This article of mine was printed a couple of years ago in an obscure magazine called Ribbed – I thought I’d reprint it here even though I have a lot of issues with the article. Ribbed Magazine seems to be no longer published and another of my articles from the magazine seems to have been lost in a black hole in the web. Here, however, is the still available link to this article.
The history of film is strewn with examples of film-epiphanies which suddenly reveal all that for years lay unrevealed under a morass of hesitant signs, pregnant stammers and uncomfortable silences while filmmakers work unawares in what in retrospect are fixed formulae. Visconti’s film Obsession was one such epiphany- a film whose significance in film metaphorically echoed the going critical of Chicago Pile- 1 (the world’s first nuclear reactor led by the team of Enrico Fermi) in December 1942. This destructive blow against the clerical-fascist immaginary was long prepared for right under the nose of Mussolini’s own son, Vittorio, who directed a cinema review commandeered by some of fascism’s fiercest intellectual enemies who were to semi-clandestinely build the foundations of one of the most fascinating tendencies in world cinema with the advent of so-called Italian neo-realism: even though Visconti’s film was not Neo-Realist but rather a kind of noir with slight anticipatory hints of a kind of necro-realism avant la lettre. Italy’s post -fascist cinema was an apparition almost as inimical to American generals as it was to the clerical fascists given the plans of some US generals to amputate Italian cinema by using Cinecittà as a refugee camp and of Italy’s second film studio between Pisa and Livorno to house American troups. (One US officer a rear-admiral Stone was to state that Italy had no need of its own cinema given that it was a mainly agricultural country and presumably could be flooded with films from Hollywood).
While under fascism Italian cinema has been characterized (not completely inaccurately) as the cinema of the ‘white telephones’, a cinema of petty bourgeois aspiration it was, however, to include some of the names of post-war neo-realism – most notably, the actor and director Vittorio De Sica (as well as in the years of late fascism- Roberto Rossellini and the screenwriter Cesare Zavattini. Anna Magnani, who many regard as Italy’s greatest post-war female actor, was also to work in Italian from the late thirties. Italy from the late thirties would hesitantly move from a kind of autarkic and farcically self-assured vacuity to slowly open up to wider trends of world cinema. Albeit in a lame and fragile way cinema would start to become a kind of experimental space just as in other authoritarian and totalitarian regimes where antibodies would build up so as to eventually shatter the farcical and distorted mirror that the eilte would hold up to itself and the world. There was something in cinema in the Spain of the 1960s, the Soviet Union of the mid fifties onwards, the Italy of late fascism and perhaps the Iran of recent years which meant that it could act as a kind of precursor of liberation and glasnost of the visual and then of peoples minds.
How Luchino Visconti was to break out from his surroundings as scion of one of Milan’s most aristocratic families to film this deeply subversive anti-fascist noir making Mussolini’s son roar with anger at the premiere that “this is not Italy” is a story that has its roots as much as in late thirties Popular Front France as it does in the peculiar circumstances of an Italian film circle which had a deeply inimical relationship with that of the political elite. Visconti’s journey from aristocrat and trainer of horses to his postwar title of the ‘Red Count’ had much to do with his frequent flights from the stifling conformism of fascist Italy in the thirties to Paris where he would meet the likes of Jean Cocteau, Kurt Weill, Henry Bernstein, Coco Chanel, Marlene Dietrich and, according to some accounts, Berthold Brecht. However, the most significant meeting was to be with Jean Renoir on some of whose films Visconti would work as an assistant, especially Une Partie de Campagne. If Obsession has little in common with this film (but much more in common with Renoir’s La bete humaine), it is nonetheless the case that Visconti was deeply influenced by Renoir on how he would work with actors. The influence of Renoir and his circle would also be important in another respect: it would form him politically turning a vague irritation at fascist conformism into a fully-fledged anti-fascism which in the late years of the war would be an active anti-fascism (many of the ensemble of those who made and were behind Obsession were active anti-fascists and one, Mario Alicata, would be arrested for his activities during the making of the film as would Visconti himself later on narrowly escaping with his life). It would also be in the France of the late thirties where Visconti could be more open about his homosexuality (given his links to circles close to Gide and Cocteau). France was to be for Visconti the scenario on which his search for new freedoms could be realized. Further visits to Greece and the United States in the late thirties were to be less significant for his future development but nonethless surely further distanced him from Italy in its most stifling period of fascist conformism. His acquaintance with active anti-fascist cinephiles at the beginning of World War Two- including the director of Bitter Rice, Giuseppe De Santis – was to create the team that would make a film which would set Italian cinema on the path to represent the avant-garde of world cinema for at least a decade. The film would prove as revolutionary an act of defiance in the early 1940s as Pasolini’s ‘Salo or the 120 days of Sodom’ was to be in the 1970s.
