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Haunted frames: history and landscape in Luchino Visconti's Ossessione.

Hailed as the first neorealist film, inaugurating a new mode of cinematic narration, as well as a burgeoning political consciousness; criticized as a seedy melodrama, largely derivative of the American hardboiled genre and the French realist film of the Thirties; Ossessione projects the tension of an unfolding historical moment: the fall of Fascism and the birth of a new nation. Notwithstanding the lack of any overt political message or reference to the war and Fascism, history--personal and national--is the haunting obsession in Visconti's movie.

Ossessione is an ambiguous mixture of old and new. Within it coexist a formulaic crime story and an innovative way of looking at the world that defies the logic of the suspense genre and suggests the presence of worlds beyond the one represented. In his study Il paesaggio nel cinema italiano, Sandro Bernardi distinguishes two such moments within all visual experience: "vedere," an act that involves our existing knowledge--"L'uomo vede cio che sa" (18)--and "guardare," an openness to vision--"la possibilita di spingersi oltre il sapere." If Ossessione's tale of passion 'visibly' defies a Fascist idea of sanitized love and familial piety, the truly subversive element in the movie is the formal push, finding expression in the representation of the landscape, to "look at" the world. In Ossessione, landscape evades traditional integration into the narrative and instead unfolds as what Bernardi terms a "painterly landscape," one that draws the spectators' as well as the characters' glance beyond the narrated story, opening up "storie possibili che stanno dietro o accanto a quella" (37). If the landscape so understood represents "un momento di confine" that pushes the viewer beyond the "visible," Ossessione inhabits, through its use of landscape, a stylistic and historical threshold. (1)

It is still subject to debate to what extent Ossessione anticipated the poetics of neorealism. Rather than reading Ossessione as a more or less imperfect forerunner, I prefer to point out what did find expression in Visconti's first movie and was not to be found again in the neorealist film production to come: a cinematic representation of a Fascist society. While the neorealist movies often expressed, as Ruth Ben-Ghiat has argued, a "displacement of collective responsibility for Fascism by consistently shifting culpability away from ordinary Italians" (1999: 84), Ossessione represents the very containment of vision, spaces and desires enacted by Fascism within ordinary Italians. Visconti, and the group of young communist intellectuals around the journal Cinema, allegorically staged through the characters of the black-clad femme fatale and the indecisive tramp--swept away by a passion with murder at its heart, imprisoned in a house conquered through violence and obsessed with finding a way out to other stories, other realities--the predicament of the human subject under Fascism.

This essay will examine the haunting appearance of landscape in Ossessione as both a rupture of the conventionality of both filmic plot and Fascism and an opportunity to reenter the everyday. If, as Bernardi observed, the landscape is a philosophical object that expresses the relationship of the human subject with self and world, the landscape in Ossessione simultaneously expresses both hopelessness and the desire for another future. Moving away from the imperiousness and fatality of content, the cinematic image in Ossessione enjoys a freedom that intimates artistic and historical liberations yet to come. The characters, on the other hand, rather than looking at this world, turn their backs on it. After seeing the world for so many years, the problem for the characters of Gino and Giovanna, as well as for a whole generation of Italians, is to succeed in looking at the world once again. (2)

Landscape and Film Theory

In the fall of 1943, one year after shooting his first film Ossessione, Visconti publishes a minor artistic manifesto in Cinema announcing, to a country in the midst of momentous political change (July 25--fall of Mussolini; September 8--armistice), a new cinema to come. (3) There he writes:
   Al cinema mi ha portato soprattutto l'impegno di raccontare storie
   di uomini vivi: di uomini vivi nelle cose, non le cose per se. Il
   cinema che mi interessa e un cinema antropomorfico. (italics mine)

Visconti overemphasizes the primacy of the human presence--his intent to "tell stories of living men"--to make a clear break with the staged Fascist cinematography of I telefoni bianchi (films set in sleek apartments crowded with fashionable artifacts). However, while focussing on the centrality of the human action, Visconti also points to the diffusion, so to speak, of the human presence in a reality that bears the eloquent imprint of human activity and desire, "fatta dagli uomini e da essi modificata continuamente" (34).

Visconti's search for a new relation between the human body and its surroundings was by no means an isolated one. "Come [...] sarebbe possibile intendere e interpretare l'uomo, se lo si isola dagli elementi nei quali ogni giorno egli vive, con i quali ogni giorno comunica?" asked Giuseppe De Santis already in 1941. (4) In a brief, yet poignant essay entitled "Per un paesaggio italiano," the future assistant director of Ossessione grants to landscape a centrality that has far-reaching consequences for Italian cinema. The central preoccupation of cinema, affirmed De Santis, should be to create an authenticity of both gesture and atmosphere. According to the young critic, the things that carry the marks of human hands, the walls of a house and the streets of a town, as well as nature "che lo circonda e che ha tanta forza su di lui da foggiarlo a sua immagine e somiglianza" (43), are the necessary points of departure for all cinematic narration. Landscape thus sets the stage for the telling of new stories. Bur this is not all. The visual emergence of a primordial landscape is identified with a radical rethinking of the very nature of the medium. By stressing the permanence of the image within the unfolding of the action, landscape invokes, as an element of the film aesthetic, different ways of seeing and telling that both reach back to the painting tradition and look forward to a new documentary form. It is through such hybridizations that De Santis heralds the birth of a new national cinema.

