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Friday, November 17, 2017
Luchino Visconti | La Terra Trema (The Earth Trembles)
by Douglas Messerli
Antonio Pietrangeli and Luchino Visconti (writers, based on the novel by Giovanni Verga, I Malavoglia), Luchino Visconti (director) La Terra Trema (The Earth Trembles) / 1948, USA 1957
It’s hard to comprehend at times what director Luchino Visconti was truly trying to say in his 1948 film, La Terra Trema, loosely based on Giovanni Verga’s 1881 novel, I Malavoglia. It, at first, seems to want to make a case for the poor, often starving fishermen of Aci Trezza, Sicily, concentrating on the Valastro family, who like so many others are tired of being, through intense bidding wars, cheated by the merchants, and left with little money for their intensely difficult labors, which often end in death; the father of the Valastro family has been killed in a fishing incident when ‘Ntoni (Antonio Arcidiacono) and his brothers were younger.
‘Ntoni, in particular, is tired of the merchant-fisherman relationship and, taking a loan on the Valastro stone house, determines to create his own business, buying a boat and selling his catch without the middlemen. At first things proceed nicely, as the brothers catch a large haul of anchovies, the women salting them, and the brothers sharing their considerable profit. There is now even the possibility that ‘Ntoni will be able to marry his lover. So perhaps, we can imagine, that Visconti might be attempting to tell us a heroic story of how one family, surrounded by dozens of others who follow the age-old societal order, can break free of the past and create a better future for their kind.
Yet suddenly, ‘Ntoni and the family are struck down with more bad luck than God had planned for Job. In a storm, their vessel is destroyed; their grandfather suddenly becomes ill and dies; they are forced to leave their home; two of “Ntoni’s brothers are persuaded to escape Sicily to work on the mainland; ‘Ntoni is jailed; and the family is forced to sell its fish for practically nothing. After becoming alcoholic and leading a dissipate life, his sister Lucia giving into the sexual demands of the local military leader, the formerly charming elder brother is forced to return, with his brothers Vanni and Alessio, to work as day laborers, living a life of hard work and near starvation simply in order to survive. End of story. And, did I mention this is all presented as a kind of neo-realist docudrama, using the real villagers as many of the major characters as if to underline the entire reality of this neo-realist piece.
Visconti, as always, presents us with many scenes of beautiful film-making, particularly when the ships return en masse at early morning, their lights that have drawn the fish to them ablaze. There are wonderful vistas of the Sicilian village, women in dark scarves peering down upon the action. The actor who plays ‘Ntoni is handsome and strong, despite all of his personal trials. The eldest daughter, Mara, is forceful presence.
But the movie overall is not only a bleak presentation of life in Sicily, but a testament to the status quo, to a world that will never allow the peasants to become, generation to generation, be anything but passive sufferants. If this movie helps us to sympathize with them, it proffers no hope, and any tears we may shed over their plight seems quite meaningless, since they, themselves—with the exception of ‘Ntoni—seem unwilling to join together to change their conditions. In short, La Terra Trema seems to be a lesson in frustration. Mussolini’s promise to “Go with determination toward people,” which we see scrawled upon a wall in one of the film’s last scenes, has ended in utter disaster. Despite Visconti’s title, it appears the earth has not only failed to tremble but to have even shuddered in slight disgust. I love many of Visconti’s works, but this seems to simply reveal him as a fatalist.