La Terra Trema
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In the poor Sicilian village of Aci Trezza the fisherman have been exploited for generations. Tired of the endless cycle of poverty, a young soldier returns home from war and convinces his family to strike out on their own. Tragically, his plan to change the system is met with a cruel blow that pushes them even further under water. Shot on location with non-professional actors, Luchino Visconti's haunting second film remains a masterpiece of Italian cinema as well as a 'landmark Neorealist work' (Turner Classic Movies).
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The movie was very well done. You really get a feeling of being there. The people, the action, the clothing and the location all give a real slice of life.
SPOILER AHEAD: too bad the men's valiant efforts were all in vain. Movies that end with such a sad feeling sort of turn me off, even if they are realistic. Thus the four stars instead of five.
Great price and delivery.
So why is this film so celebrated? First and foremost is its place in the Italian neorealist movement. People usually associate neorealism with Roberto Rossellini (Rome Open City, Paisan, Germany Year Zero) and Vittorio De Sica (Bicycles Thieves, Shoeshine), but actually Visconti beat both of them to it with his first feature Ossessione (Obsession) in 1942. That film was a bootleg adaptation of James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice. Unlike the later smoother Hollywood versions, this film features grimy real locations and showed a sordid very authentic view of the Italian countryside. The film caught the imagination of the Italian public who were bored with the artificiality of the rich life shown in the 'White Telephone' Italian films and in Hollywood products of the time. Suddenly they had something which appealed directly to them and their everyday socio-economic travails. Rossellini, De Sica, Visconti, Fellini, Rosi, Zeffirelli and lesser lights all banded together to form a neorealist movement, a movement devoted to a new cinema that would be for and about the lives of working class people. Big stars, studios and heavily detailed melodrama would be down-played in favor of the use of amateur actors, real locations and semi-documentary improvised methods designed to showcase the poverty that afflicted so many in Italy, particulary in the Mezzogiorno (the South). In fact, most of these neorealist films were heavily compromised which made people particularly in the Hollywood system sceptical. Rome Open City (1945) was made in the ruins of the nation's capital and is a fine film, but the Nazis are stereotyped as homosexuals and the film is heavily scripted melodrama with Anna Magnani achieving star status with it. Bicycle Thieves (1948) also may be very moving, but the melodrama is manufactured to a large degree and we are as manipulated emotionally by the music and the sad story as we are by superior Hollywood studio products of the time.
La Terra Trema stands out from the rest as being the film which most embodies the tenets of the neorealist manifesto. A semi-documentary (the commentary voiced by Visconti himself), shot on location, featuring an amateur cast, focusing on the trials and tribulations of local fishermen, using local dialect as opposed to straightforward Italian so that rich Italian audiences in the North needed subtitles as much as foreigners did, avoiding deliberate emotional manipulation (the use of music is kept to a minimum) and relying on reaction shots of real people in real situations (especially children), La Terra Trema is an extraordinary statement for the time - one which really opened up people's eyes worldwide as to the possibilities of what cinema could do. Of course Visconti, Fellini and De Sica were later to shake off their neorealist roots in pursuit of more modernist inquiries, and it was this journey that would inspire the explosions of modernism that later took place in the shape of the French New Wave, the New German Cinema and other modernist experiments of the 60s. La Terra Trema is an extremely important film in cinema's swing from 'film as popular entertainment' to 'film as artistic inquiry', in this case a documentation of social conscience. Rooted in the everyday concerns of a poor Sicilian fishing community and told with the bare minimum of directorial manipulation, the film is as honest an artistic statement as there ever has been in cinema outside the world of the documentary.
It's always surprising to me that such a film for the people was made by an aristocrat. Count Visconti (to give him his proper title) was a communist and La Terra Trema was part financed by the Italian communist party and finished with money Visconti got from selling off some of his family's assets. It was initially meant as the first part of a trilogy gradually leading up to a revolution. The fact that only the first part was shot means that instead of ending on a forced communist propagandistic note of triumph at the end of part three, it ends at the end of part one on quiet defeat, but with the dignity of the afflicted (in this case the poor Valastro family) kept intact. Visconti keeps his cameras largely distant and respectful so that we have the feeling that he is honoring his subjects. Traces of politics do remain, a fascist sign on the wall behind the wholesalers clashing with the hammer and sickle shots shown outside their office, but Visconti avoids the pitfalls of stereotyped propagandizing to produce a moving picture of working people downtrodden by circumstances beyond their control.
