Set in the Po Delta, Ossessione tells the doomed love story of a handsome vagabond and a frustrated wife. When Gino stops in Bragana’s roadside gas-station restaurant for a meal, he meets the owner’s young spouse, Giovanna. Inescapably attracted to each other, they soon begin a passionate affair, and eventually Gino agrees to help Giovanna kill Bragana in a staged car accident. After the murder, distrust and resentment grow between guiltstricken Gino and his lover, but when she tells him of her pregnancy, they reconcile and decide to start life together afresh. However, as they drive away, eager to evade arrest, their truck skids off the road. Giovanna dies instantly and Gino is apprehended.
Luchino Visconti’s directorial debut Ossessione stands as an aesthetic and thematic watershed in the history of Italian cinema. Made during the Second World War in 1942, the last year of Benito Mussolini’s Fascist government, the film broke with the traditional canons of the entertaining and spectacular cinema of the regime, based on a sanitised version of reality, studio artifice, plot contrivance, and the pompous nationalistic rhetoric of Fascism. Mira Liehm has observed that while only a minority of the films made during Mussolini’s regime promoted Fascism openly, most productions were sentimental comedies and romantic melodramas – known as ‘white telephone films’ (in reference to the iconography of American high-society comedies) – that were intended to have little in common with everyday life (1984: 21). At a time when Italian cinema was focusing on tales of the rich and beautiful, Ossessione brought to the screen an image of provincial Italy never shown before.
Centred on the gritty daily lives of those at the margins of society, Ossessione anticipated some of the themes and styles that were to become characteristic of Italian Neorealism – the distinctive and influential approach to fictional filmmaking that would blossom in post-Second World War Italy – in its use of professional and non-professional actors, its preference for location filming, its attention to incidental characters and small details of places and people, its empathy for the disenfranchised and its strong emphasis on the link between narrative, characters and landscape. Visconti’s cinematic style was first significantly influenced by Jean Renoir, who Visconti credited with helping him not only develop his interest in cinema, but also raise his political consciousness as he got close to the Popular Front (Tonetti 1983: 20–1). In 1940 Visconti assisted Renoir with a film version of Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Tosca. The collaboration introduced Visconti to the Italian film world and, in particular, to a group of anti-fascist critics and filmmakers who gathered around the journal Cinema. The editors of Cinema, who loved American fiction and held in high esteem the works of the French Popular Front, Soviet directors and the Sicilian late nineteenth-century veristic writer Giovanni Verga, argued that Italian films should be inspired by verism, a literary movement that emphasised the importance of depicting objectively the lives of the disenfranchised and that had a profound impact on Italian culture, fostering a new interest in realism among filmmakers (Bacon 1998: 9–13). Arguably ‘the boldest representation of the realistic trend’ in the early 1940s (Thompson and Bordwell 2003: 280) was Ossessione, the result of Visconti’s collaboration with Cinema contributors Giuseppe De Santis, Mario Alicata and Gianni Puccini.
Ossessione has been widely credited as a major precursor of Neorealist filmmaking, although it neither denounced the horror of the Second World War nor celebrated the heroism of the Resistance fighters during the Nazi occupation of Italy. Nor did it deal with themes central to Italian post-war reconstruction such as unemployment, shortage of housing, and social strife, which are among the thematic concerns traditionally associated with Italian Neorealism. One of the features of Ossessione that has contributed to its characterisation as a forerunner of a new filmic style (or even as the first manifestation of a new filmic style) is its attention to incidental characters and incidental details of places and people. An example comes immediately after the opening credits have rolled in a scene shot on location, as two truck drivers, played by non-professional actors, arrive at Bragana’s roadside service station to fill up their lorry. While their role in the plot is simply to get the story started (unbeknownst to them, Gino has travelled on the back of the truck), their clothes, faces and gestures as they get off the vehicle, take a quick swig of water from a fiasco and then wipe the sweat from their faces, all function to give a sense of ‘real people’ in a ‘real place’. Furthermore, as the camera follows one of the drivers as he crosses the road, calling Bragana’s name to attract his attention, we can see in the background another incidental detail – a man riding his bicycle. In his work on Visconti Henry Bacon has suggested that the director ‘took as his starting point the ability of the film to create an illusion of a fictional world’ but also emphasised narrative structure and verisimilitude in acting and mise en scène to make a ‘statement about reality’ (1998: 13).
This approach is evident for instance in the scene that introduces Gino as he enters the restaurant. He briefly stops on the doorstep, and as he puts his hand in his pocket to check how much money he has got, we are offered a glimpse of his quite ragged clothes. The interior of the restaurant is meticulously detailed, offering further elements of social realism, from the elderly punters sitting at a table playing a hand game to the hunter standing by the piano and the dogs sniffing Gino’s sockless feet and worn-out shoes. Throughout the film, incidental actions carried out in the background of the dramatic action – people riding bicycles, a hotel guest brushing her hair by a window – are common. Meanwhile, the film carefully avoids any picturesque use of the landscape. Rather, as would become typical of Neorealist films, in Ossessione ‘landscapes are not a simple backdrop … they are used to embody meanings, orchestrate formal themes, demonstrate or refer by analogy to other spheres of reality,’ (Sorlin 1996: 94). This is, for instance, exemplified by the juxtaposition of the dark and claustrophobic interiors of the restaurant 402 Ossessione/Obsession (1942) and of Bragana’s home with the scenes shot on location in Ancona. While the former act as a metaphor for Giovanna’s suffocating situation and, later, Gino’s guilt and sense of entrapment after the murder, the latter, by emphasising the size of the city and the fact that it is a seaport, function to powerfully associate Gino and Lo Spagnuolo with an idea of existential freedom, as in the scene where the two characters sit contently on the wall of the Piazzale of San Ciriaco smoking cigarettes, their legs swinging as they take in the view of the Adriatic sea in front of them.
