Article abstract: Visconti helped create the neorealist movement in Italian cinema, by which Italians came to grips with the post-World War II world.
Don Luchino Visconti, count of Modrone, was born to one of Milan’s and Italy’s illustrious families, a fact that shaped his sensibilities and his films. Already artistic as a boy, he studied music and set design. From 1936 to 1940, Visconti assisted film director Jean Renoir in Paris. From 1945 to 1948, he introduced many plays by young European playwrights, particularly Jean Cocteau, at Rome’s Teatro Eliseo. Thus he refined the art of directing actors to portray their characters as moving naturally through the time and place of the plot. In France Visconti adopted the politics of the French Popular Front against the Nazis, later joining the Italian resistance movement. In 1944 he escaped a Nazi death sentence for concealing escaped Allied prisoners and Italian partisans in his villa.
Under fascism (1928-1944), Italian film had leaned toward politically harmless, lavish costume period pieces and escapist comedies. The new social perspectives resulting from the fascist period and World War II fostered a national awakening to real problems that had endured since the Risorgimento, Italy’s unification movement of the 1860’s. Visconti became a leader among a group of intellectuals who wrote for the journal Cinema and who espoused a mix of realistic cinematic ideas that came to be known as neorealism. The term applies to many Italian films made between 1943 and 1971.
While neorealism dealt with Italian social problems during the immediate postwar period by means of real-life, even sordid, plots (its content), it was important, too, for its new cinematic aesthetics (its form): on-location shooting rather than studio sets and use of nonprofessional actors and documentary effects in which screen time reflected actual time. It became “a way of seeing reality without prejudice.”
Visconti was a prime theoretician and practitioner of neorealism. His films were characterized, moreover, by a visual richness often enhanced by gorgeous, evocative music. Though he outwardly espoused Marxism after World War II, he remained an aristocrat who harbored a paternalistic affection for the poor and whose most natural instinct was to enjoy their respect while assisting them in their needs and problems.
Visconti’s first film, Ossessione (obsession), based on James Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), appeared in 1942. This masterpiece helped establish the neorealist intellectual and aesthetic atmosphere. Indeed, the term was first used in the Rome review Il Film (June, 1943) to describe Ossessione. Three main characters propel the story, set in a wayside trattoria. Giovanna is tragically made to be used and cast aside. Bragana, her husband, is disgustingly unattractive but likeable. Gino, the lover, has used Giovanna without love but is full of guilt for betraying Bragana’s kindness. Now persuaded to kill Bragana, he is over his head in a relationship with a woman he does not want. After the murder, which is officially regarded as an accident, pregnant Giovanna realizes she is not loved. Ironically, when Giovanna dies in a true auto accident, Gino is accused of murder. Visconti intrudes no moral judgment but allows “the wages of sin” theme to play itself out as the inevitable end of such an affair. In Italian cinema up to that time, raw passion and sex were nonexistent; bourgeois life was staid and stable. Visconti showed restlessness, adultery, and tragedy. It was the revelation of an Italy of poverty and suffering very different from what previous films had portrayed. Yet its characters were not protestors; rather, their passion was part of the poetry of real life.
La Terra Trema (1948; The Earth Trembles) was Visconti’s next film. The talk of the 1948 Venice Festival, the film is, perhaps, the masterpiece of neorealism. Set in the Sicilian fishing village of Aci Trezza, it was intended by Visconti to be the first of a trilogy (fishermen, miners, and peasants) that was never completed. In nearly textbook neorealist style, the film has a documentary mood, using for its cast only the fishermen of Aci Trezza. Visconti himself described how his film virtually made itself. Every day he would tell the peasants what events were to be filmed, then incorporated their spontaneous reactions into the script, which thus evolved as the film progressed. According to the director, “They put what I asked them to say into their own words.” Visconti kept their actual voices—and Sicilian dialect—introducing subtitles to translate the Sicilian where necessary to the plot. He also editorialized by means of an objective-sounding (but actually Marxist) voice-over narrative in Italian.
The theme of La Terra Trema is the misery of the working class, which serves an archaic sociopolitical system that does not serve it in...
(The entire section is 2083 words.)