La Terra trema (1948)
aka: La terra trema: Episodio del mare
A film directed by Luchino Visconti

Genre: Drama

Review published:


La Terra trema photo
For generations, the Valastros have worked as fishermen in the small Sicilian fishing village of Aci Trezza. It is a hard and dangerous life, and the wholesalers they work for give them just enough money to avoid starvation. The young 'Ntoni has had enough of this exploitation and tries to persuade his fellow fishermen that they should work for themselves, not for the wicked wholesalers. Alas, he manages only to convince his own family. By mortgaging his family's small house,  'Ntoni finds the money to buy equipment for his solo finishing enterprise. At first, all is well. His boat returns one night with a bountiful catch of anchovies. Then, soon after, disaster strikes. 'Ntoni's boat is wrecked in a storm, and all his equipment is lost. The family is ostracised, and 'Ntoni has his brother Cola are unable to find work. With no hope of paying off their mortgage, the Valastros lose their home to the bank and are forced to move into a tiny rundown shack. By now, the family is falling apart. The grandfather is ill in hospital and Cola has run away to seek a better life elsewhere. To survive, the family members have to sell their last few possessions. In the end, 'Ntoni has no choice but to swallow his pride and put himself back in the yoke of his former employers.
© 2012

Film Review

In his first film, Ossessione , director Luchino Visconti developed a style of cinema that came to be known as neo-realist. In stark contrast to the polished studio productions of the day, this approach used grim natural locations, largely non-professional actors, and accurately reflected the harsh reality of life as experienced by most people in run-down post-Mussolini Italy. Whilst Ossessione is blatantly a genre film (of the film noir thriller variety), La Terra trema is a full-bloodied piece of neo-realist drama, an inspiration for other great Italian film directors at that time, notably Roberto Rosselini and Vittorio De Sica. It effectively began the neo-realist movement, elevating Italian cinema to a position of artistic pre-eminence after World War II.

With La Terra trema, Luchino Visconti shows an extraordinary concern and sympathy with the plight of ordinary Sicilian fisher folk. Coming from a privileged aristocratic background, Visconti was so appalled by what the fascists had done to his country that he took up with left-wing politics and Marxist ideology. Whilst this political awareness does make its way into La Terra trema, what is far more striking is Visconti's genuine compassion for the people he is filming. He conveys their sense of pride and nobility, as well as their extreme hardship and inability to make a better lot for themselves. Perhaps it is the fact that Visconti came from such a totally different world that allows him to engage so forcefully with his subject, to draw out every scintilla of poignancy, not as a complacent distant voyeur, but as someone who is profoundly moved by what he is seeing around him.

And it has to be said that Visconti's technique is very effective. Whilst the camera work is unashamedly arty, with some breathtakingly beautiful location shots, it also conveys the mood of the film's protagonists with immense depth and raw simplicity. The characters we see are so engaging that it is hard not to feel their joy when things go well and then their sense of despair when it all starts to go wrong. Like much of Italian neo-realism of this period, the film is hugely effective at engaging the spectator and conveying genuine emotion. Rather like a great piece of opera, watching and hearing this film is an emotionally exhausting experience, one that will taint your waking consciousness for a long time.

Visconti originally conceived La Terra trema to be the first in a series of three films concerned with poor working class people in Italy. When this first instalment failed disastrously at the box office (probably because the film's protagonists spoke not in Italian but in a local Sicilian dialect), the director was forced to give up making the following two films, one about miners, the other about land farmers. Visconti would return to the neo-realist form with Rocco and his Brothers in 1961, a film which bears striking similarities with La Terra trema , notably in its uncompromisingly bleak portrayal of a poor Italian family struggling to stay together despite some pretty vicious circumstances. Whilst Rocco is an easier film to watch, mainly because it is a more polished work with some great professional actors, it lacks the naked truth that La Terra trema conveys so brilliantly. For its wonderfully effective portrayal of the suffering and aspirations of ordinary men and women, La Terra trema is in a class of its own, a stunning visual poem, charged with a haunting pathos and a searing humanity.

© James Travers 2004

The above article was written for and should not be reproduced in any medium without the author's permission.

Other recommended drama films of the 1940s from Italy that you may want to consider are: Marcello Pagliero's Desiderio (1946), Mario Camerini's Due lettere anonime (1945), Alessandro Blasetti's Fabiola (1949), Vittorio De Sica's Ladri di biciclette (1948) and Luchino Visconti's Ossessione (1943).

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Film Credits

  • Director: Luchino Visconti
  • Script: Antonio Pietrangeli, Giovanni Verga (novel), Luchino Visconti
  • Photo: G.R. Aldo
  • Music: Willy Ferrero
  • Cast: Antonio Arcidiacono (Ntoni), Giuseppe Arcidiacono (Cola), Venera Bonaccorso (La vecchia che ride), Nicola Castorino (Nicola), Rosa Catalano (Rosa), Rosa Costanzo (Nedda), Alfio Fichera (Michele), Carmela Fichera (La baronessa), Rosario Galvagno (Don Salvatore), Agnese Giammona (Lucia), Nelluccia Giammona (Mara), Ignazio Maccarone (Maccarone), Giovanni Maiorana (Un bambino), Antonino Micale (Vanni), Maria Micale (La madre), Angelo Morabito (Un cliente dell'osteria), Pasquale Pellegrino (Pescatore), Amilcare Pettinelli (Voce narrante), Antonio Pietrangeli (Voce narrante), Alfio Valastro (Bandiera), Antonino Valastro (Pandolla), Francesco Valastro (Afro), Lorenzo Valastro (Lorenzo), Raimondo Valastro (Raimondo), Salvatore Valastro (Il pignoratore)
  • Country: Italy
  • Language: Sicilian / Italian
  • Support: Black and White
  • Runtime: 165 min
  • Aka: La terra trema: Episodio del mare ; The Earth Trembles ; The Earth Will Tremble

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