Ossessione (Italy 1942): A dance of “death and sperm”

Ossessione (1942)

Luchino Visconti’s first feature film Ossessione (Obsession) opens with a darkly melodramatic musical motif as a truck rumbles through a bleak sun-bleached landscape along a slowly curving stretch of road hugging the river Po. The frame is confined within the cabin and we look down and out the windscreen to the unfolding road. We do not see the occupants of the cabin. A relentless fate seems to be driving the truck on its unwavering path as the opening credits roll. The truck eventually does stop with a jump cut to the driver and his off-sider climbing out of the cabin at a rest stop in front of a local trattoria. A hitchhiker is found sleeping in the back of the open tray. He is shaken awake and admonished by the driver and the trattoria’s owner.

The camera in almost a gesture of abandonment swoops up and looks down at the tramp as he heads into the trattoria. The tramp enters the trattoria and hears a woman singing a love song. He follows the voice to the kitchen. The man, Gino, and the woman, Giovanna, the young wife of the trattoria-owner, stare fixedly at each other, as we see their faces for the first time. Gino is young and virile, Giovanna older but molto simpatica, while the trattoria owner is on the cusp of old age and corpulent. This confrontation ignites an obsessive desire the flames of which will ineluctably engulf and destroy them. Thus commences a dance of “death and sperm” as Visconti’s co-scenarist Giuseppe De Santis put it.

Film noir aficionados will recognise this scenario from the opening sequence of the Hollywood adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. Visconti was given a type-written translation of the novel by mentor Jean Renoir, and made his film without crediting Cain, four years before the Hollywood version. The frank treatment of sex and a homoerotic subtext did not find favour with Italy’s fascist authorities and the film was savagely cut, and the negative eventually destroyed. The film survives because Visconti had secreted a second negative. (The film did not screen in the US until the 1970s because of the breach of screen rights.)

Ossessione is credited as the film that heralded Italian neo-realism, reflecting its concerns with the unadorned lives of the common man, while taking the camera out onto the streets. Although Visconti cast established actors in the main roles, he follows the protagonists as they move in society, with the camera lingering within the mise-en-scène on ordinary people and the rhythm of life in a small semi-rural town. There is also an eddy of melodrama which at critical moments floods the senses as emotions are telegraphed with operatic musical flourishes. Underpinning the film’s aesthetics though is a subversive preoccupation with the anguish of the two protagonists, as they confront the reality and the consequences of their actions. When finally at the end fate closes the books, their destinies assume tragic proportions. That we are being to a degree manipulated though has to be recognised. The husband in keeping with book’s characterisation is oafish, and as his actual demise is not shown, his fate is easily left behind.

What makes Ossessione particularly compelling is an homoerotic strand interwoven with a critique of ‘petit-bourgeois’ values. Visconti was gay and a Marxist. His scenario here has a depth and complexity you will not find in Cain’s hard-boiled prose nor in Tay Garnett’s workmanlike Hollywood adaptation. Visconti confounds the amour-fou of the two protagonists with an interlude that has Gino befriended by a roaming entertainer, ‘Il Spagnolo’, after they share a bed in a flop-house. The dialectic is only thinly veiled. Il Spagnolo represents freedom and a kind of self-sufficient integrity with his itinerant life and rejection of bourgeois values. Giovanna seeks stasis and wants to build up the trattoria as she and Gino take over the dead man’s business – yet there is a dialectic here too. Giovanna accepted marriage to an older man to end her life of poverty and degradation. She makes it clear that hunger had forced her into prostitution. Towards the end of the film, when Gino mistakenly thinks Giovanna has betrayed him to the police, he has an encounter with a young girl who “cannot go home”. This short reprieve tragically harkens to what might have been.

Ossessione demands and rewards multiple viewings. A master film-maker has taken a hard-boiled story and imbued it with intelligence, polemic, a humanist outrage, and above all, a deep compassion for the human predicament.