OSSESSIONE (Luchino Visconti, 1942)

Aristocrat and also Communist, Luchino Visconti combines elegance and earthiness in Obsession, a languorous melodrama of adultery and murder involving a drifter (Massimo Girotti), an innkeeper and his wife (Clara Calamai, astounding). Visconti had apprenticed in the 1930s to Jean Renoir, whose liberated use of camera Visconti adopted, and whose Toni (1934) is an especial thematic influence. Ossessione is the first great work of neorealismo, here blended with the moody fatalism of French poetic realism.
     Neorealism revitalized Italian cinema. Use of northern landscape, close attention to human behavior, a focus on the downtrodden, the human cost of poverty and economic marginalization: these supply neorealist credentials to Ossessione.
     One of the contributors to the script, Angelo Pietrangeli, would write about it: “Ferrara, its squares, its gray and deserted streets; Ancona and its San Ciriaco Fair; the Po and its sandy banks; a landscape streaked with a rubble of cars and men along the network of highways. Against this backdrop are silhouetted the wandering merchants, mechanics, prostitutes and inn boys who have all the typical innocent exuberances, beset by violent proletarian love affairs, primitive anger, and the sins that flesh is heir to.” The somewhat grandiose nature of this description perfectly suits Visconti’s film, with its operatic sense of spectacle and its grand passions—all, here at least, given compelling form by Visconti’s artistic rigor.
     Unfortunately, trouble with censors and with copyright laws delayed the film’s appearance worldwide, leaving the false impression that others were more instrumental in inventing Italian neorealism than Visconti, and helping to obscure Renoir’s contribution. Ossessione is an “illegal” adaptation of James M. Cain’s American novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, which Hollywood would badly film twice (1946, 1981), but which György Fehér, in Hungary, would again lift to the level of art in Szenvedély (Passion, 1998).

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