Ossessione’s social realism offered an unflattering portrait of everyday life in Fascist Italy that was in stark opposition to the regime’s optimistic social self-image. Set against a backdrop of rundown bars, dirty buildings and potholed roads, Ossessione challenged ideological aspects typical of the established social order of the time, from the sanctity of marriage and family values, to oppressive social conformity, and in particular the enforced claustrophobia of domesticity, to money as a determining factor in human relationships. As Marcia Landy has argued, ‘the film dissects the social and sexual relations that underpin idealised fantasies of heterosexual romance leading to marriage, probing the craving for financial security and social conformity that are identified with violence and loss of freedom’ (2000: 214). Both Gino and Giovanna are socially marginal characters. To escape a life of prostitution after losing her job as a seasonal worker, Giovanna has married an older man she cannot bear. Her longing for ‘respectability’ and financial security has come at a huge cost, as she is now trapped in a loveless, mediocre life, slaving in the kitchen and waiting on her vile and tyrannical husband hand and foot. The fortuitous encounter with young and virile Gino seems to offer her passion and liberation. For his part, Gino is a drifter with no stable occupation who does not care for financial security and does not want to ‘settle down’. The way out Gino offers, to a life of wandering from place to place, is too financially uncertain for Giovanna to accept. She cannot renounce financial security but wants out nonetheless – on her own terms. Her plan is to replace Bragana with Gino and invest the life insurance money in expanding the family business and improving their lifestyle. But the comfortable life she is desperate to enjoy with her lover no matter the cost only makes Gino feel like a caged animal. And yet, while the young Gino despises the petty bourgeois values Giovanna is enslaved to, he is unable to curb his passion and relinquish the woman who has become his obsession.
In that it attacked established social conventions, and in particular the morality and sanctity of marriage, procreation and family life, values strongly upheld by the Fascist government, Ossessione is certainly a film critical of Fascism. As such, although it never made overt reference to politics or the war, it has been credited as an anti-fascist film, particularly because of the character of Lo Spagnuolo (The Spaniard). A young man who travels from town to town, performing, and who Gino encounters during his wanderings, Lo Spagnuolo has no counterpart in Cain’s novel. Created by the writers of Ossessione, he was originally conceived as ‘a proletariat who returned to Italy, becoming a vagabond in order to disseminate propagandistic ideas about socialism, antifascism, and communism’ (Van Watson 2002: 188), although, in order to pass censorship, the writers made sure to avoid any direct references to a socialist alternative to Fascism. According to Liehm, Lo Spagnuolo is the embodiment ‘of a state of mind and attitudes towards human problems carrying in themselves the possibility of antifascism’ (1984: 55). Indeed, as he offers Gino his companionship as an alternative to the destructive attraction he feels for Giovanna, Lo Spagnuolo prompts Gino to break free from oppressive social and sexual conventions, encouraging in him an urge for freedom. It is significant that Lo Spagnuolo’s association with nonconformity and a freer life do not translate into selfish individualism. When we are first introduced to him, his sense of comradeship is apparent in his claim that ‘we need to help one another’ (he offers to pay penniless Gino’s train fare). Later, his anticapitalist views can be read between the lines of a speech imbued with a sense of humanitarian socialism, as he tells Gino that money should be redistributed: ‘You see Gino, money has legs and should always be on the move … if it stays in the pockets it gets mouldy. You take a bite and then you pass it on to someone else who also can live.’
A powerful tale of the destructive power of obsessive passions, Ossessione challenged the regime’s ideas of artistic, moral and social propriety as it narrated in realistic terms the immorality and squalor of everyday life in provincial Italy in the last months of the Fascist government. In so doing, Ossessione’s realism came as an aesthetic and intellectual revelation that marked the end of an era and the beginning of a new one in the history of Italian cinema.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Italy. Production Company: Industrie Cinematografiche Italiane. Producer: Libero Solaroli. Director: Luchino Visconti. Screenwriters: Mario Alicata, Gianni Puccini, Giuseppe De Santis, Luchino Visconti. Cinematographers: Aldo Tonti, Domenico Scala. Editor: Mario Serandrei. Cast: Clara Calamai (Giovanna); Massimo Girotti (Gino); Juan de Landa (Bragana); Elio Marcuzzo (Lo Spagnuolo/The Spaniard).]
Henry Bacon, Visconti: Explorations of Beauty and Decay, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Peter Bondanella, Italian Cinema from Neorealism to the Present, New York and London, Continuum, 2004.
Marcia Landy, Fascism in Film: The Italian Commercial Cinema, 1931–1943, Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1986.
Marcia Landy, Italian Film, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Mira Liehm, Passion and Defiance: Film in Italy from 1942 to the Present, Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London, University of California Press, 1984.
Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, Luchino Visconti, London, British Film Institute, 2003.
Pierre Sorlin, Italian National Cinema 1896–1996, London and New York, Routledge, 1996.
Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell, Film History: An Introduction, New York, McGraw-Hill, 2003.
Claretta Micheletti Tonetti, Luchino Visconti, Boston, Twayne Publishers, 1983.
William Van Watson, ‘Luchino Visconti’s (Homosexual) Ossessione’, in Jacqueline Reich and Piero Garofalo (eds), Re-viewing Fascism: Italian Cinema 1922–1943, Bloomington and Indianapolis, Indiana University Press, 2002, pp. 172–93.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.