A Marxist Romanticism? Visconti’s La Terra Trema and the Question of Realism

‘We do not see and hear the universal; only for the spirit is it present.’ (Das Allgemeine also hört man nicht und sieht man nicht, sondern dasselbe ist nur für dem Geist.’(Hegel, Enzy §21, Zusatz)

In 1947 the Italian Communist Party (PCI), at the time under the leadership of Palmiro Togliatti, approached Luchino Visconti with the idea of filming a documentary about fishermen in the South, something that could be used as publicity for the upcoming electoral campaign. Six million lire were offered (thanks to the assistance of Antonello Trombadori, Visconti’s friend since the Liberation). However enticing the prospect of the PCI as film producer may have looked, it was not to be. The Communists, in any event, lost the election. What appeared at the end of the year was a melancholic, intransigent, film – ‘elemental’[1] , some critics said – called La Terra Trema (1948). It was set near Catania in the poor fishing village of Aci-Trezza, with a cast of locals speaking a dialect of Sicilian that no one beyond the rocks on the immediate shoreline could understand.

Turning from his original notion of a short documentary, Visconti started thinking in epic terms. He imagined a grand cycle, reflective and revolutionary in spirit and realist in form, slow in exposition and meticulous in observation, with three interlinking episodes, each illustrating the problems and communal life of the Mezzogiorno in concrete historical situations. Mobilising the struggle for economic justice in an isolated, backward Sicily was the concept on which the Communists and he agreed. The rhythm of nature would be quickened by the dynamic of history.  But something else intervened.  Visconti began listening to the voices of the locals, wanting the music of their dialect and names and expressions to be just as important as the wild beauty of the landscape. He wanted a cinema that was, in his word, “anthropomorphic”, centered on the “human material”. What a director wants to work with is the “Living presence”, Visconti wrote in an early article in Cinema, published in 1943, in the very midst of the anti-Fascist struggle.[2] That is, he added, if his “human responsibility is not corrupted by a decadent vision of existence”. Then “it will lead us in the right way”.[3] To get what he wanted, Visconti knew what he had to do. He went back to an old dream, of making a movie based on the Sicilian novels and stories of the great 19th century verist, the Italian naturalist Giovanni Verga, a more lyrical, less angry Zola of the Mezzogiorno. Blocked in his initial conception, foregoing the professional actors with whom he had been accustomed to collaborate on the stage and in his first film Ossessione (1943), unsure how to use the beauty and awkwardness of the local people and the sounds and sights of the sea, Visconti turned to literature.  And it worked.

1:  Literature and the Moment of Neo-realism
In the 1940s and 1950s European thinking about film came to a contradictory conclusion. For film to achieve a more convincing form of realism, the technological modesty of the lens was not enough. Seeing needed to be supplemented by self-conscious story-telling. The ideal of a natural, unforced vision, steady in its gaze at the world as it is and stripped of rhetoric, “self-effacing and transparent”, as André Bazin announced was the model for cinematic form in 1952,[4] could go only so far. It needed to be guided by a vision that is critical and aware of the world’s conditions, its history and its traditions, one that redistributes the elements of the social and natural world to make them more perspicuous. The world may present itself to the eye. But it does not unfold itself to the eye. The assistance of a temporal art is necessary, one in which authors make worlds as well as observing them. To become cinematic, film must pass through literature. Despite their aesthetic differences, Sergei Eisenstein and André Bazin stand together on this. The great novels of the bourgeois tradition, say Dickens for Griffith, or the modernist America fiction of the 1920s for a Renoir or a Lang: these are the inspiration for the best that has been, or can be done, in the cinema.[5] Literary influence can be the salvation of film’s conscience. It is from the novelist that the filmmaker can learn visual precision and narrative plasticity, Eisenstein writes in 1944.[6]   In 1952 Bazin writes: from impurity, purity.  “Cinema transformed into itself, finally, by the novelist!”[7]

