1900 (1976): Bertolucci’s Ambitious Epic, Starring Brando, Lancaster, De Niro

An ambitious historical epic, covering 70 years of life and social conflict in the Emilia region of Italy, 1900 had the misfortune of being released after Bertolucci made his masterpiece, “Last Tango in Paris,” the film that had established him as the most gifted directors in world cinema.

The movie, which boasted a high caliber international cast, including Brando, Burt Lancaster, and Robert De Niro, caused controversy not only because of its explicit sexuality and graphic violence but also because of its unusual length.

The original cut, screened at the Cannes Film Festival, ran five and a half hours. After a heated dispute between the director and the film’s producer, Alberto Grimaldi, it was considerable pared down.

The short version was dismissed by most critics as incomprehensible. Years later, Bertolucci’s original cut was re-released, but this version was also panned by most critics.

The movie featured an international ensemble, including Robert De Niro, Gérard Depardieu, Dominique Sanda, Francesca Bertini, Laura Betti, Stefania Casini, Ellen Schwiers, Sterling Hayden, Alida Valli, Romolo Valli, Stefania Sandrelli, Donald Sutherland, and Burt Lancaster.

Set in Bertolucci’s ancestral region of Emilia, the tale chronicles the lives and friendship of two men – the landowning Alfredo Berlinghieri (De Niro) and the peasant Olmo Dalcò (Depardieu) – as they get involved in the political conflicts between fascism and communism that took place in Italy in the first half of the 20th century.

With an initial runtime of 317 minutes, 1900 is one of the longest commercially released films ever made. Its length led to its being presented in two parts in many countries, including Italy.

In other countries, such as the US, a single edited-down version of the film was released. Over the years, 1900 has has received several special edition home video releases.  A restoration of the film premiered out of competition at the 74th Venice Film Festival in 2017.

The initial credits are displayed over a zoom out of Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo’s The Fourth Estate.

The tale begins on April 25, 1945, when Italy is liberated from the fascists. The peasants in Emilia-Romagna attempt to join the partisans and place the estate’s owner, Alfredo Berlinghieri, under arrest. The middle-aged Attila and Regina are try to flee the farm but are attacked by women laborers.

The narrative moves back to the start of the century.

Born on the day of composer Giuseppe Verdi’s death, January 27, 1901, Alfredo Berlinghieri and Olmo Dalcò come from opposite ends of the social class spectrum. Alfredo is from a family of wealthy landowners led by his popular grandfather (Alfredo or Alfredo the Elder) and grows up with his cousin Regina.

In contrast, Olmo is an illegitimate peasant born to an unmarried woman who already has had several children. His grandfather Leo is the foreman and peasants’ spokesman who carries out a duel of wits with the elder Alfredo.

Alfredo is rebellious and despises the falseness of his family, in particular his weak but abusive and cynical father Giovanni. He befriends Olmo, who has been raised as a socialist. During this time, Leo leads strikes against the unfair conditions on the farm.