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...
(The entire section is 1490 words.)