The neorealists in postwar Italy followed a similar road. Their problems, however, were political and ideological as well as aesthetic.  How to come at truth? How to restore the honesty of a cultural body corrupted by years of Mussolini, a culture for which exaggeration and travesty had become second nature? It cannot be assumed that good intentions, whether political or moral, produce good work, that ideological purity makes progressive art. The problems of form will have to be faced. Naturalistic mirroring of the real on the one hand, or the impersonal documentary style on the other, both were incomplete on their own. Photographic truth is voiceless without narrative thinking. Without a further transformation, one that might well involve experimentation at the level of genre, language and symbolism, film’s mirroring of the real may fail, paradoxically, to represent reality. Even worse, cinematic realism may be ethically inert. Faithfulness of the image does not guarantee that the viewers will be moved, that they will know what they are meant to see, and why. Film has to speak as well as show. Neither documentary nor naturalism could deliver the truthfulness the Italians wanted in the years after the Resistance and defeat. Literature, with its appetite for the meaningful detail and the moving incident, with its inexhaustible energy for the production of characters and types, was the key. It was crucial as a model for how to reconnect abstraction and the concrete, the human narrative and the material description, history and the physical world. In the period of the occupation and the liberation, when survivors of the anti-fascist movement were looking for ways to re-invent Italian culture, it was the novel rather than visual or musical modernism that had the most to offer. If what is wanted is the “poetry of truth”, then the grand tradition of the European novel is the first place for a realist cinema to start. So declare Mario Alicata and Giuseppe De Santis, filmmakers, theorists of neo-realism and scriptwriters for Visconti, in their manifesto of 1941:

In fact, from Flaubert to Chekhov, from Maupassant to Verga, from Dickens to Ibsen, realism seems to have achieved a perfect syntax of psychology and of sentiment, and, at the same time, a poetic image of the society in which these men lived. The great realistic dramas of the cinema were born like that, simultaneous with the birth of Buster Keaton’s metaphysical farces and the realistic romances of René Clair…[8]

The austerity of this period did not, as we know, last long: to the degree that Italy’s economic austerity receded, so did its commitment to social revolution and its repudiation of the sentimentality of pre-war Italian art. But at first, for a short period, perhaps 8 years, the artistic vanguard of post-war Italy spoke in a distinctive voice.  Collectively and individually, they sought to make work that was antipathetic to bourgeois elegance, decorum and decadence, work that responded to an ethic of intellectual candour “free of the fetters of rhetoric, conformity and opportunism”, as Luigi Chiarini, the director of the national film school put it.[9] There was no ‘neo-realist school’ as such, Chiarini insists, looking back at a movement he sees as already run dry in 1950. Some directors practiced a scrupulous ‘verism’, as Chiarini argues was the case for Luchino Visconti in La Terra Trema. Others used a variety of styles, from the baroque to the documentary.[10] But their shared interest in the depiction of social reality, and their refusal to allow formalist considerations to swamp the expression of emotion, drew a number of the Italians to the aesthetic models developed in the European novel from Richardson and Fielding to Malraux and Mann. Not all of them to be sure. Visconti, my subject, might deserve the title of the most ‘novelistic’ of the neo-realists (as well as the most operatic, if that is not too much of a contradiction.) Prodigiously cultivated, a consummate musician and a law unto himself in matters of artistic taste, this left-wing aristocrat recognised early that literature was as necessary to his life as breathing.

Whether in the film projects he brought to fruition and those he had to leave undone, Visconti never abandoned his rigorous devotion to the authors he loved: Proust, Thomas Mann, Chekhov, Stendhal, Giovanni Verga, Dostoyevsky, and Shakespeare –not to speak of the many near contemporaries, admired if not worshipped, whose books he staged or filmed: Tennessee Williams, Cocteau, Camus, D’Annunzio, James M. Cain, Gide, Harold Pinter, and of course, Tomaso di Lampedusa. Visconti’s affair with literature goes well beyond adaptation. Visconti, like Robert Bresson in his version of Bernanos’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951), shows that it is possible to, in Bazin’s description of Bresson’s “paradoxical faithfulness”,  “write a novel in film”.[11] Throughout his long career, Visconti remains attuned to the problems of fidelity and infidelity posed, in Bazin’s words, by “the dialectic of film and literature”, creating not “copies” of the original “but a new aesthetic existence”, “literature multiplied by cinema”(italics mine).[12]

2.  Saving the Honour of Realism: Georg Lukács meets Gilles Deleuze

‘It is as if the action floats in the situation…’(Gilles Deleuze, on Visconti’s La Terra Trema)[13]

