Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
Starring: Robert De Niro (Alfredo Berlinghieri), Gérard Depardieu (Olmo Dalco), Dominique Sanda (Ada Fiastri Paulhan), Francesca Bertini (Sister Desolata), Laura Betti (Regina), Werner Bruhns (Ottavio Berlinghieri), Stefania Casini (Neve), Sterling Hayden (Leo Dalco), Anna Henkel (Anita), Ellen Schwiers (Amelia), Alida Valli (Ida Cantarelli Pioppi), Romolo Valli (Giovanni), Bianca Magliacca, Giacomo Rizzo (Rigoletto), Pippo Campanini (Don Tarcisio), Burt Lancaster (Alfredo's grandfather), Donald Sutherland (Attila).
the Italian Communist Party and the rise of the Black Shirts
Bertolucci takes us through Italian history from 1900 to about 1945 as seen through the eyes of two boys/men, one, Olmo (Depardieu), with a peasant background and the other, Alfredo (de Niro), from a large land owner family. Of course, this era is that of the rise of Fascism in Italy. But as a consequence of growing Fascism, the peasants turned more and more to Communism as an antidote. And the politics of Italy is reflected in the lives of the two main characters. It should be no surprise that the rich man becomes a Fascist, while the poor man turns to socialist agitation.
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire movie.
April 25, 1945. Northern Italy, Liberation Day. There is still fighting. A shepherd is shot and killed. A bald man and his wife are rushing across a field trying to get away from a group of women farm workers who are chasing them with pitchforks. The women throw the female down and start beating her and then they catch up with the male and start beating and pitch forking him . A young boy picks up a rifle and heads over to the Padrone's place. He places the Padrone Alfredo Berlinghieri under citizen's arrest.
Flashback. Many years before. Giovanni Berlinghieri and his wife have a boy that they name Alfredo. Grandad Alfredo, the old padrone, is very happy.
Childhood. Olmo Dalco is a young peasant boy. He is always active, mischievous and full of energy. Alfredo is about the same age as Olmo and he badly wants to makes friends with him. Olmo is a rougher kid than the more cautious Alfredo, but Alfredo is persistent and the two boys become friends. Alfredo, the old padrone, commits suicide my hanging himself in the cow barn. Alfredo wants to go away with his Uncle Octavio.
Because of storms the Padrone has lost half the crops. So he tells his workers that they will only get half-pay. The workers are extremely mad at him and they make it known. One man even goes so far as to cut off his ear to give it to Giovanni. The workers go on strike and Giovanni responds by bringing in scabs. The children of the hard-strapped strikers are put on a train and taken to Genoa where they will have more access to food.
World War I is ending. Alfredo, a lieutenant in the army, is returning on a train. Olmo is back. The young men are very happy to see each other. Olmo is active in communist organizing. But the real leader of the unhappy group of farm workers is Anita. Alfredo takes the side of the workers which distresses his father and the two fight over it. The new foreman is a tall young man named Attila.
Giovanni brings the cops out to crush the workers. The cops charge the assembled farm workers, both men and women, but Anita and her women will not budge and the police will not run over them. Instead, the police retreat. Giovanni is furious and he denounces the Bolsheviks, adding that the new Fascist movement wants order.
Alfredo visits Uncle Octavio who is with a pretty woman named Ada. Alfredo figures she is his uncle's mistress. She gives Alfredo a ride home and he begins to like her. Olmo is now married to a teacher named Anita, who is pregnant. Alfredo and Ada and Olmo and Anita dance at a peasant get-together. Ada pretends that she is blind and makes a real scene. She is a bohemian spirit. The dance is ended as everyone rushes out to help fight a fire in the community house. Alfredo and Ada have sex in the deserted barn. Alfredo learns that she is not the mistress of his uncle. Anita is upset at a funeral march saying that the man was murdered by the Fascists and shouts: "They'll kill us all."
The foreman Attila is a Fascist and a sadistic killer. He is a member of the Fascist Black Shirts. The jerk kills a cat by tying him to a wall and smashing into it with his head.
Uncle Octavio is going to Palomino. He and Ada want to get away as far as possible from those "pigs" the Black Shirts. Octavio, Ada and Alfredo do some cocaine. Alfredo gets a telegram telling him his father is very ill. Alfredo arrives back home only to find his father dead. He runs into Olmo who is in the process of stealing his father's gun. He lets Olmo keep it. Olmo tells Alfredo to send Attila away because he is a Fascist, a killer. Alfredo nonchalantly responds: "Mussolini has won. Things are really changed." Olmo and Anita have a baby girl, but Anita dies in childbirth. Again Alfredo is warned to send Attila away. Alfredo announces that he is going to marry Ada. One of the women in the house remarks: "She's too pretty for a wife."
Ada cannot stand that there are so many Black Shirts at the wedding. Family member Regina is upset that she is not a bride, so Ada takes the veil off her head and puts it on Regina's head. Alfredo tells Regina to stay from his wife. Alfredo, now the Padrone, starts to exercise his authority. He tells the attendees in uniform that his wife does not want any Black Shirts in the house and they should go. He tells Attila to keep Regina away from his wife. Octavio arrives late with his gift: a white horse. To get away from the Black Shirts Ada goes riding alone. She meets Olmo, who did not attend the wedding, and talks with him for awhile.