Michelangelo Antonioni, in his 1939 article entitled "Per un film sul fiume Po," perhaps went a step further than anyone in the articulation of a cinematography emerging from nature. "I need only say," he then wrote, "that I would like a film with the Po as the central character, in which the spirit of the river would provide the interest of the film." (5) Upsetting the conventional hierarchy between figure and background, the landscape becomes the subject of a story of passage and movement, and not simply a taken-for-granted and eternal reality. In Antonioni's preparatory notes, human history is seen as flowing side by side with natural history, as human society and the river change, destroy and dominate each other. The intertwining of natural and human temporalities resurfaces within cinema itself--thus, at the very heart of human technology--in the stylistic choice faced by Antonioni between 'story film' and documentary. The challenge, for Antonioni as for De Santis, is to find a new way of constructing a story where the action and the lyrical impulses which define the natural sequences ("the torment of poetic discovery") could merge. But how can nature translate into action? The camera will afford the necessary mediation. The movement of the camera will flow with the river, following its currents, eddies and floods, thus literally allowing the landscape to tell its own story. The river as landscape in action, an ongoing ribbon that metaphorically mirrors the unrolling of the film reel, lends itself both to fictional narrative and that of its seeming opposite, documentary, whose time, space and rhythm appear to be dictated by the environment. "Between you and me," Antonioni provisionally concludes, "I feel a good deal of sympathy for a filmed fiction/document without any label" (81). It is within that slash, the ongoing tension between the narrative and the image, that Antonioni and the whole generation that gave expression to the neorealist movement would decide to construct their stories.

In contemporary film studies, scholars have brought renewed attention to the role played by landscape within the double system of representation--visual and discursive--that organizes the cinematographic image (Bernardi 2002). In her L'Image-paysage: Iconologie et cinema, Maurizia Natali likens the cinematic screen to Freud's magic writing block: two superimposed surfaces, a first page constantly written and erased by the inflow of immediate perception and, under it, a deeper wax surface on which are engraved the infinite superimpositions of past writings. This double surface well describes the cinematic image "capture entre le mouvement present de la narration et le temps spectral des images" (72). Between these layers, the landscape acts as Walter Benjamin's "optical unconscious," a space "qui revient escamote derriere les actions humaines representees, l'espace profond qui persiste derriere les corps du cinema" (74). Since the inception of cinematography, the landscape shot, a framed piece of nature, "ouvre une contradiction esthetique au sein du cinema, art des villes et des foules, de la vitesse et du mouvement mecaniques" (61). Hence its marginalization in classical cinema. Within the narrative flow of action-images that construct the story, nature is distanced, excluded, fragmented or contained by quotational devices (windows, backgrounds, views). Nonetheless, Natali maintains, the landscape introduces a rift within the apparently seamless flow of the cinematic story. Nature, thus "mise au fond," re-emerges with a repressed, enigmatic force.

"Le neorealisme est aussi une revolution de la forme vers le fond," Andre Bazin once observed. (6) In the late 30's and early 40's, the young group of intellectuals working around Cinema started this revolution by choosing landscape, what had been a fundamentally invisible background ("fond") in classical and mainstream cinema, as the experimental site for the development of a new cinematography. Visconti, De Santis and Antonioni imagine stories emerging from the mutual molding of human figure and natural landscape, stories born at the intersection of the world of conscious actions, of movement and history, and that of nature, the space of the everyday and timeless habitation. (7) The camera eye of neorealism will inhabit this space of heightened perception, a space where, to borrow Bakhtin's description of the chronotope, "time ... thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible, likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history" (84). Here is born and tentatively theorized what Andre Bazin will define a few years later as the "fact-image" of neorealist cinematography, which be sees endowing "the entire surface of the scene ... [with] an equally concrete density" whereby "man himself is just one fact among others, to whom no pride of place should be given a priori" (1971: 37-8). Landscape becomes the site on which to representa dispersed, profoundly modernist, and yet "realist" idea of subjectivity. At the same time, history, "mise au fond" in the official discourse of Fascism, re-emerges through landscape as a natural history. Nowhere does this concept find its realization more clearly than the closing episode of Paisa. There, the story of Italy's liberation as the obscure struggle of nameless partisans is narrated directly by the flowing of the Po river, whose "muddy waters, [...] reeds stretching away to the horizon, [...] occupy a place of equal importance with the men" (Bazin 1971: 37).

This neorealist attention to the environment, however, should not be simply equated with heightened realism, (8) Described as a "communication" between man and the surrounding elements, the representation of the landscape marks an opening towards the metaphysical, that is, toward what is silent and yearns for expression. Following the lesson of Jean Renoir, De Santis argues that landscape should be used to point out the existence of feelings which men cannot express. Thus, filmed landscape becomes the site where visible reality and the unconscious meet, a place where the human subject both asserts its mastery and is mastered, a known everyday space and, at the same time, a foreign territory. By bringing landscape to the foreground, the critics of the Cinema group recognize it as a kind of ultimate frontier of the story, where human actions begin to merge with the horizon of their unfolding. (9) Here, the unspoken that haunts every story--and is constitutive of every story, the source from which every story emerges and to which it returns--becomes visible. Landscape represents for this young generation of Italian critics and future filmmakers an unclaimed, primitive, politically virgin ground from which to discover new stories and storytelling techniques and a new human subject--a space that can accommodate a truly new Italian cinema.

Antonioni's documentary "Gente del Po" was shot in 1943, but released only in 1947. Well before that date, the river and its surrounding landscape made a first important appearance in Ossessione, a movie to which most of the staff of Cinema contributed, (10) The earliest reviewers of the movie pointed out how the countryside around the Po comes to the fore with an unprecedented and vivid realism, rediscovering a territory hidden by Fascist mythology. Bur that same landscape also works as a "symbolic screen" (Natali) rhetorically framed by Visconti to make visible--beyond the mythical narratives of either James Cain or Fascist ideology--a social and historical repression, the site of a yet-unarticulated story. This narrative/historical elsewhere that haunts the horizons of Ossessione will be the focus of the present essay. (11)

Critical Landscapes

As Lino Micciche has noted, while the plot of Ossessione is characterized by "un'ellittica sinteticita" (the story of the love between a drifter and a married woman that results in the murder of the husband and their eventual apprehension by the authorities), the single sequences unfold, by contrast, in a "dinamicita analitica" (52). This double movement of concentration and dispersion often brought charges of unbalance and stylistic looseness against the movie. But the lyrical pauses and narrative detours that unfold within each sequence are far from accidental. Faced with the strictures of official censorship, the Cinema group turned to an ostensibly mythical tale of passion and adultery, adapted from James Cain's novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, only to unravel it in unexpected directions. One of the "excesses" that diverts the original plot is the introduction of the new character of lo Spagnolo--a travelling artist that Gino meets on the train and who joins in his bohemian life. Much of the unsaid of the movie hovers around this figure: a homo-erotic love interest and, because of his shadowy past in Spain, a political sub-text to the life of vagrancy. (12) Yet it is the lyrical rendering of the landscape--the Po valley and the cityscapes of Ancona and Ferrara--that provides the more consistent slackening in the storyline, an eddy in the rushing of the narrative that enlarges unspoken personal and historical dimensions of the movie.

