Is Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900 A Masterpiece Or A Mess?

Abhishek Srivastava - 79 weeks ago

When released in 1976, Novecento, a story of two boys born on the same day in 1901 had virtually no takers. Often described as Bertolucci’s most audacious work, 1900 or Novocento in Italian, followed a trajectory which was marred by issues – both artistic and commercial, in its eventual journey to a cinematic release.

It is said that the failure of 1900 left Bertolucci a dejected man but apart from the film’s misfortune, credit must be given to Paramount, the American film studio, which dared to release a film which had shades of communism painted all over at a time when Cold War was at its peak. With every passing year the film has assumed cult proportions and has been gaining new audiences but when released in 1976, apart from being panned by critics and audiences alike, it also witnessed an ugly tussle between Bernardo Bertolucci and its producer, Paramount. 

(Gerard Depardieu and Robert De Niro in a still from 1900 (Image courtesy - MovieStillsDB)

Bertolucci was handed over a budget of $6 million for a plot which traced the 75 years’ history of the changes in the culture and civilization of his home country, Italy. The film brought together some of the best international cast known at that time which could also be dubbed as stellar in its own way. Burt Lancaster, Donald Sutherland, Gerard Depardieu and Robert De Niro were signed to be part of the film. It must be revealed here that role of Alfredo that De Niro eventually played in the film was once reserved for Jack Nicholson. When the script of the film was handed over to De Niro, shooting of the film had already started in Parma, Italy – also the filmmaker’s home town. The beginning proved to be ominous as the two shared their own notion about the film. Bertolucci wanted De Niro to start work in a backward fashion which also meant that he wanted him to play the older Alfredo first. Shawn Levy in his book on the actor mentions De Niro’s thoughts on the same. “We shot the old stuff on the first day and I realized there that was a mistake – it just would not work; nobody was into it. But I went along with it, I remember that, and it just did not work.”

(Robert De Niro in a still from 1900 (Image courtesy - MovieStillsDB)

In the same book Shawn mentions that Bertolucci admitted that there was a problem during the initial days of the shooting and it was akin to a nightmare for him. The famed director conveniently ignored the fact that while shooting with De Niro, one needs patience. But the real conflict between the two resided somewhere else. While, Italian directors are infamous for their dictatorial behavior on the sets of their films, De Niro had his grinding in the school that believed in collaboration with his directors. On the sets, the instant commands that Bertolucci gave to the actor sort of confused him. 

After going through numerous issues, the film was finally wrapped in May, 1975 and by then De Niro had won his first Oscar for The Godfather II.  A year of production was followed by another year of editing. By the time the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1976, it had a running time of five hours and thirty minutes – a duration almost unheard of. The length of the film forced the makers to trim the film into two parts and go for a European release. While the first part was acclaimed for its cinematic excellence and narration, no one bothered to see the second part of the film. By this time the budget of the film had ballooned from $6 million to a mammoth $9 million. Issues cropped up again when the film’s release date in America was being decided. Paramount Pictures laid a condition in front of the filmmaker that his stipulated remuneration of 1.75 million dollars would be okayed only if he were to trim down the length of the film to a manageable three hours and fifteen minutes. What ensured next was a legal battle in American court houses. It was also a catch-22 situation for Bernardo Bertolucci. A bunch of critics and journalists signed an opened letter and protested against any alteration with the length of the film as they deemed it as a piece of art, on the other hand the producers were adamant on the cuts they had demanded. An out-of-court settlement was reached and the filmmaker and the producers agreed to bring down the length to four hours and five minutes with a reduced remuneration for the director. 

1900 remains an extremely personal film for Bertolucci as being a member of the Communist Party it allowed him to explore the dalliance and the subsequent tension between sex, politics and fashion of Italy in the 1970s. John Parker in his book on De Niro – Portrait of a Legend mentions that Bertolucci had described his film as ‘my great adventure’. John further describes that clash of temperament and rewrites of the scripts on the location, set the tone of the things to come. Even before the film went on the floor, Bertolucci had no hesitation in firing Orson Welles because of his abrasive behavior and replacing him with Burt Lancaster. The director also had thought of repeating Maria Schneider after her scintillating performance in The Last Tango in Paris but the actress was so taken aback by the sex symbol image from her film that she almost went into seclusion. 

(A still from 1900 featuring the Italian cast (Image courtesy - MovieStillsDB) 

As the shooting progressed, the relationship between the director and De Niro went from cordial to cold. Even after the filming was over, De Niro was called back several time to Rome to dub for the film as the director believed that some words during the initial dubbing were not spelled correctly. The actor who is an ardent believer of method preparation for his roles, when came back to Italy to re-dub for the film, had actually forgotten the actual preparation. When he finally returned to the US after the completion of the film, when asked about his experience on the film answered back in a sarcastic tone to scribes – ‘a new way to make a political film’. 

At its Cannes premier, cinegoers described Bertolucci’s labour of love as a film which hovered between a masterpiece and a mess. Bernardo Bertolucci had to pay a heavy price for his search for perfection in 1900. Put it simply, his next Hollywood venture could happen only after thirteen years.


Bernardo Bertolucci / Robert De Niro / Gerard Depardieu / Paramount / Cannes Film Festival / 1900 / Novecento / Donald Sutherland

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of The Film Hashery.

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