Luchino Visconti’s 1943 film Ossessione is considered one of the earliest examples of Italian neorealist films even though it doesn’t reflect all its conventions. On the other hand, one can notice elements of the American film noir tradition. Although film noir is inspired by German expressionism and neorealism by French poetic realism, their roots suggest a common psychological heritage (Graham, 1984). Both are styles emerging after the Second World War as an expression of the collective consciousness and traumas. Where film noir is grounded in dreamlike surrealism with specific low-key lighting, Italian neorealism is shot on location with natural lighting. It is devoted to depicting the reality of everyday life. Ossessione is a great film to study the edges of film noir in an international context implemented near the beginnings of a groundbreaking movement in Italian cinema.
Italian neorealism emerges following the fall of Benito Mussolini’s government after the Second World War. Therefore, stemming from a similar postwar trauma as the Americans, filmmakers began to represent the change in everyday life’s moral and economic conditions. While Ossessione is listed under early neorealist films, I argue that a close reading of the film will lay out certain noir aspects that find grounds in another country that suffers from postwar trauma. Certain similes such as the use of lighting and location, the femme fatale, the seduction, the pessimism, accidents and randomness, and the idea of a quick road to success can be drawn to allow a noir reading of the film. The film also embeds criticism against the fascist government, religion, and domination, in line with the neorealist tradition. Visconti offers a complex narrative that allows interpretation of the film as the starting point of a national movement as well as an adaptation of the American noir style into the Italian context.
Even though the film is an adaptation of James M. Cain’s 1934 novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, Visconti alters the story in several ways that allow it to be both personal and neorealist. Visconti was introduced to the book through Jean Renoir, who gave it as a present while shooting A Day in the Country. It is worth mentioning that Visconti had a draft for a novel, a vaguely autobiographical work titled Angelo, which is similar to Ossessione in terms of social class, poetical digressions, and geographical setting (Bacon, 1998). Whereas “a large section of Cain’s book deals with the role of the police and the legal system in the administration of justice” (Duncan, 2000), political criticism is more subtle and allegoric in Ossessione. Duncan notes on the United States’ cultural position in Italy in 1930s: “The United States had attracted an enormous number of Italian emigrants earlier in the century and although tight immigration controls ended that era of mass emigration many Italians still believed it to be a land of opportunity and escape from the terrible poverty that affected much of the country” (2000). Therefore, to combat the assumption of prosperity in where the story is originated, Visconti replenishes Ossessione with “Italian” concerns. The film is devoted to depicting the everyday man’s struggles in Italy after the fall of dictatorship and towards the birth of a nation, which marks the beginning of neorealism.
Neorealism, first and foremost, puts the economic struggles of the Italians on screen. Accordingly, relationships in Ossessione cannot be separated from money as it is presented as crucial to controlling human and sexual relationships (Bacon, 1998). For instance, Giovanna married Giuseppe for financial stability. She also binds Gino to the house by claiming he did not pay for the food, even though he did. Similarly, Gino meets lo Spagnolo when he pays for his ticket. What comes between Gino and Giovanna also is money. After Giovanna takes over the trattoria, she embarks on supporting Gino with the revenue. However, her assuming the man’s role is unacceptable to our hero, and he claims that she used him for money. Moreover, being a vagabond is normalized within the film’s realm as not only the main character is a wanderer but also are the people he meets. Unemployed men are seen to be playing cards at the beginning of the film. After losing his job, Gino comes from Trieste, which is historically accurate as Britain and Italy were at war, and the British-owned naval shipyards in Trieste were contested and bombarded (De Santis, 1985).
The shooting techniques and aesthetics of Ossessione put the film on a middle ground between film noir and neorealism. Both traditions emphasize location and value on-location shooting. The setting of the story is changed from California to the Po Valley in northern Italy. Visconti pays great attention to what happens in the frames’ background to capture the essence of real-life to depart from the traditional studio setting. The film’s lighting is noticeably influenced by noir tradition as the characters’ faces are intermittently lit up and hid under shadows. Sound is used similar to that of film noir with menacing tones. Neorealist films will later emerge to favor nonprofessional actors, but Ossessione’s two leads, Clara Calamai and Massimo Girotti, were rising stars of Italian cinema. Yet, Calamai’s star performance adds a layer to the character as she “plays Giovanna in the style of a diva of the silent screen, a grand theatrical rather than smaller-scale cinematic style of performance – her exaggerated eye movements towards the camera point to a world beyond her tawdry provincial existence” (Duncan, 2000). The narrative structure of the film is inevitably closer to noir tradition, yet, Visconti adds more elements that the novel lacks, which places the film even closer to generic film noir.
