The production history of Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (1943) is one so rich that it at times risks distracting us from the intricate internal mechanics of the film itself.1 Leading up to his directorial debut, Visconti’s collaboration with Jean Renoir as assistant director on the ill-fated La Tosca (1941)2 – described by Visconti in retrospect as “a horrible film”3 – introduced him to a network of film critics linked to Milan’s Cinema magazine, key figures in the blossoming Neo-Realist movement. Their radical ideological agenda would spark within Visconti a taste for Marxist ideals.4 Visconti threw around a number of ideas for his first movie, including an adaptation of Giovanni Verga’s realist story L’amante di Graminga, a proposal rejected by Italy’s then Fascist government censors.

Inspiration for Ossessione struck when Renoir gave Visconti a copy of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), a translation into French that Renoir himself had received from Julien Duvivier.5 Initially titled Paluda (Marsh), the script at first held little interest for censors because on the surface it appeared to be no more than “a melodrama with the message that ‘crime doesn’t pay'”.6 Yet for Visconti and his Cinema magazine collaborators, the project united his aesthetic, ideological and stylistic ambitions with concrete melodramatic foundations, all within a solidly recognisable socio-cultural context.7

If not the birthplace of Italian neo-realism per se8, Ossessione was still foundational. As Geoffrey Nowell-Smith observed: “It anticipates certain of the themes and styles that were to become the stock-in-trade of the movement, but, for good historical reasons, necessarily misses out on others”.9 According to Henry Bacon, Visconti “wanted to convey the internal life of his characters through their behaviour and their relationship to the environment, to capture their essence by showing them as an organic part of a certain social reality, which in various ways constantly conditions and guides their behaviour, their thoughts and feelings”.10

By late 1942, Visconti and his team were under close government scrutiny, yet the production was permitted to continue: the film even debuted at a film festival in May 1943 that Mussolini himself hosted. According to Bacon, Visconti at first took this as government approval, but it was not to be the case. One memorable account claims that Benito’s son and film critic Vittorio Mussolini fled the cinema screaming “this is not Italy!”.11

The scandal that surrounded the film’s subsequent release, censorship and distribution is the stuff of legend. In 1943, Italy was going through the most dramatic social and cultural upheaval since Italy’s unification during the Risorgimento, with the Allied invasion occurring less than four months after its initial release; Neo-Realism was in large part a response to this tumultuous climate. Ossessione’s bleak worldview was a flagrant challenge to the Fascist vision of Italy during this period. In this context, Ossessione faced great distribution and exhibition obstacles, with the Fascists at one point even cutting and destroying prints of the film. (Visconti wisely squirrelled a version away himself, and thus the film survived12).

Likewise, in the capitalist United States it was as late as 1977 that Ossesssione received its first limited release (after a short festival run the year before), as Visconti did not attain the rights to the original Cain novel.13 Accordingly, it was not until much later that Ossessione’s historical importance to the story of Italian Neo-Realism was acknowledged, with directors such as Roberto Rossellini – himself coincidentally having a close relationship with Italy’s ruling Fascists14 – privileged historically instead.

Yet watching the film today, it is as much Ossessione’s radical sexuality that provides its devastating punch as much as its history. With its title translating literally to ‘obsession’, Nowell-Smith has described it as “a film about the destructive power of sexual passion”15, and the viciousness with which Visconti executes his blistering attack on normative romantic idealism is powerful and complex. This is as much due to the Ossessione’s central performances by Clara Calamai and Massimo Girotti as it is the unrelenting rawness of the film’s tale of infidelity, murder, betrayal and disillusionment. The year before, Calamai had been a cause célèbre for her brief appearance in Alessandro Blasetti’s La cena delle beffe, providing one of the first topless appearances by a woman in Italian cinema. Her association with dangerous sexuality was in Italy at least therefore very much alive in the Italian public imagination.

