Home Video Hovel- La Terra Trema
Any cinephile seeking to broaden his knowledge of film will eventually come across the Italian Neo-realist movement. The movement gave us some of history’s finest films, and had an incalculable influence on the medium forever. Unfortunately, when one delves deeper into the neo-realist movement, they will find it increasingly difficult to find many of the films of this seminal movement. Those that are available on DVD are often poorly translated and transferred, some are still only available on VHS (I had to watch De Sica’s Sciuscia on a tape that had a few seconds of “Thundercats” taped over the middle of the movie), and some are still completely unavailable. It is exciting to see that a newly transferred version of Luchino Visconti’s La Terra Trema has been released through Entertainment One.
The Italian Neo-realist movement was stylistically about stripping down the artifice and glitzy trappings from the medium of film. It was one of the first to shoot on location, and often employed non-actors, hoping to achieve a more gritty, honest approach. Their stories and themes took their cues from the post-WWII climate in Italy. They feature the poor and marginalized, and often center around their (often hopeless) struggles to escape their poverty. Naturally, this went hand in hand with the Marxist movement, and many of the Italian Neo-realists strongly sympathize with the workers and their “exploitation” by the upper classes.
Luchino Visconti’s film Ossessione is considered by many to be the first of the Neo-realist films. La Terra Trema was Visconti’s follow-up film, and is classic example of the movement, both in style and substance. It follows the Valastro family of fishermen (all played by real-life Sicilian fishermen) who decide to take their business into their own hands instead of working for the greedy merchants. The family has lost a father to the sea, and the eldest son Ntoni is now at the head of the household. Ntoni feels that they are being cheated by the merchants, and that if they were to try and sell their fish themselves, they could be rich. He convinces the family to mortgage their house to get enough money to buy their own boat.
At their first trip out, the family has a wildly successful catch, and it seems that their risk has paid off. But shortly afterwards their boat is wrecked in a storm, and though everyone survives, they are now without any means to continue as independent fishermen. The vindictive merchants also refuse to pay a reasonable price for the fish from their earlier successful catch. With the Valastros over a barrel and unable to provide for themselves otherwise, the merchants watch them twist in the wind until they finally give in, selling their catch for a fraction its worth. It still isn’t enough to pay off the mortgage, and the Valastros finally find themselves back where they started, with far less to show for it.
La Terra Trema was shot on location in Aci Trezza, Sicily. Visconti was originally commissioned by the communist party to shoot a documentary about fishermen, and he decided to instead shoot a narrative film, partially based on Giovanni Verga’s novel I Malavoglia. The themes of workers’ exploitation and revolution are clearly evident in the film, even though Ntoni ultimately finds defeat. It is a strong and emotional story, if sometimes dipping into melodrama. We truly identify with the struggle of the Valastros. The women of the Valastro family become particularly empathetic characters in the film, especially in the way they are quietly powerless in the face of so many outside forces. They worry if Ntoni’s plan will work, they worry whether they will be able to sell their bounteous catch, and they worry on a regular basis whether their sons and brothers will even return from the sea. The character of Maria, Ntoni’s younger sister, is specifically one whose stiff upper lip through this adversity is heart-breaking. It is amazing to remember that all of these characters are played by non-actors.
Stylistically, Visconti’s camera eschews elaborate sets for breathtaking vistas of the Ionian Sea. Considering Neo-realism’s commitment to gritty, realistic images, there is still an artistry to the shots and framing. Visconti shows beauty even in squalor. He does this without undercutting his message about the poverty of the setting. Elaborate tracking shots past a beach full of fishing boats are beautiful, but when they follow a destitute Ntoni, literally begging for work, they hit hard.
This DVD is a welcome re-issue of a classic film. The 2002 Image release of La Terra Trema came from a messy transfer (both in sound and picture quality) and the subtitles were almost an afterthought. One of the most frustrating experiences as a lover of world cinema is to watch a film with bad subtitles. The subtitles on this new release are easy to read, and don’t leave the viewer feeling like they’re missing important bits of dialogue. Unfortunately, this DVD comes with no special features. There is an Italian special edition 2 disc release on the market that has limited special features, so there’s at least something out there. Considering the film’s interesting history and process, it’s somewhat disappointing that a re-release of the film hasn’t sought these out.
All told, this is a great work of cinema by one of the medium’s masters. I would recommend it for anyone interested in film, and it’s certainly a must-see for anyone interested in Italian Neo-realism. The communist themes may be off-putting to some, but it isn’t a militant, angry panegyric on Marxism (films such as De Sica’s Miracle in Milan are much more overtly communist). It’s at heart a realistic story about the difficult everyday life of poor Sicilian fishermen, and its style gives us unique insight into that world.