Judge Gordon Sullivan was a neosurrealist...until it got strange.
The Italian Cinema Classic—Extensively Restored and Remastered
Luchino Visconti had a strange journey as a filmmaker. Though his first film (Ossessione) is hardly the most well-known, it is the first film in the canon of Italian neorealist cinema, that movement that grew out of a post-World War II commitment to bring cinema to the streets with stories of real lives filmed on location with non-actors. Unlike his contemporary Roberto Rossellini, however, Visconti is not most famous for his neorealist films. Rather, much like Fellini, Visconti is more famous for his late films that are more opulent and, in some ways, more personal than his early, barebones features. La Terra Trema (The Earth Trembles), however, fits right into Visconti's early neorealist period. It's a classic of the first order, even if this DVD edition isn't all the film deserves.
Facts of the Case
Ntoni (Antonio Arcidiacono, like the rest of the cast a non-actor in his only role) is a fisherman in Sicily tired of getting gouged by those who buy his fish on the cheap and realize a huge profit by passing it on to other buyers. He figures if he can become the middleman he gets more profit and can better support his family. He convinces them to let him mortgage the house to go into business for himself, but Nature doesn't cooperate, and Ntoni and his family are pushed to the limit.
The end of World War II really shook up the movie world. Suddenly, resources that were funding the war effort could be rerouted to make movies. As much as Hollywood retained its worldwide dominance as the "Dream Factory," local viewers in other nations were looking for cinema that reflected their own world. Knowing that they could never hope to match the industrial aspects of the Dream Factory, young and hungry filmmakers in the postwar era turned to new modes of cinematic creation. Instead of relying on sets they didn't have, actors they couldn't pay, and stories from novels they didn't own the rights to, the neorealists shook things up by telling the stories of everyday people on location with as many non-actors as they could find. They went on to influence the French New Wave, and from there, it circled all around the globe, eventually even changing the way Hollywood worked.
This history is a large part of the charm of neorealist films. Knowing that these "small" films with non-actors would produce enough response to shake up the big Hollywood studios is a treat. More importantly, even today the best neorealist movies feel fresh in a way that few films from that era can match. As much as I love The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (the Best Picture winner from 1948, the year of La Terra Trema), it feels stagey and studio-bound in a way that La Terra Trema doesn't, and that studio-bound feeling hasn't let the film age as well as it could. More importantly, watching a film like La Terra Trema feels like a look back through a time machine. Of course, we're not actually seeing the past (not even in a documentary way), but the use of real Sicilian locations and non-actors playing their roles makes it seem that way. The fact that Visconti combines footage he shot for a piece of Communist propaganda on Italian fisherman only heightens the apparent realism of the film.
Then, of course, there is the heartbreaking story of Ntoni and his family. Though it would be easy to dismiss the film as simply Communist propaganda (where the beleaguered fisherman stands up to the exploitation of the wholesalers, even if he doesn't do it as part of a collective), Visconti is too concerned with the human element of his story to worry about politics. The slow and inevitable decline of the family due to Ntoni's insistence on independence is difficult to watch in places because it's easy to imagine that this wasn't an isolated phenomenon in postwar Italy or even Europe. That Visconti can corral his non-actors to embody such heartrending emotions is an even more impressive feat.
This DVD does a pretty solid job presenting the film. The previous Image disc was apparently a disaster, with loads of print damage and poor management of digital artifacts. Most of those issues have been addressed with this disc. While not pristine, the source print (in its native 1.33:1 aspect ratio) looks good. Black levels are consistent, there's little print damage, and detail is fairly impressive. Motion artifacts crop up a little more than I'd like, but some of the static shots of the Sicilian seashore are gorgeous. The stereo Italian track is well-balanced, with clearly audible dialogue, and yellow subtitles in English are provided for contrast against the black-and-white image.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
La Terra Trema is a fascinating classic of Italian neorealist cinema, but it is surely not for everyone. It's one of those dreaded art house films from the postwar period that inspired some but bored others to tears. At two hours and 40 minutes, it's not hard to see how it could bore some audience members. Though the non-actors are interesting precisely because they're non-actors, those who are used to more polished performances in the Humphrey Bogart vein will likely find their performances uneven, if not entirely tedious.
This film also deserves more extensive extras. Though fans can turn to the three Criterion editions of Visconti's later films for context, those interested in his neorealist roots don't have much in English they can lean on. A commentary or a documentary or two would be enough to put this disc over the edge into "must own" status.
La Terra Trema is not in the canon of truly great neorealist films like the better-known Bicycle Thieves or Rome, Open City, but it's a solid entry in the genre and only points to how great director Luchino Visconti would become. The image of this particular DVD is much improved over the previously available Region 1 disc, though the lack of extras keep this from being a definitive edition of the film. An upgrade (or first look) is a necessity for fans of Italian neorealism, and those looking for a drama off the beaten path should give this one a rental.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: E1 Entertainment
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