Ossessione: A love story set in post-war Italy.
This film, realised during Fascist-era Italy, centres in on the notion of original sin as defined in Judeo-Christian belief, a foundation of Western culture. We see here a man and woman who consciously agree to break the rules of society that define our understanding of good and evil. In this story presented by Luchino Visconti, we unveil the pretences of a lie, as well as a romantic relationship tainted by the good social graces of the era … This familiar theme, which can be found in many other societal contexts, is also an inexhaustible source of inspiration for cinema.
Gino, the main character, is a tramp who one day stumbles upon Giovanna, the beautiful wife of Bragana, the owner of a small business on the Po highway running along Ferrara. Their chance encounter gives rise to a situation shattering notions of good and evil of the society of its the time. It was through this film that I finally understood the basis of the Italian cinema movement Neorealismo. The term describes a revival in the approach to art and aesthetics which attempted to translate Italian reality, tortured as it was at the time by social tension, onto the big screen. What Neorealismo brought to cinema, which was so unique in its time was a certain amount of cold and stark realism in the portrayal of people’s lives. For example, in Ossessione, the husband and wife, Bragana and Giovanna are set in the foreground, hard at work in managing their business. They are set against depictions of social difficulties of the era reflected through the lifestyle of characters such as Gino and other illustrious strangers gravitating around the central plot, or by the social positions inhabited by the characters that Gino comes to meet. This is a form of documentary film that awakens and causes the viewer to empathise with the difficulties of the everyday realities portrayed. If we study the cinematographic technique used, we notice how the film artfully draws us into the social context of the time. For example, when the actors are onscreen, director Visconti uses very wide shots as a humanising effect. He also constructs his scenes as a tableau – narrative action takes place in the foreground, while social context is presented in the background. The scene where Bragana and the Father are cycling along the road is a good example of this technique, for example, because this scene is in fact showing us the work in the fields. The scene where Spanish is at the fair with Gino, when he finds the couple, also vividly depicts the social reality of the moment in its backdrop.
Visconti, through his cinematography in Ossessione, was in fact taking a real political risk in Mussolini’s fascist Italy, as cinema at the time was actively used by the government as propaganda to control the masses. Conscious of this challenge, the film was a perilous undertaking to disturb the very consciousness that the director attempted to depict. However, the film was censored by the Italian government upon its release. Ossessione is an unconventional story of love tainted by a lie – let us not forget the moment when Giovanna reminds her husband, Bragana, that Gino has not paid for his meal. But what can also be seen as another facade in the film is Ossessione’s story of a love based in social convention – symbolised in the marriage of Giovanna and Bragana. The entire plot is centred not only on Gino’s quest for freedom, but also, in the background, that of Giovanna’s. This is most visible from Gino’s point of view, as his main struggle in living is the opposition to such restrictions in society. The story created by this complex dynamic is one which the reality and difficulties of this world, in which people struggle in the contradiction between maintaining this discomfort of social postures and the liberation of one’s true personality and needs.
It is due to this attitude that this work could be considered avant-garde in Italian cinema, even bringing forth a new era of young filmmakers under the genre, Neorealismo.
For me, the real change brought by Neorealismo as a trend was the social relationship it emphasised, as a form of cinema. By differentiating itself from the more lighthearted, playful genre of the ‘white telephones’ that ruled Italian cinema from 1935 to 1943, Neorealismo represented a new way of filmmaking, in both aspects of pre-production and filming, by reconceptualising the artistic and functional expression in film. Following the example of Cesare Zavattini, directors became auteurs, who told stories of the lives of ordinary people, who themselves became actors and main characters. This was the first practical change to production that led to Neorealismo’s eventual mastery of Italian cinema. Next came the artistic transformation, which could almost be called spiritual:
“In November 1957, Andre Bazin published his article, ‘Caribiria Nights: a journey to the ends of neorealism.” In doing so, he redefined the term. In contrast to those who defined Neorealismo by its social content, Bazin brought in the need to examine the formal aesthetic criteria of the genre.”
Neorealismo describes the primacy given to the representation of reality in dramatic structures. Reality is not corrupted for the psychological purposes of drama – instead, it is portrayed as the singular discovery of reality as one and the same as the world lived in – through an almost documentary revelation of its picturesque weight and details. The art of the director therefore lies in the ability to bring out the sensuality of this discovery, doing justice to it without taking away from its ambiguity. Realism is therefore defined not by its ends but by its means, and neorealism by the ratio of these means to these ends.
This task is evidently, much greater of an undertaking than the catalog of techniques to which this movement is sometimes reduced. The story of the evolution of cinema somewhat parallels that of Italy – a country that has never quietly turned the centuries. In its post-fascist period, this movement can be represented as Italy finding itself an identity to reconstruct, attempting to offer itself a new vision of the future closer to reality. This is that vision’s contribution to cinema history.
Translation – Ritz Wu
Directed by Luchino Visconti
Produced by Libero Solaroli
Music by Giuseppe Rosati
Cinematography by Domenico Scala, Aldo Tonti
Film Editing by Mario Serandrei
Art Direction by Gino Franzi
Set Decoration by Gino Franzi
Costume Design by Maria De Matteis
Runtime 2 hr 20 min (140 min)
Sound Mix – mono
Laboratory Tecnostampa, Roma, Italy