The film opens with a long take of driving along a road by the sea as the credits roll. Similar to The Killers‘ credit sequence, we see where the character is headed to create menace. The point of view shot is from the passenger seat side in a bus, which to me suggests that Gino is not holding the gears in the story. Our hero follows the femme fatale in her mischievous plots and is eventually victimized as a consequence of his instinctive actions. Yet, he would not have killed Giuseppe if it wasn’t for Giovanna. Whereas the book is narrated by Frank, Gino is not the narrator in Ossessione; he “drifts with the tide of events and constantly submits to the will of others, unable to think of alternatives for himself” (Bacon, 1998). Driving from Laura Mulvey’s famous analysis on visual pleasure and the male gaze, Gino’s passivity is highlighted when he becomes the subject of Giovanna’s gaze. Giovanna often admires Gino’s youth and touches his bare shoulders lustfully. Somewhat ironic to the protagonist’s passivity, Gino is the intruder that causes violence in the domestic space. His initial role in the house is to fix stuff as a mechanic, but he ends up ruining their life. Gino exploits Giuseppe’s blind trust and takes his wife and life before everything turns upside down. Similar to Marlow in The Big Sleep, Gino enters a world that he initially doesn’t belong to. He begins as a vagabond but is later domesticated by Giovanna.
Giovanna is a textbook type femme fatale in the story. Though Gino enters the kitchen to find her sitting on the counter, the camera angle hides her face and body behind Gino and captures only her legs. Therefore, her initial presentation on screen is highly sexualized, suggesting that this is not a pure love story. Like the women in The Big Sleep, the ones wearing short skirts are in the roles of playmates, who are not to be taken seriously. Likewise, Cora in The Postman Always Rings Twice is also captured similarly with foregrounded legs, though the book doesn’t suggest such an introduction to the character. Giovanna is shady, dangerous, and seductive. Yet, she “falls victim to her own traps” (Borde and Chaumeton, 1955) as her road to success is immoral. The two have an instant connection, which is not presented as love at first sight, but rather an erotic tension.
The femme fatale is contrasted with two minor characters who highlight the failing sides of Gino’s relationship with Giovanna. The first one is lo Spagnolo, the magician/artist who Gino meets after he breaks away from Giovanna. Bromance, or the homosocial relationship between two men, is a recurring concept in film noir. Similarly, Gino and lo Spagnolo bond with each other in a way that suggests homo-erotic interest. The latter character doesn’t have a counterpoise in the novel. It is argued that Visconti was exploring his homosexuality though he did not fully acknowledge it early on (Bacon, 1998). Even though it is never openly revealed in the film, lo Spagnolo likes Gino. Soon after they meet, the magician takes his clothes off and sits on the bed before Gino joins him. They develop a more harmonious relationship than what Gino has with Giovanna: “In almost every respect, the artist is Gino’s opposite: small, dark, verbal, philosophical. Together the two seem to form a complete union, a complete man, one whose interior and exterior “selves” are fully realized” (Graham, 1984). Yet, Gino makes it clear that he likes women when Lo Spagnolo offers him to escape together. In line with how a betrayal often follows bromance in film noir, it is subtly suggested that lo Spagnolo reports against Gino to the police. If not homosexual love, the rejection of friendship brings punishment for a judicial and existential crime (Bacon, 1998).
In line with the noir convention of the dangerous exotic brunette versus the innocent natural blond, Giovanna is contrasted with Anita towards the end of the film. Anita is a dancer, a prostitute, and a wanderer who doesn’t have a home, just like Gino. Her freedom sounds sweet to Gino, who is trapped in the town as the trattoria binds Giovanna. The filmmaker makes use of foreshadowing symbols within scenes to highlight the dissimilarity between the two women: “The Ferrara scene opens with the camera showing a swan-shaped ice cream cart just before Gino encounters Anita, and it can be easily associated with her. As they talk and flirt with each other, a dragon-shaped cart appears. Later it crosses Giovanna’s path as she comes to the park and its black color matches her mourning dress” (Bacon, 1998). The contrast between the women is also utilized to depict class differences: “Unlike Giovanna, Anita gives herself freely and asks nothing in return, in sharp contrast to Giovanna who represents not femininity but the material values of a fascist lower middle class” (Duncan, 2000). Anita is an angelic figure in contrast to Giovanna, who is “prepared to trespass both law and morality in order to improve her lot” (Bacon, 1998).
