Subjective Realism in the Italian Film

In two early films by Roberto Rossellini, Open City (Roma, Città Aperta,1945) and Paisan (Paisà, 1946), there were remarkable sequences of relatively unanalyzed events whose harshness and direct impact seemed to possess an extra measure of the present tense. The aesthetic vigor of these sequences precluded the possibility of presenting subjective reality, the world seen from a point of view. Rossellini’s Italian confreres who have elected to present an authentic subjective reality have had to employ an artistic selectivity that has led them in different and interesting directions. Three films which purport to be, in some sense, documents of the human condition, yet which embody different aesthetic principles, are La Terra Trema (Terra Trema: Episodio del Mare, 1948), Umberto D. (1955), and Il Posto (1961).

Visconti’s La Terra Trema, does not, as do the two other listed films, present a point of view of a single participant of the action, but it does present a point of view from outside its theater of action. There is a narrator who places the scene by announcing such things as the fact that the Sicilian fishermen bring their catch back to the wholesalers who “buy for nothing the fish they have caught with such pain.” When the characters themselves take over the dramatic action, there is still an omnipresent sense of moral judgement that pervades the atmosphere. The extent to which one can accept the present point of view as realistic is in a large sense the extent to which one is in sympathy with the film’s underlying Marxist analysis of society.

But putting such considerations aside for the moment, it is still reasonable to assert that any film that is a worthwhile statement presents a certain amount of interpretation and analysis of reality and that this analysis is more forceful the more closely it is allied with its medium of reality. One of the grounds for divergence among the so-called realist filmmakers is a gneral disagreement as to what kind of reality (psychological, social, physical, etc.) is most fundamental. La Terra Trema is then an attempt to depict social reality in terms of the Marxist orientation. To that end Visconti made some radical aesthetic decisions that distinguished the film from its contemporaries. The degree to which Visconti was able to immerse his vision in external reality, however, is a matter open to considerable question.

The fishermen portrayed in the film are fishermen in real life who were recruited at the scene of the story’s location. The intent was to have characters who would be organically a part of the environment that was to be filmed and thus to have action emerge in a completely spontaneous way. Visconti even let these non-professionals write their own dialogue so that they could express themselves in their own words. The fact that they did write their own lines, however, points to one of the difficulties of the film. Far from being filmed in a spontaneous situation, these fishermen were compelled to act within the rigid structure of a melodramatic plot line. In this connection we add that in order to perform successfully in a dramatic production, an important attribute for an actor to possess is a vigorous imagination. It is unlikely that Sicilian fishermen who have never left their village would be skilled in this regard. Thus the fishermen are unlikely to be able to “flesh out” any performance of a scene in which the action was not one of total spontaneity. The result in La Terra Trema was acting that was frequently uneven.

The evident unevenness of the film was made even more conspicuous by other aesthetic choices of Visconti. The photography in the film featured some of the first successful deep-focus scenes shot on location and in typical weather conditions. With much of the set in focus, Visconti eschewed classical montage and held shots for sometimes as long as several minutes in order to preserve their psychological integrity. This only emphasized the amateurish nature of the acting in several dull scenes. Moreover, deep-focus photography that neglects montage must be played out in real time. Such a technique is difficult to integrate with a melodramatic plot. Renoir was able to do it in Le Grande Illusion (1937) by the adroit use of elliptical action. Visconti, however, plays everyting out and thus undercuts his own plot dynamics by stretching out the film’s length to over three hours.

The comparison of Visconti to Renoir reveals other significant differences. Renoir has said that he preferred mise-en-scène in depth so that he could more freely move about his characters. That is, his camera was made more flexible and accommodating to the action. To avoid the “posed” shot, Renoir not only composed shots in depth, but made his characters move within the shot and employed elegant panning, tilting, and tracking shots to follows the action. Visconti, on the other hand, does not employ any tracking shots, and most of his shots (which, as was mentioned, are of long duration) are fixed frame – characters enter the frame and take up a position. The effect is just what Renoir avoided – the posed shot. Visconti does use some camera pans, but they do not follow action, nor do they contribute to a sense of screen kinetics. Instead they have the effect of an aesthetic exploration. This static use of the camera gives La Terra Trema a stagy aura, despite some excellent photography of the authentic locations achieved within the self-imposed limitations.

The point to be made is not that La Terra Trema is awful (though it ihas been vastly overpraised), but that aesthetic decisions made by Visconti, for which he has been frequently commended, served to undercut the impact of the film. One is left with a sense of static pictorialism after viewing the film. It is as though critics feel that Visconti deserves to be praised for arriving at visual aestheticism “with one had tied behind his back”. Much preferable to such a scheme is Robert Flaherty’s Man of Aran (1934), in which aestheticism was more consciously targeted and more successfully achieved.

The plot of La Terra Trema, independent of the mise-en-scène, is not a strong point, either. Not only are the members of the family made out bo be strangely heroic, but then they are shown to be subject to amazing lapses of foresight. As Dwight MacDonald has pointed out
Why, for example, does the proletarian hero take his fishing boat, which he has acquired by mortgaging his home in order to be independent of the wholesaler, out in a storm when no other boats venture forth? The commentary says it is because he is poor and cannot afford a day’s idleness, but this is nonsense, since he could even less afford to wreck his boat, which he does.
Had Visconti made more appropriate decision for the proper expression of his message, his film probably would have not been very distinctive at all; it probably would have resembled one of the American social realist films of the Thirties.

In terms of documenting the human condition, Umberto D. and Il Posto are more successful. Umberto D. Presents a collection of events in an old man’s life, most of which contribute to his sense of uselessness and isolation. He finally decides to put an end to his life. However, at the film’s end he realizes in a stroke that his feelings for his little dog outweigh all the reasons he had been able to muster on behalf of his suicide. The subjective point of view here is the old man (and to a lesser extent a pregnant housemaid who lives next to him). The effort is to present everyday happenstances in all their detail (though still dramatically constructed) so as to reveal the consciousness. To a large extent this is successful; the old man does not philosophize about his existence. Instead he progresses to his morose contemplation of self-destruction by living out a succession of mundane experiences.

Il Posto presents a disarmingly conventional theme: a young man gets a job in the big city. The subjective point of view is more sophisticated and forceful than in Umberto D. While Umberto D. does present events dramatically arranged and selected, they are nevertheless “objectively” presented. Il Posto, in contrast, presents a succession of key moments in the life of the boy that have an affective mise-en-scène despite exceptionally objective acting and event-structure. Unlike the previously discussed films, however, Il Posto presents an evolving consciousness that is expressed in terms of the quasi-subjective cinematography. As the boy is gradually absorbed into the corporate existence, he continually adapts to it, not with conscious pleasure or displeasure but simply as a matter of course. It is the only way open. In Umberto D. there seems to be a blind faith that if all the mundane details of the old man’s life are presented, we will be able to understand his condition. Thus, though an event may be dramatically chosen, the details of that event are all presented without regard to their relative importance. Il Posto, however, manages to bring out events which are much more banal than those in Umberto D., yet which seem more significant due to the subjective progression of the story. The psychological distance between the young boy in ll Posto and the audience is much smaller than that between the old man and the audience in Umberto D.. The blend of documentary style events with subjective cinematography in Il Posto represents a unique middle ground between the Neorealist films and the more conventional narrative films of Europe. It also shows the way to get out of the stylistic dead-end that presented itself to many of the early realist enthusiasts.

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