‘In my view, one of the greatest merits of Italian film is that it reminds us once again that there is no realism in art that is not, first and foremost, profoundly aesthetic.’ (André Bazin)[14]

When Gilles Deleuze begins the second volume of his work on cinema, he turns to Italian neo-realism. Bazin, it is clear to him, must be correct. Bazin’s understanding of the movement is key. “Against those who defined Italian neo-realism by its social content”, Bazin saw that what was distinctive in the work of artists like Antonioni, Rossellini and Visconti was a “new form of reality”: “dispersive, elliptical, errant or wavering”.[15] Deleuze takes Bazin’s intuition further. In the films of the Italians, we are in the presence of a realism fundamentally distinct from the old realism. The new films of the post-war period invent a different type of image, indeed a new type of thought.[16] Actions and motivations and events are no longer the main elements of the real.[17] Although these are still important, they are repositioned, obliged to render some of their centrality to perceptions, feelings and sensations. This does not, in Deleuze’s view, imply art’s indifference to the external world, to “things in the space-time of reality”, as Alicata and De Santis wrote in ‘Truth and Poetry: Verga and the Italian Cinema’(1941).[18] Nor does it constitute a wholesale surrender to expressionism, a philosophic defeat which the Marxist critic Georg Lukács saw reason to fear in the rise of the European avant-garde.[19]   Deleuze and Lukács do not normally inhabit the same critical territory.  I want to see what happens when they are put into conversation. I want to see also what that conversation can tell us about the meanings of realism, especially when that realism moves between literature and the film-image, between the historical materialist and the romantic, between the classicist and the modernist, as it does in the work and example of Visconti.

For it is the “modern film-image” that sets the terms for Deleuze’s complex account of post-war cinema, and in particular the Italian version of that. Can the modern film-image be a realist film-image? It depends on what relations of space and time, identity and comparison, need to be recognised in the real, what continuities of setting, recollection, character and sequence you consider essential.  It depends, in other words, on aesthetic decisions about form. Neo-realism’s use of time, setting, atmosphere, movement and transition is, in Deleuze’s reading, specifically “modern”, as others would say “modernist”. That could make it a problem for Lukács. Modernism, with its challenge to the narrative logics and environmental regularities of classical realism, provoked and worried Lukács throughout his career. The choice of realist representation was more than a choice of style: it was a politics. The struggle over realism put Lukács on the opposite side to many of his significant contemporaries and one-time allies, associates otherwise in agreement with him in the fight against capitalism, friends who refused to see that Marxism and modernism were incompatible: Brecht, Bloch, Benjamin, Adorno.

Realism, for Lukács, means primarily the novel as heir to the classical and pre-revolutionary tradition of the epic. Early in his thinking about aesthetics and politics, he posed the question of the novel as a philosophic category as well as the place for a reflection on history, determinism and metaphysics. Could the qualities he admired in the novels of Balzac and Tolstoy – the historical reflection, the meaningful relation between form and life – survive into the poetics of modernism? Or would the disillusionment, which is both the theme of the 19th century novelist and the fate of the post-Enlightenment world, bring about such an atomizing of time and dissociation of experience that narrative form succumbs irrevocably to anti-narrative?[20] In The Theory of the Novel (written 1914-1915, published in 1920), written under the influence of Hegel, Lukács experimented with a position that would have found room for a “modernist conceptualization of the novel form”, as J.M. Bernstein argues.[21] But by the 1930s Lukács had hardened. He saw “the formalism of modernism as a perversion of the mimetic impulse behind the novel”, an impulse he defended as ‘sincere’ and ‘humane’, unreconciled to the ‘mutilation of the essence of man’.”[22]

