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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Luchino Visconti, Ossessione (1943)

Visconti's stunning feature debut transposes The Postman Always Rings Twice to the endless, empty lowlands of the Po Delta. There, an itinerant laborer (Massimo Girotti) stumbles into a tatty roadside trattoria and an emotional quagmire. Seduced by Clara Calamai, he disposes of her fat, doltish husband (Juan De Landa), and the familiar Cain litany - lust, greed, murder, recrimination - begins. Ossessione is often described as the harbinger of neo-realism, but the pictorial beauty (and astute use of music, often ironically) are pure Visconti, while the bleak view of sexual passion poaches on authentic noir territory, steeped, as co-scriptwriter Giuseppe De Santis put it, 'in the air of death and sperm' (SJo in TimeOut, London)

Here the filmmaker is intent on his subject, though his shaky visuals feel looser, as if another subject wandering into frame could suddenly lead us to a tangential narrative. In the opening scene, the camera shimmers in the point-of-view of an approaching streetcar, but the quakes remain on stable ground when characters appear. The visual style of this classic trend-setter now feels customary, as if the Neo-Realists could anticipate the extensive hand-held docudrama tradition to follow them. Visconti’s long takes accentuate the style all the more; shorter takes would only chip away at the truth (Matthew Sorrento in Pop Matters)

Before bursting into the Italian movies of postwar years, Neorealism had been but a concept developed within a group of film thinkers. It was during the end of 1930's / beginning of 1940's, and the group included Visconti, Zavattini, De Santis, Ingrao, among others, all of them revolving around the magazine Cinema (whose editor-in-chief was Vittorio Mussolini, the son of Il Duce - history enjoys sometimes playing ironically, all those guys having strong antifascist convictions). What preoccupied these young film thinkers was the crisis of the Italian cinematography (maybe a sign of a much larger crisis throughout the society). The Italian movies of the epoch were not telling anything consistent to the viewer, being totally disconnected from reality, placed in an artificial universe - the historic superproductions and the Telefoni Bianchi comedies. So Visconti and the others were looking for ways to revitalize the cinema, inspired by the Verist traditions of Italian literature, as well as by the Poetic Realist French movies of the 1930's (in synch with the leftist sympathies of the guys around Cinema, by the way).

Ossessione was a collective project implying these Cinema guys: a laboratory to test their ideas, a proof of concept. As film director and co-scenarist, Visconti was the main guy in this enterprise. The other co-scenarists were Mario Alicata, Eduardo De Santis and Gianni Puccini (together with Alberto Moravia and Antonio Pietrangeli - these two remaining in the end uncredited).

Visconti had firstly in mind to adapt a novel by Giovanni Verga, the great don of Verismo; well, the censorship of Il Duce said no: the story revolved around Sicilian bandits - it would have been too much for a regime petrified in his adoration for the dictator. So Visconti turned to an American policier written by James Cain: The Postman Always Rings Twice (he had read it in a French translation - a copy that seemingly had been given to him by Jean Renoir: Visconti had been his assistant sometime in the 1930's). And a story so Americana became a story very à l'italienne, placed in a sordid inn on the road to Ferrara. And a demonstration in full force of how should Neorealism look like. A shabby inn with shabby owners, attracting only mediocre clients, everything around is just sordid: the people, their dreams, their reactions. Even the landscape becomes sordid, as it is viewed through the eyes of these small unimportant people. The tragedy of a total lack of perspective. A world enclosed in itself.

An interesting character (who is not in Cain's novel) comes in the movie at a certain moment, to propose just a perspective, the possibility of getting free from that sordid world: it is Lo Spagnolo (Elio Marcuzzo) who believes that roads aren't just for making love, and life is not just about making some money (there is a radical approach in this character, beyond his nice appearance, and maybe he speaks actually in the name of the filmmaker - think at other similar characters in his other movies, with radical approaches,  for instance Ciro Parondi from Rocco e i suoi fratelli). This Lo Spagnolo brings a balance, an air of liberation, in the small universe of the others. Anyway, people around him are too weak to get free of themselves. It is also a homosexual suggestion in this personage (which maybe shouldn't be a surprise in Visconti's complex universe).

Was Ossessione the first Neorealist movie? There had been earlier movies (like some made by Alessandro Blasetti) that presented the same style; but the movie of Visconti was the first made programmatically Neorealist, the first being totally aware of his appurtenance.

The life of this movie was as dramatic as the movie itself. The fascist regime banned Ossessione immediately, and destroyed the copies. Fortunately Visconti succeeded to keep a duplicate negative. On the other hand, as the movie had been made in 1943, the director could not get the American copyright for the novel, due to the war situation. That was why after the war the international distribution of this movie was banned, a situation that would be solved only much later, in 1976.

(Luchino Visconti)



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