Film noir is a tradition of accidents and random occurrences as well as of inescapable fate. Like many other noir heroes, Gino is given a chance to redemption and break free from the femme fatale. However, after separating ways and bonding with lo Spagnolo, Gino runs into Giovanna and Giuseppe at a fair in Ancona, and he falls back into Giovanna’s web. The repressed returns, and the hero is brought back into the trap again. Gino lets his compulsions override the desire to escape. Soon after their encounter, they kill Giuseppe and report it as an accident. After the incident, the trap is tightened for Gino. He pours his heart to Anita and confesses his feelings of guilt and fear and that the crime ties him to Giovanna forever. Although initially, the police seemingly believe their story, the characters’ inescapable fate catches them. Nightmare-like guilt haunts Gino even before the police pursue him. He is tormented by living in Giuseppe’s house, sleeping in his bed, and eating from his plates. “The husband’s ghost, the internalized image of identity and authority, becomes more real to Gino than anyone living, more real than even Giovanna, who realizes that she “no longer exists” for him” (Graham, 1984). Ghosts and invisible forces repeatedly cause stress to noir heroes, as well as the characters’ subconscious.
Noir filmmakers were interested in including Freudian psychoanalytic details in their films. In line with this, we see the main character being both rational and irrational in Ossessione. Gino tries to act reasonably when he takes the job as a mechanic in Giuseppe’s house but also gives into his instincts when he feels affection for Giovanna. It is an apparent act of self-sabotage, but it works in the narrative to show that people have interiority, and it is his vulnerability that gives in to his instincts. The hero’s conscious and subconscious are subjects of interest. For instance, at the end of the novel, Frank awaits his execution for murdering Cora. When another prisoner claims that he is not guilty of killing his brother, but his subconscious is, Frank is intrigued:
“I asked him what that meant, and he says you got two selves, one that you know about and the other that you don’t know about, because it’s subconscious. It shook me up. Did I really do it, and not know it? God Almighty, I can’t believe that! I didn’t do it! I loved her so, then, I tell you, that I would have died for her! To hell with the subconscious. I don’t believe it. It’s just a lot of hooey, that this guy thought up so he could fool the judge. You know what you’re doing, and you do it. I didn’t do it, I know that. That’s what I’m going to tell her, if I ever see her again.”
Frank is mortified to think that subconsciously, he killed Cora on purpose. Yet, he doesn’t feel such horrification about killing Nick after plotting the murder consciously. The character is scared of the hidden depths of himself, but not of the apparent unpleasantnesses. The lack of voice-over narration in Ossessione prevents the viewer from grasping Gino’s feelings in the end, though one can assume his ambivalence.
The end is a dreamlike sequence where the couple falls into the illusion that they can escape everything and have a decent life. They ironically leave in Giuseppe’s car but have an accident similar to the one they staged earlier. Giovanna is killed instantly, whereas the police arrest Gino. The ending is in line with noir’s ambiguity and moral ambivalence. As the film encourages questioning the characters’ integrity, the viewer questions if Giovanna really was pregnant in the end. Moments before the accident that gets her killed, she claims bad things don’t happen to people who are expecting a child. Even though it is difficult to call it a happy ending, the fact that Gino is finally free from Giovanna contributes to the ambivalence of the end.
Perhaps dissimilar to film noir, Italian neorealist films usually feature politically symbolic characters in the story. The filmmakers restrain from including overt references to fascism and war but suggest to “the presence of worlds beyond the one represented” (Minghelli, 2008). For instance, Giuseppe represents the fascist ideology and is accordingly killed within the story. The repetitive image of him eating and talking about food symbolize the gluttony of the fascist government. Giovanna’s marriage to Giuseppe stands for “family relations that have degenerated into institutionalized prostitution propped up by a capitalist ethos, embodied in the bloated body of [Giuseppe]” (Bacon, 1998). Giovanna’s desire to break free from Giuseppe mirrors Visconti’s perception of the Italian society’s feelings towards the Mussolini administration: “She married him to escape a life of poverty and semi-prostitution only to find herself trapped by the tyranny of domesticity and an old man whom she finds physically repellent. She abhors the idea of bearing his children but is trapped by her own need for the security he offers” (Duncan, 2000). Similarly, lo Spagnolo’s character is believed to be an allusion to the Spanish Civil War (Bacon, 1998) and therefore is meant to “embody the voice of socialism and personal freedom” (Duncan, 2000). Visconti utilizes the familiar noir narrative of the character causing violence in the domestic space in line with neorealist stance: “Visconti … allegorically staged through the characters of the black-clad femme fatale and the indecisive tramp -… 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” (Minghelli, 2008).
In contrast to the novel, which puts greater emphasis on the law and order narrative, there is a significant lack of such an effective system in Ossessione. Giuseppe, who stands for the fascist government, is an ineffective patriarchal figure who fails to meet his wife’s needs and is easily threatened by another man. Similarly, the Church’s lack of moral authority is embodied in the priest’s character. Towards the beginning of the film, Giuseppe leaves Giovanna and Gino in the house and heads to the marina with the priest. Giuseppe is the authority figure that proceeds with the religious leader. His leaving the domestic space with the priest suggests that morality has left the house. After they leave the house, it is somewhat like God is not watching over the place anymore. Significantly, the priest is carrying a rifle with bullets all around his waist. He almost looks like a terrorist. It suggests religion as a punishing and violent figure instead of something welcoming and forgiving. The priest is later called to “intervene in the irregular domestic arrangements of Giovanna and Gino” after Giuseppe’s death but fails to have a tangible impact on their situation (Duncan, 2000). Moreover, the police are reckless to report Giuseppe’s death as an accident even though the couple’s story is on shaky grounds, further highlighting the lack of any authority or law enforcement in the country.
“Democracy, with its individual freedom, seems economically out of joint, so that it must resort to makeshifts and breed nightmarish dreams of fascist pseudo-solutions, worse than the ills they are intended to cure. Shall we be able to preserve individual freedom under collectivism?” Kracauer (2003) reveals the political crisis behind cinematic traditions in the 1940s which resonate with both American film noir and Italian neorealism. Ossessione, in many terms, is as noir as is neorealist, which allows finding common ground between separate geographies. Accordingly, the American movie adaptation of the novel is significantly different from Ossessione as the directors contextualize the story with embedded cultural concerns and references. Ironically, the American adaptation comes later though “MGM had owned the rights since 1935 but could not get a script approved by the Hays Office until 1945” (Graham, 1984). Sources report that the Italian audience did applaud the film enthusiastically, except the dictator’s son Vittorio Mussolini, who is claimed to have stormed out of the theatrical screening, shouting: “This is not Italy!”
Bacon, Henry. “Visconti and Neorealism” in Visconti: Explorations of Beauty and Decay, Cambridge University Press, 1998
Borde, Raymond and Etienne Chaumeton. “Towards a Definition of Film Noir,” in Film Noir Reader, 1955
Bordwell, David and Kristin Thompson and Jeff Smith. “Film Art: An Introduction” McGraw-Hill Education, Eleventh Edition, 2017
De Santis, Giuseppe. “Visconti’s Interpretation of Cain’s Setting in “Ossessione”” in Film Criticism, Allegheny College, Vol. 9, No. 3 (Spring 1985)
Duncan, Derek. “Ossessione” in European Cinema: An Introduction edited by Jill Forbes and Sarah Street, Palgrave, 2000
Graham, Allison. “The Phantom Self: James M. Cain’s Haunted American In the Early Neorealism of Visconti and Antonioni” in Film Criticism, Allegheny College, Vol. 9, No. 1, Italian Cinema (Fall 1984)
Kracauer, Siegfried. “Hollywood’s Terror Films: Do They Reflect an American State of Mind?” in New German Critique, Duke University Press, No. 89, Film and Exile (Spring – Summer, 2003)
Minghelli, Giuliana. “Haunted Frames: History and Landscape in Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione,” American Association of Teachers of Italian, Vol. 85, No. 2/3 (Summer – Autumn, 2008)