PEOPLE OF THE PO VALLEY (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1943)

The following is one of the entries from my 100 Greatest Films from Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal list, which I invite you to visit on this site if you haven’t already done so. — Dennis

Released in 1947, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Gente del Po is a documentary, some of whose material involving a woman’s care of her sick young daughter feels scripted, possibly “reconstructed.” Luchino Visconti’s documentary-like, also nonprofessionally cast La terra treme (1948), about struggling Sicilian fishermen, surely was influenced by Gente del Po, which with its lyrical river barges itself looks back to Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934), and ahead to Antonioni’s fictional Il grido (1957), also set amidst melancholy gray landscapes in the Po Valley.
     Numerous shots divide the frame, such as the overhead one of a barge, center-left, proceeding forward, displacing water while still untouched water appears ahead. Humanity, even when invisible, is the key; we are conscious of the human activity involved in the barge’s motion and use. In another “divided shot,” a barge proceeds screen-right, with water below and land, including houses, above: a summation of the environment in which people, also excluded here, live and work.
     Human figures appear in both long-shot and closeup, communally and as individuals. In an extreme long-shot from the vantage of the river, a solitary galloping horse projects an otherwise unavailable freedom and possibly reflects on the German occupation. In a bravura shot the camera moves leftward like a barge, but on land, as women under large white hats rake the ground. Down below on the barge “Milano,” the mother feeds her child medicine as an identical hat hangs on the wall.
     The tremendous final movement depicts a gathering storm, with its dire potential for flood. People now move quickly to their homes, disrupting the rhythms to which the film has accustomed us. The storm subsides, but the impression of human vulnerability lingers. This conclusion owes something to the snowstorm in Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922).

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