Revolutionary and, like Pasolini’s film, an anti-fascist cri de coeur, Obsession wasn’t attempting to be political or ideological but rather was trying to reveal a desparate truth- the state of things as they weren’t shown before. This scandalous truth and even a kind of immoralism violatied all previously accepted confines. Obsession would bring to Italian cinema a number of hitherto nonexistent features in Italian cinema: a new Realism as much in debt to French naturalism as it was to nineteenth century Italian literary Realism or verismo in the guise of the literary ouevre of Giuseppe Verga (one of whose stories would lead to a script that Visconti wanted to film but was to be banned by the fascist censors prior to Obsession and then whose masterpiece Malavoglia would be the inspiration behind another Visconti masterpiece La terra trema), a different view of Italian landscape – transposing an American crime thriller into Italian realia imbuing it with anguish, desperation and crime; a cold glance at reality which holds up to light the conflicts and contradictions and the ruthless actions of the characters, the only remotely ‘positive heroes’ are represented by the marginalised and the excluded – lo Spagnolo (a vagabond, probably homosexual and implicitly an Italian who had gone to Spain to fight ‘on the wrong side’ against fascism) and the Dostoevskian prostitute who represents all the selflessness that Giovanna- the Lady Macbeth of the Po district – evidently lacks. This cocktail of ingredients was to ensure that the film would have very limited distribution in the Italy of 1943 and although it was fervently discussed in the press, the violent rant of Mussolini’s son at its first showing was to be followed by its withdrawal in many cities. Where it was to be shown it was to be so for a very short time. In one town, Salsomaggiore, the archbishop was called upon to re-bless the cinema given the ‘wholly immoral nature’ of the film shown. Elsewhere the showing was stopped in mid show and the police took down the names of all the spectators. In short, the film was to be one that was to be more talked about than seen but was, nevertheless, to tear through the lies that had been told on the screen for the previous two decades.
Visconti’s screening of Obsession was indebted to Renoir in more ways than one- it was Renoir himself who was to give Visconti the novel in French translation on which the film was based: ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’ by James Cain. Although there are a number of variations from book to film (with the addition of the characters of the hobo and the transformation of a female character from lion tamer to prostitute as well as the insertion of a song competition which the despised husband wins) much of the plot is adhered to. The choice of an American crime thriller from Los Angeles is, perhaps, not such an unusual one given the importance that American literature had as akind of countercultural force for many of the major independent and anti-fascist intellectuals during the late fascist period.Some such writers like Cesare Pavese and Elio Vittorini would be major translators of American literature. An American crime novel of the Depression- especially one as pessimistic as Cain’s novel with its ‘brutal vision of evil’ and with the Road as central metaphor – would serve Visconti well in his need to describe the blind alley in which Italy found itself. The emphasis on dirt, disorder, chaos as well as the constant presence of betrayal (in the full version of the film even lo Spagnolo- the hobo, homosexual and political dissident, will betray Gino to the police) were revolutionary in the context of fascist film formulae. Moreover, the film’s original title Palude (or Marsh) was to emphasize just that sense of falling into a situation from which there was no escape. The use of the landscape of the Po was also to be highly significant (in fact, it wasn’t unique – Antonioni’s early documentary short The People of the Po Valley was to use the same landscape at the same time). It was Antonioni who, in a 1939 essay, proposed the Po as a landscape which could avoid typical fascist rhetoric and stereotypes (and the Po was to gain a kind of anti-fascist symbolism elsewhere in film and literature). This use of landscape and the importance of single gestures, glances or lifeless moments with relatively little dialogue at important points will be something that Visconti had called for in his film manifesto ‘Anthropomorphic Cinema’ and in many ways Obsession was very much a film manifesto in its own right.
