Luchino Visconti on DVD: Ossessione and La Terra TremaMassimo Girotti and Clara Calamai in Ossessione
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Luchino Visconti, aka Count don Luchino Visconti di Mondrone, was born in 1906 and died seventy years later at age 69. Visconti was a man of warring impulses -- a privileged aesthete who became a Marxist; a gay man who kept his gay characters mostly in subtext; a habitué of Paris salons, painter, and breeder of racehorses whose groundbreaking work in gritty neorealism occupied Italian -- and later international -- screens with themes of poverty, class exploitation, and social breakdown. Like Pasolini and Fellini, despite his pedigree, Visconti was conversant enough with the hardscrabble life of the working-class Italian to seem virtually a part of it; like Fellini, he would eventually drift far from this early work, moving from the grit and grimness of the poor and oppressed to more self-indulgent visions, in his case an ongoing chronicle of the decadence of the upper classes.

Visconti made only 14 features in his career, along with a few contributions to omnibus movies such as Boccaccio 70, but access to them has been surprisingly spotty given his generally high standing in film history. His first feature, Ossessione (1942), was initially banned by a scandalized Church and fascist censors. Visconti appealed to Mussolini, who is reported to have liked Ossessione and passed it with a few cuts. Eventually, the fascists took possession of the negative, cut it drastically, and eventually destroyed it. However, Visconti had squirreled away an incomplete duplicate of the negative (135 minutes rather than 140), which is the source of later prints. Adapted without permission from the James M. Cain novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, Ossessione was not shown in the U.S. until the mid-1970s due to copyright infringement. Now that it's been released on DVD by Image Entertainment, in a transfer that is better than previously seen versions if not really worthy of the film, Ossessione can be seen as the seminal work it is.

Widely considered superior to the two American versions, Ossessione remains true to the book's bleak vision despite some fundamental changes in the characters and events, along with some purely Italian provincial touches, such as a wonderfully detailed local opera competition.

Set in Northern Italy near the Po River, Ossessione features a classic doomed love triangle. Gino (Massimo Girotti) is a dreamy-eyed young drifter who works for a middle-aged, boorish innkeeper, Giuseppe (Juan de Landa), whose younger, "bought" bride, the smoldering Giovanna (Clara Calamai), hates her husband and refers to herself as "a poor wretch." Gino and Giovanna begin a steamy affair barely outside Giuseppe's notice, unable to control their emotions. Gino attempts to leave, guilty because Giuseppe has been kind to him. He takes up with another drifter, a street magician named Spagnolo (Elio Marcuzzo) who tries to lure him away from Giovanna but fails. When they meet again through happenstance, Gino and Giovanna murder her husband in an engineered car wreck. From there the action takes them slowly, inexorably to their fate.

Ossessione, with its barren landscapes, driven characters, and sexual frankness, is rightly credited as the pioneering work of neorealism. One of the most striking aspects of this is the unabashed lust with which Visconti treats the illicit relationship. Giovanna's repulsion for her husband ("When he touches me with those fat hands I would like to scream!") is as intense as her desire for Gino, who matches Giovanna's furtive, desperate glances and powerful body language with his own. Yet Giovanna is no cardboard villainess; despite being the spur Gino needs to carry out her husband's murder, Visconti conjures sympathy for her in scenes where she poignantly describes the limits of her life, how she came to Giuseppe out of desperation to avoid the poverty and prostitution that so often claim her class. She also attains a kind of transcendence when she has the chance (and makes the threat) to frame Gino for the murder but doesn't take it. Gino is an idealized, iconic male familiar in the Visconti canon, a sensually handsome dreamer pulled into a world he doesn't really want but that he can't turn away from. Visconti wrings more pathos from Gino than Cain did from Frank, the original for this character. Whereas Frank was somewhat willing to participate in murder, Gino is portrayed as almost a naïf, so that his fall is more precipitous and more distressing than that of Frank.

Ossessione also excels in a more taboo realm. The friendship of Gino and Spagnolo is subtly portrayed as a one-way gay romance in scenes such as the one where the two men are together in bed and Spagnolo strikes a match to lovingly survey Gino's face as he sleeps. Visconti adds depth to the film by portraying Spagnolo as a symbolic alternative to Giovanna, a true drifter who ultimately represents a better choice than Giovanna, who portends disaster. More evidence of the film's frankness when seen against the American film versions comes in the unblinkingly brutal scene of Giovanna's death, which is also the brutal end of the film.

The DVD of Ossessione is, as mentioned, better than previous versions but not perfect. There's some obvious print damage and scattered flecking, but enough general clarity of image and sound. As usual with Image Entertainment's versions of classic films, there are no extras. But given the rarity of the film itself, it might sound ungrateful (if not ridiculous) to wish for a "making of" featurette or extensive commentaries.

Released at the same time as Ossessione is another rare early Visconti, the 1948 La Terra Trema ("The Earth Trembles"). This time the setting is Aci Trezza, a Sicilian fishing town controlled by exploitative wholesalers who keep the fishermen at subsistence living. One young man, 'Ntoni, tries to fight this unfair system by buying a boat and selling the catch directly to the fish market. But fate intervenes in the form of a storm that destroys the boat and along with it his, and his family's, dreams of independence and justice.

Based on Visconti's vision of a peasant uprising and planned as the first of a three-part trilogy that never materialized, La Terra Trema is a lesser achievement than Ossessione but also a purer example of neorealism. With striking location photography, an obscure Sicilian dialect, and an entire cast of nonprofessional actors, it reeks of authenticity. Visconti himself said of the film, "The story grew from day to day, following the more or less logical order of a scenario that was more often than not suggested to me by the actors themselves." The actors were actual fishermen and their families from Aci Trezza, and their presence gives a freshness and directness, despite some formulaic reactions and draggy moments, that sets the film apart. According to the director, these novices "provided me with every episode in the film." Originally backed by money from the Communist party, the film quickly ran over budget thanks to Visconti's ambitions, but was saved by a new producer and the resourcefulness of the people of Aci Trezza.

La Terra Trema accomplishes what Visconti set out to do, to record the struggle of working-class people against their oppressors, and it does so with skill. The film has no illusions about happy endings in such struggles, though it endorses the struggles as right and necessary. Yet despite the film's bald polemical thrust, there are also indications that Visconti is engaged in his own struggle, to express more timeless themes. This is seen to strong effect in the storm sequence, which occurs offscreen. The camera surveys the town's roiling coastline, with tiny figures scurrying desperately along a backdrop of gigantic crashing waves, signaling the dire threat to 'Ntoni and his family-crew somewhere in open waters. Thus the film solidly balances its polemic on human rights with a realization that larger, natural forces are also in constant operation, representing greater threats against humanity than do people.

The DVD of La Terra Trema is presented as a complete director's cut. Like Ossessione, it's a watchable transfer, with some clarity, but it is compromised by a harsh, contrasty look that doesn't do justice to Visconti's sometimes breathtaking compositions.

Ossessione and La Terra Trema are now available on DVD from Image Entertainment. Suggested retail price: $24.99 each. For more information, check out the Image Entertainment Web site.

Gary Morris is editor and publisher of Bright Lights Film Journal ( He writes regularly on film for the Bay Area Reporter and the SF Weekly ( and is the author of a 1985 monograph on Roger Corman (Twayne Publishers).


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