After the triple-whammy of The Conformist, The Spider’s Stratagem and Last Tango in Paris, Bernardo Bertolucci was already beginning to go off the boil (I’m afraid I’m not a fan of his later International Hotel style of film-making) when he directed this unwieldy epic spanning 50 years of Italian history.
But if you can tolerate the 318 minute running-time and one-dimensional characters, Vittorio Storaro‘s cinematography is breath-takingly beautiful, and there are some memorable moments – mostly involving Donald Sutherland as a fascist called Attila. And yes, his parents were probably asking for trouble, giving him a name like that.
This was during Sutherland’s grotesque period. He’d just played Homer Simpson (sic) in The Day of the Locust (in which he does a terrible thing – and almost immediately pays horribly for it) and was about to play the title role in the magnificent, melancholy Fellini’s Casanova.
It’s not enough that Attila is evil – we have to see him being evil. So he ties a black and white cat to the wall with his belt and head-butts it to death.
Bertolucci cuts away at the last moment, and I don’t suppose either he or Sutherland would really have killed a cat, even in an Italian co-production that elsewhere shows the unfaked slaughter of a pig and cruelty to frogs. But the cat is clearly in distress as it’s tethered to the wall, so it’s still upsetting to watch.
Incidentally, imdb-user “pascal-guimier” writes the following on the Novecento messageboards:
I recently read in French Le grand imbécile by the Italian famous writer Curzio Malaparte (1898-1957). It was written in 1943 and mocks fiercely Mussolini’s dictatorship. Malaparte describes a scene that shocked him when he was a young boy living in Prato (Tuscany). An ancient tradition taking place in August (on San Rocco’s day) was called “game of the cat”: several men with their hands fastened in their backs had to kill starved cats (tightened at wooden poles stuck in the ground) using only their shaven heads! So does fascist Attila in the movie.
Still, if you think you can’t get any more evil than that, just wait till you see what Attila does to a small boy later in the film.