Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1490
With La Terra Trema, Visconti developed the neo-realist approach to a dramatic subject in its most extreme form: the players, the lines they speak, the places they live in, the whole social background and motivation, depart hardly at all from reality….
The basis of the story is Giovanni Verga's novel I Malavoglia—and Visconti's film remains surprisingly true to the letter of this original, however far it departs from it in spirit. I Malavoglia is a detailed and sombre study of the ruin of a family of fishermen, the disasters brought about by their own maladroit attempts to better their condition. "This sincere and dispassionate study", as Verga described it in his preface, seems to have been an end in itself for the novelist. He gives the reader a picture of a certain kind of life, but he is not concerned with suggesting solutions to the problems he raises. Many of the characters and situations of the film, as well as some of the dialogue and some passages in the Italian commentary, come directly from the novel, whose action is also set in the village of Trezza. But in Visconti's film all these elements serve another purpose. The artist is no longer content with the role of the objective, dispassionate observer: rather, he organises the facts of the situation for his own purpose, giving them their central place in his thesis.
Three quarters of a century separate the characters of I Malavoglia from the Valastro family of Visconti's film, and the two works in themselves sum up a period of historical change. Fatalism has given way to a struggle whose ends and means can now be clearly defined. The clearest example of this passage of time, from naturalism to neo-realism, can be found in the shift in the central character (in the novel it is the father, in the film the young nephew) and in the very different attitude he takes. The grandfather, who in the film symbolises the past, is an authentic Verga character. He is all for accepting things as they are; he represents a kind of antiquated "wisdom"; he talks only in proverbs which sound false and meaningless to his young relations….
'Ntoni, the film's hero, is essentially a character developed by Visconti. He is the first to understand the methods of the dealers in the fish market, to realise just how the fishermen are being exploited by these middlemen. Though he makes only clumsy efforts to break the economic stranglehold, though his revolt ends in failure, it would be wrong to regard the film's conclusion as a wholly pessimistic one. La Terra Trema is not just the story of a defeat, but of the lessons learnt from defeat; and if 'Ntoni's ultimate victory has no place within the framework of the film, it is because Visconti has been careful not to anticipate events. 'Ntoni knows why he has failed, as his final dialogue with the little girls makes apparent: he sees clearly what is at stake…. (p. 214)
[The script] defines a pattern of interlocking social and economic forces which set a series of events in motion: once this process is started, the wheels turn automatically, the dramatic devices merely accelerating the working of the machinery. Once the characters and initial situation are established—'Ntoni's revolt, the setting up of the family business, its failure after the storm—the other disasters that strike the Valastros all follow logically and inevitably. The family's slow disintegration is not something imaginatively plotted by the screen-writer; instead, it results from a close analysis of the way in which a society, in a given set of circumstances, will reject those who try to resist its laws. (p. 215)
[The] script owes more to dialectic—to, it could be said, dialectical materialism—than to the working of imagination. It is an object lesson, even if superficially it seems an object lesson in failure. It is not surprising to learn that such a script was composed on the spot, day by day. As Visconti has himself said, it would have been preposterous to write these dialogues in a Roman drawing-room; and, at the same time, only deep and direct knowledge of the subject could make such a narrative feasible.
The film's characters, as a result, have nothing extraordinary about them. That they are put to the service of a particular thesis does not detract from their truth, nor the verisimilitude of what happens to them. They are, essentially, types representative of the society that has created them. (pp. 215-16)
[Visconti] developed neo-realist methods to their extreme limits. The same characteristic appears in the actual technique of the film, at least in the particular rhythm he has given it. This extreme slowness is not simply something designed to give the picture its special grandeur, its almost majestic pace. It may in the end achieve this effect, but its primary purpose is uncompromisingly to re-create the movement of life itself, to give to even the slightest gesture its proper duration and so its due significance and meaning. It should not be deduced from this, however, that the style of the film is a documentary one. La Terra Trema is not simply a fictionalised documentary on the lives of Sicilian fishermen. Its slow pacing, which permits it to explore situations so thoroughly, also serves a dramatic demand….
Visconti, obviously enough, is not concerned only with the daily life of the village but with the moral and social situation of the people of Trezza. The actual work of fishing, for instance, is only suggested; the return of the men, coming back exhausted to their homes or going to the fish market to see what becomes of the fruits of their labour, is described at length. Similarly, when the Valastros and their friends salt their own fish for the first time, the emphasis is on their delight and triumph rather than the work itself.
This method of allowing actions to develop at their natural pace, rather than breaking them up for reconstruction in the cutting room, also indicates the director's steady control over the feelings he wants to express. He never allows emotion to take a free hand; he rejects the tactics by which the cinema habitually magnifies emotion, the underlining through a sharp editing technique. Sentimentality is rigorously excluded, and the film consistently addresses itself to the mind rather than the heart. (This, incidentally, is particularly noticeable in the treatment of the dealers, the exploiters, where the characterisation is wholly free from hatred.) Visconti is not here presenting an impassioned anecdote: he is painting a social fresco on a grand scale. The passion is there, certainly, but it is in the idea rather than its expression, and if the film seems detached it is simply because Visconti has taken that step backwards which enables the artist to see his subject in a true perspective….
Without insisting on the technical skill needed to achieve such depth of focus within the confining walls of the little houses, or the takes lasting several minutes with complex camera movements in three directions, it is important to note that every shot is so designed as to extract the maximum value from its subject. Through this precise, direct composition, the whole setting comes to life for us…. The whole film vibrates with life, and in this sense Visconti makes positive his own statement: "The cinema that interests me is the anthropomorphic cinema"….
Visconti did not want merely to use nonprofessional players: he wanted his film to be acted by the fishermen of Trezza themselves. The distinction is between the usual method of using amateurs, mainly with the object of "deglamorising" the actor, and a method closer to that of documentary. Here again, though, the handling of the actors falls into line with the whole approach of the film: the transition is from pure realism to the most conscious stylistic refinement. (p. 216)
La Terra Trema's claim to greatness finally lies in its wonderful integration of form and content. Its theme, the lesson that experience teaches 'Ntoni, is grafted on to reality, and finds in reality its actual and historical justification. The form of the film is wholly directed towards the exaltation of man, of his pride and courage. The faces and everyday objects, for which Visconti finds so exact a place in the structure of his scenes, are there because of the value he attaches to them. The emotion that he so carefully restrains runs strongly beneath the surface of the action: it is only on leaving the cinema that we realise how deeply we have been moved. And the marvellous face of 'Ntoni reflects the desire to live, and to live justly, that is the essential spirit of the film. He is one of those characters who illuminate the history of the cinema. (p. 223)
Alain Tanner, "Rediscovery (2): 'La terra trema'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1957 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 26, No. 4, Spring, 1957, pp. 213-16, 223.
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