Two milestones of the Italian Neo-realist movement, La Terra Trema and Bellissima, are available for the first time in North America this month from Entertainment One. Both films were directed by Luchino Visconti, a pivotal Neorealist figure, and Bellissima features Anna Magnani, whose earlier appearance in Roberto Rossellini’s masterpiece Rome, Open City has distinguished her as one of the Italian post-war period’s most vibrant and memorable performers.
La Terra Trema (“The Earth Trembles”) is one of the earliest examples of Neo-realism, which characterized itself in counterpoint to the gloss and standardized artificiality of assembly-line Hollywood productions with a more acute emphasis on the lives of the working class, typically depicted with stylized detachment, but with an occasionally overzealous sentimental compassion. La Terra Trema’s story concerns the Velascos, a family stricken by poverty, trying desperately to survive under an exploitative feudal system that pits wealthy merchants against starving fishermen. The oldest Velasco brother, Ntoni, resolves to organize a rebellion that will challenge the system, but the only way to cover the necessary expenditures is to mortgage his family’s home. Naturally, this doesn’t work out, and the entire family must suffer the consequences of Ntoni’s display of revolutionary spirit.
Like many post-war Italian films made outside the studio system, La Terra Trema was shot with an entirely non-professional cast, and it suffered upon its original release in Italy because the dialogue was recorded in Sicilian. As an awkward solution to this, there is an imposed narration track in Italian that basically explains periodically what just happened and what the characters were just talking about in Sicilian. Aside from this, the film is beautifully crafted, but like many entries in the Neo-realist canon, it’s extremely long, and very depressing. Neo-realist filmmakers felt a deep-seated desire to protest the lingering stench of Fascism that had recently decimated their country, and their films often fixate on the tragic struggle of the poor, with results that are poignant, but sometimes feel overblown and manipulative. Unlike most Neorealist directors, however, Visconti has always been a big fan of cinematography, and La Terra Trema is gorgeously photographed, presaging the director’s later shift to ornate historical epics.
Likewise addressing themes dear to the Neo-realist consciousness, Visconti’s later film Bellissima features Anna Magnani as a domineering working class mother determined to turn her five-year-old daughter into a film star. Visconti uses the narrative as a platform both to bitterly criticize the superficiality and moral indifference of the mainstream film industry, and to concentrate attention on the frail innocence of underprivileged children, as was pretty much standard for filmmakers associated with the movement. The result is an odd hybrid between Neo-realist conventions and women’s genre films, which is not entirely unsuccessful, but is hurt mainly by a series of odd and jarring tonal shifts, and a reluctance to commit to being either a stylized human comedy or a sober reflection on the falsity of escapist entertainment.
Both films have been re-mastered and restored and look gorgeous, particularly La Terra Trema, with its relentless panoramic shots of the beaches, harbors and coves surrounding the fishing village. There are unfortunately no special features on either of the discs except trailers, but both movies have been extremely difficult to locate for decades in North America, so I’m guessing anyone with a serious interest in film history is likely not to care. Visconti is an important filmmaker, and La Terra Trema in particular is one of the earliest and most quintessential Neo-realist films ever produced, helping to spark and nurture a grittier and more consciously aware approach to filmmaking that continues to influence cinematic storytelling to this day. As cultural artifacts, his contributions remain invaluable, even if casual viewers may sometimes find them difficult to penetrate.
La Terra Trema: