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Ossessione  [DVD]
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A film by Luchino Visconti
A restless wife, Giovanna, meets Gino, a rough and handsome vagabond. Their passionate affair leads to the murder of Giovanna's boorish husband. Can a strong and sensual affair survive the guilt? Adapted from James M Cain's classic novel, Ossession is a dark and provocative drama of sexual tension. It heralded a new era of Italian cinema, establishing Luchino Visconti as a leading and controversial exponent of neo-realism.
This DVD includes a commentary by David Forgacs, professor of Italian at University College London, and Lesley Caldwell, Associate Fellow in the Italian Department at UCL.
Italy | 1942 | black & white | Italian language, English subtitles | 140 minutes | Academy ratio 1.33:1 | Region 2 DVD
'A landmark in cinema history'. --The Times
'An extraordinary film - Visconti's realism is the real thing, heartfelt, believed in, far beyond fashion'. --The Spectator
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The story of Gino and Giovanna's illicit affair and their murder of Giovanna's husband - a story as old as history - was filmed in the Po delta region of Italy, a flat landscape of marshes and reeds - and long causeways on which traffic passes by the hostelry run by Giovanna and her husband. On a hot summer's day, the vagabond Gino happens to drop by, setting in motion the chain of events that will lead to more than one death. This is one film where the ending is made more effective by its very inconclusiveness.
The erotic charge of the whole film is framed around Gino, and not Giovanna; indeed, we first only ever see a close-up of Gino's face through Giovanna's look of lust at first sight. This is not a gay movie, but there are - as usual with a Visconti film - strong homoerotic undertones. The character of the Spaniard, for instance, has an ambiguous sexuality, and some have seen him as Visconti's representative of the anti-Fascist. (The film was made in 1942.)
The quality of the transfer to DVD is not always good, both visually and aurally (there is some hiss on the soundtrack), but the film is nevertheless very watchable. In his book on the director, Henry Bacon says that the original negative was seized by the Fascists so extant copies had to be made from a duplicate. Bacon sees the film as a basic conflict between the insecurity of freedom on the road and the security of societal confinement.
The accompanying commentary is by David Forgacs (Professor of Italian at University College, London) and Lesley Caldwell (Associate Fellow in the Italian Department). They are not film historians, but what they have to say is both informative and insightful. The other extra is a short biography of Visconti.
p.s. Also worth doing some contextual reading about the making of this film.
While films such as 'Rome, Open City' (1945, Roberto Rossellini) & 'The Bicycle Thieves' (1948, Vittorio de Sica) are cited as formative examples of the movement that would be known as 'Italian Neo-Realism', it's really 'Ossessione' that deserves that status. The use of amateur-actors (or unknowns) and the "realistic" look would be key - and lead towards those celebrated films mentioned previously.
As a debut feature, I think it's great and proves that Cain's dark-tale of adultery and murder could translate into something universal. 'Ossessione' was the start of one of the careers of one of the great European auteurs of the twentieth-century, and deserves to be seen alongside other brilliant works by Visconti such as 'The Leopard', 'Rocco and His Brothers' & 'La Terra Trema.'
Visconti's film is all the more remarkable given that it was his debut film, the ex-horse race owner and aristocrat-turned-communist having begun to collaborate with the likes of Jean Cocteau and Jean Renoir, thereby inspiring him to try his hand at film direction. His film was one of the last to be made in Italy under Mussolini's fascist government, and was co-written with a number of fellow (left leaning) film enthusiasts working for the Italian film publication, Cinema.
Ossesione's (well-known) story focuses on a passionate love affair between bored housewife Giovanna Bragana (superbly played by Clara Calamai) and travelling adonis Gino Costa (equally brilliantly played by Massimo Girotti). After Gino walks into Giovanna's life, the pair conspire to murder Giovanna's husband Giuseppe (Juan de Landa), and after a number of ups and downs for their relationship, the police finally discover what they have done, leading to a climactic, and tragic, ending. For the role of Giovanna, Visconti had originally cast Italian actress Anna Magnani, until he discovered that she was not two months pregnant (as she had claimed), but actually five months, thus ruling her out of filming.
Visconti's film is notable for being (arguably) one of the first Italian neorealist films, being set in the Italian Po Valley near the city of Ferrara, and showing scenes of everyday life at close quarters, as distinct from the costume dramas and comedies that had featured as the main genres of Italian cinema up to that point. The cinematography for the film by Aldo Tonti and Domenico Scala is superb, with chiaroscuro lighting derived from German expressionism and pre-dating that of US film noir. There are many stunning set-piece sequences in the film, including Gino's arrival scene where his face is hidden from view for an extended period, with accompanying crane shots reminiscent of techniques later used by Sergio Leone in his legendary westerns. Visconti also uses music to great effect, with a superb, operatic score by Giuseppe Rosati, and a standout scene where husband Giuseppe, as part of an amateur singing contest, sings Verdi's aria Di Provenza il Mar from La Traviata, as, in the foreground, Gino and Giovanna are engaged in a heated conversation about their on-off relationship.
For me, this film is borderline four/five stars, but for being slightly overlong I'll call it four.
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