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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: La Terra Trema; Conversation Piece



LA TERRA TREMA (Episodio del Mare) (Four Stars)

Italy: Luchino Visconti, 1948 (IFC/eone)

Luchino Visconti was a son of the Italian aristocracy —   Count Luchino Visconti di Modrone, to be exact — whose politics throughout his life were resolutely leftist, socialist  and fervently sympathetic to the working class, and the Visconti film where those politics are most obvious, is the 1948 neo-realist masterpiece La Terra Trema. Set in Aci Trezza, a fishing village on the east coast of Sicily, and cast entirely with local Sicilian non-professsionals, the film steeps us in the sights and sounds of the world of the fishermen — their work, their lives and their families — while bitterly attacking the companies and wholesalers who buy their fish, and exploit them financially.

As we watch one family, the Valastros, try to break through the vicious circle, buy their own boat and sell their own catch, we’re almost always aware of the great sea that surrounds them, the ocean whose waves crash inexorably down on the shores and beaches — and to which the fishermen keep returning every night in their boats to cast their nets, shine their lights (to attract and catch the fish) and try to earn their meager livelihood. This sea, beautiful and dangerous, sustains them, but it can also swallow them up. That’s nearly what we see La Terra Trema (which translates as The Earth Trembles): how a family is torn apart and destroyed by the relentless storms and hazards of the sea and the exploitive social conditions in Fascist and post-Fascist Italy (in the village, Mussolini’s slogans are still on the walls), by the greed of the fish marketers and by the refusal of the other fishermen to band together with the Valastros to form a cooperative and try to improve their lot.

La Terra Trema is an almost didactic and preachy leftist film, which often tells you how it feels. (Visconti, along with Antonio Pietrangeli, writes and speaks the narration himself.) But there‘s a majesty in the images of landscape and sea, and an unforced naturalism in the performances, by the actual villagers of Aci Trezza, that both pull you deeply into the human side of the story. The Valastros and the others (including the company men who exploit them) portray themselves with amazing honesty and natural skill. They show us much of their daily routine: how they go out in the boats, how they get their daily catch, how the fish are brought to market, weighed and later salted and prepared for sale. It’s a fascinating spectacle.

It’s not a documentary, though it sometimes feels like one — and those work scenes have the veracity of a documentary. Visconti adapted his movie from “I Malavoglia” (“The House by the Medlar Tree”), the well-known classic 1881 novel by Giovanni Verga (a master of Italian literary realism or “verismo”) — and though he made many changes, the story has a classical construction and staging that reminds you that Visconti was also one of Italy‘s preeminent directors of theater and opera. “Operatic” is a word you might justly apply to La Terra Trema, which treats the main family  like the tragic clans or protagonists in an opera by Verdi or Mascagni — giving their predicaments a heightened theatricality that goes a bit beyond the pathos and heartbreak of other post-war neo-realist dramas set in poverty, by Rossellini and De Sica. We could call Rossellini’s Open City or De Sica’s Shoeshine tragic films, and certainly both of them have more violent and terrible endings than La Terra Trema. But they also don’t have quite the scope and sweep and symmetry of Visconti’s film — or that majestic backdrop of the sights and sounds of the sea, the huge waves beating on the shores behind the characters.

The movie’s main character, the rebellious and ambitious Ntoni Valastro, is played by Antonio Arcidiaconi, and his admiring younger brother Cola is played by Antonio‘s real-life brother Giuseppe. (Visconti gives many of the villagers the same Christian names as the actors who play them, and “Ntoni“ is a diminutive of  “Antonio.“) Since Ntoni and Cola’s father is dead — a victim of the sea — they are the main breadwinners for the family. along with their grandfather and their two little bothers , who comprise with them the five man (and boy) fishing crew. At home, taking care of the household and shore tasks are their mother (Maria Micale) and their sisters, including the older girls Mara (Nelluccia Giammona) and Lucia (Agnese Giammona).

There’s a wealth of supporting characters too: the hundreds of villagers we see on the streets and beaches of Aci Trezza include Ntoni’s pretty, charming girlfriend Nedda (Rosa Costanza), Mara’s shy suitor, the house-repairer Nicola (Nicola Castorini), and Lucia’s big-wig admirer, the local head of the carabinieri, Don Salvatore (Rosario Galdagno). Very aptly representing the local businessman is Raimondo Valastro (an ironic last name here) as Raimondo, who finds in Ntoni Valastro his natural antagonist.

