We open onto an idyllic, panoramic view of the Italian countryside. It seems that there can be nothing more peaceful in the world. The camera moves in for a close-up of an Italian peasant wandering along the road, but instead of the expected pitchfork or similar farm implement, the man is carrying an assault rifle. Across an open pasture an elderly, well-to-do couple runs for their life in front of a mob of screaming peasant women who throw rocks at them and try to run them down with whatever weapon they have available. A young boy enters a beautiful home and is greeted familiarly by the well-groomed woman within, but the boy continues on to where a venerable man sits peacefully in his study and holds a gun to his head. One can’t help but feel sorry for these seemingly innocent people caught up in a revolutionary uproar. Just one moment, though…let’s rewind and tell this story from the beginning.
The year is 1900, the place is that same estate in Italy transported back to a much more peaceful time. A baby boy is born in that beautiful house to the younger son of the Padrone. That same day, a baby boy is born in the communal home of the peasants who work the estate. As the boys grow older they become best friends, spending each day together exploring the world until World War I hits and both must fight…one to the front lines, the other to the officer’s rank his father bought for him. At the end of the war Alfredo (Robert De Niro) and his best friend, the peasant Olmo (Gerard Depardieu) return to an Italy divided across political lines that follow the ages-old social lines…the fascists versus the socialists, Padrone versus peasant.
The consensus seems to be that you either love this movie or hate it, and very few opinions seem to fall in between. One thing is certain, writer/director Bernardo Bertolucci wanted to paint as complete a picture as possible – somewhat dramatized, but that’s to be expected – of Italy and the changes it underwent throughout the World Wars, as well as the struggles of two friends who are in turn exploring the two primary social classes of the time. But be warned, this movie is meant to hit hard and it is well-designed to do just that.
Few casts are comprised of quite so many extremely talented individuals, and aside from De Niro and Depardieu, Donald Sutherland plays possibly the most memorable character by far. Sutherland plays Attila…at first a mean but bumbling overseer who has neither the prestige of the Padrone or the helplessness of the peasants. As Attila’s frustration and anger grows, so too do the opportunities for him to express them and flourish in the pro-fascist environment, nourished on the “growing promise” of Nazism. The result is a truly diabolical character unlike the average movie villain in that there is truly nothing he won’t do…as we see throughout the film. Another performance of note is Burt Lancaster as the elder Alfredo, De Niro’s character’s grandfather.
The actual quality of the cinematography is a bit lacking by today’s standards, but bear in mind that the movie was released in 1976 and technology has come a long way since then. Perhaps the lack of what we would consider sophisticated technology also explains the bad voice-overs in the movie, though luckily this is only really bad near the beginning and improves significantly later on. This could also be because most of the people in the beginning of the movie are kids and unknown actors, while the latter part of the movie is populated almost entirely by actors who are now considered, by some, to be legends in the film world.
Various political views expressed in this film have shocked and offended many people, including various assertions throughout the film for and against fascism, communism, and socialism. However, bear in mind not only when the film itself was made, but the time in which it takes place. Throughout the world wars, no one knew who would be victorious and all feared the “other side” that propagandists made sure were considered akin to the devil. That said, the Cold War also raged from the time this movie is set past the time it was made, Communism was considered a very real threat to much of the world and very strong political stances were the order of the day both in film and real life.
Though this movie has a great historical context, it is definitely NOT for kids. There are quite a few parts that show graphic sex and violence, as well as a couple of scenes that may shock even the most jaded movie viewer. One scene in particular in which Attila’s character is first fully revealed is immensely disturbing and may even give an adult viewer nightmares, even though much of the blood and gore are obscured. Other scenes include juvenile…comparing-of-the-equipment, so to speak…the preparations for a threesome, and the killings of animals both out of brutality and for food as well as more traditional adults-killing-adults violence.
Overall this is most definitely for an adults-only movie night…or movie weekend, since the movie is several hours long. That said, the historical cultural and political context and the well-rounded story make this a very interesting movie to watch that, despite its length, is well-paced and rarely gets bogged down. Be warned that this is far from empty-headed viewing, and is best suited for people who want movies to make them think both while they’re watching and for some time afterward.