It could be argued that when Italian film director Bernardo Bertolucci made “Twentieth Century” forty years ago in 1976, his memorable five-hour art-house epic about the rise of facism in Italy in the first half of the last century, he benefitted from a dream team of acting talents at the peak of their powers.

The film chronicles the lives of two men from different sides of the tracks who grow up together. Alfredo Berlingheri, who inherits his father’s farm is played by American actor Robert de Niro when he was 33 and in the same year he was Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, two years after playing Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II in 1974 and before being Michael Vronsky in The Deerhunter (1978) and Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull (1980). His friend is Olno Dalco, an illiterate peasant who works on the farm and is played by the 28 year old French character actor Gerard Depardieu, near the beginning of a career spanning 170 films.

Atilla Mellanchini is the truly evil foreman and facist and provided another seriously good role for the 41 year old Canadian actor of very diverse characters, Donald Sutherland, who starred in Fellini’s Cassanova and The Eagle Has Landed in the same year and M*A*S*H in 1970, Klute in 1971 and Don’t Look Now in 1973. In especially strong support of the three men were film legends the late Burt Lancaster who died in 1994 and was 63 when he played Alfredo’s grandfather, (also called Alfredo) and the late Sterling Hayden who died in 1986 and was 60 when he played Olno’s grandfather and strong farm foreman Leo. And strong support also came from French actress and former fashion model Dominique Sandra at 25 as Alfredo’s beautiful wife Ada who sinks into alcoholic oblivion and Italian actress the late Laura Betti, who specialised in playing unhinged women and who died in 2004, and at 49 in 1976 was very convincing as the cruel and unstable Atilla’s equally cruel and unstable wife, Regina.

Novecento, with its haunting score by Ennio Morricone, was released in April for the first time in the UK on Blu-ray by Eureka Entertainment as part of their Masters of Cinema series. The pack includes the film in two parts on Blu-ray DVDs, a booklet of words by Bertolucci, video pieces featuring Bertolucci and the film’s photographer Vittorio Storaro and a documentary about the making of Novecento.

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