This review was originally written for Blueprint: Review.
Two boys, Alfredo and Olmo, are born within minutes of each other in January 1901. Alfredo is the grandson of landowner and family head Alfredo Berlinghieri (Burt Lancaster) whilst Olmo’s grandfather, Leo (Sterling Hayden), is a peasant and Alfredo Sr.’s foreman. The two boys grow up together, never forgetting their respective places within society and, once grown (into Robert DeNiro and Gérard Depardieu) they find themselves on opposite sides of a class struggle, exacerbated by the presence of fascist guards led by the new foreman, Attila (Donald Sutherland).
It is difficult to find fault with Novecento‘s production. As films go, this one handles its scope and subject well, depicting the numerous and systematic hardships of the Italian working classes clearly and with passion. The acting is exemplary, from an international cast who mesh together well despite clearly performing in different languages within the same scene. Characters are well developed, scenes are well realised and despite the mammoth cast involved, it is rare to get the important characters or situations confused, even without much knowledge of Italian history. Yet Bernardo Bertolucci’s Novecento is a film that can only be recommended with a series of stipulations.
The first, and perhaps most important, involves the length. This film is well over five hours long, pushing five-and-a-half. And that’s with minimal credits. Five hours is a long time to dedicate to one single film, and unless the viewer is completely engaged with the material at hand then a tendency to drift off is all but guaranteed. Watching in one sitting is not recommended – in fact it’s hard to just schedule, who has a five-plus-hour gap in their everyday schedule? Why? – and indeed even splitting it up into two parts caused this reviewer to lose focus on several occasions. Then again Italian history isn’t exactly a subject at the forefront of my mind. Watching Novecento is a commitment, and if you’re not willing to lose yourself in the deep history for almost a quarter of a day, then this film isn’t for you.
Similarly, it’s not exactly a pleasant experience. The moments of levity come few and far between – as it would seem they did during the lives of most of our main characters. Those seeking happiness and enjoyment should look elsewhere, they’ll be left wanting here. We begin seeing the childhood lives of Alfredo and Olmo. They lead very different existences – Olmo’s mother checks his hair for lice as his family – 40-strong – are crammed around one table eating basic dinner with heir hands, whilst Alfredo is reprimanded at their lavish dinner by his father Giovanni (Romolo Valli), a tyrannical and cruel man who provokes the workers when he eventually takes over the farm. Alas, things do not get much better for either child as their lives progress, heading through various wars and strikes, forever suffering throughout.
Finally, this is not a film for the squeamish or faint of heart. It isn’t exactly a gory tale, with relatively minimal bloodshed, but there are numerous scenes etched within my mind that I’d like removed. A live pig being slaughtered and gutted, for one, is something I’d sincerely like to forget, especially the squealing and shrieking noises. Also, young Olmo (Roberto Maccanti) catching frogs and stringing them together made me very uncomfortable, especially when they were still writhing around tied to his hat. There’s also a great deal of sex, more so than I was comfortable with. I never thought I’d see Robert DeNiro and Gérard Depardieu receiving hand-jobs simultaneously from the same woman, only for DeNiro to reach over and give Depardieu a go himself. But easily the most distressing sight – and thankfully this was partially off-camera and very much an effect rather than a real depiction (at least I hope so) – was Donald Sutherland head-butting a cat to death. That’s something I never expected to see, and never wish to think about again, thanks all the same.
So if you think you can handle all of that, then by all means give Novecento a go. It’s a phenomenal achievement in film-making, with gorgeous photography from Vittorio Storaro, a score from Ennio Morricone and a story that dares to cover more ground than almost any other, but it most certainly is not for everyone.
Choose Life 6/10