Director: Luchino Visconti
Production: Universalia; black and white, 35mm; running time: about 160 minutes. Released 1947. Filmed 1947 in Aci Trezza, a small fishing village in Sicily.
Producer: Salvo d'Angelo; screenplay: Luchino Visconti, from the 19th century novel I Malavoglia by Giovanni Verga; assistant directors: Francesco Rosi and Franco Zeffirelli; photography: G. R. Aldo; editor: Mario Serandrei; sound: Vittorio Trentino; music: Willi Ferrero with Luchino Visconti.
Cast: The cast is composed of the people of Aci Trezza in Sicily.
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* * *
1948, the year of La terra trema , is also the year of the crucial postwar Italian elections. As neo-realism often has it, political history and film history coincide. Italians went to the polls for the vote that was to determine the course of Italian political life for many decades: the election of a Christian Democrat legislative majority. La terra trema owes its genesis in part to that coincidence.
In 1947 the director Luchino Visconti went to Sicily with two young and promising assistant directors—Francesco Rosi and Franco Zeffirelli—and two reported intentions: to record in a short documentary the historic moment of political and social renewal that was expected to result from the collective action of the workers and peasants and to realize the old ambition of adapting Verga (here specifically I Malavoglia ) to the screen. Visconti stayed for seven months. During that time the original projects underwent radical transformation: the film that finally resulted reflects an amalgam of the stylistic and ideological directions of the two. Confronted by the structures and spirit of Aci Trezza (the village on the eastern coast of Sicily that had served as setting for Verga's novel), Visconti fashioned a film honest to the reality he found rather than to the dictates of current political theory interpreted by Northern political logic. The conditions for revolution were not present; the Sicilian proletariat was in no sense prepared to rise against exploitation and oppression. Whatever few attempts there might be were doomed to failure. Nor could a version faithful to Verga bear witness to the struggle of contemporary fishermen. A powerful, essentially hostile universe, against which man is locked in the eternal drama of hopeless battle, would no longer satisfy the exigencies of the new verismo . The enemy needed to be identified unmistakably as capitalism—its closed system, its greed.
The developing narrative intention demanded a form consonant with its ambition. The epic portrait of the fishermen of the Sicilian village would, it was projected, be followed by two other films of equal scope to complete a trilogy on the "southern question"—the first on the struggles of Sicilian mine workers, the second on that of peasants. But finances determined that only "the episode of the sea," the story of the Valastros, be told.
Young 'Ntoni, enraged by the crooked dealings of the fish wholesalers, exhilarated by a first expression of revolt, in love and eager to marry, realizes that as long as he, his grandfather and brothers fish from a boat that belongs to others, they will remain in the relative poverty they have always known, cheated of the just rewards of their labor. Counter to the ways of generations of his family and neighbors, 'Ntoni mortgages the family home in order to buy a boat. After an initial moment of promise, the family fortunes begin to decline. The boat is lost in a storm, and then, because of the hostility of the wholesalers and boat owners, the family falls into debt and then abject poverty. The bank appropriates the house, the grandfather dies, one brother flees with a shadowy stranger, a sister is disgraced, another loses her chance of happiness. In the end, 'Ntoni and his younger brothers return to the sea as hired hands on another's boat. 'Ntoni realizes that individual action can only lead to failure, that in collective action alone is there any hope for success.
Like the story, the actors of La terra trema were found in the place of the action. The Valastros, their friends and neighbors, are played by fishermen, bricklayers, wives and daughters of Aci Trezza. The language they speak is the dialect of their village, hardly more comprehensible to the speaker of standard Italian than to any other foreigner. A narrator advances the plot through voiceover comments, and above all through translations from the dialect of Aci Trezza into the national tongue of that part of Italy the Sicilian calls "the continent."
In the approximately 160 minutes of La terra trema , the camera remains confined to Aci Trezza, to the horizon accessible to it from the fixed position of the church square. The world of the camera is enclosed towards the sea by the two rocks that form a gate for the harbor, and towards land by the fields beyond the cluster of houses that constitute the village. This is the world of the inhabitants of Aci Trezza. Beyond it lie danger and death. Within the space, Aldo, Visconti's cinematographer (for whom La terra trema represented a remarkable first experience with moving pictures), integrated characters, decor and landscape into a startling cogent whole. Through a mise-en-scène which, as Bazin points out, for the first time demonstrated the possibilities of depth of field to exterior as well as interior locations, Aldo achieved that which Visconti had perceived as necessary to an understanding of the Valastros: their integrity with the village and the sea, their dependency on both.
—Mirella Jona Affron