Director: Luchino Visconti
Production: Industrie Cinematografiche Italiane S.A.; black and white, 35mm; running time: 135 minutes originally, other versions are 110 minutes. Released 1942.
Screenplay: Antonio Pietrangeli, Luchino Visconti, Mario Alicata, Giuseppe De Santis, and Gianni Puccini, from the novel The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain; photography: Aldo Tonti and Domenico Scala; editor: M. Serandrei; art directors: Gino Franzi, and Ferrare and Ancône; music: Giuseppe Rosati; music director: Maestro Fernando Previtali; costume designer: Maria De Matteis.
Cast : Dhia Cristiani ( Anita , the dancer ); Elio Marcuzzo ( The Spaniard ); Vittorio Duse ( Truck driver ); Clara Calamai ( Giovanna ); Massimo Girotti ( Gino ); J. de Landa ( Giovanna's husband ); M. Sakara; Michele Riccardini.
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* * *
A majority of critics and theoreticians locate the first, significant instance of the neorealist aesthetic in Ossessione , Luchino Visconti's first directorial effort. (The term "neorealism" appeared initially in 1942, the same year as the film, in Umberto Barbaro's article on French pre-war cinema.) Whether or not we choose to view Ossessione as elementally neorealist, it does succeed in demonstrating many of the appropriate traits of that mode.
That the film is a version of James M. Cain's thriller The Postman Always Rings Twice is less surprising when we realize the impact that the gritty toughness and brutal edge of Cain's prose and narrative, as well as that of the hardboiled school in general, had in Italy at that time. The idea to adapt the work probably came from Jean Renoir (whose La bête humaine is fraught with similarities), during the period that Visconti acted as his assistant. A legend, disputed by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith in Visconti , has grown up around the film to the effect that the director chose to subvert Fascist censorship and criticize the regime; however, it is believed that when Mussolini's son walked out on a preview screening, exclaiming that this was not Italy, the film was abruptly withdrawn from distribution and went unseen until the peak of neorealist interest after the war.
As would become his general practice in adapting the work of others, Visconti changes dramatic motivations and much of the story itself. He "Italianized" the novel's setting and characters so that the film is unique to its historical moment. Ossessione amalgamates operatic melodrama and realism as in later films ( Senso , II gattopardo , La caduta degli dei ) except here it is the naturalistic, verist potential that is stressed in the mise-en-scene, not the theatrical. Instead of indulging in the palpable, material sensuality of the later works, the director does not shirk the squalid prosaicism associated with neorealism at its most ingenuous and idealized. A monochrome countryside, devoid of pictorial charge, emphasizes the dismal life of provincials. Even the sexual attraction of Gino and Giovanna, relatively unmediated by the kind of clever banter found in Wilder's Double Indemnity (another Cain piece with a comparable story made that year), reveals itself as a human fact, another aspect setting the film apart from the coldly sophisticated sensuality of the Fascist era films. This irrational but human passion, alluded to in the title, plays an active role in transforming these unhappy economically marginal people into murderers, and will eventually destroy them.
Characters are drawn with a deft exactitude falling just this side of stereotype or exaggeration. Giovanna has traded the uncertain and demeaning life of a casual prostitute ("I used to get men to invite me to supper") for the vapid existence of a defeated slave. She sits in her depressing kitchen, hopelessly embattled by the boredom and servitude of a loveless marriage. On his part, Bragana adds to the claustrophobia of the relationship with his repulsive corpulence and spiteful personality. Behind him—and due in part to his association with the local priest, somewhat sinister-looking, almost Buñuelian, with his hunting rifle—we sense a whole class of greasy Braganas only too willing to impose sexual hegemony and the will of the bourgeoisie. Social signification surfaced through exacting psychological determinations and the resultant interpersonal conflict is at the root of Visconti's "anthropomorphic cinema," an idea laid out around the time of this film.
Metonymic signifiers of the desires of the pair pepper the narrative in an almost Antonionian fashion: while they are making love, a wardrobe door swings open to reveal Bragana's good clothing; Bragana rushes out to shoot a troublesome cat, and as the shot rings out, we read on the lovers' faces the fear of discovering within themselves the power to do away with him in the same brutal manner.