With the denial of realism’s powers of mimesis (or their reduction to the symptoms of ‘bourgeois ideology’), modernism had lost its way, he believed. Once art turns to contemplate its own textual or linguistic or material productivity, the door is open to a stream of subjectivist and formalist impulses, all partial and self-enclosed, increasingly minute and free-floating: a spurious infinite, in Hegel’s sense. The link to totality is gone. Social context, if it appears at all, is just one more “text”.[23] In the process, Lukács insists, the reality of the self is also threatened. Indeed the 20th century European avant-gardes were often happy to imagine such a sacrifice of the self: in the name of the unconscious, machine-like operations could reduce the intentional contribution of a subject to a vanishing point. Dissolution into language, dissolution into dream: for Lukács it is much the same. And the risk is a loss of belief in praxis. At his most pessimistic, in a late work like The Destruction of Reason (1962), Lukács speculates that nihilism and irrationalism will look like compelling philosophic options to a subject who is denied historical knowledge and historical action, a common-enough plight in the modern bourgeois world. From Schopenhauer to solipsism is not a giant step. I exist, is the intuition of the modern irrationalist: my experience is interesting, problematic and vivid, even if it rests on Nothingness. But what gives me grounds to believe that the experience of others is real or communicable?[24]   The formalism of modern art, like the post-Kierkegaardian philosophy so appealing to the modern artist, has no answer. It cannot mediate between individual experience and social reality. It can copy only the figures on the walls of my mind. Such, Lukács fears, is the myth of modernism.

Can modernism resist the Sirens of subjectivism? Deleuze offers the possibility of an affirmative response. This response takes an intriguing shape in the first pages of Cinema 2. In the neo-realist film, as (before) in Impressionist and non-objective painting, sensory experience has moved beyond the boundaries of any schemata. What is seen and heard “is no longer subject to the rules of a response or an action”. Equally, the sensuality of the human body – perhaps also the sensuality of the animal and plant world – has become almost independent of functional application or use. It is less and less relevant in neo-realism to ask what is this for? What is the place or purpose of this action, this event?

What defines neo-realism is this build-up of purely optical situations (and sound ones, although there was no synchronized sound at the start of neo-realism), which are fundamentally distinct from the sensory-motor situations of the action-image in the old realism.  It is perhaps as important as the conquering of a purely optical space in painting, with impressionism.[25]

Deleuze’s vision of neo-realism does justice both to the transparency of these films and their opacity. But, for all its ingenuity, it will not convince Lukács. While Lukács never took up the encounter with post-war European cinema that might have given a different slant to his analysis of modernist art, he believed he had seen enough of literature’s collapse to warrant his despair.  Well before the disasters that put Europe back to ‘Year Zero’, Lukács estimated the hopes for a robust and progressive culture as just about nill.  The first 30 years of the century were simply the first round, perfecting the catastrophic legacy which the neo-realists and their contemporaries would inherit.  Art was in crisis.  Politics was worse.  In the lead-up to the First World War the European intelligentsia had capitulated.  Imperialist ideology was victorious; those who hated it, and a number of those who didn’t, turned inward, abandoning the arena of history and action for experiments in ‘spirit’ or ‘life-style’.[26]   Modernism did not, and could not, steer clear of those Sirens of the soul who tempt the artist to linger in the phantasms of his own psyche.  Living up to the demands of objective reality will only lead to disappointment and apathy if one has no faith in the possibility of radical change or social hope.  Hence the artist’s gaze grows steadily narrower, more intense and fixated on the detail or the fragment; totality has become empty of meaning and value, and history has become opaque, a fever-dream, a circus of myths.  This condition, Lukács complains in a polemic against his old friend Ernst Bloch in 1937, is exactly what Nietzsche called decadence.[27]   And decadence has atrophied the representational powers of the expressionist artist, the Surrealist artist, the constructivist, Dadaist, Cubist, Fauvist – Lukács plays no favorites.

Expressionism, Lukács will argue, gives up on the duty to represent the real.  Throwing the future of aesthetics into the hands of the expressionist artist (it should be noted that Lukács uses ‘expressionism’ as a short-hand for all modernist movements, from abstract art to Surrealism)[28] is like leasing the building to a baby: narcissistic desires will be unchecked but impotent.  Lukács exaggerates. But his fears on behalf of realism are genuine fears.  Could the Italian filmmakers of the 1940s have changed his mind?  In renouncing the artificiality of previous modes of representation, the neo-realists did raise questions of epistemological validity similar to those that motivated the modernist rejections Lukács so deplores. Old realisms are no longer possible. But the difference lies more in the alteration of the world – of ‘external reality’ – than in the whims of the artist. Indeed it may be that what Lukács is resisting in the modernist mutations is a greater degree of determinism than he is comfortable with: if changes in the landscape, in technology, in work and the conditions of existence, do indeed alter the way humans feel and perceive, the shift in our spiritual and sensual apparatus may not be ours to control. If the portrayal of emotion in art has gone from an Aristotelian catharsis to a field of sensations that lurch from the extreme to the banal, the fault may not be some artist’s erratic constitution, or the impotent indulgence of decadence. Time has changed, Deleuze insists, not just our perception of it. In this context, Deleuze’s moving claims about the historical changes in cinematic experience are highly pertinent to a debate with Lukács, and – in my reading – to an appreciation of the particular realism of Luchino Visconti, a literary realism and, as Deleuze announces with admiration, a “Marxist Romanticism”.[29]