Critics have consistently acknowledged the importance and novelty of the landscape in Ossessione. (13) But just as consistently, the presence of the landscape has been regarded as a supplementary effect or atmosphere that simply reinforces the symbolic focus of the story. "Visconti indugia nella creazione di atmosfere cariche di 'presagi,'" notes Di Giammatteo, "immerse nel buio della notte e in ambienti chiusi" to accent the existential despair of the characters (187). Conversely, Catherine Ramsey-Portolano points to the film's initial title, Palude, as revealing Visconti's intent "of projecting, even on a literal level, a barren and dreary landscape to correspond to the protagonist's physical and metaphorical isolation" (101). Dark, claustrophobic interiors and bleached dusty roads along desolate river banks do constitute the scenic palette Visconti uses for both the landscape and his protagonists (think of those landscapes alongside a Clara Calamai gleaming with black brilliance and a fair Massimo Girotti dissolving in the sun). But Visconti's search for an unprecedented "quadro dell'Italia" cannot be reduced to transforming the traditional nineteen-thirties backdrop "da fondale idilliaco, in scenario torbido" (Micciche 18). Between the stark symbolism that opposes dark interiors to blanched exteriors, the narrative path lingers in a third interstitial space, one that functions as a disruptive allegory, telling another, or rather, other stories. In order to understand the framing of this space--a "deep surface" (Natali, 106) which works not so much as a movie within a movie, but as a doorway from the movie to other, if barely glimpsed, movies--we need to lay out the wider context in which it functions.

The Story's Geography

Outside its darkly lit rooms, Ossessione presents a varied landscape: long stretches of open road connect Bragana's house to airy images of the city and the sea. It is through a geography defined by these strong icons--the road, the house and the city--that the story moves. The opening sequence of Ossessione, a first telling embodiment of the "dinamicita analitica" mentioned by Micciche, establishes this movement. The first shot of the movie is literally on the road. As the opening credits roll by, the spectator is hurled down a country highway, a ribbon steadily unfolding under our eyes. The camera, looking through the windshield of a truck, rushes us toward an ever receding vanishing point. This is the first appearance of a perspectival view that repeatedly returns in the movie, a visual whirlpool opened by the landscape, one that seems to swallow the viewer into the screen, into an unspecified beyond. There is a sense, stressed by the hammering score, of fatality, of unstoppable forward momentum--camera movement as fate. Here landscape is translated into action and, because of the impersonality of the shot and the absence of any human presence, even becomes the protagonist of the action.


The road runs along the river. The man-made road, marked by linear human time, is doubled by the river, natural, non-linear, ever-changing yet ever-returning. At the end of the road, looming against the horizon, the furthest outpost of the movie emerges: the house of the husband Bragana--the point of departure for the story and, as we will see, its impossible point of arrival. The house is symbolically ensconced between road and river, suggesting a point of convergence for the natural and the historical, a frontier between the human and its environment.

In the geography of the story to come, and contrary to this initial picture, the house and the road occupy competing and opposed metaphorical sites. In the world of homeless drifters and travelling artists portrayed in Ossessione, Bragana's roadside osteria is the one and only symbol of inhabiting. But as it immediately turns out when Gino, after descending the truck, meets the glamorous and unhappy Giovanna, it is a decayed symbol: the house, the emblem of the family, has become a site of oppression and bourgeois squalor. Giovanna, in order to escape life on the road, married the well-to-do and older Bragana, and she is now imprisoned in a loveless marriage. Mirroring the double and ambiguous nature of the house, Bragana is at the same time a petty, narrow-minded bourgeois and the embodiment of the "good" old-fashioned Italian (a decorated bersagliere, a Christian who shoots quail with the country priest and sings opera in his spare time). He is the oppressor soon to turn victim, chiasmatically mirrored by Giovanna, the victim turned usurper. Ellis Donda pointedly reads Ossessione as the drama of the absent family:
   Quello che ci e proposto e la fine inarrestabile del mondo
   contadinopagano, ultima voce del pre-industriale; il segno di
   questo inabissarsi e la mancanza, la disfatta dell'unita
   costitutrice di quel nodo stesso: la famiglia, intesa come unita di
   economia e eros. (276)

Undoubtedly, the society represented in Ossessione is undergoing momentous changes, a radical reorganization of erotic and economic relations; but the crisis of the sociological family does not fully explain the homelessness that--with the exception of Bragana--troubles all the characters in the movie. In this sense, Bragana's roadside osteria, a public space of commercial transactions, is the site of multiple absences: the family, as well as a hollowed out community and nation.

Opposing the image of the house at the other end of the narrative road loom the cities: Ancona and Ferrara, and, evoked by lo Spagnolo's daydreaming, Trieste, Napoli and Genova. Like Bragana's house, these cities are open to a casual inhabiting: a criss-cross of roads, piazzas, train stations, harbors and piers, places of arrival and departure. They afford quiet corners from which to gaze at the furthest horizon of the sea and yet all that is contained within their walls are squalid rental rooms. Even in the city, the characters are always on the road, outsiders, foreigners in a foreign land.

