THE MOST CELEBRATED operation in recent film history is over, but the patient is as sick as ever. Maybe sicker. The four-hour, five-minute English-language version of Bernardo Bertolucci's "1900" has all the flaws of the 5 1/2-hour original, with some new troubles thrown in for good measure.

In the 17 months between the film's world premiere at CAnnes and last Saturday's Amrican opening at the New York Film Festival, "1900" has managed to generate an unheard-of amount of harsh words, lawsuits, controversy and newsprint with almost everybody concerned making bombastic statements they later contradicted. The whole story has the kind of operatic overtones that Verdi, who like Bertolucci grew up near Parma, would have relished.

Three times in those 17 months, Bertolucci, acknowledge as one of the world's premier directors after successses like "The Conformist" and "Last Tango in Paris," swore he would not cut another inch from his film, and three times he gave away.

Speaking at a lugubrious, almost funereal press conference held a week ago in a darkened movie theater, a greatly subdued Eertolucci insisted, "I like this version better than the five-hour version. The movie is now as I want it.

"A year and a half ago, I said I couldn't cut one frame. Now, instead of feeling castration, I feel I can make the cutting a creative work. I feel it is kind of a privilege to cut it as I want to cut it." In fact, the director said, he had gotten so enamored of the cutting process he had just the other day lopped off two more minutes. "It's like a disease," he said.

As to the well-publicized troubles that led to his willingness to cut, all Bertolucci would say was, "It is very known what I went through. I'm fed up with what happened before. It's very boring. I don't want to look like a martyr."

All this could not have been in greater contrast to the excitement with which the film world had awaited Bertolucci's epic last year at Cannes. It had, after all, a frankly spectacular cast, featuring robert De Niro, Burt Lancaster, Sterling Hayden, Donald Sutherland, Dominique Sanda and Gerald Depardieu. I had been made in the most painstaking way imaginable, with Bertolucci taking roughly a year to plan it, a year to shoot going from $3 million to $8 million in the process.

In Italian the film is called "Novecento," which literally means "the 1900s" or "20th century," a more accurate description of the contents though unfortunately already in use in this country as the title for a Carole Lombard-John Barrymore srewball comedy.

It is the story of two men born on the same day in 1900, Alfredo (De Niro). grandson of a great landowner (Lancaster), and Olmo (Depardieu), grandson of a peasant (Hayden), Starting with lovely memories of rural Italy - Bertolucci, who says, "Salami for me is like Proust's madeleines," has admitted recalling his own childhood - the film follows the intert-wined lives of both men until Liberation Day, April 25, 1945, the fall of the Fascists in Italy, Hardly modest in conception, it attempts to capture on film the entire political historical experience of the 20th century.

Pictorially, the film is umimpeachable, ranking with the best of Bertolucci's work, which is saying something. Yet into his lush, dappled landscapes, into his lovingly photographed gofs, mists and snowstorms, the director has placed callow stick figures. So despite those many virtues, "1900" necer catches fire, never involves the viewers in any emotion stronger than respect.

The root of the evil was Bertolucci's desire to make a film whose thrust was political rather than psychological, "1900" is, in fact, a political pamphlet disguised as a big-budget costume spectacular, but unfortunately Bertolucci's leanings are so simplistically leftist that Roman Polanski, whose early experiences with Communists were less than edifying, said at Cannes that, "When I see this film, I feel like climbing the walls."

What this means specifically is that while the bourgeois lead dry, artificial lives, and while De Niro seems trapped and miscast as the effete, indecisive landowner, the yeasty peasants have all the fun, wallowing in the very juices of life. And the Fascists, don't ask about the Fascists. They are child molisters, cat torturers and worse, bestial folk whose villanies are operatic and ridiculous.

Yet speaking at a press conference in Cannes, Bertolucci strongly and eloquently defended what he had done. He wanted, he said, to mke a "consciuosly popular ideological film," to use the melodramatic, stylistic devices of grand opera and 19th-century novels towards political ends. "There wouldn't be any point in making a film about the people that wasn't popular," he said. "For a political film to be complete it must be seen."

Yet at his New York press conference, Bertolucci almost completely backed away from this position, downplaying the political aspect as much as possible. Yes, he admitted, the movie was about the class struggle, "but it's also about a lot of other things. I don't want this film seen just on the political level, I don't think it must be read as a political manifesto. It's a long peom, an epic, a saga."

As to cuts he made, except for a drastic shortening of the film's ending, which formerly featured 45 minutes of laughing peasants with bad teeth singing political songs for what seemed like forever, it is very difficult to figure out exactly what Bertolucci eliminated.

"I used a chanllege with my frieds in Italy. I said they couldn't tell me what I had cut," Bertolucci said. "Because I didn't cut any sequences, I just cut short pieces. I just changed the rhythm of the film. But the meaning, the strenght is absolutely the same."

Even if the nothing specific is gone, "1900" has lost much of the feeling of audacious, crazed majesty that it had at 5 1/2 hours, and because of its slow pace it does not move noticeably faster at four hours plus. Also, the continuity of the second half, where most of the changes were made, is muddled.

The biggest problem with the English-language version, however, is the English language. By Bertolucci's decision the film is dubbed rather than subtitled, because once again the politician in him who hoped to influence the masses won out over the artist, who should have known better. Though the dubbling is very carefully done. it still sounds silly grating on the ear, the English Language clashing with and destroying the visual reality Bertolucci worked so agonizingly to create. "I had a rotten day," De Niro says at one of the film's lowest points. "I wnt to the city to have some fun and I was an epileptic."

After all the shenanigans that went into producing it, however, the wonder is that there is any approved American version at all. For a very long time, it looked like there wouldn't be one.

Right after Cannes, Bertolucci made the first of the cuts he said he'd never make, trimming the film to five hours, 10 minutes. But this wasn't good enough for Paramount, the original owner of the U.S. rights, which had guaranteed producer Alberto Grimaldi $1.75 million if he delivered a three-hour, 10-minute version. Rather than show the film in two parts, as was being done in Europe, PAramount let it be known it wasn't afverse to letting someone eise distribute "1900" if it could get its $1.75 million back.

So Grimaldi got independents like New World and Cinema Five interested, then announced a deal with 20th Century-Fox for a four-hour film only to watch it collapse when Bertolucci, who had by this time cut the film down to four hours, 25 minutes, announced that not one framed more could be spared.

Grimaldi promptly sued Bertolucci to get him to cut the film still further and without waiting for that to happen got an unknown editor to pare it down to three hours, 15 minutes. Bertolucci then contersued, saying that managing the film without his consent violated (no kidding) his civil rights and calling the three-hour version "a trailer," or "coming attraction."

The director claimed the problems were political, saying all those red flags were "offensive to a typical petit bourgeois morality," while Grimaldi said the problmes were more mundane: "The picture is too long and too boring." Os much for tact.

Somewhere along the line, Barry Diller, board chairman of Paramount, the original distributor, added his two cents saying, "I don't like the three-hour version, I don't like the 4 1/2-hour version and I don't like the five-hour version. Paramount will never distribute the film." Period.

Yet at his New York press conference, Bertolucci, apparently too worn out to feel anything approaching satisfaction, announced simply that, "Paramount is releasing the film now. Nobody told me. friends read it in the paper and called me.

"A movie is just a work in progress," he said, wearily summing up the last five years of his life. "It's just a piece of film in a metal box, it doesn't exist until an audience sees it. We don't have to take ourselves or our movie too much for seriously.