Terra Trema


posted to www.marxmail.org on January 26, 2005


"Terra Trema" tells the story of the Valastro family, who live in the impoverished fishing village of Trezza in Sicily. It stars Antonio Arcidiacono as 'Ntonio, the eldest son and chief income provider. Like the rest of the cast, Arcidiacono was not a professional actor.
The film was shot in the actual village of Trezza and has the kind of grittiness one might expect from a neorealist film. However, the film also incorporates languorous views of the sea and the village streets that suggest an entirely different and riper esthetic. The screenplay is based on "I Malavoglia," a 19th century novel written by Giovanni Verga, who also wrote "Cavalleria Rusticana," upon which the 'verismo' opera was based. This suggests that the film makers were as much inspired by late romanticism as they were by more contemporary styles. In addition, the presence of the young Franco Zeffirelli as assistant director must have pushed the film in an even more operatic direction. Some still shots from the film at: http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film/Reviews/terra.htm#t will give you sense of the raw visual beauty of this film, which in many ways supersedes the political message.
"Terra Trema" was intended to be the first in a documentary trilogy produced by the Italian Communist Party. Visconti felt constrained by this format and elected to use Verga's novel as the basis for a more theatrical production. However, in his voice-over narration, Visconti made sure that viewer got the message. In perhaps an overly obtrusive fashion--the result of his own youth and his Communist commitment--Visconti continually reminds us of how unjust class society is.
While the film was shaped by Marxist politics, there is little in the way of facile propaganda about what workers can do when they unite. 'Ntonio is a tragic victim of his own overconfidence in the possibility of class solidarity. The fishermen of Trezza do not own their own boats, but work for pittance wages advanced by the local wholesalers. He decides that the answer is to bypass them and sell directly to the retail markets. After taking out a mortgage on his house to buy his own boat, he is ruined after a storm batters the boat beyond repair. The final hour of the film tells the grim downfall of the Valastros, as they are reduced to crime, drunkenness and physical collapse brought on by the loss of their livelihood.
The village of Trezza is not really a place where one might expect to see advanced class consciousness to begin with. When 'Ntonio decides to buck the system, other fishermen condemn him for breaking with tradition. In the final scenes, the villagers practically bow to the local countess who has given them the gift of a few boats. While Visconti certainly hates the existing system, there is a sense that it might be permanent.
Although he was always a leftist, there is a sense of fatalism mixed with nostalgia for the past that exists in other of his films dealing with class society. In "The Leopard," his 1963 masterpiece, we feel a kind of pity for the fallen aristocrat Prince Salina (played by Burt Lancaster) despite the clear message that the feudal class deserved to be overthrown. Since Visconti himself came from the landed gentry, he was probably more keenly aware of how social change impacted his class.
Visconti died in 1976. A 2003 retrospective of his films in London prompted an article on his career in the Guardian, which included these interesting background details:
"Count Don Luchino Visconti di Modrone was born in Milan in 1906, into one of the most important aristocratic families in Italy. His father, the Duke of Modrone, was a man of many extravagant houses, a famous bisexual, a lover of the queen of Italy; Visconti's mother was a member of a hugely wealthy family in the pharmacy and cosmetics business. By the early years of the second world war, with both parents dead and an older brother killed at El Alamein, Visconti was probably the wealthiest man ever who elected to become a film and stage director.
"The Arena documentary shows us some of the houses - and the ways they were used in subsequent films - and leaves us in no doubt about the emotional importance to Visconti of distinction, property and command. He was a man who needed fine things, who kept many servants (and kept them in their place), who believed passionately in money, property and the poignant situation of an upper class inevitably seeming more archaic or stranded. All of these conservative attitudes were bound up with the life of a homosexual who was not initially comfortable about revealing himself.
"As a young man, Visconti dabbled in painting and collecting, but his greatest enthusiasm lay in the breeding and racing of fine horses. His life had been sheltered; he moved and travelled with the ease of great wealth. But then in 1936, a trip to Paris seems to have woken him up. Through the agency of fashion designer Coco Chanel, he fell in with the circle of Jean Renoir. It was a startling encounter. Perhaps Visconti bought his way into a troubled production, but he became an assistant to Renoir on Une Partie de Campagne , and then on Les Bas-Fonds . And in his talks with the Renoir group (very much leftwing), somehow, magically, the count discovered that he was a communist. He visited the US too, around this time, but with far less reward."
"La Terra Trema" is available in DVD. If one has patience for its length (160 minutes) and its grim narrative, you will be rewarded by ravishing cinematography and compelling performances by an amateur cast.