Like Krzysztof Kieslowski's Le Double Vie de Veronique, a film that meant so much to me growing up in Eastern Europe, Bernardo Bertolucci's saga Novecento a.k.a 1900 (1976) has a special place in my heart. I remember the first time I saw it, heavily edited, and I can still recall that uncomfortable feeling of a big lump stuck in my throat. The notorious scene where Donald Sutherland crushed the cat, his face splattered with blood...it haunted me for years.
Novecento follows the lives of two childhood friends, one of them born in the family of a peasant (Gerard Depardieu is the poor one), the other born in the family of a wealthy land-owner (Robert De Niro is the rich one). As they grow up their lives take unusual turns – Olmo Dalco heads to the front while Alfredo Berlinghieri marries a sophisticated beauty.
Soon Olmo and Alfredo's fathers die. The estate where the two friends grew up is quickly overtaken by unrest and consequently violence. The peasants are unhappy with the new order established by Alfredo's family. Their masters are concerned about their wealth. Many are unsure what the future holds. The Communist movement begins to grow roots and so is the Fascist Alliance. Italy is changing!
An epic picture that many consider to be the Maestro's last chef d'oeuvre before his slip into the shallow waters of mainstream cinema Novecento attempts to reconstruct a specific fragment of Italian history without glorifying (a few well known critics had a different opinion on the matter) those who participated in it. Fascists, communists, aristocrats, peasants, Novecento reaches out to every social and political group the Italian society favored during the years and offers its audience a point of view charged with controversy.
Much of the criticism Novecento gathered during the years had to do with the fact that the critics felt uncomfortable with Bertolucci's unclear stance on the Fascist movement. There was a great deal of uncertainty about Donald Sutherland's character and what his actions suggested. Some very shaky calls about "chaotic storytelling" emerged and consequently it became "obvious" that somehow Bertolucci had missed a great opportunity given the spectacular cast (De Niro, Depardieu, Sanda, Sutherland, Lancaster).
Furthermore, the film's massive running time (well over five and a half hours) prompted film distributors to demand two cuts from its creator: a shorter "sanitized" version which omitted the notorious scene where Depardieu and De Niro were shown in all of their glory being stroked by a willing Italian bella, and a longer, supposedly uncut version which was thought to be what the Maestro intended. In Italy the shorter version (also shown on Italian TV) was indeed supervised by Bertolucci. In the US the censors went even further shortening the already cut European version by almost an hour in order to avoid the snubbing X rating (consequently Paramount did release an NC-17 version of the film on VHS to make peace with Bertolucci's fans).
What all of this resulted in was a great confusion amongst film aficionados as to what was indeed the complete version of Novecento. For many years, even after Paramount released the ill-fated NC-17 VHS, there were rumors that Bertolucci hadn't given his final blessing, there were talks suggesting an even longer cut. The Italian media also jumped on the speculations-wagon supporting a claim that after all something might have been kept off public eyes.
No matter what the final version of Novecento turns out to be, and I truly have my doubts that what has been already released isn't it, the fact of the matter is that this is indeed the last great epic the Italian master filmed before he succumbed to mediocrity (The Last Emperor being considered). What Bertolucci managed to film, and what many critics failed to recognize as they were looking elsewhere, is a piece of Italian history - edgy, provocative, often chaotic, at times lacking logic story full of colorful characters...as colorful and absurd as Italy has always been!
How Does the DVD Look?
Novecento arrives in North America untouched by the hands of the censors! With a running time reflecting what is considered to be the film's final cut, a total of 315 minutes, Paramount offer the saga in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 enhanced for widescreen TV's. This being said, for once I believe the US most certainly lucked out by the fact that it was the last major market to release this epic film. A quick look at the previously released unsubbed Italian disc (red cover) and the more recently released European English-friendly print (all R2 English friendly discs are identical as they used the same print, including the Australian release which MGM approved) suggests that what we have in our hands is substantially better than what overseas markets got. This new print provided by Paramount visibly excels in just about every possible department: colors are much stronger, lush, and convincing (the color scheme is indeed different than what the Italian disc spots), contrast is notably stronger, detail is better. Furthermore, the softness present on the R2/R4 discs is addressed and I am most certainly convinced that the film elements the R1 distrib had to work with were sourced elsewhere. Finally, many of the minor specs popping out through the opening shots of the Italian disc are nowhere to be seen on the R1 disc.
Furthermore, I specifically want to address the color scheme mentioned above which I think should be the major issue of concern for R2-based fans of Bertolucci's film who think that a R1 upgrade is not necessary. Allow me to quickly state my opinion here: if you own any of the previously released R2 versions of Novecento then you have to upgrade! Like most Bertolucci fans who were expecting this film to surface in R1 land earlier I ordered the Italian disc and consequently received one of the MGM produced discs. The difference between the two prints, that used by the R1 distribs and that used in R2 DVDs, is striking. From flesh tones to the predominant use of green-tint (which unlike what a few articles state is not what Bertolucci intended) used on the R2 print the version provided by Paramount simply eliminates all of what I thought were questionable areas. Greater detail with solid contrast is what the R1 discs provides and I will have a hard time understanding anyone who would claim that any of the two presentations noted above (R2/R4) are acceptable. They are not!!
Finally, the R1 disc of Novecento provides an excellent "natural" look to the film which I tend to believe is how it once appeared in cinemas. I have seen way too many films recently, old ones, where the studios releasing them have gone way out of their way to provide a fresher and more "accurate" look. The results have often been disappointing. Fortunately enough Novecento gets most if not everything right as the film looks gorgeous when blown through a digital projector. To sum it all up this might very well be one of the top-notch jobs delivered by a US studio this year. And it was certainly for a film deserving of it!!
How Does the DVD Sound?
Novecento arrives to US shores with three different audio tracks: a French, English, and Italian one, all in DD 2.0 Surround. I played with all three of them and they do indeed offer different perks that might appeal differently to different people. There is a good reason to listen to the English dub (you get to hear De Niro), or the French one (you get to hear Depardieu) or of course the Italian one which I prefer as it is the common audio option favored by those who saw the film when it was first released. This being said once you pop-up the disc the default audio track is, sadly, the English one. Finally, there are no issues of concern that I detected while viewing this disc! The R1 presentation offers only one sub-option: English (sadly, yellow) subtitles.
There are two pieces of supplemental material that you would find on this disc. First there is a short documentary titled 1900: The Story, The Cast on which Bernardo Bertolucci and Director of Photography Vittorio Storato recall what it took to gather the impressive cast. There is much here that fans of the film would appreciate as Bertolucci certainly goes into great detail explaining how the film became a reality. The second piece of supplemental material is 1900: Creating and Epic which I believe is the much more intriguing one. Once again Bertolucci and Storato talk about the history behind this film this time however recalling all the difficulties surrounding its theatrical release(s).
I am delighted that finally what I have in my hands most certainly meets the expectations I had about Novecento. A very pleasing print by Paramount provides a spectacular ending to 2006 (considering the fact that the other Bertolucci classic The Conformist also arrived with a pristine print it certainly appears so). Those who claim that Novecento did not receive an adequate treatment either do not understand the complexity of this film or simply have very little to compare what Paramount have given us with. This is a terrific package folks and for the price tag it comes with I can not but award it the highest mark DVDTALK allows: DVDTALK Collector Series.