'1900': an interesting 5 1/2 -hour epic

April 05, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

'1900'

Starring Robert De Niro and Gerard Depardieu.

Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci.

Released by Paramount.

Rated NC-17.

** 1/2 Does the number in the title of Bernardo Bertolucci's restored "1900" refer to the year or the running time? Somewhere around minute 850, it becomes hard to tell. Now at its full 5 1/2 -hour, NC-17 length and embalmed on the screen at the Charles for a week,the movie is foolishness on a grand scale--but still interesting foolishness.

"1900," originally released in 1975, was conceived as a 45-year epic of revolution and romance as played out in microcosm on one Northern Italian estate. But it's strangely inert, never quite in its story achieving the crescendo of drama implicit in its length and its production.

Robert De Niro, looking about 14, and Gerard Depardieu, looking about 12, play the grandsons, respectively, of the landowner and the head bull goose macho peasant, themselves played, respectively, by Burt Lancaster and Sterling Hayden. Both boys are born on the day that Verdi dies, in 1900; they become friends, competitors, class enemies and finally old fogies as their country wends its weary way through the century.

The movie looks like a huge, color-coordinated folk opera osocialism on the march; it's almost an animated Diego Rivera mural. Yet its threadbare emotional materials keep pinching its romantic-expressive look. Rather than being emblems of their class, the De Niro and Depardieu characters are merely human, riddled with faults and neurotic tics (in this respect they are similar to the anti-heroic John Lone of Bertolucci's anti-epic yet Oscar-winning "The Last Emperor.") Depardieu is theoretically a proletarian firebrand, but his most radical act is to smear dung in Donald Sutherland's face; De Niro is pictured as a weenie-liberal, good-hearted but ineffectual, whose incompetence is largely what enables fascism to flourish.

And brother, does it flourish. The most emblematic figure in thfilm is Sutherland as the estate foreman who becomes the province's leading Black Shirt. Is this acting or what? With his blue eyes pale as gun barrels, his greasy blond hair slicked back, Sutherland is the Fascist from Disneyland, a complete loony-tunes bad guy. Bertolucci's imagination isn't exactly political: In order to represent the evil of Fascism, he simply has the theatrical Sutherland, in an excess of gruesomeness, first head-butt a crucified cat to death, then sodomize a boy whose brains he dashes out against the wall. These atrocities are difficult to bear, believe me. Worse, they blunt the point: If all Fascists were sadistic child murderers, then the allure of Fascism has no wider meaning. But clearly, sensible people jumped to Il Duce's tune: why? How did it complete their lives? Surely that's the key question of Italian history, and what a shame Bertolucci has no opinions on it.

In the first half, the energy of Lancaster and Hayden hamming it up for the ages gives the movie its thrust; in the second half Sutherland's drooling evil is the whole show. Whenever the nominal heroes, either singly or in tandem, are the center of the film, it slides into the doldrums.

Still it's an astonishment to see these two world-class stars so early in their careers: with unlined angelic faces they seem like children. The movie's most remarkable restored scene is an interlude with an epileptic prostitute, involving large amounts of frontal nudity.

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