I am a great enthusiast of Italian neorealismo and indeed of most things Italian. Yet, I find the accolades "triumph" and "masterpiece" to be greatly overstated when applied to La terra trema.
This scripted documentary is engaging and moving: We watch real people in real places, and we care deeply about the protagonists. Yet, the film has considerable flaws, and in the end, I suggest it is "significant" and "important", but hardly a "masterpiece" or even "great".
First, Visconti never manages to get from his local actors the same level of natural screen presence that one finds in true masterpieces such Ladri di biciclette or Umberto D. Much of the acting comes across as
amateurish, with actors reciting and declaiming, acting-out anger by throwing their hats to the ground and waving their fists, and in general delivering lines that are too punchy to be authentic (regardless of Visconti's well-known efforts to involve the actors in the development of the dialogue and his decision to stick entirely to the local dialect, except for the narration).
More importantly, the film's message is heavy-handed to the point of becoming tiresome. And if the story and images are not sufficient in making you feel the pain, the narration is endlessly there to remind you of the misfortune of the protagonists. Visconti keeps hammering and hammering the suffering, until the opposite effect is achieved: the viewer becomes fatigued.
The narration is rife with communist propaganda (the hammer and sickle are visible on the sides of buildings). It reprimands Toni's neighbors for not joining his revolt, and announces to the audience something to the effect that in the future they must act unitedly if they are to alter their future!
Other than the Valascos and the bricklayer who is in love with Toni's sister, every character in the whole of Aci Trezza is portrayed negatively. The wholesalers are cartoonishly evil, Toni's girlfriend disappears when things turn for the worse, his neighbors are mocking him, pleased at his misfortunes; even the fisherman who risked his life to go search for him at sea somehow gets no credit when he brings him back --- as if Visconti is reluctant like to admit that one of his characters acted nobly.
The film drags this way for 160 minutes where 120 would have been quite sufficient. There are numerous points where one thinks "this would be a nice place to wrap it up", but Visconti has more
In the end, I greatly prefer the humanist agenda delivered more delicately and subtly by Visconti's contemporaries like Chaplin or De Sica.
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