The post-World War II films that emerged from Italy from the mid-forties to the early fifties represent, to me, one of the strongest and most vital periods of filmmaking ever. Some truly great directors worked within the Italian neorealism film movement, and the gritty and truthful movies they made really captured a country in moral and economic transition. These films were grounded in real characters (often portrayed by non-actors) struggling with relatable problems of every day existence with recurrent themes of poverty and desperation. And yet, they were also filled with such life, passion, and simplicity. Relying on concise storytelling and genuine human emotion, these films just feel inherently real even so many decades later. One of the masters of the period, Luchino Visconti, has two classics being dropped onto the DVD market on the same day: a re-release of 1948's "La Terra Trema" (long out of print) and 1951's "Bellissima" (incredibly getting its North American DVD debut). Of course, anyone with an interest in international cinema should have a particular interest in these titles.
La Terra Trema (4 stars): Of the two films, this might be the purest example of neorealism. The entire film takes place on location in an Italian coastal village. The cast is made up of non-professional actors who really seem to be at one with the material. The lengthy film (2 hours and 40 minutes) charts the disintegration of a typical Sicilian fishing clan. When the family gets tired of being taken advantage of by local wholesalers, they embark on a brave plan to work for themselves and take their product direct to market with no middleman. But their effort to better their existence is met with contempt by the town and when they fall into hardship, their troubles are met with indifference and pettiness. This is no fairy tale, but a bitterly unpleasant look at a family ostracized by their ambition (which is nothing more than to make a reasonable living). How unforgivable! The film doesn't shy away from despair and has both a quiet power and a surprising dignity that gets under your skin.
Bellissima: (4 1/2 stars): It's unfathomable to me that a Visconti film starring the incredible Anna Magnani (Oscar winner for The Rose Tattoo) hasn't been available on DVD in the U.S. market by now! Bellissima also tells the story of a family, but this one resides in the city. Magnani plays a put-upon housewife, nurse, and starstruck dreamer who sees an open audition for child actresses as the big break she needs to achieve wealth and status. She secretly takes her daughter to a huge casting call, meets some questionable representation, and proceeds to risk everything their family has for a potential shot at movie making glory. It's almost painful to see the choices that Magnani makes, but she is so driven. At any moment, it seems that disaster and disillusionment will be looming--and the entire experience is quite unsettling. Magnani, as an actress, is (as always) a force to be reckoned with. Without a pause, this performance is almost like a non-stop monologue as she is front and center (and vocal) for just about every scene. It's powerful stuff, and there's no one else like Magnani. If you like her, this is a can't miss proposition.
The two Visconti films certainly stand the test of time. One is driven by unknowns, one is driven by star wattage. But together, they showcase two different types of people who share similar dreams of economic independence. Let's hope these releases by a pretty high profile company (Entertainment One) represent a willingness to bring more previously unavailable international classics to a modern audience. KGHarris, 3/12.