Monday, May 4, 2020

"1900": Bertolucci Serves Up Homoerotica With Fascism, Italian-style


"Although I think 1900 is a movie there is a lot to say about, my critics keep distant from it. It's as if they were fucked up the ass and refused to come."

   Bernardo Bertolucci



   And it's on that most-Italian of notes - as voiced by the most-Italian of directors to achieve notoriety by bringing anal sex to the masses - we're drawn to reconsider 1900 almost a half-century after the fact.

   Often flagged for its homoerotic undertones, Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1976 sprawling opus 1900 (aka Novecento) attempts to anchor itself in the unlikely fatalism of its male principals' relationship. The births of the two boys occur on the day Emilia-Romagna’s favored son Giuseppe Verdi dies in the early days of 1901. Alfredo is born into the landed gentry, while Olmo is a peasant, and a bastard. And they subsequently develop a close boyhood friendship premised upon attraction of opposites. Bertolucci's cards are on the table from the get-go: the painting "Il Quarto Stato" (and its attendant dashed hopes) serves as the film's precursive narration.

   1900 is indeed sprawling cinema, in much the same way that cities sprawl exponentially when ungoverned by uniform town planning. The movie’s only focused narrative is its determination to advance Communism, with Olmo and Alfredo's story being that of two opposed faces of class distinction and wealth distribution, within a specific time period of legalized homosexuality. While wildly varying attitudes to same-sex relations are intrinsic to the history and psyche of Italian males, the traditional underlying view is that it's significantly more natural to Southerners and illiterate peasants. Bertolucci knows his history well enough to flesh out his characters with enough sexual nuance to set us up for a visceral loathing of Fascism no matter how we sexually identify.

The Padrone & The Paisan

   Clocking in at well over five hours, 1900 as a bromance with Fascism as its Valentines card has decidedly more relevance today than when it was released. A century after their time we might question whether two men of opposing classes could ever bond – or more to the point – would ever be allowed to bond as boys. And yet in the lushly bucolic region of an Italy long gone they do, and they are. In their century Italian males and their patriarchy are caught up in turbulently uncertain times. In our century, so are we. Which warrants taking a fresh look at Bernardo Bertolucci's didactic 1900 as our minds ponder more seriously otherwise tangential subjects like history repeating itself.

Critics, Dicks And Director's Cuts

   Modern marketing mythology would have us believe that most cinematic efforts were (and are) unfairly and irrationally assembled by studios against the auteur's intentions and what-nots. And the romantic notion that film directors nobly ply their craft with little or no regard for the views of even the most intelligent critics is almost a given. Thus, The Director's Cut: that thing which re-sells a movie well beyond its usual shelf-life as temporal entertainment.

   Unsurprisingly, 1900 was always destined to be a candidate for revisionist appreciation and evaluation on those terms. But all is not what it seems. For starters, Bertolucci endorsed Paramount's drastically shortened American version, despite contractually holding the upper hand on any cuts which weren't his. Despite it being a critical and commercial success in Europe as was, he protesteth not too much or too long over the Stateside insult.

   As for critics (important and otherwise) he appears to avoid compromised appeasement by perversely offering what they're least expecting as response. With The Conformist, Pauline Kael warned that his obsession with style for style's sake could lead him to make "luscious fruity movies". 1900 emphatically refutes the idea: its opening summery, pastorale lusciousness is progressively drip-fed jaw-dropping wintry cruelties. He agreed with feminist excoriations of his Last Tango In Paris wherein Marlon Brando wasn't nude but Maria Schneider was. But he never responded to Ingmar Bergman's broadside that Last Tango would have been a much more truthful film if  Schneider's Jeanne had been a boy.

   Bernardo Bertolucci certainly doesn't hold back putting dicks onscreen in 1900. He claimed all his beloved actors' dicks were an extension of his own – and dutifully anoints the junior Alfredo and Olmo with dicks and earthy curiosity about each others dicks, as opposed to a curiosity about each others stations in life.

