Monday, October 01, 2007

Luchino Visconti: La Terra Trema


Luchino Visconti's La Terra Trema ("The Earth Trembles") is a classic of Italian neo-realism. It was shot on real location, in a sea-side fishermen community of Sicily. The title sequence proudly announces that the actors are fishermen of Sicily themselves. It doesn't mention any individual names. The language of the film is not Italian but rather a Sicilian dialect because as the narrator says, "Italian is not the language of the poor." Visconti actually went to the location to make a documentary about the lives of the fishermen but then decided to dramatize and make a feature film instead. Although the film retains the basic documentary form and features, complete with a voiceover narration, its style is highly deceptive. It tells the story of one fisherman family in particular which tries to break away from the exploitative clutches of the middlemen and wholesalers by buying a boat of their own. But for that they have to mortgage their house. As is typical of those neorealist films, fate and external forces are always ready the crush the human spirit. Their boat gets damaged in a storm and they find themselves stuck in a ever downward spiral of destitution, debt and doom. A very bleak film. It was partly financed by the communist party of Italy and the narrator at many places does get into standard political slogans about how important it is to organize and how hopeless the act of solitary rebellion is. This film could easily have become a predictable political propaganda or a standard social document film but its highly complex and very deceptive style puts it on an entirely different level.

I had read about this film in Satyajit Ray's Our Films, Their Films (slightly disappointing book I must say). He makes some unkind remarks about it in the book (excerpts available on google books):

"Had Visconti's talent been as far-reaching as his ambition, the film might have been a masterpiece. As it stands, La Terra Trema is a great bore, a colossal aesthetic blunder and a monumental confusion of styles. The grim naturalism of its locale is in constant conflict with the behaviour of its human beings--deliberate and stylised to the point of ballet. Visconti's meticulous composition within the frame heightens the feeling of artificiality. Moreover, in an effort to achieve a slow rhythm, he holds his shots till long after they have ceased to perform their expressive functions, and boredom results from a cumulation of a hundred such 'blank' moments when the audience is obliged to contemplate on the abstract qualities of the images which were, however, not primarily intended for such contemplation."

It is interesting because these were exactly the reasons why I was so impressed with the film and what he considers "a monumental confusion of styles" I thought was very self-conscious and very intelligently designed and thought out and in the end highly effective. You start with the feeling that you are watching a documentary, then all of sudden there is a startling and stark composition (one for example in the screen shot below) and your whole idea of what you are watching changes. Those "blank moments" as Ray calls them are also consciously designed that way in order to let reality portray itself unmediated by montage which was one of the basic principles of neorealist films. Visconti is not interested in exploiting every scene's dramatic moments only. If a person is taking off his shirt he is going to show the whole thing, button by button. It may make the film boring but it is also a stylistic statement, an honest and humbling submission to the rhythms of reality. (Pauline Kael in her review quipped that "it is perhaps the best boring movie I have ever seen.")

Some of these aspects of this film are discussed in more detail in Andre Bazin's What Is Cinema? (excertps available on google books) who praises the film very highly. He even says the only reason the Sicilian fishermen didn't get the best actor awards in Venice was because there were no real film critics in the film festival. Actors are awkward, yes, but they are also honest in ways professionals could never have been. Martin Scorsese in his excellent documentary My Voyage to Italy also praises this aspect of film. He says the actors may look awkward in grand and traditional dramatic situations but they bring an emotional experience from their daily lives in that neighbourhood. The way they handle the boats, the nets - professionals could never have done it. In any case it is the setting and the way the landscapes, backgrounds and interiors are shot that matters. In later Italian films like Antonioni's L'Avventura or Rossellini's Voyage to Italy this expressive use of landscapes is more obvious but in essence Visconti had already done it in this film. It also shows the continuity between the neorealist films and the Italian films that followed.

Bleak yes, Boring may be, but also a great classic. I had written about the marvellous Martin Scorsese documentary My Voyage to Italy before. It is an absolutely fantastic introduction to Italian cinema, specially to Roberto Rossellini and the Italian neorealism film movement. Wikipedia page of this film has some more information about it. Some stills from the film here.

9 comments:

Puccinio said...

Well books are ultimately as great as their critics...as they say!

But ''La Terra Trema'' has never been a popular film because it's a film that you can see maybe once in four years. Pauline Kael famously called it the most boring of all great films.

Satyajit Ray in any case only liked Vittorio DeSica of the Neo-Realists, he wasn't as much a fan of Rossellini or Visconti. Today their reputations are secure while more credit is given to Cesare Zavattani(DeSica's screenwriter) than the director himself.

I personally think it's a very important and even a beautiful film but it tends to be lugubrious. But along with ''Senso'' and ''Il Gattopardo'' his best films. In fact along with them, his only masterpieces...Visconti's fall from greatness with ''The Leopard'' is legend.

Anirudh said...

I am getting a little confused; how are you defining an "important film" here?