The road (as the past, present and future of the characters) is thus the central figure of the movie, a figure of the radical homelessness of human desire and at the same time a place of possibilities. On the road of Ossessione, one of the first truly open spaces in the Italian cinema, what was kept hidden and separate unexpectedly meets. As Mikhail Bakhtin observes in his notes on the chronotope of the road: "the spatial and temporal paths of the most varied people [...] intersect at one spatial and temporal point," thus revealing "the sociohistorical heterogeneity of one's own country" (245). The road brings about the meeting of a wandering, directionless humanity, unleashing the ruinous passion between Gino and Giovanna and, by so doing, questioning the meaning of home, belonging and community in Italy circa 1943. Between the topographical points of the house, the road, and the city, the narrative draws a sort of zig-zag figure, an aerial picture of the anxiety of change that possesses Gino the outsider and Giovanna the settled, yet unhappy woman.

The Story's Movement

Setting the parameters of much of the critical discourse to come, Antonio Pietrangeli anticipated the release of the movie in a 1942 article announcing a story populated by a humanity "che scatta a molla nell'azione, senza il mediato correttivo del pensiero, ma con quella spinta irruenta per cui desiderare e prendere costituiscono un unico atto spontaneo al di qua del bene e del male." (14) This description is heavily indebted to the poetics of Verismo, but Ossessione is not Verga's "La lupa." If the plot "springs like a coil," the same cannot be said of the characters. Gino is memorable for his doubts, hesitations and uncertainties. And, as for Giovanna, we could quote Gilles Deleuze's insightful observation that the heroine's "hallucinatory sensuality" makes her closer "to a visionary, a sleepwalker, than a seductress or a lover" (3). For Deleuze, what makes Ossessione the forerunner of neorealism is the fact that "the character has become a kind of viewer [...] He records rather than reacts. He is prey to a vision, pursued by it or pursuing it, rather than engaged in an action" (3). Thus, a vision is the obsession that sets the rhythm of the story. How, and to what extent, is this vision made visible in Visconti's movie?

In a thorough analysis of the plot structure, Micciche has identified six large narrative sequences with the murder of Bragana at the midpoint and following a pattern of "passione-liberazione-passione" (50). On the most superficial level of the story, this description of the plot is accurate. But how can we draw such clear-cut distinctions when passion coexists with the desire for escape, and liberation puts the characters more than ever in the grip of passion? Desire is always elsewhere. What organizes the plot, slowing it down, is rather the pendular movement itself, a swinging between escapes and returns. Micciche's sequences can be thus reorganized according to a movement in which the beginning of every sequence is marked by an encounter, followed by an escape and usually ending with a return, as the diagram below illustrates:
ROAD/ RIVER--Arriving

1. Encounter Gino     Escape together   Giovanna returns to the
and Giovanna          [on the road]     house. Departure Gino
Confession [her

2. Encounter          Escape            Gino returns to lo
Gino and to           [on the pier]     Spagnolo [in front of
Spagnolo                                the duomo]
[hotel bedroom]

3. Encounter          Escape from to    Gino returns with the
Gino and              Spagnolo          Braganas
the Braganas
[fair of San

ROAD/RIVER--Murder of Bragana

4. Encounter          Gino refuses to   Gino returns to the
with to Spagnolo      escape with to    house. Departure to
[country fair at      Spagnolo          Spagnolo
the osteria]

5. Encounter          Escape from       Gino returns to the
with Anita            Anita             house
[Ferrara in
the park]

6. Encounter Gino     Gino's escape     Final Escape together
and Giovanna          and encounter
[her bedroom]         with Giovanna
                      [river bank]

ROAD/RIVER--Giovanna's death

Thus, after Gino's entry into Bragana's home, the film unfolds in a series of escapes to the road, and this movement of escape and return creates a sort of melody, a structural "ossessione," that haunts the story through the compulsion to return. But what ghost is driving this compulsion?

Ossessione has been described as a movie on the "destructive power of sexual passion" (Nowell-Smith 19; Bondanella, 28), and truly the passion between Gino and Giovanna explodes like wildfire in the first fifteen minutes of the movie. But like wildfire, it consumes itself just as rapidly, as if Visconti wanted this tension dispelled as quickly as possible. Only in the aftermath of that sudden and unseen consummation does Visconti's movie properly begin. From the ashes of a spent desire, the characters emerge as orphans of a lost object. Passion--like murder--is only an expression of their desire, but passion is not the name of that desire. The dialogue/confession following Gino and Giovanna's love-making unveils the nature of the obsession in Ossessione. "Sono stato scaricatore a Trieste, meccanico, ... non conosco nessuno da queste parti ..." Gino tells Giovanna and then, confronted with her sentimental unhappiness, asks: "Perche l'hai sposato?" To which Giovanna replies:
   Non lo so neppure io, ero senza lavoro e mi facevo invitare dalla
   gente di passaggio--se tu sapessi cosa vuol dire essere senza soldi
   sulla strada ...

The lovers reemerge from their embrace revealing to the spectators a reality of homelessness and displacement: a literal homelessness for Gino the vagabond and, for Giovanna, a yet deeper homelessness due to her experience of the house as a site of corruption and imprisonment, an empty symbol of community. Throughout Giovanna's long monologue, Gino plays with a conch he found on the dresser; finally, to relieve Giovanna's anguish he brings the shell to her ear, suggesting the whispered message: "Andare via, tu e io insieme." The shell gives voice to the compelling, yet distant sound of another place, another destiny, but Giovanna cannot yield to Gino and his elsewhere. (15) The road is no home for Giovanna: "No, per me vorrebbe dire farsi invitare a cena dagli uomini ... almeno avessi un posto dove andare a vivere." In the world of Ossessione, passion and resignation forma strange bond. The intimacy of the bedroom, the conventional hideout of sexuality, is in Ossessione the site where questions of identity, history and belonging--or, rather, of the characters' odd lack of identity, history and belonging--are mournfully confessed. History and one's displacement within the polis are the truly obscene, censored elements in the movie. With the exception of Bragana, all the characters of Ossessione--Gino, Giovanna, lo Spagnolo, Anita la ballerina--are exiles with shady pasts of vagabondaggi and destitution; for all of them, belonging, at best a confused utopian yearning, is tied to shame and resignation.