Let me pause for a moment at the phrases Deleuze uses in the 1988 ‘Preface’ to the English translation of Cinema 2: The Time-Image. Why has he divided these volumes in two? Why does he begin the new dispensation, the ‘time-image’ with its ‘pure optical and sound situations’, with a treatment of Italian neo-realism and its times?

Why is the Second World War taken as a break? The fact is that, in Europe, the post-war period has greatly increased the situations which we no longer know how to react to, in spaces which we no longer know how to describe.[30]

If time, space and experience no longer rest within the system of relationships we had used in a pre-war world, if the conceptual schemata we worked with have suffered from the ‘disuse, demolition and reconstruction’ that characterizes the look and life of a burnt-out Europe, then the cinematic image will have to change. What we show in film and literature and how we show it can only be as reliable as the knowledge we can produce. And that knowledge has been found wanting. Realism may re-appear. But what it is ‘realistic’ about has altered. In Deleuze’s account, the achievement of modern artists like Visconti and Rossellini is based on their knowledge of these alterations within the mental as well as the material. Their means of representation, unsurprisingly, manifest their awareness of the different weights of imaginary and real, determinable and indeterminable, of what can be reported and what cannot. Clearly the parameters of the subjective and the objective are going to look different after the neo-realist moment. And the difference will concern the relative significance of narration and description.

Descriptions have, as Deleuze notes, of course always been important in art – in painting and in poetry as well as in classical film. But now their role is augmented, their power of animation has expanded: they no longer simply accompany the action, giving it evidential substance and specific character. Now, in neo-realism, the descriptions themselves become agents, or almost: they determine the situations, and choreograph the actors. This means that the relative priorities of perception as opposed to action can be expected to take a different shape. In a traditional or Aristotelian model of motion and intention, perception occurs in the service of action. The mind appraises the visual or tactile or auditory signs in its horizon in order to determine what action to take; the ‘parts’ of reality do not signify on their own but rather are connected in the interests of meaningful praxis, selected for their power to define a setting and a situation in which I can act. But there is something more indefinite in reality as the neo-realists present it. For Deleuze, neo-realism marks a philosophical break. The effect of the episodes in these films, the impact of what is being expressed and transmitted, changes our expectation of narrative action and environmental reality. The ‘story’ – which involves us as spectators just as intensely as we are involved in earlier realist works – is the responsibility of descriptive, sensory connections rather than the sequential build-up of ‘sensory-motor situations’. It is not that such films are less involving, more static, emptied of feeling. But the way they stimulate our emotions is different.[31]

3.  The Lesson of Visconti
To arouse our hopes for a social revolution, to depict the birth of a class consciousness and the imperative of struggle, these are what Deleuze recognises as the objectives of Visconti’s first Sicilian film, La Terra Trema. It is the film of a seer, not a commissar, that is true. One needs to believe that communist consciousness has room for a ‘visionary aestheticism’ to inscribe Visconti into the Marxist pantheon.  He is not, of course, the only Marxist Romantic around. Michael Löwy, in his book on Lukács, first published in France in 1976, uses the category ‘Romanticism’ to designate Lukács’s origins, the starting-point for his ‘passionate rejection’ of the existing social and political order, his tragic view of the world and his ‘romantic anti-capitalism’, which Löwy defines as abstract, idealist and profoundly utopian.[32] But Romanticism is not the best label for Lukács’s aesthetic positions, even though it may tell us something about the emotive character of the Hungarian Marxist’s political evolution, and his path to revolution.  As a philosopher of art and literature, Lukács aspired to a different set of criteria. His canon was classical: Homer, Dante, Tolstoy, Goethe. His tastes betray considerable overlap with the aesthetic affinities of Visconti. Although the Milanese aristocrat, from a family of Dukes and patricians, was the sort of man Lukács would have found attractive, their paths did not cross. They had in common a strong identification with the writer Lukács considered the most important of his century, Thomas Mann. Mann, courted, praised in public, well aware of Lukács’s interest, steadily resisted the Hungarian’s efforts to establish a relationship. Towards Visconti, Mann was quite the opposite, flattered by his attentions, seeking out the opportunity to collaborate on the ballet of Mario and the Magician. If all desire is triangular, this was a rivalry Lukács lost.