The film‘s first great turning point occurs in a scene on the huge pier, where Ntoni becoms incensed and hurls away the scales used in the fish weighing. Tossed into jail by Raimondo, he is later released (a clever maneuver to avoid discord). But when Ntoni is unable to organize the other fishermen into a co-operative to counteract Raimondo‘s low fees, he and his family take out a mortgage on their old stone house to buy a new boat and set up their own sales and business. Ntoni, whose more progressive ideas stem from his military service in the nigger cities outside Aci Trezza, has the moxie of a young climber and businessman-to-be himself. He even woos sexy, flirtatious Nedda (a beauty for whom her parents want to corral a rich husband) by telling her “A rich man today can be poor tomorrow. But a poor man today, if he has brains, can be rich tomorrow.”

Ntoni’s plans all seem to work beautifully until the saga’s second great turning point. A storm, which catches the Valastro family’s boat too far out at sea, ruinously damages the vessel and their chances for the future, and begins plunging them all toward increasing hardships and catastrophe, which are excruciatingly detailed in the film‘s final sections.

The story is haunting and sad, and so richly detailed that it seems plucked not just from Verga and verismo, but straight from life. And though Visconti’s narration (which I like) sometimes tells us what to think and is sometimes a little preachy (in the manner of many 19th century novels, including some of the best, one always feels that the emotions, of both characters and narrators, are sincere and deeply felt. La Terra Trema, like the other neo-realist classics. seems full of love for both its people and its milieu. Their plight becomes a permanent part of our cinematic memory.

Visconti started his career in France as Jean Renoir’s costume designer and assistant director on 1936’s A Day in the Country and The Lower Depths — and he had already become famous for his 1942 directorial debut, Ossesssione, the early neo-realist film noir based (illegally) on James M. Cain’s “The Postman Always Rings Twice.“ Then he made this extravagantly ambitious second film — as ambitious a leap, in some ways, for Visconti as Ntoni‘s fishing business was for him. But, as in his earlier, simpler Ossessione, he shows the hand of a master. His cinematographher was G. R. Aldo (Aldo Graziati), who also shot Miracle in Milan and Umberto D for De Sica, and Othello for Orson Welles. (Aldo’s camera operator was the matchless Gianni di Venanzo, later Fellini’s cinematographer on 8 ½). And the ex-assistant director Visconti had two pretty fair assistants himself on La Terra Trema: the future major Italian film directors Francesco Rosi and Franco Zeffirelli.

In the film, Visconti and his magnificent company captured black-and-white images, of the calm or thunderous sea and the bustling or placid village, which still ravish they eye, and performances that still seem amazingly convincing and accomplished, as natural and free as the wind over the ocean. Visconti obviously cast for looks as well as talent, but good as the performances are — especially the feisty Arcidiacono brothers and the luminous Giammona girls — none of the actors became well-known professionals. Ironically, they became screen immortals of a kind anyway, because they made up the grnad ensemble of  La Terra Trema, one of the great Italian films by one of the Italian cinema‘s greatest creators.

Ironically too, none of these actors receive individual screen credit in Terra Trema. They are simply listed en masse as “Interpretato da Pescatori Siciliani” (“played by Sicilian fisherman“). No doubt this reflects the youthful social philosophy of the young Visconti, and perhaps the priorities of some postwar Marxist film critics and theorists. But why shouldn’t the fisher people of Aci Trezza get what’s due them, as actors as well as fishers? I wish someone would go back and add, at the end of all future prints of this masterpiece, a full credits list of all the people who played their parts, and who gave their lives, so freely and so well, to Maestro Luchino Visconti and to La Terra Trema. (In Italian, with English subtitles.)


CONVERSATION PIECE (Gruppo di Famiglia in un Interno) (Three and a Half Stars)
Italy: Luchino Visconti. 1974 (RaroVideo)

Artists often do their best, most original,  work when they focus on something close to their world and themselves, something they know well. But audiences, and critics, won’t always follow them there. The aristocratic and brilliant Italian filmmaker Luchino Visconti had very little knowledge and experience of the life of Sicilian fishermen when he started on La Terra Trema at the behest of Italy’s Communist Party, but the film that resulted was a classic-to-be that earned (deservedly) laudatory reviews than and now. In 1974, when he released his penultimate film — called Conversation Piece in English, and Gruppo di Famiglia in un Interno in Italian — he was ignored by audiences and mocked by critics, especially American ones, even though in this film, he was portraying people — the Italian aristocratic and intellectual classes — whom he knew very weill, in a milieu (the Roman gentry) he had occupied for most of his life, centering on a character, the nameless “Il Professore“ played by Burt Lancaster, that he admitted was modeled on himself, with another character, of the young kept man and one-time revolutionary Konrad who trikes up a friendship with The Professor, played by Helmut Berger, who was at the time Visconti’s boyfriend.

