Few filmmakers have taken "Make Love Not War" to heart as Bertolucci has, and while one can question his methods, it's impossible to doubt their visceral impact.


There has been much debate about 1900's ambiguous, seemingly out-of-left-field ending. While such a whimsical note seems at first ill-fitting, the moment of levity actually serves to reframe the film in a fascinating way. Bertolucci allows the clash of ideologies to extend beyond the frame - this is, after all, a story that has not yet reached its end. Ultimately, 1900 is a celebration of the moment in time when it became possible for ideas to rule the world. Perhaps it is inevitable that such subject matter can only lead to a staggering, often unwieldly work of cinema. But if that is the case, than perhaps it is also true that this is merely a reflection of the world live in, when empires rest on ideals like elephants balancing on the head of a pin.

1 comment:

Mothwitness said...

Brilliant. One of the best you've written.