Director: Luchino Visconti
Writer:Antonio Pietrangeli and Luchino Visconti
Cinematographer: Aldo Graziati
by Jon Cvack
Easily one of the best classic films I’ve seen all year, La Terra Trema is Luchino Visconti’s class conscious film about a small fishing village, Aci Trezza, economically stymied by the merchants who pay slave wages, keeping the townsfolk in abject poverty. The majority of the cast was pulled from the Sicilian village where it was filmed, and yet you’d never know you’re watching non-actors, with the people so embodying the film’s spirit it’s as though they’re of the highest training. The lead in particular, Ntoni (Antonio Arcidiacano), is so good that I had to double check that this guy was a non-actor. The story is very much a Marxist tale, in which the proletariat finally rise up and challenge the bourgeoisie owners. As the final image conveys, it’s exploring life in a post-Mussolini world, as communism triumphed only hundreds of miles away, not yet demonstrating its own terrors or obstacles. If you wish to see a film that embodies the Communist Manifesto look no further.
Ntoni and his brothers are continuing the family’s long tradition as local fishermen, who head out every morning before dawn, facing the tumultuous weather day in and day out, working twelve hours a day, without weekends, without vacation, without any way to save money, forced to live in the same house, sharing bedrooms with their fathers and grandfathers and mothers and brothers. In an era when half of Americans have less than a thousand dollars in their savings accounts, this film shows what happens when there’s little opportunity beyond fishing, forcing all of them to remain in poverty, with little to dream about beyond. The only other job is construction in which Ntoni’s sister, Lucia (Agnese Giammona), is attracted to a local bricklayer, whose precarious employment leads him drifting across the country, never certain where the next job will end or when he’ll return. Her only hope for escape exists in the town sheriff Don Salvatore (Rosario Galvagno), who’s twice her age and excessively creepy.
Every day, the fisherman bring their catch to the piers where the merchants pay them pennies on the dollar for what will sell for numerous times the value. None of the fishers seem to question the practice, accepting the Sisyphean life as inescapable. That is, until Ntoni finally reaches his breaking point, thinking he could challenge the merchants’ practice by selling straight to the market instead. He decides to mortgage the family house, recruiting his friends and brothers. The idea is honorable, but the practice is challenging. Ntoni quickly discover that the endeavor is far easier said than done, and after investing most of the money into salting materials to preserve their catch, a botched job destroys thousands of fish, leaving nothing to sell, and nothing to pay the bank. The family is shamed and laughed at. How stupid to have assumed they could’ve changed precedent. Ntoni, in particular, is ostracized, considered a supreme fool for even considering the strategy.
Given 99 Homes and The Big Short’s examination of the housing crisis, it was fascinating to see a similar exploration in a film that’s deriding capitalism, made across the world, and nearly seventy years prior. Unable to pay back the loan with their slave wages, the bank forecloses on their home; the one asset they have, forcing the family out and into the streets. Although Lucia is forewarned against getting too close to Don Salvatore, desperation drives her closer, sacrificing her youth and innocence for the superficial gifts of the town’s one burgher. Shamed, Ntoni is no longer welcome on the piers, regressing to a life on the streets, taking up with hoodlums, trying to find a way to escape the vicious spiral down. The bank has no concern for what could be paid back. The load defaulted and it’s now on them to hand over the keys. I was floored by the film’s prescient, and again, given 99 Homes entire plot revolving around this exact feature, which Visconti was clearly comparing to fascism, makes you hopeless. So little has improved. No, Americans are not living in such destitution, but the problem of advancement and doing better than your parents or prior generations is just as relevant. It’s eerie to consider that, while American poverty lines have been raised, we’re still dealing with the issue of many being unable to save, along with paid wages that require one to bounce from paycheck to paycheck, one professional or health catastrophe away from being tossed into the streets.
Eventually, the clouds part, and Ntoni returns to the docks, seeking work, and returning to the life that he had before pursuing his entrepreneurial endeavor. He is the butte of laughter, known for having destroyed the family name, and sending them all to the streets, with the family now living in a shack by the seaside, unable to save a nickel to get their house back. In the film’s final scene, as Ntoni is signing up to return to the piers, wearing the one torn up sweater that he owns, Visconti moves the camera from Ntoni to the recruiter to the graffiti of Mussolini's name painted onto the stone wall with below stating, “Go with determination toward people.” Although Italians have escaped his imperious rule, the economics remain the same, with no relief in sight. This is the best Visconti film I’ve seen, showing us the almost cursed life that those in poverty live in. There are no dreams, there are no hopes, there is only the work at the end to provide you the bare minimum. As with many neorealist films, the conclusion is one of hopelessness; offering a particularly tragic conclusion as we follow these characters finding the one glimmer of progress, only to watch it crash and burn before them, with nothing else left to pursue beyond a return to the water. This is an amazing film. One of Italian Neorealism’s best. I can’t believe I’ve never heard of it.
BELOW: Not much on the YouTube front, so here's a documentary about director Luchino Visconti
Thoughts on films, old and new
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