Homoerotic, Homosexual Or Homosocial? 


  The auteur was a neo-Freudian, and his attitude to homosexuality reflected that pre-Liberation limited analytic orthodoxy. He alleged homosexuality and bisexuality to be merely of adolescence without disapproval per se. He never made a film about LGBT existence - neither did he seek to diminish it. To his credit then, when Olmo and Alfredo reunite as young men after World War 1, it’s to his peasant Communist male Olmo (Gerard Depardieu) that he assigns overt homosexual desire within adult male friendship. It’s the dilettantish Alfredo (Robert de Niro) who wipes off his passionate kiss on the lips in shock. We're not to know whether homophobia or his ingrained contempt for peasantry has apprehended homosexuality or true equality. And since both actors singly were either side of thirty, the likelihood of them being mistaken for youthfully callow is a stretch too far.

Crossing boundaries with sex and love as the equalizer?

   That scene takes place in the barn rooftop where as boys they’d played power games with silkworms and appendages. As adults, war-fresh Olmo unexpectedly encounters Alfredo while hauling grain on his shoulders. Overjoyed at finding his childhood friend he shamelessly pins him down in submissive sexual position while ripping the buttons and insignias off their uniforms...Olmo has fought, Alfredo has been purchased a uniformed exemption. Looking lustily down at Alfredo he declares “I like you this way” and Alfredo responds with “Kiss me my hero!” But Alfredo’s only kidding. Olmo’s not, and his hand wanders lazily over his dick after being rejected.

  The director has made a political statement with homosexuality as a broad associative metaphor, although his harsher self might claim that in doing so he's sabotaging his own alleged heterosexual bias, in service to his political bias. He cuts to an obviously truncated and uneasy dialog covering rats, the wartime trenches and breadth of worldview. It ends with Alfredo humiliatingly kicking Olmo in the ass. The camera lingers on Depardieu’s face long enough to make his hurt palpable...while suggesting Bertolucci's omnipresent cinematic theme of "once a traitor, always a traitor" has collided with love and sex.

The face of something other than shame

   But Bertolucci is far from done with the homo motif to make a point. 1900's most notorious sex scene finds our "young" men in bed with a girl who Alfredo vulgarly treats himself and Olmo to. It all goes downhill again, but in reverse. Olmo can't get it up, and the paid lady suggests that Alfredo might know how to help him out. Alfredo's eager to oblige and reaches across for Olmo's dick, but now it's Olmo  who turns away, perhaps repulsed by the capriciously callous behavior of his friend, perhaps by his taunts about free love. There was a time when Gerard Depardieu fully naked was something to behold, and it's in his raw state that he becomes the conscience of the film when the girl has an epileptic fit.

The non-Joy Of Triangulated Sex

  Later in the day Alfredo meets Ada (Dominique Sanda) and brings her to a peasant's dance to meet Olmo. Ada's a full-throttle, free-spirit type in the predictable Lady Brett Ashley mold, Alfredo's smitten and Olmo wonders if he can do better than female pazzos - only to be told that he's a country bumkin who doesn't understand. Mistaking Ada for the lover of his exiled and urbane black-sheep uncle Ottavio, Alfredo has failed to grasp his beloved uncle's Bohemian proclivities but catches on quickly. Bertolucci's grand up-sweeping tableau with Ottavio as von Gloeden photographing naked boys is a much a political statement as everything else in 1900: Fascism literally destroyed many of the artist's unique niche images of Italianism - as it destroyed legalized homosexuality and more.