Visconti chose to adapt Giovanni Verga's novel I Malavoglia (The House by the Medlar Tree) and visited Aci Trezza, the fishing village in Sicily where the novel is set. Noticing that the village had barely changed since the 1880s he chose to shoot the film on location right there. The only time we leave the village is to go fishing with the boats and then in the minds of the Valastros who have to go to Catania to mortgage their home. The film is the very simple story of how the fishermen are manipulated by the wholesalers and kept in poverty by their fierce demands. 'Ntoni Valastro decides to break away and set up his family on their own. Initially, things go well with other villagers supporting them. But one day they have to put to sea in a storm. Their boat is ruined and then everything falls down around them. They are forced to sell their fish to the wholesalers they despise, the family grandfather dies and personal relationships in the village sour as the family are ostracized. The bailiffs evict them from their home and the family are mired in poverty worse than ever before. The film finishes with 'Ntoni giving into the wholesalers' demands and putting to sea with another crew so that he can support the family. Visconti's conclusion would appear to be that an improvement in the fishermen's lot will only happen if they all unite and throw off the control exerted by the wholesalers. The fact that nobody follows 'Ntoni's example dooms him to ruin, but the film honors his noble efforts for trying. It's hardly the triumphant victory over the bosses that the communist party wanted, but the conclusion catches just the right note of defiant nobility that Visconti was aiming for.
La Terra Trema may be based on a novel with the central story of class rebellion and there is a hint of melodrama as Visconti digs for an audience reaction to the plight of the Valastros, but that is as far as artificial manipulation from the film-makers goes, Visconti's spoken narration putting everything at a correct distance. The film is mostly devoted to simply recording the everyday lives of the fishermen. Takes tend to be lengthy, long shots of the sea dominating your memory long after the film finishes, especially those famous shots of women on the rocks awaiting their men to come back from the storm, the silhouettes standing out strikingly against the white background of the sky. Visconti is not afraid to employ medium close-ups for action sequences depicting the fishermen fighting. Fades and dissolves are deployed judiciously to give the impression of time passing slowly, languidly. 'Ntoni's youngest brother watches his elders fight and their tragedy echoes silently and with great effect across his face and the faces of other children in the village. Visconti never underlines or exaggerates emotions as he was prone to do in his later more operatic works. Instead we have beautiful images of noble despair as the Valastros battle against the elements and the society of the village. 'Ntoni's brother Cola shows a different response to the poverty trap by choosing to leave for the rich North. This exodus from poverty was an avenue Visconti was later to explore in Rocco and his Brothers (1960) where a similar family mired in poverty migrate north to try their luck in Milan. By that time though, Visconti had turned his back on neorealism. He may have spoken of Rocco and his Brothers being a sequal to La Terra Trema, but the film-making styles are really poles apart. I strongly urge anyone interested at all in neorealism and the origins of cinematic modernism to buy this film and see what the fuss is all about. Initial viewing expectations might be dark and grim, but believe me, once seen, this is a film you'll never forget.
"La Terra Trema," an epic account of the hardship suffered by Sicilian fishermen, was even closer to Neo-realism, shot on location with a cast of nonprofessional actors living their lives on screen... Its somewhat simplistic Marxist message, that the peasants' real enemy was not Nature but exploitive businessmen, was in fact less indicative of Visconti's future and its use of a disintegrating family to mirror the social climate of Italy as a whole...
The conflicts, misery, poverty, joy, and anger in a fishing village are shown in a panoramic study of man and earth...
'The Earth will Tremble' is not political nor intends to teach... The film reveals... it doesn't judge...
The cinematography is outstanding, particularly the scenes with the fishermen at sea...