La Terra Trema is a major achievement for Visconti, Neo-realism, character blocking mise-en-scene and 1940’s cinema
It is Visconti’s second film (a long delay) after 1943’s Ossessione (what a 1-2 punch to start a career). One a major film in noir, another a major film in neo-realism
There’s a preface—titles explaining these are non-professional actors and that although this one is specific to this one family in Sicily, that “…every year in every country – men oppress other men”. This is a damning indictment of capitalism, a meditation on greed, but also to tie to many of Bunuel’s works as well- a statement about the inherent nature of man
Omniscient narration – and certainly is driving home Visconti’s thesis on the oppression— tends to lead the witness a bit so to speak but like von Trier decades later in something like Dogville is effective at hammering the point home
On-location shooting may seem commonplace in the 21st century but in 1948 this location as character- this fishing town, absolutely essential to the film, atmosphere, and imagery— hundreds of men pulling nets ashore. Extras, scope—along the beach
“We’re donkeys doing all the hard work” – “The sea is better” “12 hours of work is not enough to avoid starvation”. “There existence is a hopeless slavery” while a lazy man paid by the state ogling young girls. Visconti is not subtle.
Yes there are characters and the characters have names—but these are mostly symbols and Visconti borrows a bit from Eisenstein’s ensemble theory—Eisenstein’s use of the collective as a character. And this is intentional to the art—and political
Early on the camera slowly tracks around a crowd of bartering and haggling. Visconti stays on them for an uncomfortable amount of time- using duration as a tool—then he pulls the camera back and shows the rows and rows (great landscape shots) of the beach all doing the same
It’s not quite like Rossellini’s use of post WWII rubble in Germany Year Zero but Visconti uses the debris here as well
Long shots of the shores, boats, crowds —- 160 minute film
Visconti’s greatest visual triumph is the blocking and framing of characters in the mise-en-scene—there are countless magnificent tableau shots – one at 40 minutes has the mother cooking in the background framed by the door and the daughter in the front right working away. Painterly.
It’s not quite Ozu (what is?) but Visconti brilliantly layers the character and family members throughout the house at different depths of field
The realism in a small fishing town (with painterly compositions) is clearly an influence on Varda’s 1955 film La Pointe Courte
Another strong stand-alone image is the women in black scattered among the rocks looking out to sea for their men when are missing
frame at 92 minutes— staggered in the frame are three evil merchants. 1 minute later we get the reverse image, the family spread out (camera farther away to get them all in) and looking tragic.
The narrative is compellingly devastating– this poor family is up against a rigged deck (both men and God’s weather) — such a cold world—dark- the scene of the bank taking their house with the young and old sitting there is hard to watch
It isn’t just about the compositions either—Visconti can move the camera—at 118 minutes w start with a close-up shot of the sick Grandpa— and then Visconti peels back the camera, tracks with two characters talking to reveal the Grandma and Grandson in the open door
Poverty drives the daughter to prostitute herself out to the marshal, the son Cola moves away, the Ntoni (main character) turns into a drunk
It is a family saga—epic and specific at the same time. A powerful portrait of a family in decline. “One by one the braches of the tree dry out and fall” with the gut-wrenching shot of them escaping the town through the fence in the middle of the night—torturous
Ends with the daughter putting the family picture back on the mantle and then Ntoni going back to work at the bottom and having to grovel (after being ridiculed) and we’re rowing the boat in the sea. The sound carries longer than the image as we fade to black. Tremendous