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Reviewed by Ivana Redwine
Length: 154 minutes
Luchino Visconti's "La Terra trema" (1948) is a visually lyrical film that tells the tragic story of a poor Sicilian family. This great movie has been rather difficult to see in the United States for some years now, and as of this writing, it is not readily available on videotape in North America. But now it is available on DVD, and when I watched it at home recently, I loved it.
"La Terra trema" was shot entirely on location in Acitrezza, a small coastal town in Sicily. Professional actors were not used; instead townspeople played all the roles. But Visconti did a good job of typecasting, and he spent countless hours working on the dialogue with the people who appear on camera. The characters in the film speak in a Sicilian dialect, but voice-over narration in standard Italian is used to explain and comment on the events we are shown. The storytelling style is operatic, and I found the movie to be very emotionally engaging.
The central character in the film is 'Ntoni Valastro, a twenty-something man who lives with his mother, his seven younger siblings, and his grandfather. 'Ntoni, his three brothers, and his grandfather work on fishing boats, as did 'Ntoni's father, who was recently killed in an accident while at sea. The Valastros are poor, but they have a strong sense of family. 'Ntoni yearns to bring in more money, primarily so he and his siblings can make good marriages, thus building an even stronger family in the future.
The commercial fishing business in Acitrezza is structured in such a way that nearly all the money derived from it goes to wholesalers and boat owners, while the men who actually catch the fish are barely able to eke out a living. 'Ntoni and the Valastros try to escape from this system by mortgaging the humble house they live in, using the money to buy their own boat, and going into business for themselves. But things go badly, and the Valastros end up poorer than ever, the family apparently loses three of its members, and the hopes that 'Ntoni and two of his sisters will make good marriages are dashed.
"La Terra trema" is obviously intended to convey a Marxist message. This is clearest near the end of the movie when 'Ntoni tells a little girl that he failed to overcome exploitation because he tried to do it alone rather than as part of a collective effort. Also, Visconti's title for the film, which is best translated into English as "The Earth Will Tremble," expresses the notion of impending revolution.
Yet "La Terra trema" doesn't feel all that much like a propaganda piece to me, and I think this is because the people, time, and place are so specific. I come away from watching the movie feeling I have gained insight into the human condition, but I am not persuaded that Marxism—or, for that matter, any other ism—could solve the problems of the fishermen of Acitrezza. For me, the genius of Visconti's achievement is that he captured the more general theme of the exploitation of the weak by the strong better in "La Terra trema" than in any film I know.
I like the way "La Terra trema" closely observes the details of daily life, showing fishermen selling their catch, mending nets, and engaging in banal conversations. But the film doesn't give me the feeling I'm watching a documentary because of its lyrical cinematography and stately pace. Rather, watching this movie makes me feel like I'm watching something akin to grand opera or classical theater. Also, the movie offers some unforgettable images, such as the one where the black-shawled Valastro females stand on rocks looking out to sea after the boat containing all the Valastro males has gone missing.
Unfortunately the "La Terra trema" DVD provides no bonus materials at all. Except for scene selection, the only thing you can control on the DVD is whether English subtitles are turned on or off. But "La Terra trema" is a great film, and I'm really glad to own it on DVD.
Selected Special Features on the DVD:
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