When Heterosexuality Can't Save The Day

   Following the dance sequence, Alfredo "takes" Ada among straw bales. Robert de Niro's shapely ass pumps her for one of Bertolucci's trademark crane shots but he only lasts a matter of seconds, in a strangely awkward way to progress romance or Italian virility. But against the ominous backdrop of Fascism's benediction from the Catholic church, patriarchy at least seems assured with the wedding of Alfredo and Ada soon after his father's death.  Nothing of the sort however will come to pass: Alfredo will father no children, bachelor Olmo's only daughter may not be his and heterosexuality will only appear once more in 1900, as a grotesquely indecent act book-ended by the rape and murder of a young boy. On Alfredo's wedding day no less: a day boycotted by Olmo but a day on which he'll experience fully the cowardice of Alfredo.

  Penises themselves also disappear from 1900's second part, but Bertolucci - ever the film buff - adopts the gun-as-dick sensibility like never before to revisit the many aspects Olmo and Alfredo's now-deteriorated relationship. The expectations, missed opportunities, passivity and neglected responsibility are all tied to one gun: that of Alfredo's dead father, and son orders Olmo to take it rather than steal it. The director's stab at Freudian trickery opens up quite a can of worms: Alfredo's sublimated and passive longing for Olmo's masculinity isn't in itself such a redemptive quality to save him from himself. But then again we're not altogether too sure, as Alfredo's trial for Fascist complicity - conducted cagily by Olmo - demonstrates, with only two possible outcomes: revenge at the hands of a mob, or the acknowledgment in mutual surrender that they're each the true love of each other's lives.

"At least you came back..."

   With not a single frame of film glamorizing the Look of Fascism throughout, the relentless ass-fucking Bertolucci unleashes on us mid-film is a couple of hours of the horrific cruelty and perversion of Fascism unrelieved by any kind of pleasure or climax: not Fascism's overturn, nor the Fellini-esque reunion for the two men who've lived through it. One's left to wonder if Bertolucci wasn't ass-fucking himself and refusing to come.

  Bertolucci claimed he often didn't know how to end his films. In that spirit, he gives 1900 (and the men) two endings. The first is their fading into the far distance as two affectionately playful middle-aged men. The second, as a pair of dandified old men. Take your pick: composer Ennio Morricone adapts the outset Summer theme as an unabashed romantico ("Olmo E Alfredo") to play them out over the closing credits.

Novecento opening credits: "Il Quarto Stato" di Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo (1902)


  1. Hi Rick
    Your long absence has been worth the wait! And clearly I couldn't wait to read your essay, even though not having seen the film gives me nothing to contribute save to say I that many of the provocative idea you illuminate will be guideposts for me when I do hunker down for this lengthy opus. I particularly like the way you describe the male friendship; makes it sound like a companion piece to the male relationship at the center of Ken Russell's WOMEN IN LOVE.

    Bertolucci's film is so fabulously cast and so sprawling in its themes, it seems the perfect quarantine indulgence to ust take in the whole 5 hour experience in one sitting (as I often enjoy at Christmastime with Berman's FANNY & ALEXANDER), but you make a strong case for Bertolucci's film being a powerful and artistically impassioned indictment of fascism, and as such (and at this time) the film might break my heart.
    On the plus side, by the time I'm ready to see a period film tackling what's happening currently outside my front door, I won't have to worry about remembering plot spoilers, all I'll retain are your always-compelling insights. Thanks...and welcome back!

    1. Why thank you Ken! What a delightful response!

      My main regret with the piece is that I didn't do it years ago when Bertolucc was still alive - his comment I used as headline virtually demanded that somebody, somewhere would take on the challenge! So little analysis & critique of 1900 has been done over the years so I took him at his word!

      I still may hide the spoiler - I'm of two minds about it - and I wonder if it matters. Is say publishing the ending of a Warhol film for example spoiling it?

      Seems though you've got the point: of the many, many guideposts 1900offers up I just wrote about a select few which suggested themselves...and with some research virtually wrote themselves.

      Again, thank you for your apprecuative words & I hope if & when you watch 1900 you'll just enjoy it for the experience it is!

      And I'm eagerly awaiting your next effort!

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