The Leopard is so beautiful and resonant to me. It really is every frame a painting, but also so much more than that. A simple image of Lancaster and Serge Regianni, in long shot, walking down a hill after the hunt, as shot by Giussepe Rottuno, is enough to move me. I thought it beyond great the first time I saw it, so I can´t honestly say it gets better with each viewing, but my understanding of it does, though, like with all great works of art, it´s so rich it always remains that little bit out of my reach.
The landscape above moves me, partly because it reminds me of my childhood, but partly also because they are so beautifully lit. The screen-caps above don´t do justice to the gorgeous blu-ray I saw, with the gradations of light and the dense texture of the image.
The mise-en-scène of the ball sequence, almost the last third of the film, is exquisite. If you look closely, it´s beautifully lit, shot in depath, with each minor bit part player offering major characerisation. It´s a thing of wonder.
Burt Lancaster. I was idly glancing at the TV when Apache (Robert Aldrich, 1954) came on, and there´s a love scene there with Jean Peters that´s as sensual and perhaps more deeply felt than the famous beach scene in From Here to Eternity (Fred Zinnemann, 1953). Then, I saw the beginning of Jim Thorpe: All American (Michael Curtiz, 1951) where again he plays a native person, a natural athlete, where his very grace in movement is a reproach to the system: ´when they win it´s a great battle, when we win it´s written up as a massacre’. Then the acrobatics in The Flame and The Arrow (Jacques Tourneur, 1950) are as joyous and exhilarating as any musical number. these bits made me think that whilst we tend to emblematise US culture through cinema as Brando or Marilyn or James Dean, Burt Lancaster is the star who best evoked how America was seen at home and abroad in the middle of the last century: the strength, dynamism, beauty, the plenitude expressed by his figure, the freedom in his movement, the chiclets teeth that gleamed like a new Cadillac and the shock of wavy hair that evoked the wildness of ranges and forests and beaches. And that he evoked all of that — and one only has to see what Anna Magnani says about him in Bellisima (Luchino Visconti, 1951) to know that he did, whilst still condensing a critique, truly makes him stand out for me, though perhaps others will say the same of Monroe, Taylor, Holden, Brando et al. A morning thought.
Mario (Marcello Mastroianni), a young clerk, friendless and far from home, returns to Livorno from a trip to the country where he’s been warmed by feeling of home and family, even if the home and family are his boss’ and he himself has had to maintain the distance and deference required by the difference in their social status. As he leaves them and heads towards home, it’s as if the very lights of the city extinguish with each of his steps, externalising that loneliness and alienation he is feeling inside.
On a bridge, past the stray dogs, the homeless and the rubble, he meets a girl who he thinks a prostitute. Desperate for human contact and contrary to his norms of behaviour, he tries to pick her up. To the distress of both, he’s made a mistake. She’s Natalia (Maria Schell), daughter of formerly well-to-do carpet merchants, now fallen on hard times. She lives with her grandmother, blind and so anxious not to lose her that she keeps her literally pinned to her apron. They make a living by repairing carpets and taking in lodgers.
Natalia’s fallen deeply in love with one of them (Jean Marais). He’s courted her, included her grandmother and the rest of the household in the courtship, took them to the opera, pledged his love… but in the end had to leave, abruptly telling her he could not marry her right away but would meet her a year later, on this bridge. She’s been coming there faithfully every day at ten, waiting for he who does not arrive; which is where Natalia meets Mario. After several attempt to avoid him, they begin to talk, to feel less lonely, to connect. All the while she keeps waiting for the man who promised to return.
Mario falls in love with Natalia; is moved by her purity, her goodness, her faith. He courts her. She welcomes — might even need — the attention. But she remains faithful to her ideal. This faith in turn ignites one in Mario; in inspiring his love, she dissolves his sense of alienation even as Mario accepts that Natalia doesn’t love him and might, at best, come to love him later, after sufficient time has passed for her to forget he whom she truly loves now.
