American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
What high hopes were inspired by Bernardo Bertolucci's "1900" -- and how few of them are realized. This was to be the great epic statement by the young Italian director generally considered to be the greatest since Fellini; the director who made "The Conformist" before he was 30, and whose "Last Tango in Paris" was hailed by Pauline Kael as the most important artistic event since Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." Bertolucci had his pick of actors a free run with his budget, the freedom to make a personal film. And he blew it.
I remember the excitement before the world premiere of "1900" at the Cannes Film Festival in May, 1976. Tickets and passes were being traded on an impromptu black market, and the crush at the first morning screening was so savage that one man was pushed through a plate-glass door. The atmosphere was totally different by the end of the afternoon, after the dual press screenings for both halves of the (then) 320-minute film. People were quiet and puzzled and dismayed: How had Bertolucci gone so wrong?
The case for "1900" has become something of a cause in the 18 months since that disastrous premiere. The film's producer, Alberto Grimaldi, had worked with Fellini, Visconti and Pontecorvo and knew a thing or two about movies that ran over budget and length. He'd gambled with Bertolucci, and now he had this enormously expensive and virtually unmarketable film on his hands. He prepared one shorter version, Bertolucci stood by the original version, and until Bertolucci finally made his own shorter (247 minute) cut, it almost seemed as if "1900" would never be seen at all.
I hate to say it, but maybe that would have been a blessing: The movie could have gone into film history as a great lost classic, and Grimaldi could have been branded the villian, and Bertolucci could have gone on to his next film (as, indeed, he has). Because "1900" is a film out of control. A film conceived on such an epic scale that it just doesn't fit. A film in which Bertolucci struggles for hours to make his statement about the class struggle in Italy only to end on a note of throwaway goofiness.