If the opening truck ride seems to suggest the instinctual drive impelling Gino and Giovanna, it eventually reveals itself tied to a yet more profound and pervasive pull: the one exerted by the icon of the house, a desired place of belonging, nestled at the end of an eerily vanishing line. Haunting is the spectral dimension of dwelling, and, in the world of Ossessione, the only form of possible inhabiting. It is within the framed landscapes that punctuate the unfolding of the story--within their "deep surface"--that this desire for a place emerges allegorically as a repressed and subversive historical desire.

First Frame: The Threshing Field

Faced with the strain of a menage a trois, Giovanna, despite her misgivings, agrees to escape with Gino. The lovers set out on the road to the train station. But soon Giovanna is tired--"Non posso piu continuare"--and sits down on a heap of gravel. For the whole length of the shot, the camera holds still looking down at Giovanna. Eventually, from the left, Gino enters the frame, sitting next to her. Giovanna has been talking all along. The stillness of the shot shifts the viewer's attention past Giovanna's words and her disheartened body posture to the background. Behind Giovanna and down from the road embankment, enclosed in a geometrical, diamond-shaped field, a group of people are threshing grain--an ordered activity that yet appears like a whimsical tossing of confetti. Here, for the first time in the movie, the landscape tells its own story, an allegorical commentary enhancing the visibility of the scene's significance.


The framing of the shot cuts out the sky, focussing our attention on Giovanna and the threshing scene behind her. A pole cuts the diamond shape of the field in two and symbolically separates Giovanna from Gino once he is seated. For the entire time of the close up, she sits down on a pyramid of gravel--similar incolor, shape and texture to the field behind her. "Non e possibile" says Giovanna "So come vanno a finire queste cose. Non sono nata per vagabondare io come te...." "Ma non dicevi..." replies Gino "che tutto era meglio pur di non restare vicino a lui?" Resigned, Giovanna concludes: "Avevo sbagliato." Giovanna's passion is more complicated and less transparent than the instinctual passion critics have ascribed to her: it is a desire for Gino, for profound human belonging, as well as, inextricably, a fetishistic desire for material belongings. More than an embodiment of nature's force, she is the graven image of the societal norm (Re, 134): the story she tells is the failure of imagining a world outside bourgeois values, and her subsequent 'naturalist' rebellion is just a further confirmation of those values--the destruction of the bourgeois husband in order to retain all he stands for. Her passion unfolds in an excessive yet ritualistic and controlled fashion, not unlike the threshing scene that looms unseen behind her: she belongs to the regimented and contained activity of that field. Giovanna chooses to return to the geometry of societal certainties and it is only within that perimeter--like the peasants threshing wheat in the field, whose anarchic gestures are contained within a choreography that rigidly dictates the reasons of their actions--that her rebellion will find its expression.

Thus, although the character of Giovanna has been read as an archetypal incarnation of passion, we could argue that, together with Bragana, she is the most historically coded character in the story. Announced on the screen by the popular tune "Fiorin fiorello," the character of Giovanna is the most "acted" in the movie, so much so that, despite the social-realist rural setting, she is apt to remind the viewer of the stylized femmes fatales of Cinecitta productions, a connection strengthened by the choice of Clara Calamai for the part, an actress associated with the "telefoni bianchi" genre. (16) Through the seemingly disingenuous choice of using stars and stereotypes of Fascist film--Massimo Girotti, the hero of Blasetti's La corona di ferro, in the part of the troubled and directionless Gino, and Calamai as the murderous black-clad heroine--Visconti subverts the official self-image of Fascism by directly representing its conflicted subjectivity. Giovanna's murderous rebellion in pursuit of a conventional existence makes her a troubling embodiment of the contradiction at the heart of the Fascist revolution, in which, an ethos of lawless violence is used to uphold dreams of middle-class security.

As if refusing this vision, Gino suddenly gets up and breaks the shot. Next we see him swiftly walking down the road while Giovanna runs after him calling his name. Gino disappears down a tree-lined road, an almost academic image of vanishing point perspective that does not fit topographically with the previous scene. While Gino is swallowed in this virtual dimension outside the space of the story, the camera returns to Giovanna turning her back to the viewers as she retraces her steps to Bragana's house, a reified and decayed emblem of inhabiting. Both movements underline the homelessness of the characters. The lost home is an uncertain and nebulous point of departure and a utopia that may never be regained; what is left for now is the open road.

Second Frame: Above the Duomo

Gino boards the train to Ancona and there he meets a travelling artist, lo Spagnolo, who pays his fare and asks Gino to join him. Once in Ancona, they share a room, but in the morning Gino slips away unnoticed to board a ship. The sound of the departing freighter knits together a fast-paced back and forth between the room, where lo Spagnolo lies in bed awake, and Gino, who sits on the pier looking after the ship as it leaves the harbor along the vanishing point framed by the pier. Finally, Gino retraces his steps to join lo Spagnolo in his free life, one invented daily in the streets of the city.

The scene of Gino's aborted departure structurally retraces the previous scene with Giovanna, bur reverses its emotional values. While previously the escape sequence ended with a closing in of the camera on the resignation of Giovanna, doomed to return to the geometries of bourgeois life, here the camera climbs with Gino, reunited with lo Spagnolo, to the top of the town along flights of ascending stairs--another vanishing point perspective--to a vast airy view of the sea that suggests hope and undefined promise. A long shot tracks the characters crossing the piazza of San Ciriaco and stops right behind them as they stand looking away at the harbor far below, a jagged line of the pier dividing them. The world is wide and present, and surrounds them, like the diegetic flute motif that accompanies their actions. Lo Spagnolo takes a seat first on the parapet, the song ends, be looks encouragingly at Gino; Gino takes a seat and the non-diegetic score starts as a second low-angle camera shot moves to the front of the characters, revealing an equally breathtaking view.


Behind their shoulders towers, unbeknownst to them, a fantastical allegory atop the immaculate white duomo of Ancona. As previously with the threshing field full of busy figures, here a geometrically shaped backdrop stages a miniature field of human action: perched on the roof of the church, men stroll in a somnambulistic grace between earth and sky.

