Bernardo Bertolucci - 1900
The great battle of 1900 has ended in cease-fire and compromise. It's director, Bernardo Bertolucci, previously refused to allow more than a trim for his five-and-a-half-hour epic of Italian history from 1900-1946. Yet 1900 weighed in at four hours and five minutes for the recent New York Film Festival; and Bertolucci, in Manhattan for the American debut, claims to like the film better this way.
"When I finished the movie I said I couldn't cut one frame," the English-speaking filmmaker explains, when interviewed, of his clash with producer Alberto Grimaldi. "But later I saw that the movie could be cut. Instead of a castration, I arrived at an artistic work. What we have now is the film I want." What was deleted? "My friends in Italy couldn't even tell me. I didn't remove any sequences. I cut short pieces of film. The difference is only in the rhythm. The meaning, the strength, is absolutely the same."
It's hard to know if Bertolucci really prefers the "short" 1900, for he has decided to be pragmatic about getting the film exhibited in the USA. It takes two to tango, a chastened director and a willing distributor, Paramount Pictures, which had contracted originally for three hours and fifteen minutes. The Hollywood studio was set to turn their share of the $8-million investment into a mammoth tax write-off rather than mess with the five-hour-plus director's version. But after Bertolucci applied his scissors, Paramount came back into the film.
"I read in the newspaper that Paramount is releasing the movie," he says, both amused and baffled by the corporate cold shoulder to him. "Nobody told me. Strange."
Paramount's financial destiny lies obviously with the sexy, bed-hopping stars of 1900. Dominique Sanda, who had been slated for Bertolucci's The Last Tango in Paris in the Maria Schneider role, plays an alternatively feisty and spacy urban swinger, and screws Robert DeNiro in the film's most potentially scandalous scene. But DeNiro is equally devioted to European superstar, Gerard Depardieu. They tumble in the hay and kiss in one scene, and are mutually masturbated in another.
Different from Brando's sheltered loins in Last Tango, celebrity penises abound in 1900. "I didn't want to cut [shots of] the two men naked," Berolucci says. "I was so attacked by feminist groups because Marlon wasn't naked." He now agrees with those who complained that only Schneider's bare body was revealed in Last Tango. "It's true. There is a sexist connection. You always see the female, but not the male."
1900's sexual field-day continues on. Donald Sutherland, with greasy black hair and mongoloid eyes, rapes a young boy, and then murders him in fascist orgiastic frenzy. And even stately Burt Lancaster gets into the act, forcing a pubescent girl to stick her tiny hand into his unzipped pants to force an erection. Lancaster, sublime as the aging and impotent padrone, spent 20 shooting days on 1900 without pay. Bertolucci recalls with gratitude that "Lancaster told me, 'I'm so expensive, you couldn't possibly afford me. I'll do it for nothing, just to see how you work.'"
If Paramount can somehow parlay for an "R" rating instead of an "X," 1900's rampant eroticism can bring dividends. Not so in conservative America for 1900's radical politics. Bertolucci is a proud member of the Italian CP, a Eurocommunist. 1900 is an Marxist homage to the rising Italian peasantry, overthrowing the yokes of their landlord masters. There is no way for Paramount to escape the fact that much of the last section of 1900, in which the farm workers celebrate the defeat of Fascism in Italy, is a dance to life under a red flag.
Bertolucci's Communism upset a number of film critics gathered to talk to him after the New York Film Festival press screening. "How do you expect us to want Communism when your partisans are such singularly unattractive persons?" queried a red-baiting reviewer. "How would you feel if the peasants really took over?" demanded a cynical liberal critic.
Bertolucci ignored the first question and answered the second rather boldly. "I think we will be in a better world the day it happens," he said. But he asked the gathered not to reduce 1900 only to politics. "The film is a living epic poem, a saga, and not just a political manifesto." As proof, he pointed to the weird and subjective comclusion, where DeNiro and Deaprdieu, grown suddenly aged, leap on each other's backs and flail out like obscene escapees from Waiting for Godot.
