On the same day and practically at the same moment, on a wealthy pastoral estate in turn-of-the-century Italy, January 27, 1901; two boys are born. Alfredo Berlinghieri (Robert De Niro) is the grandson of the estate's padrone (patriarch). Olmo Dalcò (Gérard Depardieu) is the bastard grandson of the estate's head labourer. As children, the two develop an unlikely but close friendship. As they grow up together, Olmo becomes a socialist; however it is Fascism that manages to gain a foothold in the country. Alfredo does not, in turn, strictly become a fascist himself. In fact, he is somewhat distasteful of the ideology and adherents of it, such as his father. Nevertheless, over the years the friendship of the two men, representing the Italian lower and upper classes respectively, is tested; as the country undergoes both World Wars, as Alfredo's father hires the sadistic, anti-communist Attila Mellanchini (Donald Sutherland) as his foreman as the film charts 45 years of Italian history.
The film's $6 million budget was supplied by three different sources: $2 million each from United Artists, Paramount, and 20th Century Fox. Even then, it went over-budget by $3 million. Its All-Star Cast includes Burt Lancaster, Sterling Hayden, Robert De Niro, Donald Sutherland, Gérard Depardieu and Dominique Sanda. It's scored by Ennio Morricone. Over 12,000 extras were employed.
A particular note about the title. In English, "Novecento" literally means "1900" but as Bertolucci confirmed in interviews, this is a misunderstanding. In Italian dating conventions, Novecento signifies "the nineteen-hundreds" and not the year nineteen-hundred. A more apposite English equivalent would be "The 20th Century".
This film provides examples of:
- Aristocrats Are Evil: Actually the bourgeoisie landowners are evil, from the perspective of the peasants and proletariat.
- Author Tract/Anvilicious: Fascism = bad. Socialism/communism = good. Sex Is Good (which is actually quite unusual for communist movies to state, many of them being a little staid).
- Black Shirt: Attila is one of them.
- Bourgeois Bohemian: Alfredo and Dominique Sanda's character are shown as this. They attend trade union meetings and communist dance gatherings but neither of them actually care about the issues and eventually they lapse back and become the idle rich who sit back while fascists run the country.
- Chummy Commies: Italy had a vastly different experience with communism, which was suppressed in favour of Fascism, and many of them suffered and fought as Partigiano during the war. At the end, when Olmo leads everyone in a trial on Alfredo, Olmo denounces Alfredo for being a padrone, a landowner, and a class traitor, but he also says that he wants to free Alfredo from being a padrone and doesn't want to execute him.
- Cloud Cuckoolander: Ada often seems to be this, as in a strange scene where she pretends to be blind as a joke (which her friends don't find amusing at all). As the film wears on, she appears to have depression or a similar mental disorder (worsened by her husband's diffident behavior) and copes with it using drugs and alcohol.
- Drowning My Sorrows: Ada.
- Epic Movie: The '70s deconstructive/political/surrealist/absurdist take on the genre (Bertolucci's The Last Emperor is a bit more traditional). Huge cast of international actors, a lot of grand scenes and sets. It was also the biggest box-office hit in Italy in its day but not successful in America.
- The Italian version, which runs for five hours was released in theatres as a Two-Part Diptych. For the American release a shorter version cut by Bertolucci was released but the latest home video features only the longer version.
- Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Attila and Regina are devoted to each other, and towards the end of the movie have several children. It doesn't make them sympathetic, though.
- From Nobody to Nightmare: Attila's introduced as something of an affable doofus whom nobody takes seriously. When he joins the fascists he commits immediately to their ideology and becomes unapologetically evil.
- Gainax Ending: The finale where Alfredo is denounced in a quasi-Maoist denunciation which ends with Olmo saying that the Padrone Alfredo is dead but Alfredo will live. Then we have a Beckett-esque finale of Alfredo and Olmo growing old and bickering and fighting each other, until they fight by train tracks and Alfredo and Olmo seemingly get run over by a train.
- Headbutt the Cat: Attila does this, comparing the cat to a communist and explaining the act as sparing the lives of everybody else, at the end of Act One. He also kills Signora Pioppi's cat in an effort to intimidate her (albeit offscreen).
- Lady Macbeth: Regina to Attila.
- Large Ham: Attila.
- Male Frontal Nudity: Alfredo and Olmo when they have a threesome with a prostitute. As well as several other scenes.
- Meta Casting: The fact that European and Italian actors play peasants while American actors play landowners is a little too on-the-nose even by Bertolucci standards. The one exception is Sterling Hayden, the only American to play a peasant. He's Olmo's father. Bertolucci based it on Hayden's roles as Working-Class Hero in The Asphalt Jungle.
- Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Who would've guessed that a man named Attila would be bad news?
- Odd Couple: Olmo and Alfredo. The son of the peasants and the son of the Padrone, they become friends and kids and become Heterosexual Life-Partners mid-way and during fascism, Alfredo protects Olmo and other peasants from persecution.
- Protest Song: A real-life one, "Sebben che siamo donne" a feminist-socialist song.
- Rasputinian Death: Attila. He's pitchforked several times in the chest and still has enough power to stagger halfway across a field...and his attackers still need to shoot him to finish him off.
- Strawman Political: The movie's politics are not subtle.
- Three-Way Sex: Alfredo and Olmo visit a prostitute together early in the film.
- Title by Year: In English, "Novecento" literally means "1900" but as Bertolucci confirmed in interviews, this is a misunderstanding. In Italian dating conventions, Novecento signifies "the nineteen-hundreds" and not the year nineteen-hundred. A more apposite English equivalent would be "The 20th Century".
- Token Good Teammate: Signor Pioppi is the only landowner who refuses to donate to the fascists at the outset. He dies in debt and his widow is murdered by Attila and Regina, who take over their house.
- Upper-Class Twit: Alfredo has been one all his life. He has his good qualities and redeeming moments, but his inertia leads him to become a fascist collaborator.
- Woman Scorned: Regina sides with Attila in part because she loves Alfredo and resents his marrying Ada.
- Working-Class Hero: Olmo and his grandfather Leo.
- Would Hurt a Child: Attila murders a child on Alfredo's wedding day.