While this lyrical sequence seems to have no narrative import, it is crucial for establishing a site of freedom that literally lifts the characters outside the claustrophobic plot to a higher plane. The far-off horizon, the yearning for an escape, is no longer the point of reference. For the first time, the characters inhabit the landscape and the present moment. And while what that might mean is left unspoken, its emblematic articulation is strikingly visualized in the deep surface of the landscape behind them. The architectural line of the church roof runs like a tight rope from lo Spagnolo to Gino, while along this line a man dressed in what seems to be a summer linen suit--unlikely garb for a workman, I suspect it might be Visconti himself--strolls with ease back and forth. What are those men doing up there? On top of the house of God, high against the sky, they work or they idle, a group of mysterious acrobats, their oneiric appearance is the promise of freedom and utopia in this new friendship of Gino's. (17)

Third Frame" Sky and Kite

Immediately thereafter events precipitate. Ata street fair, Gino meets the Braganas again and agrees to follow Giovanna back home. The camera follows the unlikely trio down the steps of Ancona vecchia, literally retracing in a downward movement the upward climb of Gino and lo Spagnolo to San Ciriaco. Later, on the road to Bragana's house, the two kill Bragana. After the police inquest and the lovers' return to the osteria, Giovanna is adamant to keep the business going. But now the home has truly become a spectral space; inhabiting has been degraded, in Gino's words, to "fare la guardia alla casa di un morto." Gino begins breaking down under the pressure: he drinks, he looks for an escape, and he starts suspecting Giovanna's intentions.

It is at this point that, during a country fair at the osteria, Gino encounters lo Spagnolo again. Gino's stories with Giovanna and lo Spagnolo have unfolded in structurally parallel ways up to this point: with an initial encounter, an attempted escape, a return, and a reunion of both pairs (lover/friends) at a fair. Lo Spagnolo has come possibly to carry Gino away with him, but Gino has changed: "Non mi piace piu viaggiare." As they move away from the house down to the bank of the river, a kite shadows their movements and shows them the way. They sit once again, their feet dangling as in front of S. Ciriaco, but now only a blanched empty sky serves as background.

Lo Spagnolo talks of a world that is like a road, "ci si trovano tanti amici." His words hover in empty space, punctuated at times only by the uncertain flight of the kite. But the kite does not take to the sky. All that is left now is an invisible landscape, the unattainable elsewhere of the movie.


Gino stands up and walks away. Lo Spagnolo confronts him about the cowardice of his actions, and Gino knocks him down. Lo Spagnolo picks himself up and, exactly as Gino did before him in the road scene with Giovanna, walks away down the road toward a curving vanishing point. Gino runs after him, calling his name and then, like Giovanna, stops and turns his back to the camera, heading, defeated, to the house. What was it that Gino wanted to silence by attacking his friend? Ostensibly the murder, but what could lo Spagnolo really know of it beside gossip? "Il torto e mio," says lo Spagnolo "che credevo di poterti ancora parlare come a uno dei nostri." "Nostri"? To which band does he refer? Vagabonds? Sexually or politically marginal subjects? And which crime--homicide, homosexuality, homelessness or dissidence--would be more subversive in 1943 Italy?

Fourth Frame: Outside the Citadel

The fourth framed landscape appears once again on a scene of rest and idleness. Gino strolls in the city park in the main square of Ferrara, passing children playing and people sleeping on benches or going about their business. The scene is both realistic and yet fanciful, repeatedly crossed by two outlandish ice-cream trucks, one in the shape of a sinister looking dragon, wearing round dark sunglasses, and the other in the shape of a white swan. While waiting for Giovanna, Gino meets Anita, a ballerina in town for a performance--a ballerina who in her spare time, oddly enough, knits in the park. They sit next to each other on a bench; Gino offers Anita an ice cream. The camera takes a close shot of the couple from behind as they order ice cream, while at the extreme right of the screen stands the leering face of the bespectacled dragon--possibly a reminder of the policeman in dark glasses who has been shadowing Gino. As the conversation begins, the camera moves to the front, focussing on Gino with the park scene behind him. They have a flirtatious exchange until Gino leans forward and, prompted by the body movement, the camera switches to a close up of Anita with Gino on the left, half cut away from the frame. "Sei di qui tu?," asks Gino. "No, anzi me ne andro presto," replies Anita. Behind them, giving the conversation an intensity and intimacy unexpected in a casual encounter in the park, towers the castle of Ferrara.

"'Come non sei di Ferrara?'--'No'". The castle punctuates these words as it looms in stark chiaroscuro like an impenetrable, threatening materialization of the polis, here a paradoxical figure of exclusion. (18) This closely-framed image of the castle evokes the social, political, and historical sphere as a space that is inaccessible to the men and women who sit outside it, eating ice cream in a park surrounded by children playing. Before this symbolic materialization of what Pasolini will call "il palazzo," no one belongs; everyone is a foreigner, a subject without a nation, moving along the road from place to place, prostituting him or herself to find a roof; everyone is in the streets, streets full of amici who make out of their marginality a sense of belonging, like a submerged, nomadic, dispersed nation. While the camera holds on the same frame, Gino asks: "'Allora torni a casa tua?'--'A casa mia non ci posso tornare,' "Anita sadly replies as she puts down the ice cream and mournfully picks up her knitting, a last ironic remnant of the lost home, its security and affections. There is a pause. Gino studies Anita's face and then asks her, as much as he could himself and all the characters of Ossessione: "E ora dove andrai?"

Conclusions/On Barren Ground

Later in the day, Gino will make a similar confession to Anita about the impossibility of return, a confession that resonates beyond the context of the murder for his whole generation living under Fascism. "Ho agito senza capire quello che facevo," he tells Anita, and to her suggestion of his leaving Giovanna, he replies: "Non posso piu tornare ad essere quello che ero. Ormai sono legato per sempre a lei." The hopelessness of redemption finds expression through a pervasive anxiety of location--Anita being exiled from her home, Gino being enslaved to one, Giovanna having conquered one through murder. As an answer to this anxiety, the movie moves to the barren sandy banks of the Po, where Gino and Giovanna reconcile after having fought in the bedroom and decide to escape together. The stark, antediluvian scenery is a sort of degree zero of the landscape, a return to origins predating this particular society, a tabula rasa from which to move on and attempt to rebuild a community. Notwithstanding the crime that binds the characters, Giovanna, now pregnant, seems to hold a promise for the future. Yet soon thereafter Giovanna dies in the car crash and Gino is apprehended by the police. Despite this dismal closure, Gino's question to Anita--the question of the future--lingers on. Great are the allegorical implications for viewers in Fascist Italy, a people inhabiting a house held together by violence, a people that is at the same time the victim and the perpetrator of that violence. How can the future, a new community, be rebuilt on such a barren ground?

