Like Visconti’s La terra trema did two years earlier, this early Germi melodrama wears its How Green Was My Valley influence proudly on its sleeve. Germi, perhaps unfortunately, has just as much ground to cover as Visconti and Ford but with a much shorter time frame. While Visconti’s film has always been a bit too epic for my tastes, I have to admit that it takes its time to fully get inside of the heads of its characters. Germi can’t quite do that here, since his movie is more than an hour shorter, but he does manage to cover a lot of emotional ground.
The story concerns the end of a small Sicilian mining town. The mine’s workers have buried themselves in their workplace in protest of their boss’ decision to shut down. Forced out of their once dependable occupation, the town’s folk all gather in a local bar, where they all stand in awe of Ciccio. He has traveled from France looking for illegal workers and although the people of the town are forced to cough up 20,000 lire to be smuggled, they do so with great enthusiasm for what the future holds. The trip takes a turn for the negative, though, when Vanni, the village villain (so to speak) joins the trip. The distaste that a majority of the villagers feel towards Vanni is never explained, but its quite clear: he did something detestable.
Vanni’s spouse, Barbara, is looked at with a similar sense of hate. Before the trip, she tries desperately to say goodbye to her mother, but a local priest intercepts her attempt and explains to her that her mother couldn’t care less. One of the strengths in Germi’s melodrama is the amount of holes he leaves unfilled, the pasts of the characters which are unexplained. Based on this film alone, he was not a director capable of toning down the drama, but I like that he didn’t neatly give every detail to the audience. There’s plenty of things implied here, both to the audience and to the characters.
None of the performances are particularly noteworthy. Sure, they work in a strict sense, but nothing about the sensational final half hour makes the performers look especially good. On the other hand, the cinematography from Leonida Barboni is gritty and sensual. It’s particularly wonderful early on with the sweat and dirt on the faces of working class man photographed to the highest detail. The humid, desert-like opening serves as a beautiful contrast to the frigid, snow-filled conclusion. Barboni manages to create a sense of physical discomfort in both situations, a task that should not be overlooked.
The biggest selling point here is probably the screenplay, which was penned by Germi and the (now) much more famous Federico Fellini. Like a majority of the scripts Fellini wrote before the 1950s, the tone is at times brutal in its tragedy. On the other hand, the rich, nearly cartoony characters that have become of a staple of Fellini’s lighter and more fantastical works is still evident. Instead of complex and/or “completed” portraits (a la Visconti or Ford’s take on similar content) the people here are characterized by idiosyncrasies and quirks. They are, as Fellini’s work is often described, like something out of a carnival.