Down and out, Gino (Massimo Girotti), gets dragged off the back of a lorry and finds himself at a rural inn belonging to the boorish, abusive Giuseppe Bragana (Juan de Landa) and his much younger wife, Giovanna (Clara Calamai). Gino and Giovanna immediately fall for each other and as soon as Giuseppe is away for an afternoon, they are in bed together and plotting how to get him out of the picture. After an aborted escape together, Giovanna refuses to go because her husband is still around and she seems to love the inn itself. Temporarily, they split and Gino heads off to find work in a nearby port town. He later meets the couple again and he and Giovanna set about planning to murder the old man. Giovanna chooses what is seemingly the lesser of two evils when she chooses Gino but he soon reveals himself to be manipulative and self-absorbed. He is seldom happy with the status quo, constantly whinging about where he was and where he could be, bored by stability but unsuccessful living on the road.
Released two years before Roberto Rossellini’s epochal Rome, Open City, Visconti’s debut feature* is a very early example of Italian Neo-realism**. Unlike later efforts – such as Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D. – where as many generic trappings as possible were stripped away, this is very much still a film noir-like story (it’s an adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice, after all). It has plot twists, an illicit affair, two lovers scheming and stylised lighting – including light streaming through Venetian blinds, which is handy because Venice is not far from the Po Valley where this is set.
It’s in the setting, more than anything, where we can see this as a precedent for the Neo-realist movement. The film is mainly shot on location using wides and mid-shots which, apart from allowing a distance on the constant dickishness of the characters, allows the audience to see their everyday surroundings. In more than one scene, we can look over the shoulders of the characters to see people going about their work in the fields and the towns. Visconti, a born aristocrat, had apparently been introduced to Marxism whilst working under Jean Renoir during the 1930s and alongside future filmmakers such as Rossellini, Federico Fellini and Giuseppe Di Santis, desired to depict Italian life onscreen. Thus, we still have the movie-faced stars, Girotti and Calamai but even so, how often do you see movie stars with a hairy back like what Girotti sports here? It’s gross but it’s real and it’s fair to assume that no other production at the time would allow such a ‘blemish’ to appear. Otherwise, Visconti fills the screen with faces and bodies that have lines and folds and scabs to give a sense of this genre story more accurately reflecting real stories outside the cinema under Mussolini, presumably with a view to the country’s cinema following suit. Happily, it did and the movement survived Fascism*** to change film forever.
*An unsubtitled clip but it gives a good indication of the style and I think you’ll guess who’s who.
**A good essay but sorry if you’re as irritated as I am by that guy’s voice.
***Unlike one of the film’s stars, Elio Marcuzzo who, tragically, in 1945 was wrongfully accused of being a fascist sympathiser and hanged by his countrymen a mere day after his 28th birthday.