Alok said...

puccinio: Visconti actually has never been in much critical favour. Almost all references to him that I come across mention his aristocratic lineage, his luxurious lifestyle and then contrast with his political concerns. they never call him dishonest or a hypocrite but it seems to be a major factor in dismissing him as a middlebrow auteur.

Rossellini and Antonioni are the two directors who are high up in the present critical canon. Even Fellini is regularly dismissed as overrated middlebrow director.

I still have to see so many Italian films (specially Germany Year Zero, Mamma Roma, Accatone, The Leopard and many others) but post-war Italian cinema is perhaps my favourite, specially if one talks of a "national cinema." also most of the discussion and criticism that i come across are filtered through the auteurist perspective, or otherwise a shallow pro or anti neorealism, something Scorsese also does in his film, and not from a "national cinema" perspective which my guess is would be more enlightening and fruitful to do because it will see all these films as one whole and find lines of continuity and common areas of thematic concerns and style.

anirudh: importance in the sense of the place this film has in the history of film style. this is a great example of a neorealist film and yet it deviates from some of its principles in very interesting ways. important also in the sense the way this film has influenced the critics, viewers and film directors of its time and those who came later.

puccinio said...

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Even Fellini is regularly dismissed as overrated middlebrow director.
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By whom, every sane person I know hails him as the creative genius that he was. Fellini's chief weakness and chief quality was his taste of excess and tendency for sentimentality. But then all directors have their weak moments. And Fellini late in life gave the world ''Casanova'' an absolute masterpiece.

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...and not from a "national cinema" perspective which my guess is would be more enlightening and fruitful to do...
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Well ''national cinema'' perspective is extremely dangerous. The greatest Italian film(or at least what the Italians call their greatest) ''Il Gattopardo'' stars a Hollywood star, a French National Treasure(Alain Delon) as well as a French Italian(Serge Regianni). Italian films often had Hollywood stars in their pictures since that was the way most could get their funding.

Even Visconti's ''Senso'' starred Farley Granger(of Hitchcock's ''Strangers on the Train'' and Nick Ray's ''They Live by Night'') and Alida Valli needles to say has crossed borders as well.

Then Antonioni at the height of his career made three films in English. Fellini's ''Casanova'' starred Donald Sutherland. Bertolucci's ''Novecento'' starred Robert DeNiro and Gerard Depardieu(as Non-Italian as you'll get) as well as Donald Sutherland.

Even ''Il Conformista'' had a French icon as the star.

So again National Cinema is a very tenuous ground since everyone will be trying to claim and re-claim director's Italianness and whatnot much of it does not exist. And oh yeah Rossellini's later films were made for French TV and in that language.

Japan is arguably the only nation with a pure national cinema. In Europe, every major director nowadays has to have French backing.

puccinio said...

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how are you defining an "important film" here?
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Well you have to understand the film in relation to the principles and aesthetics of Neo-Realism. NeoRealism evolved out of Italy's Post-War destruction on every level - Political, Social, Spiritual - and as Scorsese has said it was meant to redeem Italy from Fascism.

So you had aesthetics like casting non-professional actors(of course that's not necessarily constant across all NeoRealist classics as Rossellini cast professionals, shoot in real locations. hen Rossellini tried to bring in Modern methods of storytelling like in ''Paisan'' which tells interconnected segments.

Visconti's ''Ossessione'' was shot in real locations back then but again it deviates by adapting an American potboiler as a source.

His ''La Terra Trema'' was the culmination of that since he made a film with non-professionals, in real locations having real fishermen play fishermen and then that too people not represented in Italian culture since they did not speak standard Italian.

In fact the film was subtitled when released in Northern Italy since many did not understand the language. So it was a film made with a strong left-wing aesthetic.

Of course the thing that the other Neo-Realists never learnt was that their way of making films did not necessarily collude to reality as it existed and their insistence on sterotypical Neo-Realism drove the pioneers away to doing their own thing exploring different kinds of reality to make different films.

Rossellini completely changed his style from film-to-film until by the time he became a film-making historian he bore little resemblance to the auteur of ''Rome Open City'', Visconti became an Operatic Realist.

puccinio said...

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Visconti actually has never been in much critical favour. Almost all references to him that I come across mention his aristocratic lineage, his luxurious lifestyle and then contrast with his political concerns. they never call him dishonest or a hypocrite but it seems to be a major factor in dismissing him as a middlebrow auteur.
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Which has nothing to do with his film-making abilities!!! Visconti was at his most Marxist when he documented the emptiness and hypocrisy of the aristocracy in ''Senso'' and ''The Leopard'' or when he showed the complete change Italy had undergone in the decade of the economic miracle in the flawed but great ''Rocco and His Brothers''.

In any case although he was a Marxist Visconti was also a Homosexual...homosexuality was considered capitalist decadence by the party line so he could never be loyal to something as hypocritical as taht.

In any case Rossellini came from an extremely wealthy family himself and liked collecting fast cars. He actually visited Soviet Film Brass about a possible film in a Ferrari!!! And needless to say he married one of Hollywood's most beloved film stars. Rossellini was a Communist himself though he gave up around de-Stalinization.

