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Watching "Ossessione" today -- more than 6 decades later -- is still a powerful experience, especially for those interested in movie history and more specifically on how Italian filmmakers changed movies forever (roughly from "Ossessione" and De Sica's "I Bambini Ci Guardano", both 1943, up to 20 years later with Fellini, Antonioni, Pasolini). Visconti makes an amazing directing début, taking the (uncredited) plot of "The Postman Always Rings Twice" as a guide to the development of his own themes.
It strikes us even today how ahead of its time "Ossessione" was. Shot in Fascist Italy during World War II (think about it!!), it depicted scenes and themes that caused the film to be immediately banned from theaters -- and the fact that it used the plot of a famous American novel and payed no copyright didn't help.
"Ossessione" alarmingly reveals poverty-ridden war-time Italy (far from the idealized Italy depicted in Fascist "Telefoni Bianchi" movies); but it's also extremely daring in its sexual frankness, with shirtless hunk Gino (Massimo Girotti, who definitely precedes Brando's Kowalski in "A Streetcar Named Desire") taking Giovanna (Clara Calamai), a married woman, to bed just 5 minutes after they first meet. We watch Calamai's unglamorous, matter-of-fact undressing and the subtle but undeniable homosexual hints between Gino and Lo Spagnolo (Elio Marcuzzo - a very appealing actor, his face not unlike Pierre Clémenti's, who was shot by the Nazis in 1945, at 28 years old!)...In a few words: sex, lust, greed and poverty, as relentlessly as it had rarely, if ever, been shown before in Italian cinema.
All the copies of "Ossessione" were destroyed soon after its opening -- it was called scandalous and immoral. Visconti managed to save a print, and when the film was re-released after the war, most critics called it the front-runner of the Neo-Realist movement, preceding Rossellini's "Roma CIttà Aperta" and De Sica's "Sciuscià". Some other critics, perhaps more appropriately, saw "Ossessione" as the Italian counterpart to the "poetic realism" of French cinema (remember Visconti had been Renoir's assistant), especially Marcel Carné's "Quai des Brumes" and "Le Jour se Lève", and Julien Duvivier's "Pépé le Moko".
While "Ossessione" may be Neo-Realistic in its visual language (the depiction of war-time paesan life in Italy with its popular fairs, poverty, child labor, prostitution, bums, swindlers etc), the characters and the themes were already decidedly Viscontian. He was always more interested in tragic, passionate, obsessive, greedy characters, in social/political/sexual apartheid, in the decadence of the elites than in realistic, "everyday- life" characters and themes, favored by DeSica and Rossellini. In "Ossessione" we already find elements of drama and tragedy later developed in many of his films, especially "Senso" (Visconti's definitive departure from Neo-Realist aesthetics) and "Rocco e Suoi Fratelli"...Even in his most "Neo-Realist" film, "La Terra Trema", he makes his fishermen rise from day-to-day characters to mythological figures.
"Ossessione" is a good opportunity to confirm the theory about great artists whose body of work approaches, analyzes and develops specific themes and concerns over and over again, from their first to their last opus, no matter if the scenery, background or time-setting may change -- Visconti may play with the frame but the themes and essence of his art are, well, obsessively recurrent. "Ossessione" is not to be missed: you'll surely be fascinated by this ground-breaking, powerful film.
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