Wednesday, February 13, 2013

La Terra Trema

Merging decadent style with revolutionary content, La Terra Trema is very much a product of the contradictions of director Luchino Visconti, aristocrat by birth and communist by choice. Rarely has any film purporting neo-realism—natural settings, unprofessional actors, documentary-style voiceover—contained such rampant aestheticism. (Even when filming dirty, decaying hovels, Visconti can’t stop himself from scattering mirrors on seemingly every wall.) However, the film’s immaculate compositions and sumptuous camera movements lend grandeur to the Valastros, a Sicilian fishing family that tries—and fails, disastrously—to overthrow the wholesalers exploiting them to the very last lire. Reducing poverty to aesthetics risks condescending to the disadvantaged by suggesting they have somehow been ennobled by suffering. Visconti elevates his characters to the state of tragic heroes while never denying their own hubris and folly, which only compounds the injustices inflicted upon them. The whole world seems arrayed against the defiant family: the cackling wholesalers, the villagers who sneer at any attempt to destroy the crushing old order, and even the absurdly cartoonish smuggler (one can easily imagine him opening his trenchcoat to reveal a line of fine imitation Rolexes). Assaulted from without and betrayed from within, the Valastros flail through their erstwhile revolt until falling prey to their own weaknesses, whether pride, lust, greed or simple human frailty. The family ends humbled and devastated, discovering themselves to be naked beneath the chains they have thrown off.

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