Wednesday, April 7, 2010

An Aesthetic Participation in History: Bazin on La Terra Trema

In La Terra Trema, Visconti aimed at and unquestionably achieved a paradoxical synthesis of realism and aestheticism. Visconti has not had recourse to the effects one can produce from the juxtaposition of images. Each image here contains a meaning of its own which it expresses fully. This is the reason why it is difficult to see more than a tenuous relation between La Terra Trema and the Soviet cinema of the second half of the twenties, to which montage was essential. We may add now that it is not by means of symbolism in the imagery either that meaning manifests itself here, I mean, the symbolism to which Eisenstein resort.

The aesthetic peculiar to the image here is always plastic; it avoids any inclination to the epic. As staggeringly beautiful as the fishing fleet may be when it leaves the harbor, it is still just the village fleet, not, as in Potemkin, the enthusiasm and the support of the people of Odessa who send out the fishing boats loaded with food for the rebels. But, one may ask, where is art to take refuge if the realism one is proposing is so ascetic? Everywhere else. In the quality of the photography, especially. Our compatriot Aldo, who before his work on this film did nothing of real note and was known only as a studio cameraman, has here created a profoundly original style of image, unequaled anywhere (as far as I know) but in the short films which are being made in Sweden by Arne Sucksdorff.

The images of La Terra Trema achieve what is at once a paradox and tour de force in integrating the aesthetic realism of films like Citizen Kane with the documentary realism. If this is not, strictly speaking, the first time depth of focus has been used outside the studio, it is at least the first time it has been used as consciously and as systematically as it is here out of doors, in the rain and even in the dead of night, as well as indoors in the real-life settings of the fishermen's homes. I canot linger over the technical tour de force which this represents, but I would like to emphasize that depth of focus has naturally led Visconti (as it led Welles ) not only to reject montage but, in some literal sense, to invent a new kind of shooting script. His shots (if one is justified in retaining the term) are unusually long, some lasting three or four minutes. In each, as one might expect, several actions are going on simultaneously. Visconti also seems to have wanted, in some systematic sense, to base the construction of his image on the event itself. If a fisherman rolls a cigarette, he spares us nothing: we see the whole operation; it will not be reduced to its dramatic or symbolic meaning, as is usual with montage. The shots are often fixed frame, so people and things may enter the frame and take up position; but Visconti is also in the habit of using a special kind of panning shot which moves very slowly over a very wide arc: this is the only camera movement which he allows himself, for he excludes all tracking shots and, of course, every unusual camera angle.

The unlikely sobriety of this structure is possible only because of the remarkable plastic balance maintained a balance which only a photograph could absolutely render here. But above and beyond the merits of its purely formal properties, the image reveals an intimate knowledge of the subject matter on the part of the filmmakers. Visconti is worthy of the novelty of his triumph. Despite the poverty or even because of the simple "ordinariness" of this household of fishermen, an extraordinary kind of poetry, at once intimate and social,emanates from it.

In La Terra Trema, the actor, sometimes on camera for several minutes at a time, speaks, moves, and acts with complete naturalness, one might even say, with unimaginable grace. Visconti is from the theater. He has known how to communicate to the nonprofessionals of La Terra Trema something more than naturalness, namely that stylization of gesture that is the crowning achievement of an actor's profession. If festival juries were not what they are, the Venice festival prize for best acting should have gone to the fishermen of La Terra Trema.

In the world of cinema, it is not necessary that everyone approve every film, provided that what prompts the public's incomprehension can be compensated for by the other things. In other words, the aesthetic of La Terra Trema must be applicable to dramatic ends if it is to be of service in the evolution of cinema.

One has to take into account too, and this is even more disturbing, in view of what one has the right to expect from Visconti himself, a dangerous inclination to aestheticism. This great aristocrat, an artist to the tips of his fingers, is a Communist, too, do I dare say a synthetic one?

La Terra Trema lacks inner fire. One is reminded of the great Renaissance painters who, without having to do violence to themselves, were able to paint such fine religious frescoes in spite of their deep indifference to Christianity. I am not passing judgment on the sincerity of Visconti's communism. But what is sincerity? Obviously, at issue is not some paternalistic feeling for the proletariat. Paternalism is a bourgeois phenomenon, and Visconti is an aristocrat. What is at issue is, maybe, an aesthetic participation in history.

-- Andre Bazin (Esprit, 1948)

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