The Earth Trembles is by far the most politically focused and ideologically aware of the all the Italian Neorealist films. No surprise, as it was partially funded by the PCI (Italian Communist Party), and directed by Luchino Visconti, an avowed lifelong Marxist. It concerns the life of the Valastros, a family of fishermen in a small village in Sicily. They live repetitive, subsistence-level lives along with other fishermen, earning a meagre daily wage handed out to them by the exploitative wholesalers who own the boats and the nets. One day, the head of the Valastro family, ‘Ntoni, leads a spontaneous protest and throws the scales that the wholesalers use to measure catches into the sea. Though he is arrested, the wholesalers decide not to press charges as he’s one of their best sailors. It is at this moment that ‘Ntoni has a new idea.
He convinces his family to mortgage the house which they have lived in for generations so they can obtain the capital to buy their own boat and proceed to fish for themselves. This newfound economic freedom gives them a lot more presence in the village, allowing ‘Ntoni enough money to start courting the girl he wants, whilst also ensuring that one of his sisters, who has a burgeoning relationship with a lowly builder, is now considered too rich to be worthy of his attentions, the builder himself breaking things off. Yet, tragedy strikes. The economic freedom of the boat provides no social freedom and no security, and the necessity of paying the mortgage means the Valastro men have to fish in all weathers. A storm wrecks their boat and their livelihood. The Valastros are plunged into extreme poverty and hunger, but ultimately ‘Ntoni finds his way back into the employ of the wholesalers, albeit not with his tail between his legs. No, there is a realisation in ‘Ntoni that the real way forward is not through bourgeois aspirations of owning the methods of production and of ownership of property, it is through collective security and solidarity.
The Earth Trembles, as a whole, mirrors the traditional Marxist theory of development – from the initial phase of a more feudal system, with the wholesalers exploiting the fishermen via their entrenched social status. Then there is the development of independent bourgeois capitalism, with ‘Ntoni’s buying of the boat and the beginnings of a socially mobile middle-class. And of course, the final phase of development, the inevitable socialist revolution, implied by the film’s final scenes.
Visconti films The Earth Trembles with a mixture of both standard Neorealistic style, and a more keen, painterly aesthetic, one likely picked up from Visconti’s time in France working with Jean Renoir and the French Poetic Realists. There are long takes that scope out the bustle of the wholesalers market and the worried faces of the fishermen as they anxiously await to see how much their catch will have bought them. There are scenes of simplistic lighting and even simpler cinematic staging, juxtaposed with scenes of quite startling poetry; whilst the men go out into the storm and have yet to return, the Valastro women stand on the rocks of the shore, waiting anxiously for the return of their men. They are photographed from below in black veils, the sea wind battering their hair, yet they stand against it, statue-esque and terrified. It is a startlingly beautiful scene.
The first half of the film has the feel of a documentary, with all the amateur cast, drawn from the village in which The Earth Trembles was filmed, speaking in Sicilian dialect, a dialect nigh-on unintelligible to mainland Italian. “Italian is not spoken by the poor in Sicily” states the voiceover narration, a narration in standardised Italian, giving the film even more of a documentary atmosphere. We see the ‘basic facts’ of the fishermen’s lives – their daily work, their habits, the outlay of the village, all documented by the narration, though as the film becomes more intimate with the Valastro family, the narration drops away. Unfortunately, this being Luchino Visconti, a magnificent director who quite often struggled to keep his films to a decent length, The Earth Trembles drags out to a length of two-and-a-half hours, and it is not a fast-moving film at all. This is the film’s main issue: the documentary value and the Marxist point-of-view is fascinating to analyse, but does little to produce a genuinely engaging film on the level of other Neorealist works like Umberto D. or Paisan.
It is however, still a strong film, especially if you’re interested in cinema’s history and influence upon political and social discourse. It is at times aesthetically beautiful in a way few Neorealism films are – try and find a shot in a single Roberto Rossellini film that is as exquisitely composed as the scene I wrote of earlier – and it remains a uniquely politicised film like few others. It is no surprise that one of Italy’s most intelligent directors of political cinema, Francesco Rosi, worked for the first time as an assistant director alongside Luchino Visconti on The Earth Trembles.