Is the stranger a figment of her imagination or someone real? Can such feelings and ideas live amongst the squalor and compromises of every day life? Is there something to believe in and should we have faith? Are we always doomed to be alone? Visconti and Giuseppe Rotuno show us this metaphorically; we see the couple through foggy windows. Natalia’s reality murked up by her dreams; Mario’s options often directly clarified through cleared up windows or the stark directness offered by those stepping out of the shadows. Only for a brief moment does snow purify all, at least before a shiny figure in black comes back into the picture, where Natalia is asked to make a choice, stay on one side, or cross the bridge to another.
White Nights/ Le Notti Bianche is film that sets out to be poetry and succeeds. How you feel and experience the film might depend on how you feel about any film with such intentions. Here a bridge, snow, the contrast between rock and opera, the effects of fog on an image as seen from the outside, all act as metaphors that need decipherment. The film succeeds beautifully but are you up to the task?
As is usual with Visconti, Le Notti Bianche is the fruit of the crème-de-la-créme of cinematic collaborators. Suso Cecchi d’Amico worked with Visconti on the screen adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s story. Giuseppe Rotuno creates a world that is luminous, clearly artificial, but lit as if for a deeper truth, with some strikingly beautiful images. It has one of Nino Rota’s most beautiful scores; one of those where a few recurring bars played on different chords capture a range of feeling, and the changes that range undergoes throughout a film. The costumes are by Piero Tossi.
The actors have rarely been better. I sometimes find Maria Schell a bit tiresome but as Natalia she’s distraught, nervous, optimistic and polite but slightly hysterical; always focussed one her goal, smiling as if spiritually lit by a divine spirit. It’s a stylised, operatic performance, not unlike Alida Valli’s in Senso’s but here always played in a lower key and with a smile. Marais, already into middle-aged, playing a cipher with potentially a cruel streak, has never seemed to me more handsome or dashing than he is here. In some shots, it’s like the very length of his eyelashes are a trap with which to ensnare the innocent.
As to Mastroianni…one can only sigh with awe. Other women are after him in the film, and not only prostitutes. And unlike the Lodger with his fancy opera, he can only offer her Bill Haley and the Comets. And he can’t even dance! I bet the lodger can dance. But Mastrioanni can feel and weep and communicate all of it clearly with a masculine goofeyness that doesn’t mask that his muddling up the steps is a clear offer of his heart, that there’s a joy in his daring to dance without skill, a trust, and a confidence. That he’s the salt of the earth (and is perhaps why he must cry). To me, his dance, is one of the treasures of cinema.
Visconti’s virtuosic display of cinematic skills in White Nights/ Le Notti Bianche is truly dazzling. I’ll point you to one simple example, which you can see in the clip below. It’s the moment where Natalia has been telling Mario about the lodger and it’s the one moment in the film where we enter her head. She’s narrating the experience and we’re seeing it as she felt it. Note how seamlessly Visconti moves from the past to the present. See particularly the last ten seconds of the clip, the moment where Maria Schell says, ‘I’ll be yours, yours forever’ and note how seamlessly Visconti takes us from Natalia’s past and her imagination, as she recounts to us how she feels about what happened, to the present and Mario. When the camera cuts from Jean Marais to Maria Schell only to have her embrace Mastroianni. He’s made this move from past to present and a shift in point-of-view, without changing the tone and without even a cut. It’s dazzling.
In spite of being awarded a Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival, the film was not a success when it first came out. I find the posters for the various countries it was released in interesting in its display of different attractions for each culture. Maria Schell gets top billing in all of them but in the Italian poster, the lodger is a faceless figure in the background. The French poster gives second billing to Marais, gives the impression of a romance between Schell and Marais and turns the Mastroianni character into the faceless figure in the bridge. The Danish poster highlights Schell’s whiteness, places Marais and Schell in large size on the left of the poster but places the character on the bridge prominently on the top right of the poster. Each is selling a different thing.
What the film is selling are the concerns of sociology and history. How it feels like to see and what it might yet mean are ongoing concerns. The reason for viewing it now — in spite of protestations from some critics that it’s not amongst the great works of Visconti — is that it is still a great work of a great director, one that requires much of the audience but offers much in return, should the audience be willing to give to and receive from it that which a very great work of this kind requires.
