The American Society of Cinematographers

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Dark Knight Rises
DVD Playback
The Big Heat
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ASC Close-Up
1900 (1976)
Blu-ray Edition
1.78:1 (High Definition 1080p)
DTS Master Audio 2.0
Olive Films, $39.95

After the enormous international success of Last Tango in Paris in 1972, director Bernardo Bertolucci knew the time was right for him to tackle a work of massive scope and ambition. Enlisting several of his Tango collaborators, including cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC, Bertolucci embarked on Novecento, or, as it was released in the United States, 1900. Running more than five hours (cut down to around four for the initial American release) and spanning 45 years, 1900 represented Bertolucci’s effort to encapsulate the first half of 20th-century Italian history via an intimate story of friendship. Though the movie’s dense tale of class divisions and its unwieldy length make watching a daunting proposition, viewers who do the work necessary to appreciate it will find their efforts generously rewarded. Although Tango, The Conformist and The Last Emperor are more widely revered Bertolucci-Storaro collaborations, 1900 is every bit their equal as a work of visual majesty and an examination of sexual and economic politics.  

The movie begins with the birth of two boys on the first day of the 20th century. Alfredo (played as an adult by Robert De Niro) is born to the upper class, whereas his friend, Olmo (Gerard Depardieu), is the bastard son of peasants who work on Alfredo’s family property. Bertolucci follows the lives and loves of these two characters as their fortunes rise and fall with the changing political climate in Italy; as World War I is followed by the rise of fascism and a subsequent communist uprising, Alfredo and Olmo both shape and are shaped by their historical circumstances. As the era progresses, Bertolucci and screenwriters Franco Arcalli and Giuseppe Bertolucci (Bernardo’s brother) deftly balance personal stories with large-scale set pieces focusing on war, work and political demonstrations and making complicated connections among class, sex, violence and culture that remain provocative on repeat viewings.

In spite of its epic, 315-minute running time, 1900 rarely seems slow or bloated. This is partly a result of Bertolucci’s broad array of tones and styles as the movie veers from poetic nostalgia to heated melodrama and sociopolitical treatise, with elements borrowed from Westerns, Italian neorealism and Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game thrown in for good measure. Bertolucci’s conceptual range and audacity are further expanded by Storaro’s visual strategy, which divides the film into four parts and finds a different look for each section. The opening section, in which the protagonists are children, is set in summer and bathes the characters in saturated golden and green hues. The movie then moves on to the young men going to war in the fall, with a less saturated palette of browns, grays and blacks, colors that become even cooler and more desaturated when the rise of fascism is depicted in winter. Finally, the liberation movement takes place during spring, which brings back the color scheme of the opening but adds red to the palette in a symbolic representation of the rise of communism.

The end result is a distinctive masterpiece in which nearly a half-century is conveyed through a narrative structure of one year and four seasons, and a friendship between two men of different backgrounds is expressed through lighting, as Storaro uses gorgeous natural light to present the peasants and a greater reliance on artificial light for the upper classes. The new Olive Films Blu-ray of 1900 represents the title’s first high-definition upgrade since Paramount’s standard-def DVD release of 2006, and although it offers the finest home-video presentation of Storaro’s imagery to date, it is not quite the perfect presentation this classic deserves. Skin tones, color and grain are faithful to the movie’s theatrical release prints, but contrast levels are uneven, and, at times, the image is overly bright; the fact the 1.78:1 aspect ratio slightly compromises Storaro’s original 1.66:1 compositions also is troubling. The disc contains English, Italian and French versions of the movie, and the crystal-clear DTS soundtracks are solid. The set includes a terrific bonus disc containing 52 minutes of archival interviews with Bertolucci. These interviews follow his career from his early days as a poet to his years as an internationally renowned filmmaker and provide a truly insightful look at his process.  

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