By Fatmir Terziu
Media & Cultural Studies, Politics
Luchino Visconti’s 1948 movie La Terra Trema (The Earth Quakes) can be read as a perfect model of neorealist films, as Marcus called it “the classical neorealism of La terra trema” (Marcus, 1986:339). For Liehm it is “masterpiece of neorealism” (Liehm, 1984:125). The film is punctuated with tightly framed shots of Acitrezza’s seaside, a village in Sicili: the work of fishermen, the circulation of the boats on the sea, old-stone housing, characteristic landscape but never silent streets. From that ever present-eye view, the village presents a dehumanised geometry and voice over to neorealist conventions explores the problems. People are always in the move, work and family matter, nothing is as invisible, or as insignificant, as they appeared on their daily life. For Liehm it is a “solemn rhythm” (Liehm, 1984:125). The camera moves and the corrupted power are represented doubly: from the marshall of the Carabinieris behaviour, looking at girls and wholesale dealers who buy the fish at low prices from the fishermen. But this ‘neorealist’ view is not the film’s dominant perspective. From below, on the seaside, the fishermen characters that fulfil the relationship between the needs of life and possibilities in this occasion make sense of the village’s noise and problems in terms of sub-cultural legends: tales of man responsible for the family needs and women staying behind. As Liehm revealed “the men of the village leave only to serve in the army and to go fishing. The women stay behind, waiting” (Liehm, 1984:81). Similarly Sorlin points out “the characters of The Earth Quakes never leave the shores of their village; when one of the fishermen says he is going to find work on the mainland, his brother warns him not to run the risk of leaving the village which is his shelter” (Sorlin, 1996:101). Family matter, character related to the social environment, is doubly textured. Everything is juxtaposed between character and emergence of life, not about the sense that there is something abandoned in the mismatch between the two. This essay aims to analyse how character is related to the physical and social environment in The Earth Quakes. It also intends to discuss how the relationship can be described as a ‘neorealist’.
The main character, Antonio, is a prototype of how the character can be related to the physical and social environment. From the early scenes in the film the protest of the fishermen explores the main theme of the story, where in the middle of it all is Antonio. The phrase “wine, bread and orange from last night’s work” in the Valastros family leads us to the point that the character’s relationship within the family is always linked with dominant factors of daily life. It works as a fable that we as invisible observers understand psychologically, the everyday needs come from the previous day’s work. In this term the little boy’s overstretched voice when selling mandarins on the street and the murmuring of the fishermen in the shore, while sound mix and sound atmos dominates the scene, is another calculation of this point. As Sorlin argues “peoples’ actions are reduced to their functional aspect and are never separated from the surroundings” (Sorlin, 1996:103). In the other hand it explores the inside world of the characters, “society’s problems and inconsistencies” (Lukács, 2004:65). Antonio represents the working class through his chiaroscuro, and the camera follows him in his every move. The narrative around him is portrayed by the words of the working class. In the sequence when the voiceover speaks about the language the characters use in local dialect, the phrase “words of the working class” is meaningful to this point, rather than fulfilment of the stagnation.
As for Liehm “the stagnation, the efforts to break free of it, and the endless waiting with no expectations are the main themes of Visconti’s film” the sequence of fighting between fishermen and the local wholesalers brings to attention the point that climax has be reached (Liehm, 1984:81). Antonio is among the young men arrested by the police. This leads to the next move of the main character, to his final decision for getting mortgage from the bank. All this time we are with him and his family until he receives the money from the bank and now becomes independent, as he expresses it: “work for myself”. It is an important day for the Valastros family which brought them happiness, change and hope for the future, even though it is a long way from being fully independent, because the loan has to be paid in time and they all have to work day and night, in good or bad weather and to sell catches for good money. The sequence when Mara is in love with poor construction worker Nicola surrounds the fact that the love in Acitrezza is linked with prosperity and works in the characters expressions which leads to the point that the poor never get the chance to be loved or to get married. However the high angle shot of Antonio with Nedda in the seaside highlights their happiness and the rhythm of the music explores the landscape from God’s-eye view in a melodramatic realism. They are not poor anymore and so they have another life perspective. This chance is now on Antonio’s and his siblings’ paths. However it is another angle through “the glimpses at the fishermen’s work” which explores the fact that they have lost the harmony with the village (Sorlin, 1996:94). It is the fact from which these characters can be analysed in relationship to other people in the village.
