I’ve reviewed two Luchino Visconti films in the past: the impossibly devastating La Terra Trema and the wildly prophetic Bellissima (about a mother obsessed with making her baby girl a star). By no means does that make me some kind of authority on Italian neorealism, I just know I really dig the tragedy inherit in these stories. They’re so effective in translating misfortune through visuals and mise-en-scene as well, to the point that it makes dialogue almost seem unnecessary. Simply put, those two films really tickle my bummer bone the right way. That’s why I was excited to learn that Visconti’s first film is an adaptation of James M. Cain’s seedy masterpiece The Postman Always Rings Twice. For his screen version, Visconti managed to wipe away the hardboiled-ness of the original story in place of his signature sense of tragedy. The result is Ossessione, an exceptional debut and wholly unique take on a roman noir classic.
Ossessione follows Cain’s story pretty damn closely, with the exception of an additional character. A drifter named Gino (Massimo Girotti) winds up stranded at a shabby truck-stop, where he crosses paths with Giovanna (Clara Calamai). Beneath the nose of her husband, Bragana, Gino and Giovanni begin a lusty affair that leads to murder. The two restless souls, now connected through the bonds of crime and punishment, begin to drift apart. As the police close in on Gino, he contemplates leaving Giovanna. While once he couldn’t keep his paws off of her, he begins lusting over another woman. His boner grows despite Giovanna’s ability to have him locked up for the murder of her husband. When she reveals that she’s pregnant, Gino mans up, only to be kicked down by the unforgiving boots of fate.
(If that synopsis sounded like a massive spoiler, give me a break. Cain’s original story is 80 years old, ya baby).
The additional character in Visconti’s retelling is La Spagnola, a charismatic, gay tramp who Gino meets on a train. He serves as a symbol for Gino as the type of life drifting can bring. Why settle down with Giovanna when you can roam Europe making quick cash here and there and having a jovial time with no restrictions? That is the attitude of La Spagnola that attempts to lure Gino away from his desire. The funny thing is, of course, if Gino had followed La Spagnola, he wouldn’t find himself being pursued by the cops and in a guilt-ridden daze all of the time, barreling towards his doom. Take that as a reminder, kids. Follow the tramps.
As I mentioned earlier, Visconti drained the story of all of its hardboiled, cynical elements in favor of a much more classical tragedy feel. Much of this is expressed in his visuals, which include a litany of beautifully sad moments. One exceptional example is after the murder, when Giovanna is alone in the truck-stop’s dining area at night. It’s dark inside and she’s left with a bowl of soup and a newspaper. As she sips and reads, she slowly falls asleep on her arm. It’s an incredibly subtle and effective bit that expresses the loss of her drive and provides the audience with a deeper look at her misery. She believed murdering her husband would lead to the ideal happily ever after with Gino. Instead, she’s sleeping on heaps of misery.
Both Gino and Giovanna move through their scenes in a potently minimalist manner. Dialogue is stripped down as well – replaced with gestures and longing stares. It’s really emotional work presented on a very natural palette. Visconti’s use of long and medium shots is highly effective as well. It sort of inject the two main characters in this inescapable poem of desolation and human ruin.
(Did I really just write that last sentence? I must have neorealism fever or something. Anyone got any antibiotics? I feel faint from this review’s lack of punchy grammar hardboiled insight. Ah well, forward we march…)
Ossessione is unarguably a milestone in the Italian neorealist movement, but it almost never saw the light of day again after a few screenings in 1943. The Fascist government and Church leaders condemned the film and had it banned, which must be put into historical context to make any sense. This is one of the tamest murder tales I’ve ever seen, but the Fascists came into power in the German occupied part of Italy just that year (1943), so shit was real delicate and the government wanted absolutely nothing that could incite the people. Hence the ban on a film that contains murder and infidelity. The Fascists went so far as to destroy the film’s negatives. Thankfully, Visconti had an extra copy stashed away. This single print is the one source from which all existing copies have been reproduced.
While hiding his own print was smart on Visconti’s part, he never actually secured the rights to the novel, which was owned by the fat cats at MGM in the U.S. While the Fascists still had the film banned, MGM had come out with its own version of Cain’s story, the 1946 adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice starring John Garfield and Lana Turner. This prevented Ossessione from being distributed in the U.S. until 1976. Despite the three decades of collecting dust, the film was acclaimed in the U.S., with many applauding it as the first true example of Italian neorealism.
I’ll be reviewing the two other major adaptations of Cain’s story next, though I’m glad I started with Visconti’s version first. Initially I chose to do so because I’m a slave to chronological order when it comes to watching a themed series of films, but it’s definitely going to be SO different from the other versions. I’m glad I watched the black sheep first. Visconti’s take on Postman is probably as real and as tragic as it’s gonna get – meaning it bummed me the hell out. At least the 1946 one has the hardboiled edge and the 1981 take has Jack Nicholson’s butt to cheer me up. Anyways, check out Ossessione is you have the chance and wanna be thrown in a ditch of depression (in a good way).
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