The opening titles of “La terra trema” (“The Earth Will Tremble”, 1948) declare that the film takes place in the Sicilian fishing village of Aci Trezza, but that its events occur anywhere that “men exploit other men.” If you hadn't already guessed that a film about the plight of Sicilian fishermen was not going to be particularly uplifting, director Luchino Vicsonti lets you know from the get go.
Indeed, there isn't much about “La terra trema” that is left unstated. The titles also announce that the film is cast with real villagers who express “their rebellion, pains and hopes” and an unfortunate narration (added after the fact by Visconti as a sop to marketability) tells us exactly what everyone is feeling, thinking and doing at every point in time, and exactly how we're supposed to feel about it.
What the film lacks in narrative subtlety, however, it gains back in its graceful framing that captures both the beauty and the misery of Aci Trezza with a documentary-like clarity, and this concrete lived-in sense is augmented by the non-professional cast. Spencer Tracy is one of several people credited with the claim that good acting mostly involves not tripping over the furniture, a reminder that one of the most difficult things to do in front of a camera is simply to move in a coordinated, naturalistic manner. That's not a skill many of the film's performers have mastered, and scene after scene features clunky, fragmented blocking with actors trying hard to hit a specific mark at a specific time and hiding none of their efforts to do so. You might think this a problem, but in “La terra trema,” this self-consciousness increases our sympathy for very real people whose “pains and hopes” aren't hidden behind any silky technique.
Ntoni (Antonio Arcidiacono) is the heart of the film, a hard-working fisherman who tires of seeing opportunistic merchants benefit from his back-breaking labor. After a confrontation with the vendors on the wharf, Ntoni convinces his family to mortgage the house in order to raise capital to hire a fishing crew of his own. The budding entrepreneur strikes the anchovy mother lode, but just as soon as his fortune is salted away, the weather deals him a vicious blow. Sensing blood in the water, both the fish merchants and the bankers move in for the kill, with Ntoni's family equally fair and vulnerable targets for the predators. If you're expecting a triumphant story of resistance, I refer you back to the opening credits.
Ntoni spends much of the film's second half wandering around a hometown that no longer has any use for him – his fellow workers have turned on him too, delighted by the downfall of the uppity neighbor who dared to think he was better than the rest. Arcidiacono inhabits the role with ease, with each weary expression and slumped posture evidence of Ntoni's righteous rage dissolving into resignation. He seems to shrink with each dream that he abandons first to the bottle and then to the smug merchants who dance on his metaphorical grave. Watching Ntoni swallow his pride is a grueling experience, particularly in a film stretched out to two hours and forty minutes, but it's an experience that's difficult to shake.
Any director who makes a beautiful film about impoverished people risks being accused of aestheticizing suffering, and Visconti had to deal with his share of critiques even from fellow Marxists, but the film's reputation as one the significant achievements of Italian neorealism is secure. It's a rough slog, especially for viewers who aren't prepared for the tedium of life in Aci Trezza (that, at least, is not gussied up one bit), but “La terra trema” shows that Visconti, with just his second feature, was already a master of the medium.
Adapted from the 1881 novel “I Malavoglia” by Giovanni Verga.
The film is presented in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The interlaced transfer has its flaws: intermittent damage from the source print as well as a generally unimpressive degree of black-and-white contrast. However, the level of image detail is generally strong, and the damage is not extensive. I gather from a quick search that the previous Region 1 release by Image in 2002 was fraught with problems, and that's certainly not the case here. It would be great to see a full restoration and a high-def transfer for this film, but what we've got here from Entertainment One is solid if unremarkable.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 track is similar in quality to the video. The music occasionally sounds a bit warbly, but not too often,and the ambient sounds of the village are clear enough. The opening titles state that the villagers speak Sicilian, not Italian, but the DVD is indicated as being in Italian. Unfortunately my Italian grandmother is no longer around to clear up matters for me. Regardless, optional English subtitles are provided for the Sicilian and/or Italian dialogue.
Nothing, darn it.
Visconti's not-quite-three-hour fishing movie is not exactly a thrill a minute, and it's undermined by the redundant narration. But “La terra trema” is a vivid portrait of Sicilian life, and one of Visconti's finest early films. The bare-bones DVD is a disappointment, but just having the movie available in a competent Region 1 transfer is a great service.
Please check out Jim Plath's review of Visconti's "Bellissima," also released by E1 Entertainment.