Saturday, April 24, 2004

1900. Saw the five hour version of Bertolucci's epic last night on TV. I saw the original years ago on VHS in the four hour english version and thought it a magnificent failure. Now I think its one of the greatest movies I've ever seen. The extra sweep and slower pacing lent the film an extraordinary sense of passing time. Of social history in microcosm. The whole political history of twentieth century Italy told through a single town, a single family, and finally a single friendship. Like all Bertolucci's films, the movie is ferociously explicit. Even pornographic. But pornographic in the best sense: as in brutally, even viciously honest. Refusing to cut away from the earthen humanity of shit or come or blood or evil or dirt or death. He may be the only major filmmaker left on earth who refuses to lie with the camera, and this elevates him. It elevated Spielberg in the same manner in Saving Private Ryan, whose slaughterhouse depiction of war lifted an otherwise mediocrity into the cinematic stratosphere. Bertolucci's cinematic violence, in all senses of the word lifts 1900 out of agitprop and makes it a stark yet opulent meditation on the human condition. On the war between master and servant, earth and sky, bullets and flesh, hunger and plenty, nature and machine, collective and individual, equality and self. When Gerard Depardieu's communist partisan fires his machine gun into the air shouting "the padrone is dead!" he is only as defiant as his alter ego, Robert DeNiro's landlord, who smiles with a smile laden with rueful irony and whispers "the padrone is still alive." The indissoluble twinning of the these two archetypes: the priveleged powerful and the wretched of the earth, cannot be broken even in the film's tightrope-walking final moments, when Bertolucci's agitprop finally becomes literally manifest.

But Bertolucci's cinema is of equal parts sadism and love. His characters brutalize, betray and slaughter eachother. Yet none is condemned. Dominique Sanda's spoiled, decadent aristocrat is a closet virgin. Donald Sutherland's vile fascist cries out in wounded anguish as his wife is brutally beaten. DeNiro's weak-willed padrone is wounded irretreviably by his inarticulate yet innocent love for his wife. All of them are given their moment of altuism from their author. And Bertolucci's camera floats serenely around them all. Never raising its voice. There is no cruelty left unmentioned in this film, but there is also no quiet moment of longing, loss or warmth left undepicted. It is a deeply political film yet, like all Bertolucci's films, it ultimately loves people more than politics. It is a tale finally of the impossibility of human connection. And, with it, the tragedy that we are all condemned to seek it endlessly. Forever in battle with our other self.


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