What sticks to the screen in Luchino Visconti's La Terra Trema, over six decades after the production of his follow-up feature to the sensational debut of Ossessione, are the immediacy and grace with which the nonprofessional cast enacts the decline of a struggling family in a Sicilian fishing town, and the unstilted dignity Visconti's lens bestows on them. Originally planned as a documentary, then a loose three-part adaptation of a 19th-century novel, this standalone "episode of the sea" is thoroughly informed by the filmmaker's Marxism; the Valastro clan's attempt to make themselves financially independent of price-gouging wholesalers is led by their young patriarch Ntoni (Antonio Arcidiacono), who rallies his fellows with the cry, "We were not born to lead a lousy life." But it's in the quiet domestic interplay of the principals, such as war vet Ntoni and the restless younger brother who's tempted by the north (and a dark-coated stranger proffering a pack of Lucky Strikes) to abandon the village of Aci Trezza, and through heroic images such as the Valastro women, in windblown shawls, perched on coastal rocks waiting for the uncertain return of the fishermen, that the tight-knit passions of a family on the economic edge of oblivion are so hauntingly portrayed.
Visconti's film has many of the trappings of neorealism, more so than even his gritty first film's pioneering noirish bent. The sails and lamps of the fishing boats bobbing on the nocturnal Ionian Sea, the fishermen and merchants chaotically haggling prices and weighing the catch on Aci Trezza's beach, Ntoni's beggarly wandering among the net-mending pescatores on that same beach as he seeks work after the family's revolt meets with disaster; these scenes all possess the look and smell of daily life, crowded with vitality and natural beauty but haunted by the exacting physical toll of such labor's demands. Experienced on a subtitled disc, however, La Terra Trema takes a form to which its original domestic audience had no access; the performers' native dialect was incomprehensible to Italian speakers, which necessitated the frequent narration co-written (and usually spoken) by Visconti throughout. What occasionally seems paternalistic or heavily propagandistic in the voiceover ("Theirs is a hopeless slavery") was, in part, a practical element in getting this nearly three-hour document of a remote lifestyle into the cinemas of the mainland.
Though this is among the least overtly erotic works in the director's oeuvre, there are moments of intimacy that show a supra-political, humanist touch, particularly in matters of derailed love. Ntoni and a more prosperous local girl, seen in long shot, run along the shore before a discreet dissolve marks a probable tryst; later, the ruined young fisherman encounters only a barking dog outside her door. One Valastro daughter fields the lascivious attentions of an older police chief at her bedroom window; when the family slides into desperation, growing scandalous whispers drive her away. Another sees her courtship with a house builder curtailed when the Valastros' independence puts him seemingly beneath her social position; in a third-act scene, the Valastros' imminent loss of their mortgaged home reverses their positions, but to the same frustrated end. While Ntoni's final defeat—taking up work with enemies who shout, "See what your ideas have done to you!"—has a fierce, political sting, the film's pathos lies in these permanent, irreversible losses among kin and community.
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The restored monochrome visuals, shot by cinematography great G.R. Aldo, are noticeably better than other recent releases from the neorealist era, looking stable and often nearly pristine. Even the frequent dark, predawn scenes show little murkiness, except under the opening titles. The mono soundtrack, seemingly featuring more on-location recording than later postwar Italian productions, is solid.
None, save for trailers of Entertainment One releases by Italian masters: Luchino Visconti's Bellissima, Pier Paolo Pasolini's Medea, and Vittorio De Sica's Shoeshine.
Though lacking supplements to help place it in the rich pantheon of its era, Visconti's empathetic family opus piquantly dramatizes a hard life on the sea.