Of course, in real life, Helmut Berger wasn’t a revolutionary, and neither really, was Visconti, whose ties to the Communists had been common knowledge for years, but who was now an old man of 66, paralyzed, in a wheelchair. recovering from a stroke suffered on his last film, the 1972 Ludwig (also starring Beerger). Conversation Piece was a chamber movie by necessity: shot almost entirely ( to accommodate Visconti’s infirmity), on a set representing an elegant two-storied apartment in Rome, owned by the Professor and filled with his books, paintings and precious artifacts. Because of all this though, Conversation Piece is, beyond question (as Mark Rappaport says in his excellent notes for the RaroVideo DVD of the film), one of the most personal films Visconti ever made, one of the most personal films any major filmmaker ever made.  That Visconti, who should have been applauded for his courage in making this film (as John Huston was when he sat in a wheelchair making, brilliantly, The Dead), was instead subjected to ridicule because of it, simply shows how dangerous it can be to speak of yourself unguardedly, when you’re most vulnerable — and maybe how dangerous it is to be old and dying, in society that, as the movie shows, is obsessed with youth and beauty.

The screenplay for Conversation Piece was by Enrico Medioli, Visconti and Visconti’s frequent writing partner Suso Cecchi d’Amico  — and their story, based on Medioli’s book, is built around the outrageous invasion of the Professor‘s beautifully packed Roman apartment by a family/household of totally irresponsible, selfish sensualists, the still stunning but insufferable Marchesa Bianca Brumonti (Silvana Mangano), her cute, promiscuous daughter Lietta (Claudia Marsani), Lietta’s impudent boyfriend Sefano (Stefano Patrizi), and the Marchesa’s glowering and seductive gigolo Konrad Huebel (Berger), who seems to be trying to seduce the Professor too.

The Marchesa, a woman of astounding cheek, comes to inquire about the apartment and then, somewhat mysteriously. takes over the professor’s upper floor and proceeds to “remodel” it, trashing his possessions, tearing out walls, painting the new ones all-white and covering them with trashily chic, second rate abstract paintings that seem almost a pop parody of the classical painting the professor treasures below. In addition, she and her out-of-control children party, have orgies and play loud, loud rock music that pounds through the Professor‘s walls. As if that weren’t enough, Konrad’s revolutionary past catches up to him and he gets visits from violent men, and the Professor has to put him in the secret room that was previously used, during WW2, to hide Jews and partisans. But, as the Professor, a reclusive, quiet and solitary man haunted by memories of his wife (Claudia Cardinale) and mother (Dominique Sanda), watches and endures this amazingly inconsiderate family, a strange thing begins to happen. He starts to fall in love with them — not just Konrad, or the statuesque Marchesa, but all of them.

When you tell the story like that, it’s obvious that Conversation Piece is basically a comedy, maybe about bad tenants, though Visconti certainly doesn’t play it that way. If he had, instead of driving the material and the Professor toward tragedy, he probably wouldn’t have gotten roasted by the New York critics. If you imagine Conversation Piece as a screwball comedy –a kind of Ball of Fire or My Man Godfrey amonf Roman upper class sybarites gione amok — it becomes very funny indeed. Instead, it sometimes feels like a Mozart comic opera that was taken over by Alberto Moravia.

What the film also has though is a gorgeous vision of paradise (lost or being lost), ViscontI-style. With incredibly beautiful production design (by Mario Garbuglia) and crystalline cinematography (by Pasqualino De Santis) surrounding a performance of impressive gravity and sensitivity by Lancaster (who was great also for Visconti as the Pirnce de Lampedusa in Visconti’s The Leopard) and several other performances of bizarre narcissistic nuttiness by the Marchesa’s clan. The movie doesn’t quite work as a half-serious drama (as a mad dark comedy, it might have been a masterpiece), but it‘s engrossing and rewarding in ways that many more successful movies aren’t.

The title “Gruppo di Famiglia in un Interno” refers to a genre of painting — depicting families in rich home interiors — that Il Professore loves and collects. It also refers to the real life gruppo di famiglia who take over his home and his life and drive this calm, quiet, cultured man to…..Madness? Distraction? Infatuation? In any case, Visconti knows very well this milieu, and even better these people. Maybe they are as crazy and destructive as he paints them. He was a suoerb artist, whether painting Sicilian fishermen or Roman academics and orgiasts. He earned the right to be silly and personal, and to fall in love unwisely, like the Professor, like Ludwig, and like Allida Valli in Senso. (This is the English language version of Conversation Piece.)

Extras: Interview with critic/screenwriter Alessandro Benccivenni; Trailer; Booklet, with Mark Rappaport essay and Visconti biography.


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon