Ossessione (English: Obsession) is a 1943 Italian film based on the novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain. Luchino Visconti’s first feature film, it is considered by many to be the first Italian neorealist film, though there is some debate about whether such a categorization is accurate.
|Directed by||Luchino Visconti|
|Screenplay by||Luchino Visconti|
Giuseppe De Santis
|Based on||The Postman Always Rings Twice|
by James M. Cain
Juan da Landa
|Music by||Giuseppe Rosati|
|Edited by||Mario Serandrei|
|Distributed by||Industrie Cinematografiche Italiane|
Gino Costa, a wandering tramp, stops at a small roadside tavern and gas station run by Giovanna Bragana and her older husband, Giuseppe. Giovanna is disgusted by her husband, having married him only for his money, and is instantly drawn to the younger and more attractive Gino. Giovanna serves Gino a meal, and they are interrupted by Giuseppe, who throws him out. Giovanna claims Gino didn't pay while pocketing his money, as an excuse for him to return. Giuseppe chases after Gino, only to find that Gino has no money left. Gino offers to fix Giuseppe’s vehicle as repayment for the meal. When Giuseppe leaves to pick up a part for the vehicle, Gino and Giovanna confess their feelings to each other and begin an affair. Giuseppe, completely oblivious to the situation, takes a liking to Gino and tells him that he can stay and help out around the tavern. After a few days, Gino tries to convince Giovanna to run away with him. Giovanna initially agrees, but on the way to the train station she changes her mind and refuses to go through with it, so Gino leaves without her.
While Gino is on the train, he is confronted by the ticket inspector and admits that he has no money. “Lo Spagnolo,” a travelling street entertainer, steps in to pay for his train ticket and the two become friends. When they reach the city of Ancona, Gino spends a night at an inn with Spagnolo, where he reveals that he cannot stop thinking about Giovanna. When lo Spagnolo learns that Giovanna refuses to leave her husband because she fears having no money and security, he advises Gino to “run far away” and forget about Giovanna. Lo Spagnolo lights a candle, later that night, and holds it up in the dark bedroom to watch Gino while he sleeps.
Gino stays in Ancona and gets a job holding up an advertisement sign for lo Spagnolo. Giuseppe and Giovanna run into Gino by chance and the three go to a bar where Giuseppe is to sing in a voice competition. While Giuseppe is on stage, Gino confesses to Giovanna that he tried to forget her but could not, and tries again to convince her to leave with him. Even though Giovanna still has feelings for Gino, she refuses and tells him that she will stay with her husband, to which he angrily replies “then I’ll come back to the tavern, is that what you want?”
After the voice competition, the three leave together to return to the Braganas’ tavern. Giuseppe has been celebrating his successful singing performance and is quite drunk. Gino and Giovanna take advantage of his inebriated state and conspire to murder him. They convince Giuseppe to let Gino drive, and they stage the murder as a traffic accident. In the aftermath of their crime, tensions begin to arise. Gino wants to sell the tavern and leave while Giovanna wants to stay and run the tavern. Gino feels guilty about the murder, and his guilt is amplified by the fact that he is now living in the home of the man he killed. This causes him to feel trapped and he acts coldly to Giovanna.
Giovanna hosts a party at the tavern to increase business. Lo Spagnolo shows up at the party. Initially Gino is happy to see him, but becomes agitated when lo Spagnolo tries to get him to leave and go travelling with him. When lo Spagnolo implies that he knows of Gino's crime, Gino loses his temper and punches lo Spagnolo. A bystander, who is actually a detective that has been investigating Gino and Giovanna, helps lo Spagnolo up. As lo Spagnolo walks away, Gino calls out to him but he doesn't turn around.
One day while Gino and Giovanna are in town, Gino flirts with Anita, a young prostitute. Anita leaves, and Giovanna approaches Gino to tell him that Giuseppe had life insurance. This makes Gino feel that Giovanna has used him, and he feels even more guilt-ridden over the murder. He angrily yells at Giovanna that he doesn't want to be with her anymore, and goes off to find Anita. Gino and Anita spend some time together in Anita's apartment before deciding to leave together to get some food. While they are outside they run into Giovanna, who has been sitting at a café outside Anita's apartment building. Giovanna angrily confronts Gino and Anita runs off. Giovanna threatens to tell the police that Gino killed Giuseppe if Gino doesn't stay with her, to which Gino loses his temper and hits her, causing a scene. Gino then goes back to Anita's apartment and confesses the crime to her.