Ossessione does not simply rediscover the Italian landscape; it is a story in search of an inhabitable landscape. The spaces of the movie, claustrophobic interiors and unreachable utopian horizons between which the human figures are caught, are hardly habitable. Yet between these two incommensurable spaces, carefully framed allegories of belonging open a breach in the apparent limits of the characters historical and narrative present. These "deep surfaces" intimate the existence of an outside that yearns to enter the visible narrative on the screen. Significantly, these revelatory allegories emerging from the landscapes always lie behind the characters' shoulders, remaining unseen by them--but not the thoughtful viewer. This unconscious quality of the environment, stressed by Visconti's camera work, expresses the characters' inability to live in the surrounding world. The landscape is staged, but not yet inhabited. To use ah expression coined by Silvestra Mariniello, the landscape in Ossessione is not yet a landscape of experience--neither a theater of action nor action itself, as Antonioni had hoped for--but rather a carefully constructed spatial allegory smuggled into the flow of the story, and of history, that allows eddies of critical reflection to form.


"La Resistenza fu tutta un tentativo di farei conti col passato. [...] quali erano le responsabilita del popolo italiano per la nascita, l'avvento e il dominio del fascismo? Come era possibile trasformare il senso di colpa, il desiderio di espiazione, le proclamazioni di innocenza in progetto per l'avvenire?"(560). With these words the historian Claudio Pavone recaptures the ethos of the Resistance, the politically active choice of a minority that expressed and broke through the moral conundrum that enveloped Italy in the aftermath of Mussolini's demise. Whether or not Ossessione is a forerunner of neorealism--a question that is left awkwardly hanging by the recent critical trend of seeing Fascist film production as neorealism's true forerunner--Visconti's film is a forerunner of the Resistance, posing, under Fascism already, the question of guilt and a desire for redemption. Barred from the realm of action, historical desire--the repressed of the movie--emerges in the quiet images of the landscape as a personal and collective desire for change, for otherness, for a place of belonging. Through the use of the landscape, the choice of starkly realistic settings and a marginal humanity--a humanity on the road, adrift in a suspended temporality--Visconti and his collaborators managed to give the existential anxiety dominating the characters an explosive historical resonance within 1943 Italy, a country disillusioned with Mussolini and a disastrous war, a country symbolically adrift, soon to experience the dislocations of a war fought at home.

In fact, the movie could be described as the aspiration and failure of Gino and Giovanna--but of the minor characters as well--to imagine an authentic personal or historical belonging, in which the subject's desire could be housed outside sites of submission, compromise and violence. The hollow, decayed and oppressive nature of the house exposes a pervasive historical obsession, the will--immediately that of the Fascist state, but also one with deep roots and a robust future--to contain, regiment and prescribe a whole nations' desires and imagination.

Micciche is right in seeing "nella impossibilita della Liberazione, nella inappagabilita del Desiderio, nella invivibilita della Norma, nella irrealizzabilita della Fuga" (41), the drama at the core of the movie; but the story of Gino and Giovanna cannot be contained in the abstract perfection of a Greek tragedy. The figure drawn by the film's narrative movement is not that of a completed circle. Rather, it is a series of escapes and returns, along a road that seems to promise a future, while only delivering a spatial and temporal--that is, historical--suspension between a spectral home (the burdened inheritance of the past) and a city full of equally spectral hopes. Its very circularity stresses the impossibility of coming full circle, of regaining an ancestral home freed from crimes and moral compromises. Instead, all the characters come from the road, and to the road they return. The final decision of the guilty, yet repentant and hopeful couple to escape (the pregnant Giovanna muses: "Noi che abbiamo rubato una vita possiamo renderne un'altra') suggests at the same time the impossibility of escape and the necessity of liberation. It is within this paradox that a whole people would soon be called upon to make their choices.


Harvard University


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(1) Two studies have recently explored with some breadth the landscape in Ossessione: Sandro Bernardi, "Prigionieri dei paesaggio: Sfondi e volti di Ossessione," and Leonardo Quaresima, "'Ossessione: Il teatro dei rapporti." Although stressing the importance of the landscape--"personaggio tra gli altri" (Quaresima 44); "personaggio nel pieno senso del termine" (Bernardi 44)--both readings assign to it a purely negative existential quality: a "denial" and "closure" for Quaresima, a "negative interlocutor" or a "cage" for Bernardi, a disheartening horizon where nothing moves, a mythical rather than realistic space that dooms the protagonist to a fate decided from the beginning. Moving beyond these analyses, I intend to explore the historical tension expressed in the landscape which contains both that negative moment ("un mondo nel quale riesce impossibile vivere," Bernardi, 45) and a utopian moment of a world as promise and possibility; thus the landscape also as a stage, as Quaresima notes, but one where windows are constantly open to a landscape as lived experience.

(2) For a slightly different reading see Bernardi "La natura come turbamento." For Bernardi, Gino's glance opens up new spaces, "sfugge, va sempre lontano [...] si lancia fuoricampo senza essere seguito da un regolare controcampo" (292). While this is often true, it should be noted that the character's eye rarely rests on the surrounding landscape, with one significant exception, to which we will return later, in Ancona.

(3) The shooting of Ossessione lasted from June 13, 1942 to November 10, 1942. The preview of the movie took place in Rome on May 16, 1943. Luchino Visconti, "Cinema antropomorfico" in Cinema, v.s., 173-74, September 25/ October 25, 1943, quoted in Milanini 33.

