Review: Luchino Visconti's Ossessione (1943)

        Dir. Luchino Visconti
        Starring: Massimo Girotti, Clara Calamai

     Described frequently as one of the earliest neo-realist films, Luchino Visconti's directorial debut is an adaptation of James M. Cain's crime novel, later to become The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). Essentially banned by the Fascists at its release for its subversive portrayal of an extramarital affair and murder, the story centres around a handsome young drifter, Gino (Massimo Girotti). He wanders into a bar run by old man Bragana, comically grotesque husband to Giovanna (Clara Calamai). They begin an affair, eventually plotting to murder her husband and then making an attempt at living out their guilt-stained lives after the fact. For what remains a quite conventional noir framework, Visconti's technical virtuosity and flair for the tragic infuses the tale with fresh interest and a thoroughly Italian approach to postwar American fatalism. After Italy's crushing 1943 defeat, the country was occupied, humiliated, and its style could only be, by necessity and circumstance, 'crude'. (1) As such, Visconti - a Marxist, later arrested for aiding the Resistance - portrays the misery, solitude, lust and guilt of his protagonists, fully flouting the smarmy false optimism and cheer of Mussolini's 'white telephone' movie industry. The government remained deeply invested in cinema for purposes of boosting Italian morale, and producing escapist fare with nationalistic, traditionalist tendencies. Although many neo-realist directors (Rossellini, to name one) got their start at Cinecitta under Mussolini, the deeply anti-Catholic and anti-family values of Ossessione proved to be too outrageously against the grain to ignore. 

   If thought to be a neo-realist film, Ossessione is marked by the many generic descriptions of the movement. The naturalistic recording of ordinary Italian streets, shops, and bars in the Northern region in and around Ferrara, as well as its fascination with the landscape; its interest in the social dynamic between rich and poor, between the materialistic and the free-spirited, and in its earthy, frank characterisation. Yet, as his later films would prove in high operatic style, Visconti was always a formalist at heart; a perfectionist with an eye for framing painterly compositions and a love for the melodramatic. His actors are a good deal more glamourous than the supposed tenets of neo-realism would call for; both Girotti and Calamai, as the ill-fated lovers, were established Italian movie stars, with no small amount of personal beauty. Girotti anticipates the testosterone-drenched magnetism of a young Brando, with his broad shoulders and torn white vest; Visconti's many lingering shots on him serve, tangentially, as an interesting counterpoint to the prototypical erotic woman of film noir.

 Ultimately, Visconti's realism is a stylised one; the carefully constructed, almost alien beauty of his wide shots capture the whitewashed, flat landscapes of Northern Italy, dotted with black-ensconced, windswept figures moving like ants across the vast space. Gino and Giovanna are two such insects, occupying a grim, remote world where they flout all traditional morality for their love but still remain shackled to their worldly goods. In the end, they cannot remain part of the respectable social structures they have already jettisoned; they are doomed to be trapped between two worlds, and this simply cannot be. 

    Although Ossessione's moral and social rebellion against Mussolini's regime caused all but one negative film reel to be destroyed, and later a copyright dispute with MGM Studios precluded it from being seen in America for many years, its power withstands the test of time. The tragedy of its ending, the severe blacks and whites of its grainy remains (a quality which makes the film look startlingly older than many of its neo-realist contemporaries), and its atmosphere - described by Giuseppe De Santis as 'steeped in the air of death and sperm' (2) all create a singularly individual, broodingly dark picture which is fascinatingly particular to its time and place. 



(1) Passion and Defiance: Film in Italy from 1942 to Present', Mira Liehm. University of California Press, 1984. (55-56)

(2) BFI Video Publishing, Ossessione accompanying booklet

(3), Ossessione 


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