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.
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
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
, 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
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.
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
conveys so brilliantly. For its wonderfully effective portrayal
of the suffering and aspirations of ordinary men and women, La
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 filmsdefrance.com 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
Mario Camerini's Due lettere anonime
Alessandro Blasetti's Fabiola
Vittorio De Sica's Ladri di biciclette
Luchino Visconti's Ossessione