La terra trema (Die Erde bebt)

Collection on Screen:


September 4 to October 17, 2021

The Italian neorealist movement remains the most influential in film history, although its core comprises at most two dozen films from 1943 to 1953, many of which are key works in the collection of the Austrian Film Museum. The idea of neoverismo entailed both an upheaval in the self-understanding of cinema as a popular art –  equal parts popular, realistic and meaningful –  and a revolution in the forms of production: People literally took to the streets and left the artificiality of the studio behind. Neorealism may have had precursors (and its influence as the mother of all "New Waves" continues to this day) but, though it was initially built around a historical moment, it became the promise of a renaissance, signifying the rebirth of cinema after the Second World War and the depiction of human experience beyond the conventions of Hollywood-style entertainment cinema.
Roberto Rossellini's resistance chronicle Roma città aperta (Rome, Open City, 1945) and its successor Paisà (1946) established neorealism as a witness of liberation and defined the paradigms of its aesthetics. Shooting was done on original locations, without artificial lighting and preferably in long takes; the working-class protagonists were mostly embodied by amateur actors, often including children; there were open endings "like in real life" instead of neatly closed narratives.
But the definition was of the open kind: Luchino Visconti's Ossessione (Obsession, 1943) – retrospectively enthroned as the first masterpiece of neorealismo – went against the authentic study of a milieu with an artful camera style in order to illustrate the story of the U.S. crime classic The Postman Always Rings Twice. In the epic tale of the life of fishermen La terra trema (The Earth Trembles, 1948), Visconti fully fused the extreme realist impulse with operatic stylization (the original verismo had triumphed in musical theater half a century earlier). Meanwhile, author Cesare Zavattini, as the movement's theoretician, had established the idea of neorealist cinema as reportage of everyday life: But his worldwide successes with director Vittorio De Sica, most notably Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves, 1948), were virtuoso choreographies of an "unvarnished" reality and appealed to universal emotions. Ultimately, the humanistic orientation of neorealism was more important than all its rules of purity.
However, even as it was being celebrated internationally as a new trend that set the tone for the future to come, key neorealist directors had already broken away from its supposed principles. Neorealism had become a gathering point from which filmmakers departed into the waters of auteurism (Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini, for example), as well as a common ground for documentary impulses (at their most beautiful in Vittorio De Seta's work) and a popular form of entertainment, as exemplified by the variety of approaches in the contributions to Zavattini's "film journal" L'amore in città (Love in the City, 1953). (Christoph Huber)

In fall 2021 the Austrian Film Museum is launching a new film series, Collection on Screen, which will explore film history on the basis of our own film collection.