As mentioned the film went way beyond what was acceptable at the time and was to look radical even decades on. As a film it was an act of prizing open the autarkic myth of fascism and yet it itself is rather autarkic in its despair and nihlistic demolition of all myths, including humanistic ones. Visconti would not construct the ‘Positive Heroes’ of Socialist realist fame- the prostitute character being the only unalloyed example in the film but unlike in Socialist Realism she was both secondary and represented a passive, rather than active, kind of positivity. Lo Spagnolo who represents the virtues of the Road (and hence freedom) denounces Gino to the police in Visconti’s version (although not in that of some of his team such as Alicata and De Santis in some ways closer at that point to Socialist Realism). Gino symbolises the man trapped, the man who does turn petrified by the Meduas-like glance of Giovanna, the unhappy wife of an affluent and vacuous older husband, Bregana. Gino’s entrapment means that his future is either that of a second-rate Bragana(an impossible choice after having tasted the freedom of the Road) or final enclosure.
One theme in the film that makes this contemporary is that of the importance of money as a fatal trigger. The penniless Gino can not tempt Giovanna to follow him in the virtues of the Road- she already having succumbed to the first man with a gold chain in order to escape from this ‘freedom’. Also lo Spagnolo is to pay Gino’s way on the train and it is Giovanna’s hiding the coin with which Gino pays his meal which leads to his entrapment in the impossible menage a trois. This is not the only time that Giovanna will wield her power over Gino by indicating the humiliation of his state of penury. This aspect is emphasised once again by the husband Bregana when he states “It is not important to work, but to know how to make money”. If the motif of the gap between people who have money and those who don’t keeps returning then that of the destruction of the family (or the impossibility of family in this case as will be emphasized by the brief illusory moment when Giovanna tells Gino that she is pregnant) is one which Visconti will repeat time and again in subsequent and will be a kind of leitmotif of Visconti’s oeuvre.
The apparition of Obsession was to be like few others in post-war Italian- perhaps only the already mentioned Salò of Pasolini and Bellochio’s Fists in the Pocket would match the desolate nihilism and state unequivocally the need to clear away the corpses who still remained in charge of film companies and in the power elite. Although Pasolini’s film goes further in its pessimism with the message that the fascist corpses will have their final and unequivocal revenge, Visconti’s film was made in the day when it was still possible to dream (or to hope) that the corpses could have, in Visconti’s own words, their second legs placed neatly in the grave. For all the ferocity of the period it was a time when liberation (“the day of which we dream” as Viconti was to write in his 1941 article entitled ‘Corpses’) was still possible. The day in which Obsession could be recast as Desire (as Rossellini was to attempt to do although without much success in his film of that title). Nowadays it seems that this is a liberation which Italy must dream of once more given the contemporary hilaro-tragedy of its monarchic-styled Clown, a Playboy Corpse in which Desire becomes so grotesquely transfigured and disfigured, that up until recently one of the few shows in town, is the obsessive sex mania of a geriatric- a kind of restyled surgically-improved Brezhnev as sex symbol. Italy still awaits its new Ossessione to deliver it from its ‘definitive marsh’ (as the title of a novel by one of its great writers Giorgio Mangnelli put it)- a new cinematic 25th July. Until that time its obsession is doomed to repeat itself in an ever-darkening tunnel of self-deception.