A Venetian Countess (Alida Valli) loses her reason in succumbing to her senses and to Lieutenant Franz Mahler (Farley Granger) of the invading Austrian Army. She gives up money and position; even betrays her family, her country and her highest ideals; all for a feckless sensualist, a gigolo from the first and one who’ll show himself a quivering coward by the end. That’s where love and desire will take you in the world of Visconti and of Senso.
It’s a beautiful film, gorgeous to look at. Valli seems to float from canal to piazza, in large hooped skirt, in a wind-blown veil, as she suffers, desires, trembles, and looks for and at her lover; whilst refusing to see what is at all times clear to the audience: that he’s a cheap hustler unworthy of such sacrifices. The film is set at the time Garibaldi was uniting Italy and there are clearly points being made about European and Italian history that are beyond my present reach.
But the central story is entirely accessible; and the cinematic means through which to convey that story are the work of a giant of cinema; from the tour de force opening at the opera house to the tragic battle sequences at the end; from the grandeur of the houses right down to the exquisiteness of the pattern of a scarf that Valli holds to her face: everything is perfection. Even Granger, giving an awkward, unskilled performance is to the film’s advantage, as the looks-without-substance characteristic of the actor is so well used to convey that of the character.
A film of faded colours, set at a key historical moment, but focussing rather on the depths to which desire might drive one. A great film.
The first time I saw La Terra Trama was about thirty years ago and I was at least as deeply moved seeing it again yesterday. I found myself consulting Geoffrey Nowell-Smith’s indispensible Visconti (London: BFI, 1967, 1973) to find out more but there were so many interesting facts to take into account – for example, a small amount of capital for the film was advanced by the Communist Party for what was originally meant to be a short; then it evolved into a three-part epic on the liberation struggles of fishermen, peasants and miners before finding its current form – and I found myself wanting to argue to such an extent with Nowell-Smith’s interpretation of some incidents, that my writing risked bypassing the film in favour of Nowell-Smith’s take on the film. I concluded that I had better put Nowell-Smith aside for now and just focus on writing down my impressions, what I felt and thought upon seeing the film again, and why and how it had moved me so.
I find La Terra Trema to be one of the treasures of Twentieth Century Art and the work of a poet with a generous heart, an incisive mind and the skills of a virtuoso (as a an aside, but perhaps worth noting, Francesco Rosi and Franco Zefferelli, as opposite as directors can be, both worked as assistant directors with Visconti). The film begins by showing us a way of life that has persisted for centuries: men going out to fish, women cleaning up the house as they await the men’s arrival, a return that is not always certain; young people desiring love and a better way of life whilst clearly knowledgeable and observant of the limits placed on these desires by the changing wealth and social position of their families and focussing on what they think is important: home, family, society. These houses and how people use them evoke a way of life – places, people, relationships to places and relationships amongst different peoples — as well as a structure of feeling – a felt way of understanding these changing relationships — which to my mind no Hollywood film has even come close to.
The Valestro family is composed of one set of grandparents, a mother and seven children who all live under the same roof. The father has already died at sea but everyone else, no matter what their age, contributes to the family’s subsistence and survival. I found the depiction of the houses, the clothes, the furnishings, the rituals, recognisable; and I daresay this would be the case for many a Southern European born even into the last half of the last century (and certainly by their parents). The film’s on-location shooting and non-professional actors add an awkwardness that is also a series of grace-notes to what we see. It feels a document even as we are at all times aware of the way the drama is being shaped for us, acted out, narrated. The film, which in some ways seems to fall within a particular tradition of documentary, perhaps Grierson’s ‘creative shaping of actuality’, is ostensibly loosely based on Giovanni Verga’s novel I Malaboglia (1881)/The House by the Medlar Tree.
I was moved also by the grandfather’s sayings — ‘Strength of youth, wisdom of age’, Every wind is a bad wind for a sinking ship’ — which reminded me of the sayings my grandmother uttered as she slapped her hands on her knees to end a conversation: rhymes appropriate to the occasion that encapsulated the wisdom passed down to the family through the ages from and to people who could neither read nor write.
