La Terra Trema
Before Italian director Luchino Visconti took his place in the cinematic canon, he idled around Europe as a wealthy aesthete. In the mid-1930s, he hooked up with French filmmaker Jean Renoir, sitting second chair while his mentor shot clear-eyed examinations of human behavior and classes in conflict. By the time Visconti was ready to work on his own, Italy was in the hands of the fascists, which made it difficult to get approval for the left-leaning social dramas he favored. When Visconti received permission to adapt James M. Cain's American pulp novel The Postman Always Rings Twiceabout a drifter who falls in love with a diner owner's wife and conspires to kill her husbandhe loaded the story with as much Marxist critique as it could bear. That 1943 debut, Ossessione, contained the sense of fatalism soon to be standard in American noir, as well as the sweaty, dusty neo-realism soon to be the dominant mode of expression in Italian cinema. The film holds up well today, both as a murder story and as a slice-of-life. Massimo Girotti's performance as the unemployed drifter has a desperation that pierces his character's lackadaisical surface; he appears to be genuinely enamored of the somewhat shrewish Clara Calamai, and to possess a real feeling of hope that his lot is about to improve. Ossessione's dramatic pull derives from Girotti's reasonable set of optionsto go back on the road, to travel with a (possibly gay) street performer who teaches him about the spirit of generositywhich are trumped by his titular obsession with Calamai. Visconti's second film, La Terra Trema (a.k.a. The Earth Trembles), also features a searing lead performance, by an uncredited nonprofessional playing a fisherman named Antonio. Antonio mortgages his house to buy his own fishing boat, planning to bypass the unfair wholesalers who own most of his village's fleet. Unlike the protagonist of Ossessione, Antonio makes wise choices, but bad weather and his neighbors' jealousy work against him. While richly compelling, La Terra Trema suffers from Visconti's clumsy addition of a documentary-style narrator, who oversells the tragedy with lines like "It wasn't enough that their fellow man was their enemy... nature was there, too." But Visconti scores when he films moments of life lived: a singing contest in Ossessione, a jocular communal fish-salting in La Terra Trema. Both films act as overt calls for labor collectivism, but Visconti shows that he knows enough about the working poor to understand that the root of the problem isn't just ignorance, but necessity. The subjects of his first two films need only risk a little to get a lot, but when they only have a little, the risk is still far too great. Ossessione and La Terra Trema have both been released on DVD, in editions devoid of special features and transferred from battered prints, perhaps left over from countless campus film-society screenings. The ragged condition is disappointing, but appropriate for the subject matter, and the austerity is doubly so.