"It's the contrary of a didactic epilogue," Bertolucci asserted. "I wanted to end as a fairy story. It's very funny. I can't even explain the poetic license." For those persons (both right and left) who expressed dissatisfaction with the whimsical finale, the filmmaker could only shrug. "I must confess that the end of a movie is an adventure for me. I always have trouble. I'm so happy shooting that the idea to finish makes me sad."
This Bertolucci doing Q&A was extremely polite, humble, and serious, thus disarming the volatile critics and cranks in the audience who were after his head. Our hotel talk was only half an hour later, and the Bertolucci I met was an utterly different person-voluble, so, so loose, fielding my questions with an ironic smile on his face, and grabbing the house phone again and again to converse with a seemingly infinite number of well-wishers and compadres.
Sergio Leone and Francis Ford Coppola were two of the many phone interrupters of the interview, which I continued valiantly, even when Bertolucci jumped up to try on a new jacket brought into his Navarro Hotel suite by his dark-eyed woman companion. Incidentally, Bertolucci is a prosperous-looking fellow in his mid-thirties, slightly chubby, a comfortable Communist who might make, for instance, an affable tennis doubles partner.
We discussed the ending again, and whether an abstruse sequence could ever appeal to a popular audience. "In Italy, 1900 is the most successful movie in our entire history. It made $10 million. Only Jaws did better. So the peasants weren't upset." And Last Tango? "It had a strange life in Italy. It was seized, banned, and the negative was condemned to be burned," he explains gravely. Was it ever shown? "Luckily, we had lots of negatives," he giggles.
Would he comment on Norman Mailer's claim that Last Tango cheated because actual penetration never occurred on screen? "Do you mean maybe I was repressed? Sometimes it's better to indicate than to show. In 1900, you see penetration in the look on Dominique Sanda's face." Then quietly, he refutes Mailer's allegation. "The first time they fucked in the empty apartment," Bertolucci weighs his words, "they fucked."
And filmed pornography? The only "X" film that has interested him is Deep Throat. "I think it's so obsesive. I don't like the others. They have no movement, they aren't made by good directors. It would be worth it to make a good pornographic movie."
Changing the topic: why does Bertolucci cast famous stars in his pictures, in this case American stars feigning to be Italian in an Italian movie? His response is ideological and Marxist. "My first idea was to have Americans play the landowners. Burt Lancaster, Robert DeNiro. Then I wanted a Russian to play the [main] peasant. Gerard Depardieu at least looks like a Russian. More, I wanted to make a monument to contradiction. I wanted to make a popular movie, a dialectic movie, between Hollywood actors and peasants, prose and poetry, money and red flags. For me, Sterling Hayden can be a partisan peasant. I'm not a purist."
Hayden, Sutherland, Brando, even Lancaster are all left-of-center actors, so must Bertolucci's cast share something of his politics? "I don't think it's important. It might be more interesting to have a non-leftist portray a leftist because then I would try to catch the left feeling which is inside everybody. I like to go against the ideas actors have of themselves and the scripts, to be dialectic and constructive instead of being destructive."
Toughening the tone of my friendly interrogation, I bring up reservations about Bertolucci's new work. Why is 1900 so metaphoric, so bereft of real political and historical information? "It's true that I didn't want to make an historical document. Some historians have been angry, 'pised off.' But there is a lot of information, about how the wind blows, about how peasants live. You missed it. You are asking for another movie." And why must the ending be so soft and sentimental, a mostly nonviolent peasant revolution in which DeNiro, the evil landowner, escapes a well-earned execution? "Maybe the reality in 1946 was sentimental. The bosses in Italy weren't killed. No padrones were put on trial. The partisans made the peasants give their arms back."
Finally, why does Bertolucci always make films which deal bravely with bisexuality and yet which equate homosexuality and fascism? Why does he never affirm an adult gay relationship? In answer, Bertolucci "comes out" by acknowledging his heterosexual bias. "I've bee in Freudian analysis for eight years and I think 'adult' homosexuality is an impossible contradiction. It can't exist."
I tell of an upcoming article in the left-wing magazine, Jump Cut, in which a Canadian critic traces the "gayness" of his films.
Bertolucci looks stunned. But before he can comment, the phone rings and rescues him; and, my time up, I am out of the door.
(The Real Paper (Boston), October 29,1977)