On the idyllic Sicilian fishing village of Acitrezza, generations of the Valestro family have upheld the traditional vocation and simple existence of their ancestors, despite economic hardship and personal tragedy. The men (and even boys) earn their subsistence as hired fishermen for wealthy, opportunistic wholesale merchants who collude with rival merchants to depreciate the market prices of the villagers’ daily catch for sale to the neighboring town of Catania. Each day, the Valestro women, Mara and Lucia, maintain the household and anxiously await the return of the men from sea, helplessly aware of the dangers and natural catastrophes that could befall the family on any unassuming day. The elder sister Mara is in love with a poor young construction worker named Nicola, but economic circumstances and her family’s inability to provide a dowry prevent them from marrying. The eldest brother Antonio realizes that any hope for prosperity resides in the town’s collective resistance from the exploitation of the wholesalers. Rallying the discontented and more vocal younger fishermen, the men unsuccessfully attempt to bargain with the wholesalers, and a public disturbance ensues. Antonio is among the young men arrested by the police, but the criminal charges are inevitably dismissed after the wholesalers use their influence to prevent prosecution upon realizing that all of the able-bodied fishermen in the village had been arrested, and have now destabilized their own profitable commerce. The experience further galvanizes Antonio’s determination to gain independence from the unscrupulous wholesalers. He convinces the family to circumvent the wholesalers by processing the fish themselves for sale directly to Catania, using proceeds from the mortgage of the house as collateral. However, as the Valestro family turn their back on the traditional means of commerce by the local fishermen, they risk not only losing the family home, but also their solidarity with the village who rely on the wholesalers for economic survival.
Based on the Giovanni Verga novel, I Malavolgia, La Terra Trema is a captivating examination of rural life, community, exploitation, and human resilience. By filming in the peasant fishing village of Acitrezza in southern Italy, and capturing the local dialect of the indigenous nonprofessional (and uncredited) actors, Luchino Visconti preserves the authenticity and universality of the story of human struggle. In contrast to Visconti’s later, more embellished films, the camerawork in La Terra Trema is distilled, minimalist, and documentary. Visconti uses medium and long shots, graceful pans, location shooting, and natural lighting to reflect the austerity and simple beauty of peasant life: the fishermen’s daily preparations before sailing out to sea; the line of fishing boats demarcating the horizon against a setting sun; the Valestro women standing on the rocks amid crashing waves, scanning the turbulent sea. Through the exploitation of the fishermen, Visconti parallels the chaos and uncertainty of social revolution with the deceptive and cruel nature of the sea. In the end, like the unpredictable tempest, the travails of the Valestro family are inconstant, life-altering, and ultimately inevitable.
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