The point is that these guys were artists before they were anything else. Visconti fell from greatness because he became over-indulgent, grandiose and well naive...resulting in such movies as ''The Damned'' and ''Death in Venice''. The latter film is basically the art-house version of Hollywood shtick like ''A Beautiful Mind''.

Rossellini kept experimenting and moving in newer directions as funding decreased all around him and he re-invented himself as a historian making first class revolutionary movies about historical persons and events. If John Ford is the Plutarch of cinema then Rossellini is it's Herodotus.

Alok said...

wow, thanks a lot for all the comments. Always so exciting that there are so many things left to know and explore.

I was actually reading some articles about Rossellini sometime back and most of them had this debate about his neorealist period and how he supposedly turned his back on his concerns and styles, specially after he married Ingrid Bergman. Other articles were mostly defending him against this accusation and arguing for the greatness of his later films. Even the ones he made for TV and his Louis XVI film. A similar line of debate I find when reading about Visconti too. I was just thinking that these divides don't really exist, there is continuity of style from the beginning to their and they were just reacting to the social and political undercurrents of their time and so in that sense a discussion of their films within a specific Italian context makes sense.

Another thing I found very interesting reading about these Italian films was how close these directors were to each other. Fellini assisted Rossellini. Antonioni started his career making political documentaries. Pasolini in turn assisted Fellini (and wrote perhaps the most interesting sections of Nights of Cabiria). Pasolini also had a bunch of apprentices under him. Most precocious was perhaps Bertolucci. Bertolucci started his career (at the age of 21!) with La Commare Secca which was written by Pasolini. It is not very well known but is quite good. Franco Zeffireli and Francesco Rossi both worked as assistants on La Terra Trema. That's why I think it is more interesting to see them as one whole, they were actually commeting on each other works, learning from each other and critiquing parts of other filmmakers they didnt like. I was reading about Mamma Roma (a film I havent seen yet) and Pasolini said that he dedicated the film to Rossellini and wanted to show how Italian society has changed since the days of Rome Open City. from brave working class fighters to a lumpen proletariat - a bunch of hoodlums, whores and pimps. It is also interesting to think in terms of the changing fortunes of the Italian communist party and the changing roles of the catholic church and how these filmmakers were responding to these as a whole.

By national cinema I don't mean that essentializing notion of "Italian-ness." I don't think that serves any purpose and I agree it is actually quite harmful. What I find boring is this notion of "great directors" and the way people see and think about them purely in universalist terms which actually distorts much of film history.

puccinio said...

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What I find boring is this notion of "great directors" and the way people see and think about them purely in universalist terms which actually distorts much of film history.
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Oh I see what you mean, you mean how these directors were part of 20th Century Italy and how it reflected that period. In that case you're right that people shouldn't think these films are about any time any place and were not made for a specific audience.

That's as fallacious as searching for ''Italian-ness''. But most of the serious cinema critics do take that into account. Or if you don't think they are you can become a critic defending that viewpoint.

The inevitable thing in most cases is that when you make a film for one audience about one incident...if the film is any good...it ends up becoming universal.

As T. S. Eliot said...no local work of art can guarantee being universal but no art can be universal if it isn't local to some degree. ''Ulysses'' is the definitive example.

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Another thing I found very interesting reading about these Italian films was how close these directors were to each other. Fellini assisted Rossellini. Antonioni started his career making political documentaries. Pasolini in turn assisted Fellini (and wrote perhaps the most interesting sections of Nights of Cabiria). Pasolini also had a bunch of apprentices under him. Most precocious was perhaps Bertolucci.
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You often find that. The thing in this case is that Italian Cinema only developed a consistent character since the second world war. The other major cinemas - America, Russia, France, Germany, Japan had a rich tradition and history in that time. So they basically became their own pioneers, the Modernists were their own classicists and that's why you find it. Italy is a young cinema if you come to think of it. Almost the same age as India and the same situation when directors like Ray and Ghatak had to start from scratch to pioneer their national cinemas.

'Course Italian cinema is now in the doldrums...'course so is Germany and most of Europe...and America...It's a bad time to be making movies in the Occident for sure.

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It is also interesting to think in terms of the changing fortunes of the Italian communist party and the changing roles of the catholic church and how these filmmakers were responding to these as a whole.
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Well if you were to look at the major Italian classics of the last sixty years you can see Italy's development Post-Fascism and see how far they've gone. History tends to give movies a second meaning...I mean who can look at 20's German movies and not cry at what was to happen...or in the case of Italy to look at ''Paisan'' and then think of where Italy went from there.

Or to look at ''Rocco'' or Ermanno Olmi's of that period. It tinges it with sadness.

It doesn't ruin these films but it gives them more weight and authority and yes relevance.

Anirudh said...

Really, thanks for all the comments. I see very few films but this discussion makes me want to see more of them.