Bernardo Bertolucci spent three years to co-author, prepare and direct this epic film. 1900 has a total running time of five hours and 20 minutes, 163 minutes before the break and 157 minutes to curtain.
Bertolucci’s ambitious generational canvas is elaborately constructed. One pattern is cyclical – childhood summer, ravages of war and fascism in fall and winter, and time of hope and liberation in spring. Spine of the saga, however, is the dialectical interlock of two families – landowners and sharecroppers – from 1900 to Italy’s liberation in 1945. An insignificant epilog projects the class conflict to present day.
Within this framework, Bertolucci introduces a patriarchal landowner, Alfredo Berlinghieri (Burt Lancaster) and an equally sturdy family head, Leo Dalco (Sterling Hayden). Berlinghieri and Falco polarize the intricate genealogies, the social chasms and the human overlap in a lyric opening, ripe with Bertolucci nostalgia for the magical naturalism and folk culture of his Emilia region at the turn of the century.
Awkward then deepening friendship of the two grandsons, Alfredo (Robert De Niro) and Olmo (Gerard Depardieu), opens an arc that spans the entire film. Highlight sequence is the first strike of farmhands (1908). End of World War I and homecoming of Alfredo and Olmo renews ties and conflicts as mechanization reaches the countryside.
As fascism takes power, Alfredo inherits the farm estate and marries Ada (Dominique Sanda), an urban beauty. Olmo marries a militant schoolteacher who dies in childbirth. He becomes a Communist and is forced to flee. With the liberation, Olmo returns and the peasants fleetingly take over.
Hayden’s role as a farmworker bridging two centuries comes off as the crowning effort of his long career. Lancaster and Depardieu are key cast cogs, while a sober De Niro is somewhat overshadowed by a role condemning him to passivity. Donald Sutherland is evil enough as the fascist chief but is outplayed by Laura Betti as his wife.
[Paramount released a 248-min. English version in the US.]