Alongside Roberto Rosselini and Vittorio de Sica, Luchino Visconti is counted among the founders of Italy’s postwar ”neorealist” school of filmmaking. The neorealists were so dubbed because of the realism each film aspired to via the use of nonprofessional actors, location shooting, and a general focus on the gritty, hardbitten lives of the poor and downtrodden as opposed to the glitz and glamour of mainstream studio films. Partly, at least, it was a movement borne out of sheer necessity: the devastation of the war and the fall of Mussolini’s Fascist government threw the Italian studio system in disarray and left experienced, professional actors few and far between, forcing filmmakers to pick up their cameras and head out into the world.
But ideology also played a role in its development. Artists and filmmakers were eager to distance themselves from the old Fascist regime, and sought stories that showed the plight of the working-class in order to create a style of filmmaking that aligned itself with the people rather than the Western-style materialism and staid conservatism of many studio films of the period (derisively referred to as ”white telephone films” by the Italian press).
However it’s also true that, in turning away from the melodramatic and overly-sentimental style of mainstream studio films, the films of the neorealists were often equally melodramatic and sentimental in their own ways, just on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum. Many neorealist films, especially earlier ones, were intended as pieces of political persuasion as well as art, and were sometimes just as maudlin and manipulative as the studio films they were made in opposition to. Characters weren’t poor, they were the poorest; bad things didn’t happen to them, the worst things happened to them. For all the emphasis on realistic portrayals and documentary styles, neorealist films could just as easily fall victim to the exaggeration and romanticism that can sometimes be found in works intended as political polemics.
An example that embodies both the best and the worst of the movement is Luchino Visconti’s early neorealist classic La Terra Trema (The Earth Will Tremble), which is getting a long-overdue DVD release from Entertainment One after being virtually unavailable in North America for years. Made in 1948, it was commissioned from Visconti by Italy’s Communist party, who originally wanted him to make a documentary about Sicilian fisherman to be used as propaganda in the upcoming election. After falling in love with the Sicilian fishing village of Aci Trezza Visconti decided not to make a documentary, but opted instead to use the real people and locations he observed there to tell a fictional story, a loose adaptation of Giovanni Verga’s novel I Malavoglia which Visconti fleshed out with liberal amounts of original material.
The story of La Terra Trema follows the fortunes and tragedies of the Vallastro family, who have lived as fishermen in Aci Trezza for generations. ‘Ntoni, the eldest Vallastro son, has recently returned from a stint as a soldier on the mainland and has a head filled with wild, modern ideas. Mainly, he’s sick of seeing himself and his fellow fishermen exploited by greedy wholesalers, who set the price of fish and therefore control the economic fortunes of the town, consigning fishermen like ‘Ntoni and his brothers to a subsistence lifestyle of endless backbreaking 14-hour workdays. Agitating amongst his fellow workers for collective action and resistance, ‘Ntoni decides to strike back at the wholesalers by buying a boat and circumventing the wholesalers by taking his fish directly to the market himself, hoping to inspire his fellow fishermen to do the same. Of course, the family has to mortgage their home to buy the new boat needed for ‘Ntoni’s new venture, but they do it happily, seeing it as the first step towards a better life.
As you can imagine, it all goes very wrong very quickly, and continues to do so without any letup. For the hubris of trying to control their own economic destiny, fate begins to punish the Vallastros with a chain of Job-like misfortunes that that grow more and more heartbreaking each time. First ‘Ntoni’s new boat is wrecked and ruined in a storm. With no income now, the Vallastros are unable to pay their mortgage and thus lose their home. ‘Ntoni is ostracized by the other villagers for trying to defy the status quo. Without either a boat or wholesalers to sell to, he descends into drink and depression. His grandfather dies, his unmarried sister is seduced and dishonored, and bit by bit the family’s life crumbles under disaster after disaster.
This descent into hardship takes up the bulk of the film’s two-and-a-half-hour length, and it makes for unforgiving viewing. Visconti is brutal in his depiction of the Vallastros’ suffering, but the heaping of tragedy upon tragedy for the Vallastros eventually feels more like something out of a soap opera than a meticulously-realistic docudrama. The mercilessly downbeat atmosphere and the hectoring speeches about collective action and economic exploitation that Visconti puts in his characters’ mouths inevitably leave the film feeling like the emotionally-manipulative propaganda piece that it is. Even with a thought-provoking ending that can be read as either a sad capitulation or a glimmer of hope, at such grinding length the events of the film can’t help but feel redundant after a certain point.
But despite its narrative faults, it’s the naturalistic acting and shooting style that make La Terra Trema such an important part of film history, and the authentic feel of the actors and locations are the film’s biggest strengths. It’s a film that could never have been replicated in a studio. The architecture and landscape of the village of Aci Trezza almost become characters unto themselves, and many of the shots of the picturesque Sicilian coastline are nothing short of breathtaking.
Similarly, the weathered faces of the village fishermen mending nets in their tattered clothes on the rocky shoreline are something no actor could imitate. It’s these scenes of the villagers simply going through the routines of daily life that are the best in the film and give it its power. Fishermen walking en masse to their boats in the predawn light, the long tracking shots of the chaotic market, or the fishermen offshore bobbing in their boats and singing out to each other in the darkness — each one of these scenes of natural, humanistic beauty carries more weight and makes Visconti’s point with more strength than ten heavy-handed speeches about economic oppression.
For all of La Terra Trema‘s historical importance, visual beauty, and technical accomplishment — and truly, Visconti is a technical master — one can’t help but wonder if it would have been more effective if he had made it as the straight documentary that it was originally conceived as. As is, it’s an important but flawed film, beautiful in its imagery and style, but not as well-developed narratively as Visconti’s later works.