It is this uneasy relationship of the character between the physical and the social environment that Visconti explores in the sequence when the Valastros lost everything. For Liehm “Visconti’s interest shifts toward scrutinizing faces and delineating atmosphere through the play of expressions” (Liehm, 1984:84). As Benjamin observed in ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, “the camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses (Benjamin, 1973:230). Here is the scene where Antonio and his brothers arrive from the sea and everybody’s faces are focused on by the camera. The character presentation related to this natural disaster is shown from this point of view. It is not the simple representation but representation of actual historical forces and conditions, lead by Antonio for taking initiative and risk as a result of rebellion for independent worker. The sequence of Salvadore, a policeman, in front of the window chatting with Antonio’s sisters, Mara and Lucia, Cola’s fleeing away from the village, the grandfather becoming ill after hearing the bad news and later failing to pay back the mortgage and getting kicked out of the house accomplishes to the fact that the disaster never ends for Antonio’s family, expressed in the film’s spoken words: ‘misfortune is to seem breads misfortune’. Sorlin argues “we have all the ingredients of a tea-jerker; the Good Man, who is poor, is doomed to failure, his sister becomes a whore, his girlfriend betrays him for the Bad Man, who is evil and humiliates the loses” (Sorlin, 1996:92). In this argument as we watched the film, subjective ways of seeing rarely last for more than a few moments, and the camera is more usually placed so that it takes up an objective role. It does not provide an obvious equivalent for the eye of the human observer. The camera moves from place to place, from shot to shot, to show him all he needs to know to satisfy the questions the film’s story raises at the moment. It helps to create the memory from this movement and from this objective point of view.
The character’s memory from the objective point of view is expressed through Cola’s greetings with his Grandfather’s and Grandmother’s photos and from when the photos are removed from the wall before they leave the house. They become a source of emotional feeling and “melodramatic realism” (Domizio, 2006). The photo of Jesus hanging in the wall next to family’s photos is a part of the memory and tradition, rather than accomplishment of this. In the scene were Mara is to say goodbye to her lover Nicola sharing the nuts became another point related to this fact. This fact considers that they are religious in a way and works like a proverb. Nonno covered with religious icons when he is ill is another fact to this characters relationship. In another scene with a very philosophical impact this religious believe is clearly focused on Antonio’s words “my loss can be help for everyone”. It can be read as a message of his early failed decision, but as well as can be seen in the light of the time and space, in which the critics and theorists from different backgrounds have addressed their opinions by criticising this film. For many theorists Marxists propaganda dominates in many parts of the voice over as for the Communists “[it] is the Italian realist film” (Sorlin, 1996:90). Bondanella draws attention to that “the narrative is closer to Greek tragedy than to the projected Marxist trilogy” (Bondanella, 1993:52-58). Through the characters behaviour and their emotional feelings the memory, existence and the origins reflect in the reality, in which all characters are both “objects and subjects of history” (Domizio, 2006).
Finally, the central character in The Earth Quakes works as an inspiration for his family, and overall is a typical working class striker to whom personal behaviour revolts look like a social revolution. Antonio is among non limited dilemma in his decision for the life of his family and through the end of the film he still is not a disappointed person, even though he is a big looser. He encourages himself with Marxist propaganda and fights in silence against local wholesalers who make fun of him even when he returns to seek work from them. This power which comes from inside him is the point that leads to his characterisation as a typical poor worker who has lost everything. Antonio’s character goes through a most commented way, which builds at him the man with lack of opportunity. A natural disaster at sea brought to public attention that the communist motto; even in loss keep the morale high, is not effective in anyway, for the fact that how the main character is related to the physical and social environment in The Earth Quakes. As Liehm reveals, “the overwhelming impact of the character stems from Visconti’s basic concept that they were not to make a single movement that would not be their own; they were not to express anything they would not say in real life” (Liehm, 1984:84). The film from this point of view makes clear that there is not the aim of revolution which is to change the conditions. It shows that human beings have only commodity value that the few are exploiting the many that the many are working for the few. It is the characters relationship with reality, where characters interacting with their environment, being realistic.
To sum up, the characters are the driving force in The Earth Quakes. I have clearly analysed this film as an example of how its characters are related to the physical and social environment. I have pointed out how this relationship can be described as ‘neorealist’. Further I have tried to present within the evidence this relationship in the film in detail especially the role of the main character related to the overall theme of The Earth Quakes. It can be said that the characters play a great part in the meaning of this film. In the particular points that are devoted to characters relationship within physical and social environment I have dwelt primarily on the theories of Italian Neorealism, though something has been said about this theory, and also about the theorists who have carried on the work. In my view the characters in The Earth Quakes related to the ideas of neorealism should not be described simply as a simple element of filmmaking, but as an important role in Italian Neorealism.
Benjamin, Walter (1973) The work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, in Illuminations, London: Fontana, p.230.
Bondanella, Peter (1993) The Films of Roberto Rossellini 1st ED Cambridge & New York, pp. 52-58.
Domizio, Ricardo (2006) Mentioned in the Lecture week 9 (Blackboard notes) La terra trema (The Earth Quakes, Luchino Visconti, 1948) on 30.03.2006.
Liehm, Mira (1984) Passion and Defiance, Film in Italy from 1942 to the Present, London & Los Angeles: University of California Press, pp. 81-125.
Lukács, Gorg (2004) Quoted in Giorgio Bertellini’s Ed The Cinema of Italy, London and New York: Wallflower Press, p. 65.
Marcus, Millicent (1986) Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism, New Jersey & Chichester: Princeton University Press, p. 339.
Sorlin, Pierre (1996) Italian National Cinema, 1896-1996, London: Routledge, pp. 92-103.
La terra trema (The Earth Quakes) (Luchino Visconti, 1948, Italy)