Italian directors start out like Rossellini and end up as Visconti. Even Rossellini and Visconti did. Both began in the so-called neo-realist mode and ended up doing lavish historical dramas. In this, they also reflect the lineage of Italian directors to follow. Pasolini, who was also gay, learned a great deal from both ends of Visconti's career, and in turn his disciple, Bernardo Bertolucci, whose films are definitely bi, has also followed suit.
But what is it to say that someone began as a neo-realist? What was, and where was, the "old" realism that Italian films of the war and post-war year's are the "neo" versions of? The plays of Ibsen, perhaps, dating back to the 1800s?
It's perplexing, because there was never really much of a "realist" movement in cinema to begin with. Also, neo-realism is as hard to define as film noir. Unlike some of the genres developed in America, such as the western, neo-realism was a national movement with a tight focus and a political bent, a "genre" that defined recent events for people during tumultuous times. A cross between a newsreel and an improv, a neo-realist film broadcast bulletins about the state of Italian life and culture.
That being said, it's hard to fine a pure neo-realist film, outside of
Rossellini's two most famous examples, Rome, Open City and Paisan. Like last week's newspaper, they were designed to be consumed and then thrown away rapidly. That many of the early neo-realist films have lasted is testimony to the staying power of film as an art form rather than the meaning of the neo-realist films themselves. Some of the most famous so-called neo-realist films, such as De Sica's Bicycle Thief, are about as realistic as a Charles Busch play.
Like Rossellini, Visconti's first two films—Ossessione and La Terra Trema—are seemingly realistic accounts of passion and political protest amid the working classes. But both films, now released on DVD in the U.S. by Image Entertainment, defy the vision of neo-realism many of us have in our heads.
At first it comes as a surprise that Visconti worked under Jean Renoir for many years. Like Satyajit Ray, who also worked for Renoir, Visconti later went on to define a national cinema. But Renoir's realistic method, which was to influence both neo-realism and the French new wave, was still rooted in theatrical melodrama and comedy. And in fact, Ossessione, Visconti's first feature, is on the surface a melodrama. As is well known, it is based on James M. Cain's crime thriller The Postman Always Rings Twice, which has been filmed many times, once in France in 1939 by Pierre Chenal as Le Dernier Tournant, twice in Hollywood, first by Tay Garnett in 1946, then with Jessica Lange and Jack Nicholson years later. There is even a Hungarian version in 1998 (and by the way many of Polanski's films seem to be unofficial remakes or variations on Postman). Visconti's film is famously an unauthorized adaptation, and came between the French version and Garnett's. Various censorship and political problems plagued the film in its homeland, and like many masterpieces its restoration history is convoluted. Visconti's version didn't enjoy release in American until 1976. (Another unofficial variation may be Siberian Lady Macbeth.)
The film sure starts like something out of neo-realism. Yet also like something out of Fellini. There are long dusty roads and decrepit trucks used for multiple purposes, hustlers doing odd shows in town squares, and drifters and sweat and men who are used to traveling.
The story is the same as in all the other versions. A drifter named Gino (Massimo Girotti) ends up in a small way station, a lonely diner and gas station in the middle of nowhere. It is run by an unnamed stolid older man (Juan de Landa) and his wife Giovanna (Clara Calamai), who in the past may have been a prostitute. Gino stays on, has an affair, runs away with another fellow (in a barely disguised gay subplot that in fact has tangible links to Cain's work), participates in the murder of the husband and so on.
But though the film begins in a "neo-realist" mode, it becomes more phantasmagoric or stylish as it progresses. While staying much more "realistic" than the Hollywood versions, it also presents the characters less reprehensibly. And like the French new wave films to follow, the film embraces, but not without alteration, film noir and its sources in American popular literature.
Visconti's second feature, released in Italy in 1947, shows roots that go back even further in cinema history, to Robert Flaherty and Sergei Eisenstein. La Terra Trema began as a prospective first panel in a triptych on the class struggle, not unlike Orson Welles's unfinished It's All True or Eisenstein's Que Viva Mexico. It still bears the subtitle "Episode of the Sea," to match the other "episodes." Like Man of Aran, it is about the struggle against nature and the sea, but Visconti brings a Marxist interpretation of the struggle, setting it in the context of who owns the ships the men work on (much like, to a lesser degree, the filmed version of The Shipping News does). Like Eisenstein and Welles's films, Trema is about the people, ordinary men (played by non-professionals) in a story that is both narrated like a documentary and beautifully photographed, like an art film.
La Terra Trema is about the Valastro family, long time fishermen in an isolated Sicilian village called Acitrezza. 'Ntoni Valastro wants to go into business for himself, and mortgages the beloved family house to buy their own boat. Unfortunately, like something out of a Hemmingway novel, a storm destroys their boat; their budding romances are wrecked, and they are reduced to crawling back to the same merchants they were trying to get away from in the first place
Though the film has been touted by some critics as inherently optimistic, to the average viewer it may well come across as one of the most depressing, hopeless films ever made. It's not subtle. In the end, 'Ntoni speaks almost right to the camera, giving the films message of collective action, in dialog directly recorded, unusual in Italian films of any era. Like Visconti's later Rocco and His Brothers, Trema is about the destruction of a family in the face of hardening economic and social pressure, where an idealized past or wish for the future clashes with the realities of the new Italy. Still, it is one of the great films of national cinema, and for some time has deserved careful, and responsible release on Region 1 DVD.
VIDEO:Image Entertainment's DVD release of Ossessione is a full-frame transfer (1.33:1) that is a disaster, with print damage, motion distortion, scratches, and countless other visual problems. It looks like film you might see on TV through a dirty window. This is probably due to the fact that the source print is a duped master. Trema is also full-frame (1.33:1), but its source print is a little better, though it too shows some wear.
SOUND: Ossessione comes with the original Italian soundtrack in Dolby Digital mono 2.0. Trema comes in a monaural track. Both discs come with optional English subtitles.
MENUS:The static, motionless menus offer 14 chapter scene selection for the 135 minute Ossessione and Trema comes with 22 chapters for a 154 minute movie.
PACKAGING: Purple for passion defines the keep case cover and label for Ossessione's disc, while Trema's keep case cover and label reprint a version of the painted poster art.
EXTRAS:Neither disc bears added value features.