Thursday, May 17, 2007


1943, Italy, directed by Luchino Visconti
One of the key precursors to the post-war neo-realist movement in Italy, Luchino Visconti's Ossessione is particularly notable for its use of location shooting (in Italy's Po Valley) during wartime, as well as its comprehensive debunking of the romantic hero; it's remarkable that Mussolini screened and permitted circulation of the film, though his son Vittorio, who was closely involved with cinematic production, was outraged at the liberties taken by Visconti.

Unlike some of the best-known neo-realist films, Visconti does not make extensive use of non-professionals: most of the main actors were already cinema regulars, while leading man Massimo Girotti had a fine career until his death in 2003. By contrast, although there's virtually no reference to the main world event of the time, the war itself, the film drips of the atmosphere of Italy's streets, both urban and rural. Even in the apparently more prosperous north of Italy, donkeys and bicycles are as much part of the transportation web as (rickety) trains and trucks, while the truckers look as worn as the men of The Wages of Fear, a bone-weary exhaustion that infects the main characters, too, most famously in the sequence where Giovanna (Clara Calamai) falls asleep while eating pasta.

Visconti opens the film with brisk efficiency, quickly establishing the key triangle of characters, as well as the tensions that entwine them (there's also a wonderful crane shot, moving up over a parked truck, that reveals the trattoria where much of the action is centered), creating an atmosphere of desperation and foreboding that also pre-figures post-war American noir in all its bleakness. As with several of the later neo-realist features, Ossessione is something of a hybrid, amalgamating Visconti's developing personal style with conventions of lighting and music drawn from popular cinema (there are moments when the music heavy-handedly emphasizes a spoken line, particularly a sequence where the police promise to return with more questions), but the strong performances and oppressive atmosphere succeed in crafting a portrait of a society under tremendous strain, with a misguided moral compass.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States