Meanwhile, two men have reported to the police that they saw Gino and Giovanna both walking away from the vehicle unharmed on the night of the murder. Gino doesn't know this, but he is afraid that Giovanna has gone to the police, and he recognizes the detective who has been following him waiting outside Anita's apartment. Gino convinces Anita to help him escape by distracting the detective, and he leaves the building via the balcony. Gino then returns to Giovanna at the tavern, who tells him that she never reported him to the police, and that she is pregnant with his child and still loves him. During this conversation, they are overheard by a young boy who helps at the tavern. Gino notices the boy and asks him “do you think I am a bad man?” to which the boy replies “no.” Gino then leaves and spends a night wandering alone. Giovanna searches for him all night and finds him the next day on the beach. Gino seems to have come to terms with the crime and has new resolve to love Giovanna and start a new life with her. They make up and spend some romantic time together on the beach. Gino tells Giovanna about the detective, and she finally agrees that they need to leave the tavern to start a new life. They return to the tavern briefly and leave in the vehicle. Realizing that the police are on their trail, they drive as fast as they can and end up tailgating a large truck. In a twist of fate, the truck knocks their car over the edge of the road and into the river, killing Giovanna. Devastated, Gino carries her body out of the wreckage and surrenders to the police.
- Clara Calamai as Giovanna Bragana
- Massimo Girotti as Gino Costa
- Juan da Landa as Giuseppe Bragana, Giovanna's husband
- Dhia Cristiani as Anita, a prostitute
- Elio Marcuzzo as the Spaniard, a street artist
- Vittorio Duse as the police agent
- Michele Riccardini as Don Remigio
- Michele Sakara as the child (uncredited)
Working under the censorship of the Fascist Italian government, Visconti encountered problems with the production even before filming commenced. He had initially planned to adapt a story by Giovanni Verga, a renowned Italian realist writer and one of his greatest influences, but it was turned down almost immediately by the Fascist authorities due to its subject matter, which revolved around bandits. Around this time, Visconti uncovered a French translation of Cain's novel which, famously, had been given to him by French director Jean Renoir while he was working in France in the 1930s.
Visconti adapted the script with a group of men he selected from the Milanese magazine Cinema. The members of this group were talented filmmakers and writers and played a large role in the emerging neorealist movement: Mario Alicata, Gianni Puccini, Antonio Pietrangeli and Giuseppe De Santis. When Ossessione was completed and released in 1943, it was far from the innocent murder mystery the authorities had expected; after a few screenings in Rome and northern Italy, prompting outraged reactions from Fascist and Church authorities, the film was banned by the Fascist government reestablished in the German occupied part of Italy after the September 1943 armistice. Eventually the Fascists destroyed the film, but Visconti managed to keep a duplicate negative from which all existing prints have been made. After the war, Ossessione encountered more problems with mass distribution, this time in the United States. As a result of the wartime production schedule, Visconti had never obtained the rights to the novel and Metro-Goldwyn Mayer began production on another version of the film, directed by Tay Garnett (The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1946), while the Fascist ban on Visconti's work was still in effect.
Due to the copyright issues, the film didn't gain distribution outside of Italy until 1976. Despite limited screenings, it gained acclaim among moviegoers who recognized in it some of the same sensibilities they had grown familiar with in neorealist films by Michelangelo Antonioni, Puccini and De Santis, among others.
For the most part, Visconti retained the plot of the novel. He made changes such as tailoring the script to its Italian setting and adding a character, but the main departure from the novel and the defining characteristic of the film is the manner in which it confronts the realities of life.
In one particularly memorable scene that anticipates a major theme of neorealism, Ossessione’s central female character enters her wildly messy kitchen, serves herself a bowl of soup and sits down with a newspaper, only to fall asleep, slumped over wearily in the midst of the confusion.
At several moments like this one, Visconti slows the pace to give the viewer an even more penetrating glimpse into the routine of his characters and, in doing so, roots the narrative squarely in the life of his characters. In another scene, the three are eating when Bregana comments that a local landowner has been shot from behind by a worker, believed to be the result of the worker's love for the landowner's wife. In this way, Visconti foreshadows Bragana’s own death and illuminates the study of class tension that is woven fluidly into the film.
Soon afterwards, Bragana submits to his wife's physical and verbal responses to cats outside crying or due to the heat. He fetches his shotgun and leaves. Shortly after his exit, the adulterous lovers huddle close and hear gunshots, thereby hinting at the doom also reserved for two lovers "in heat."
The landscape itself is realistic, and Visconti takes great care to situate his characters in a rural Italy that remains for the most part unromanticized. Nearly the entire story is told using medium and long shots, with Visconti choosing to employ close-ups only at moments of intense emotion. Characters are depicted interacting with and moving around within their environment; to this effect, Visconti favors long and ponderous shots while making use of depth of focus to highlight the variety of action occurring throughout the space of the frame.
