La Terra Trema (1948)


The enduring image from the opening section is the fishermen strung together by the twirled net sagging between them. They return successfully but their catch embodies not just life but death, too; buried macabre futility. Later these nets are hung with shimmering anchovies like silver icicles. Later still they are gone.

The deceased father is a hole at the centre: the void at the edge of which these people live; but also a lost wartime generation, therefore clash of old and young across another void. “It can’t go on!” says Antonio, a Yeatsian implosion.

“An old stone house like any other, yet it is unmistakably the house of a sicilian fisherman.” This is here and everywhere; it is deracination; it is Breughel’s portraits, a national story that is “signification without context” (Levinas, Totality); it, through Antonio, is Rukeyser’s Otto, the German volunteer in 30s Spain, in ‘Mediterranean’, a symbol of “the single issue”:

“…his gazing Brueghel face,

square forehead and eyes, strong square breast fading.”

The scales thrown into the sea! Potemkin moment in the midst of a skirmish thundering like the siege of the Tartars in Andrei Rublev. Aci Trezza’s brief flame is Pilar’s embedded story in For Whom The Bell Tolls. It is not enough to hear, and it is not enough to see when what you’re seeing is externally directed (the tanks in ‘Under The Ridge’ – also Hemingway’s – which “crawl clinking on towards the illusion of victory we screened.” Otto, like Antonio, is “no highlight hero”) You have to see. “Pilar had made him see it in that town.”

The islands! A kraken’s canines (“isole dei ciclopi” to the locals). Cola flees the town, promised exterior abundance (Mr Pip: “so much of the world seemed to be elsewhere”) Notes of Stromboli, but if Bergman simply finds god then Antonio is a Job who seems only able to exist in this place: “No one will help him. Not in Aci Trezza.” Hope dangled at the end when the boat is being fixed; beached like the huge ghostly hull in Uzak, its ribs arching upwards from the sand like a leviathan. (LTT tessellates interestingly with Stromboli, incidentally; the incredible fishing scenes around which Rossellini built the latter are only glanced at here. No level gaze at externality – when Cola leaves we see only his hung head)

“Even more anchovies than officials!” The family working with the silver fish is a joy. Women’s laughing faces of all ages, a child eerily like the boy from Paisà (two years earlier) reunited.

The storm bell! The waiting women on the cliffs! black gowns waving like death; Tarr in the street. (Dreyer too I bet)

Brothers’ Hamsun-esque desperate degradation; sisters’ slow dissolution into domestic gothic.

“We kept the wolf from the door for a moment, but now there’s no hope.” Sense of alluring fascism (Cola entranced by the man in the leather coat) crushed at the end: in the wholesalers’ office, grinning under MUSSOLINI, “hunger drives the wolf from his lair!” they bray. The Valestros are the threat; they’ve been whipped into line.

That bell returning at eviction, lingering ringing under next the celebrations of the new boats, the sickly preposterous Baroness under the same umbrella as the bailiffs, bestowing wreathed servitude on the cheering town, the bell still underneath. No man is an island.

Recalled Philip Fisher’s use of the term “manual” in ‘The Failure of Habit’: ie. “that part of any realistic novel or memoir independent of the line of action, suspense, and adventure, that part that documents how lives are lived as a means to celebrate or denounce styles of life.” Associates habit (repetition, behaviour) with ‘manual’ production, but in LTT the town’s habits both force Antonio’s hand and suppress his neighbours: the distinction is thus obliterated (c/ Rome Open City, untouchable but for the bathetically melodramatic conclusion – though LTT tends towards the same there is developmental cohesion)

Breughel’s The Blind Leading The Blind, but also (more so) Hunters In The SnowMost of LTT takes place in the middle-distance, people facing and walking away or to and fro, we observing rhythms. (Lowry too) But at the centre is a hole, the fruitless repetition and frustration, the need for more. (Tarkovsky also Nostalghia flashbacks in the crumbling streets, Mirror in the family)

This is germinal; it’s lambs’ breath; it’s the shaking earth! It’s what made cloistered Eliot tremble:

What is that sound high in the air

Murmur of maternal lamentation

Who are those hooded hordes swarming

Over endless plains, stumbling over cracked earth

It’s The Spanish Earth. “This Spanish earth is dry and hard, and the faces of the men who work that earth are hard and dry from the Sun.” Fuentadueña is Aci Trezza. This is Auden’s yesterday and today. Yet though the politics are clear, this is the defeatist first part of an uncompleted trilogy. It is the earth that shakes; it is out to sea that those nearly-widows face on their tempest vigil.

I loved Moonlight in part because I felt really glad not just that I’d seen it but that it even existed, that someone had made it. Proud, even. This is what the real family depicted in La Terra Trema had to say about Visconti’s work:

“The Family Valestro wishes to express publicly its gratitude to Luchino Visconti and his collaborators for making their story known to Italy and the world through La Terra Trema. We are profoundly grateful for the experience we underwent together, from which we have reaped the highest hopes for our future.”



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