Sunday, 25 August 2013

Ossessione (1943)

”Ossessione” is that last movie from 1943 on the List. In a way it is fitting as this film is heralding a new era in cinema, which first struck Italy, then Europe and finally Hollywood: Realism.

There is a lot to like about “Ossessione”, but the real standout for me is the style in which it was made. If we exclude the plot itself, which I find rather contrived (more later), the film do appear very realistic. It was mostly made on location and it shows. For much of the movie I was more interested in the scenery, in all the little details happening in the background. This is really Italy we see here and not some studio adaption and you get the impression that the film crew just went onto the street and started filming with the casual pedestrians suddenly becoming extras. But we also see it in the characters themselves, their lives, manners, looks. They are all made very… real. On a backdrop of the Hollywood films I have been watching lately this style seems to catapult the movie decades ahead into the form that became dominant in the sixties and more so in the seventies.

The plot I have some difficulty dealing with. I never read the book, nor saw the 1946 Hollywood production of “The Postman always rings twice” (though it is coming up on the list) so I cannot tell if this is a particularly good version of the story. I only have the Book’s word that this version is quite precise. That is fine by me. The problem is that I find nobody to like. We do get deep inside the lives of the characters, so the portraying element is excellent, but what we find there is that all the three main leads are quite complex characters as all humans are, and that they are all flawed to an extent where I find it hard to root for any of them.

For those unfamiliar with this story let me just say that on the outset this is a standard love triangle. Giovanna (Clara Calamai) is the young wife of the big and boisterous innkeeper Giuseppe (Juan de Landa). She is unhappy working in the kitchen for that big oaf so when young and handsome Gino (Massimo Girotti) shows up they fall in love and soon decide to take out the husband. So far so good, this all happens in the first hour of the film. The second half, the aftermath, is far more interesting, for what happens to the two lovers turned murderers? How much in love are they really and are there ulterior motives?

Returning to the characters our starting point is that Giovanna is trapped and Gino is her savior, but from what? As much as Giuseppe is an oaf and very loud he is not such a bad guy and he has some quite surprising soft spots, like his love of opera, fishing and the company of good friend and really, he does care for Giovanna. In many ways he reminds me of the baker in “La Femme du Boulanger”. Only in this case the wife never gets a chance to realize her mistake since she has already killed him off.

Gino is a real Italian loverboy. He is Matthew McConaughey and James Dean in Italian, appearing usually bare-chested or in a diminutive shirt. He stinks of testosterone, hot sex and probably sour sweat and is the antithema of Giuseppe. Gino and Giovanna end up in each other’s arms VERY fast with Giuseppe none the wiser. We follow Gino through his wild mood swings, his doubts and his resolution, but he never ever comes about as a sympathetic character and, hey, this man killed a guy!

Giovanna then, is she the damsel in distress that the men are fighting over? Well, she is very emotional, loves with a passion and complains with a passion (this is an Italian film after all), but up until the murder we can buy her relative innocence. Then however it starts to collapse. The first hint is that she refuses to leave the inn after her husband is dead. Instead she is determined to even expand the business despite Gino’s misgivings and protests. But the final vestige of innocence falls away when she can cash in the life insurance of Giuseppe and Gino realize that those money were her objective all along. Now she is the calculating manipulator who has used the men around her in self-interest and wants it all, wealth, property, status and sex.   

Gino and Giovanna bounce in and out of their relationship and it is all falling to pieces. Only when the outside enemy in the form of the police closes in on them do they make peace and decide to leave the inn and their past. Only then they seem to turn into characters we can root for but too late.

It is an interesting story and very interesting that the focus is on the people and personalities behind the crime, but it also makes for a difficult watch as I feel more like a scholarly spectator than engaged with these people. I simply do not get them. Their actions and their decisions are so far from my world that I cannot invest in them. That might all be for the best as it would otherwise be a very depressing affair watching this film. As it is it is merely fascinating.

A curious detail: This film was made in 1942-43 at the height of WWII, yet we see very little if any deprivation in the lives of people. There are cars, food, wine and delicious looking ice cream and narry a word about the war. Quite amazing really.


  1. I greatly preferred Postman to this one. However, I also saw Postman first, and that may well have colored my opinion. Your mileage may vary on that.

    Mainly, though, I thought this version of the story was needlessly long. Postman is much more compact and efficient, and I always appreciate that.

    1. That makes me look forward to the Postman. I liked Ossessione better than I expected despite the problems i have with the plot, but i supect that it was the style and detail that made it for me. Cutting that away I wonder what ís left.

  2. This is the third version of the story I saw. I did them in reverse order: the 1980-ish remake, then the original American noir, then this film. I didn't realize this was the same story before I started, but it didn't take me long to realize it.

    Like Steve, this film didn't do a lot for me, but that might be because I didn't see it first. It's hard to say. I didn't dislike the film, either. I thought it was just okay.

    1. I generally do not like remakes, so if this one is the last one, that would make it my least favourite. You can only see a story so many times.

  3. As you know, I much preferred this movie to the 1946 version. If there is one thing the original novel is not, it is glamorous. I do agree that it could be trimmed. None of the characters is sympathetic in the novel either. I like the realism of this film and the way guilt and fear destroy the lovers in the last act.

    I would love to know more about the production history. According to Wikipedia, Mussolini's son Vittorio was a film critic and producer and Visconti was a member of his circle. Odd company, considering that Visconti was also a member of the Italian Communist Party and an open homosexual.

    Any way, I think the censors would not have looked kindly on a film that portrayed the Italian people as deprived under the leadership of their beloved Duce.

    1. I will go back an read your review again. I actually prefer reading them AFTER I see the films myself.
      From what i read about the history of the film Ossessione actually came as quite a chock for the authorities and they immediately banned it. Maybe the fllm did not show deprivation, but it touched on so many other subjects that the regime did not like.