He resists identifying solely with one character and prefers instead to maintain a distance, taking them all in with his viewfinder as independent but irrevocably tangled components of a larger cast, which includes the sets, scenery and landscape as well as what goes on outside of the frame. Shots of the landscape largely consist of the dusty road winding into the distance and the interior shots are just as bleak; the dowdy kitchen exudes a nearly tangible film of dust and grime and the dingy hotel room that speaks, with each detail, of the rebellious freedom cherished by those who share it. The shift of focus from the novel is clear even in Visconti's decision to change the title.
Whereas the novel's title alludes to the final retribution exacted upon the adulterous couple, Visconti's header bespeaks the focus of his film, obsessive passion.
Despite arguments about how to define neorealist cinema, certainly one of Ossessione’s most poignant aspects is its stark realism. Despite being popular actors of Italian cinema, the stars of the film, Massimo Girotti and Clara Calamai, deliver breathtaking performances that are anything but glamorous. The lovers, Gino and Giovanna, played by Girotti and Calamai, first meet in the kitchen of the inn that Giovanna runs with her husband, the fat and dim-witted Bragana. It is in the symbolic and literal center of the family sphere, before they ever touch, that the two make a silent oath. Their love, tainted as it is by a lie, is difficult for either of them to bear and the tension is only exacerbated by Bregana's overwhelming presence.
Unable to continue the affair under such pretense but genuinely in love, Gino tries to persuade Giovanna to leave with him. She is clearly tempted but knows of the power the road has over Gino, a relationship that Visconti executes nearly as palpably as that between him and Giovanna. She ultimately refuses Gino, opting for the security and stability that Bragana has to offer, and he sets out once again unencumbered. When they cross paths some time later, it is in the city and Bragana is extremely drunk, engaged in a singing competition. Against the backdrop of the drunken and foolish Bregana, the couple plans his death, an act they carry out in a car crash.
Rather than granting them the freedom they so desperately seek, however, the murder only heightens the need for deception and makes more acute the guilt they had previously been dealing with. Despite Giovanna's attempt to construct a normal life with Gino, Bragana's presence seems to remain long after they return to the inn.
Their already crumbling relationship reaches its bounds when they go to collect the money from Bragana's life insurance policy. They have a very hostile argument and Gino retaliates by engaging Anita, an attractive young prostitute. Though Giovanna is pregnant and there seems to be some hope for the couple, Gino is left alone to deal with the law when Giovanna is killed in the film's second car crash.
The character of lo Spagnolo (the Spaniard), Visconti's main textual departure from the novel, plays a pivotal role in the story of Ossessione. After failing to convince Giovanna to flee with him, Gino meets Spagnolo after boarding a train to the city and the two of them strike up an instant friendship, subsequently working and living together. Spagnolo is an actor who works as a street vendor and serves as a foil to Giovanna's traditionalism and inability to let go of the material lifestyle. In contrast to the other main characters, who come across as very real and thoroughly developed, Spagnolo operates chiefly on a symbolic level. He represents for Gino the possibility of a liberated masculinity living a life successfully separate from society's impositions, an alternative to the life he is drawn toward in his relationship with Giovanna.
Both Giovanna and Gino are tragic characters in their inability to find a space in which to situate themselves comfortably. The limited roles made available by society prove to be insufficient in providing narratives for their lives that bring them closer to happiness. Giovanna is pulled away from the security of her marriage to the repulsive Bragana by a desire for true love and fulfillment, whose potential is actualized with the appearance of Gino. Her attempts to hold onto the fortune which came with marriage, however, ultimately lead to the failure of their relationship and perhaps, by extension, her death. Gino's situation seems to be just as distinct, if not more so, as the force pulling him away from Giovanna is his fear of a traditional commitment. From the first time that they sleep together, after which Giovanna shares with Gino all of her deepest problems while he listens to the sound of waves in a seashell, it is clear that he answers only to the open road, identifying it as his alternative to becoming an active part of mainstream society. Spagnolo is the road manifest, masculine freedom in opposition to Giovanna's femininity, love and family values. Caught in between the two conflicting ideals, Gino ends up violating both of them and dooming himself in the process.
Visconti's approach to filmmaking is very structured and he provides several pairs of parallel events, such as the car crashes. Gino meets Spagnolo as they sit side by side on a wall, a scene that is repeated at the end of their friendship; similarly, Gino angrily leaves Giovanna by the side of the road and is later abandoned by Spagnolo in a parallel scene. Cinematic techniques, such as the instances in which Visconti foreshadows major plot twists or the introduction of Spagnolo as a counterweight, demonstrate Visconti's formalist streak and technical virtuosity, but his realist vision and taste for drama are truly what breathe life into Ossessione.
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