(4) De Santis, 42; originally in Cinema, v.s., 116, April 25, 1941. Contrary to my reading, Bernardi sees the use of landscape in De Santis's essay as rather conventional, with a sheer supportive function for the drama (2002: 135-6). And yet, the use of expressions such "communication," to describe the relation between human being and environment, supports a more nuanced reading of his position.

(5) Michelangelo Antonioni, "Per un film sul fiume Po" originally in Cinema, v.s., 68, April 25, 1939, quoted in Overbey 82.

(6) I use the original French to retain all the connotations contained in "fond" (Bazin 1962:141). Translated into English as "content," the word loses its spatial senses of "bottom," "background," "tableau."

(7) Bazin's concept of the "cinematic 'tact'" used to describe neorealist camera movement--later developed by Deleuze in the idea of the tactile quality of the time-image in neorealism--finds its roots in these early reflections of the young critics of the Cinema group on the interaction between human presence and environment.

(8) In this sense, the rediscovery of Verismo and Giovanni Verga by the Cinema group should be read more as a rediscovery of the specificity and historicity of the land, and as a move away from Fascism's timeless myth of "la terra madre," rather than as an uncritical revival of a naturalist interest in the deterministic force of the environment on human actions.

(9) In an essay written in 1945 entitled "La natura non indifferente," Ejzengtejn develops a similar reflection when he notes that: "landscape is the most free element in film, less charged with auxiliary narrative tasks and particularly pliable for the transmission of moods, states of mind, emotions.... What is at stake is not a strengthening of the action ... but rather the emotional completion of the storytelling, the expression of what otherwise would remain inexpressible" [250, translation is mine]. Hence, according to his famous formulation, the landscape "resonates" within the movie.

(10) Giuseppe De Santis and Antonio Pietrangeli were assistant directors; Visconti, Mario Alicata, Gianni Puccini, and De Santis worked on the screenplay. The making of Ossessione is described by Micciche as "il traguardo conclusivo di una battaglia di gruppo" (1998: 34).

(11) In "Les Paysages italianes. Entre cinema et histoire," Pierre Sorlin reads the presence of landscape in Italian post-war cinema as a stereotypical postcard picture that fails to grasp the diversity and historical mutations of the territory. Against his thesis, this essay would like to take up Sandro Bernardi's call for a comprehensive study of the extensive presence of landscape in postwar Italian cinema and investigate it as the site of a displaced representation of historical change.

(12) On the homo-erotic element in the movie, see Nowell-Smith, 1973; more recently Catherine Ramsey-Portolano, 2000, and William Van Watson, 2002.

(13) From the start, the landscape has been central to the critical debate about Ossessione. Discussing the first reviews of the movie, Cristina Bragaglia notes that "il paesaggio diventa [...] protagonista di una manipolazione critica" (187). In these reviews, Visconti's portrayal of the bassa padana is, on the one hand, moralistically condemned, most often as a morbid naturalista directly imported from French models, and, on the other hand, praised as innovative, a harbinger of neorealism and opposition to the regime. While distancing herself from this last position, which she feels has distorted the critical discourse on Ossessione, Bragaglia stresses that 'Tambientazione nel film gioca un ruolo importante" (189) but fails to pursue ah analysis of what this role might be, thus seeming to concur with the negative reviews that "la funzione dell'ambiente nel film di Visconti e apparsa [...] mancata" (186). For a recent extensive treatment of the relation between "paesaggio" and "personaggio," see Bernardi 1999 and Quaresima.

(14) Antonio Pietrangeli, "Analisi spettrale del film realista," Cinema, v.s., 146, July 25, 1942 in Micciche 1998.

(15) As if to stress Giovanna's rejection, the lovers are visually nailed to their position in the squalid present of Bragana's bedroom when their image is suddenly reflected by the swinging of the armoire's mirrored door. In a spectral mise en abyme, the open dresser reveals Bragana's hanging clothes, empty messengers of an inescapable narrative future. Even within the claustrophobic rooms, Visconti manages to build unexpected depth into his scenes, through visual trap doors that reveal other spaces within the plot's set pieces.

(16) Although the casting of Clara Calamai was a last minute solution to substitute for the pregnant Anna Magnani, this choice ends up giving a greater symbolic coherence to the movie. Interesting in this light are Lietta Tornabuoni's biographical notes on Calamai in an obituary in La Stampa, September 22, 1998. "[E' noto] comeVisconti avesse visto una fotografia di Clara Calamai 'casualmente realistica, spettinata, dimessa' e in quell'immagine avesse intuito le sue possibilita di interpretare il personaggio. Come nell'albergo di Ferrara dove regista e diva si incontrarono lui continuasse per un intero pomeriggio fino a sera a spettinarla e ripettinarla. [...] Come l'attrice la prima volta che si vide in proiezione scoppio a piangere, gridando d'essere stata rovinata." Would Ossessione have been more clearly recognized as a neorealist movie if Magnani instead of Calamai played the part of Giovanna? Undoubtedly the two leading ladies, protagonists respectively of Roma citta aperta and Ossessione, stand on opposite sides of an historical watershed. There is a direct bodily citation between the guilty Giovanna lying on the asphalt, her bate legs showing--her pregnant body dead, with the Eromise of a different future forever dead within her--and Pina's recumbent body and black-stockinged legs, killed by the Germans in occupied Rome--the embodiment of national guilt turned into a symbol of national redemption. Giovanna is reborn in Pina, her unborn child transformed into a partisan child that mourns the mother and is moved to action.

(17) Mira Liehm stresses how "all shots depicting Gino with Spagnolo are composed with utmost care [...] The visual beauty of these scenes contrasts with the eroticism of the scenes between Gino and Giovanna situated in Bragana's kitchen around dirty dishes and leftovers or in the bedroom--dusky and untidy" (54).

(18) The castle, whose construction began in 1385 following a popular revolt triggered by the imposition of high taxes, is an architectural embodiement of the entrenchment of power and its will to dominate the city.
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