On a balmy afternoon in the year 1900, two male children are born to very different families in rural Italy. One, Alfredo, is born into a wealthy family headed by his grandfather, Berlinghieri (Burt Lancaster), a land baron who rules over several families that work his land. The other, Olmo, is the bastard son of one of Berlinghieri’s workers. As the boys grow, they meet and quickly become close friends, spending most of their pre-teen years together in spite of the growing disputes between their families. When the eldest Berlinghieri dies and the land passes to Alfredo’s unprepared and greedy father, the new padrone begins to compromise the work force, refusing to honor existing contracts. As World War I plays out, Alfredo and Olmo separate; Olmo heads into combat, while Alfredo uses his family’s connections to take a safe military post at home.
When the war ends, Alfredo (Robert De Niro) and Olmo (Gerard Depardieu) are still friendly, but have very different views of the world. Olmo returns to his village and tries to organize the workers, while Alfredo seeks solace in the arms of an eccentric Parisian beauty, Ada (Dominique Sanda). After Alfredo’s father dies, these two are married on his newly inherited estate. As the Fascists move into the Italian countryside, Berlinghieri’s farming manager, Attila (Donald Southerland), and Alfredo’s bitter cousin, Regina (Laura Betti), form a strong and dangerous Fascist presence; in an effort to undermine Alfredo, they secretly abuse and murder a child guest during his wedding festivities. Soon, Italy’s torn political allegiances and the rise of Benito Mussolini have devastating effects on Alfredo, Olmo and everyone in their community.
An epic, sprawling tale of friendship, betrayal and survival, 1900 (Novecento) is one of Bernardo Bertolucci’s most accomplished films, as well as one of the cinema’s most ambitious attempts at historical drama. Three decades after its theatrical release, the film’s deconstruction of a turbulent period in Italy’s history is still powerfully effective, thanks in part to Bertolucci’s partnership with Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC. The two artists had previously collaborated on The Conformist and Last Tango in Paris, and 1900 proved to be another extraordinary partnership. The two worked closely to establish a nearly yearlong shooting schedule that would allow for narrative events to take place in the appropriate seasons, so that the nuances of natural light could enhance action and character development. As Storaro explains in an interview on this DVD, it seemed clear that the summer was the perfect time to shoot the childhood sequences, autumn suited the characters’ young-adult lives, and winter was appropriate for the later parts of the film, when the country is in political upheaval.
For its original theatrical release, 1900 was edited for length and for what censors deemed “pornographic content,” and this two-disc Collector’s Edition DVD restores the film to its original running time of 315 minutes, a first for home screens. The picture is presented anamorphically enhanced and letterboxed at 1.85:1. The image transfer appears to re-create many of the subtle nuances of Storaro’s work, with excellent attention to the shafts of sunlight and shadows that make up so much of the complicated lighting scheme. The image, while often heavily saturated, appears clean of defects and is certainly a big improvement over the soft, often muddy 1995 laserdisc transfer. The audio is clear, though sometimes too centrally oriented because of the post-sync dubbing style the filmmakers originally used.
The feature is spread over two discs and includes Bertolucci’s intended intermission mark. Disc two includes two short interview segments with Bertolucci and Storaro that total almost 30 minutes. Both men discuss the film’s conception and casting, as well as the visual choices that make the images stand out. As the segments of one scene are presented, Storaro explains how the lighting of that scene was designed to carefully reflect the character’s needs. Bertolucci talks about how the film polarized audiences, and expresses regret that he did not continue the story with a sequel.
With this handsome package, Paramount at long last brings the grand, passionate storytelling of 1900 to home screens the way it was intended.