Among the classic movies presented this year at the Venice Film Festival, Novecento stands out in a class of its own. Gérard Depardieu, who starred in Bernardo Bertolucci’s film along with Robert De Niro, recognized as much. The restored version was a painstaking work that recovered some 700 frames that had been lost in the original cuts.
“This is a film like no other, they no longer make films like this,” Depardieu said in brief opening remarks before the screening. “All movies are now small.” He then went on to say, in somewhat halting Italian, that “Italy is beautiful, the women are beautiful, the land is beautiful.” As an acknowledgment to less pretty realities, he used flowery words, duly adding that “politics is a sh*t everywhere, except in Russia,” he said, to knowing laughs from the audience. In 2013, Vladimir Putin granted Depardieu Russian citizenship after he returned his French passport following a public fallout with then French prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault.
But politics is beside the point, even if this article is about the most beautifully executed political epic in cinema. Novecento displays the full palette of colors, characters and sounds that turn all things Italian into a superior aesthetic and emotional experience. Children are playing in the field, while a couple is making love not far apart in the fields of Emilia that are brimming with life, lush vegetation, songs and dance. As can be seen in other Italian classics too, even the poor farm hands in their rags seem to have a sense of harmony of colors and shapes and not even the most brilliant propagandist of the Soviet Union could have dreamt up such a magnificent display of red flags as a humble train advances through the countryside.
Bertolucci was not able to attend due to health reasons. In a videotaped message shown before the screening, he reaffirmed his “anima rossa” or “red soul,” and dedicated the movie to his brother “with all my heart.” The Italian director is “a peasant of the film industry,” Depardieu said in his speech. Just like his characters, the Emilian peasants he so lovingly has portrayed. As one of them shouts to the cavalry as they are coming to evict him from his house of forty years due to his socialist convictions. “Go work the land to see what it means!”, the peasant screams in Novecento. “You will see what it means to work the land!”
But Bertolucci does know. He turned into his opera magna, and one of the biggest cinematographic feats of the 20th centuries. The money is not an issue: just check the costs of the Hollywood blockbusters. What is missing are epic minds and ambitions.