The film offers a complex account of the duties and obligations involved in being a member of the family and the oppressions and pleasures, the aid, ease, (as well as limitations) of being part of the village and the community, which is why it’s loss will be so felt. It begins with women, getting up and getting the house ready for the men of the house who have been out fishing all night, the money being shared equally except for the youngest, who must be no older than seven, and gets half. All of the first part is devoted to showing us this way of life in all its complexities, with its clear-cut economic exploitation but also with many variegated pleasures in spite of being a subsistence economy. All of this will be lost when the eldest son, Antonio, decides to fight for a better and more just way of life.
After a spontaneous revolt against the injustice of the wholesalers at the port in which Antonio, the eldest son, gets jailed only to be arbitrarily released, the family together vote to try for a new way of life, to mortgage the home that has been in the family since time immemorial to try to bypass the wholesalers and get a better deal for their fish. Initially, they strike it lucky with a shoal of anchovies, though even here good fortune extolls a price, as some of the siblings – such as Mara, the eldest, are now too rich to marry those they’d set their heart on when poorer: The film, whilst giving a complex and variegated of love and desire, is completely unsentimental about money and marriage. But then, the need to pay bills, force them onto recklessly fishing in bad weather. They’re lucky to return with their lives but their boat is lost, and with it the ability to earn an independent living. And things get worse, as the wholesalers now refuse them day work
From this point, the film turns into tragedy. As the narrative tells us each branch of the family withers and falls: Antonio is so depressed, he sleeps and drinks, Cola, the second oldest brother leaves home for the sea and the film hints also at a life of crime, the grandfather’s in hospital, the eldest sister now has her marriage hopes dashed because she’s too poor instead of too rich, and the second eldest sister first shown to us looking in a mirror and arranging her hair has now fallen into accepting cheap gifts from men in a way that is whispered about and makes her un-marriageable. ‘Your pride has made you the worst family in Trezzo’ Antonio is told. But that is not the end of their suffering. Antonio, who had thought himself so poor he dreamt of food before, is now forced to sell the good and practical clothes he has left in order to get food, and finally has to suffer complete humiliation in front of his whole community and dressed in tatters before being given a job again and returned to much less than his wealth and position was at the beginning of the film.
Visconti shows us all of this in very beautiful and complex long shots and long takes with a whole view of life expressed in the background. The frame is always full except for select moments, those striking simple images of the women on the rocks waiting for their men, or the moment where Lucia cries and clutches at the bracelet she too quickly accepted. Visconti usually lets your eye wonder but these people are always individuals in a community. They are rarely alone; that is their strength and that is also what ails them. The Valestros could be the family that will emigrate to Milan in Rocco and His Brothers.
What I found a weakness thirty years ago, the voice-over narration, I now find a strength for it’s not a Voice-of-God, this-is-the-way-you-must-think narration. It’s explicatory, parenthetical, indicative, and it renders poetic that which it dramatises. I find it beautiful. I also love the way Visconti lets the viewer’s eye wonder along the frame; there’s a focus on a particular character and action, but all other kinds of things are going on in the background — the setting is always social, people are usually interacting, working; these people are always individuals in a community. The only times we are shown individuals filling a frame are poetic moments of interiority but usually the result of and a comment on the communal, social, contextual. I love that Visconti makes these people beautiful, dignified. Their feet might be bare and their clothes ragged but their hearts are full and their faces and bodies as beautiful as those of any.
There are a few things that strike a discordant note. The way the rich baroness is shown toothless and eating, the melodramatic and overdone attacks on the wholesalers by linking them to Mussolini and fascism… But to me these are rendered very minor in the face of the film’s accomplishments. That La Terra Trema shows these beautiful and dignified people revolting is so moving, their conditions of existence so bare, the depths they could yet fall to, so great. The impossibility of fighting against these conditions individually is made so clear. Yet, there is hope in the struggle, in the same community that oppresses one, and someone might yet be fixing the boat you sunk in your struggle and ask you to come and visit it one day.
I wish someone had made such a film about my people. Others can quibble, though there is very little indeed to quibble with, but only Visconti made such a film, and only in Italy. Thus it has to stand for all the other Southern European, or Mediterranean conditions and ways of life, not so dissimilar from that depicted, as a record, a warning, and as we hear reports of slavery amongst fishermen in the South Seas, as a reminder of such exploitation that the very earth trembles in indignation. It’s a truly great film.