Calamai’s Giovanna is far from Lana Turner’s cold calculating female protagonist in Tay Garnett’s 1946 Hollywood adaptation. Instead, Giovanna is marked by a sympathetic desperation, her bleak predicament unambiguously the result of the grim reality of broader, broken social structures rather than any reflection of her moral character. In one of the film’s most devastating moments, she slumps heartbroken amongst the dishes in her kitchen after a busy day at her trattoria, drinking soup alone before collapsing, just as isolated after the murder of her husband as she was before.

As much as the 1946 adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice has earned its place as an important American Film Noir, so too Ossessione is essential to Italy’s history of lurid, intoxicating giallo cinema.16 Ossessione provides a perfect bookend to Calamai’s final performance as Marta in Dario Argento’s Profondo Rosso (1975): in both films Calamai embodies a similar bug-eyed feminine insanity, both characters pushed to the edge of violence and despair at their seeming invisibility to the men in their lives, and to society in general. As Nowell-Smith notes, Visconti’s Ossessione converted “Cain’s parable of arbitrariness into a demonstration of necessity”.17 Ossessione is a film about survival in every sense. A landmark film in both Neo-Realist and giallo traditions, the legacy of Ossessione lives and breathes in every frame.

 

Ossessione (1943 Italy 140 mins)

Prod. Co: Industrie Cinematografiche Italiane Prod: Libero Solaroli Dir: Luchino Visconti Scr: Luchino Visconti, Mario Alicata, Giuseppe De Santis and Gianni Puccini Phot: Domenico Scala and Aldo Tonti Mus: Giuseppe Rosati Art Dir: Gino Franzi

Cast: Clara Calamai, Massimo Girotti, Juan de Landa, Dhia Cristiani, Elio Marcuzzo

 

Endnotes

  1. The author would like to extend sincere thanks to Dr John Edmond for his feedback and thoughts on an earlier draft of this annotation
  2. Renoir left the production before completion, the film’s final directorial credit ascribed to Carl Koch
  3. Henry Bacon, Visconti: Explorations of Beauty and Decay (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p.   10
  4. Ibid., p. 10
  5. James M. Cain’s crime novel was adapted in 1939 by Pierre Chenal in Le Dernier Tournant, and Duvivier himself would combine aspects of the story in his 1963 film Chair de Poule (alongside elements from James Hadley Chase’s 1960 novel Come Easy – Go Easy). In the United States, Cain’s novel was most famously adapted into the classic film noir of the same name in 1946 by Tay Garnett (with Lana Turner and John Garfield), and later remade in 1981 by Bob Rafelson, starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange
  6. Ibid., p. 14
  7. Ibid., p. 15
  8. For Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, Ossessione was “realism without the neo-“. See: Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, Luchino Visconti, Third Edition (London: BFI Publishing, 2003), p. 29
  9. Ibid., p. 29
  10. Henry Bacon, p. 13-14
  11. Henry Bacon, p. 15-16. Another version suggests “Mussolini was so appalled by Ossessione when he viewed it at his Via Torlonia residence that he stormed out of the projection room without saying a word”. See: Steven Ricci, Cinema and Fascism: Italian Film and Society, 1922–1943 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), p. 131
  12. Henry Bacon, p. 16
  13. Mira Liehm, Passion and Defiance: Italian Film from 1942 to the Present (Berkeley: California UP, 1986), p. 328
  14. Peter Brunette, Roberto Rossellini (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), p. 7
  15. Nowell-Smith, p. 17
  16. Mikel J. Koven has identified Ossessione as “literally the first giallo film”. See: La Dolce Morte: Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo Film (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2006), p. 3
  17. Nowell-Smith, p. 21

About The Author

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is an editor at Senses of Cinema and the author of Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2011), Found Footage Horror Film: Fear and the Appearance of Reality (McFarland, 2014), a monograph on Dario Argento’s Suspiria (part of Auteur’s Devil’s Advocates series), and her book on Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 was released in January 2017 as part of Wallflower/Columbia University Press’s Cultographies series. She is a co-host on the Plato’s Cave film criticism programme on Melbourne radio station Triple R, the 2017 Australian Film Institute Research Collection Research Fellow and a researcher at the University of Melbourne and the Victorian College of the Arts.