Regina and Attila retire to an empty room and she complains about him. Hearing someone outside the door, Attila opens the door quickly and grabs a young boy. He roughs up the boy. After he has sex with Regina he swings the boy around and around using his head to knock things from the walls. The boy dies from the blows. Attila blames the crime on Olmo and the Black Shirts give him a beating with Alfredo nearby. Ada tells her husband that it could not have been Olmo because he was with her. Still Alfredo does not intervene. After Olmo has received a really bloody beating, Alfredo calls them off. A drifter suddenly falsely confesses to the crime. Ada demands to know from her husband why he did not stop the beating: "You are becoming like them." Octavio says he will never set foot on their property again.
After a few years the false confessor receives amnesty and is let out of prison. He meets with Olmo and tells him he falsely confessed to stop the Black Shirts from beating him. The confessor says that a Black Shirt killed the young boy, but he did not know the identity of the man.
An older couple, the Pioppis, come to Alfredo seeking his assistance. Their lands are barren and they are in need of some money. Alfredo gives them the money, but takes the mortgage over their house.
Ada teaches the little daughter of Olmo, Anita, how to read and write. When Olmo discovers this, he gets very angry and says that Anita is not her daughter. And when Alfredo finds out he tells Ada: "leave other people's children alone." Ada wants to drown her misery in drink, but she cannot get the key to the winery from Regina. So she goes to town looking for someplace to drink. Anita sees her and invites her into her house. She and Olmo patch up their relationship. Alfredo watches them from outside.
Regina wants a house. Attila knows that the Pioppi mortgage is coming due and that they could get that house. The Black Shirts take some villagers to jail. Ada tells her husband: "You have changed. You are surrounded by bullies and murderers and you are even worse than they are."
Mrs. Pioppi invites Regina and Attila into her house. She leads them into a room. She then closes and locks the doors behind them. She shouts that now she has them imprisoned. She says that Attila killed her husband by constantly harassing him until he died. But Mrs. Pioppi doesn't really have the pair captive because Attila busts through the doors. We later see Mrs. Pioppi's bloody body on the fence with fence spikes penetrating through her and coming out her back. Ada blames Alfredo and says her husband is a coward. It his fault: "You and others like you who wanted it! It's you!!"
Alfredo speaks with the alienated Olmo. He tells him that it was he who protected Olmo from being arrested by the Black Shirts. Olmo reminds Alfredo that he stood and watched when he was being beaten by the Black Shirts.
Attila is acting his usual ugly self and he makes the people in the square very angry at him. They start throwing horse droppings at him. Olmo smashes two huge globs of droppings on each side of Attila's cheek and presses it to his face. Olmo and his daughter now have to leave down quickly for fear of Black Shirt vengeance. Ada is also leaving. She wants to get away from the Fascists. Attila brings in the Black Shirts and they destroy the interior of Olmo's residence. Alfredo shows up and scolds Attila and sends him away. Alfredo shows up at Ada's place shouting that he finally has sent Attila away, but Ada is gone. He is very upset.
Later the Attilla and his Fascists line people against a fence. Attila starts to shoot people and some of the Black Shirts join in to kill a number of villagers.
April 25, 1945. Liberation Day. The residents of the village start chasing Fascists. They capture Regina and Attila. They also start painting over the Fascist signs in the village. Olmo shows up. They take Regina and Attila to the cemetery to show them the names of their family members killed by the pair. Someone executes Attila with a shot to the head. Regina is allowed to live, but she begs them to kill her. The villagers push Alfredo around and down to the ground and then have a "trial" for him. Various villagers start telling him off. But Olmo will not let them kill Alfredo. He tells the people: "The Padrone is dead. Alfredo Belinghieri is alive. So we can't kill him." Olmo grabs Alfredo and pushes and pulls on him as Alfredo tries to get away.
Years later. The two men are still pushing and pulling each other around. The Padrone lays down on the railway tracks with a train coming.
I did not care for Act I. It was very slow paced. My wife and I thought too much time was spent on the boyhoods of Alfredo and Olmo. But the movie makers were trying to illustrate the contrast between the rich and the poor and to set up in Act II a contrast between life on the estates and the rise of the Fascists. Act II is great. It is very nicely paced and full of happenings. Alfredo represents the higher group of people in Italy who did nothing to stop the rise of Fascism in Italy. Just like them, Alfredo took no interest in the Black Shirts. And like them, he did not take any actions to fight the evil actions of the Black Shirts. Alfredo did nothing about the cruel Attila (a meaningful name as Attila the Hun had been a huge threat to Rome). And when Alfredo does take actions it is too little and too late. Ditto for the better-off group in Italy. The second half is the old theme of bad guys ruin the town until the good guy(s) come in to punish them. Donald Sutherland made a real monster out of his character and really made you hate him. His character was disgusting so congratulations to Sutherland.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
See Mussolini: The Decline and Fall of Il Duce (1985).
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