Literature was a matter of passion for both. But for Lukács it was a field of ideological contestation. And the political function of literature is something Visconti treated with reserve. The divergence is more than a difference of profession, or a gap between Visconti’s ethical commitment to communism and Lukács’s active public career. Early on, before his conversion to Bolshevism, the philosopher and aesthete had a tragic view of culture, an acute awareness of sacrifice and the ironic life and, a fondness for Kierkegaard.[33] After 1918 Lukács opted for a life in the field, first in the Hungarian Revolution and then people’s commissar in the Béla Kun government, later as Party theorist in Vienna and Moscow, ultimately as black sheep and critic of “actually existing socialism”.[34] For Lukács the question of literary realism is a political fighting point. If the novel dies, or if writers and readers lose their understanding of what the novel in its great epoch has tried to do, they will lose an understanding of how to interpret and transform experience. The rise of the novel was, as Georg Lukács understood in his early Hegelian aesthetics, a philosophical event.[35] He writes in Theory of the Novel that, “as form, the novel establishes a fluctuating yet firm balance between becoming and being”: it is, in fact “a normative being of becoming”.[36] The fate of realism is yoked to that of the art of the novel: pictures may describe, photographs may document a world and make it present to the senses, to memory. But it is narrative art that witnesses becoming, that tells the story of social practice, of human desires and failure. This is Lukács’s great and prescriptive theme, the doctrine that he sought to make normative for all revolutionary art, all Marxist aesthetics.

Cinema, however, has a power and possibility Lukács’s realist dogma cannot contain. In the hands of a sophisticated realist like Luchino Visconti, a Marxist cinema takes realism as a practice onto a different level, one that dispenses with the old dichotomies between realism and romanticism, classical and modernism, even progress and decadence. Visconti’s aestheticist realism – can one call it an operatic realism? – needs to be distinguished both from the Bazinian tradition (sometimes called ‘intuitionist’) and from the normative conception Lukács defended. Bazin is the more obvious analogue. The scope for a realist aesthetic that Bazin allows is clearly more generous. Bazin’s cinematic realism inherits with gratitude the motives and the means of social realism, the ‘great literary tradition’ Lukács and F.R. Leavis fought for. But just as film differs from the novel, so cinematic realism presents a different relationship between the concrete and the abstract, between realistic action and realist style, between drama and observation: a “dialectical” relation, Bazin calls it.[37] It does not privilege a narrative form indebted to the 19th century novel to the exclusion of more experimental, naturalistic or documentary impulses.  Yet it welcomes the great and formative contribution of the novel.  And in a theoretical move now fatefully attached to the name and reputation of Bazin, this conception of realism locates cinema’s epoch-making potential for truth-telling and witnessing in its photographic ontology, its power to capture the empirical and perhaps even indifferent detail, the “arbitrary” intrusion of “the grain of sand that brings a machine to a halt”, “the sound of a car’s windshield wiper”.  With such means – the means he ascribes to an artist of adaptation like Bresson and that we might expect to see exemplified in a literary film-maker like Visconti – “the most severe aesthetic abstraction” can be achieved “without resorting to expressionism”. Film art can be “renewed” through “its apparent negation”, and a determinate, rather than an abstract, freedom be won by the artist, here by moving, as Bresson does for Bazin, “between literature and realism”. This, Bazin writes, is the victory of “impurity in its pure state”.[38]

For Lukács, literature is also a philosophic mode, a register of intellectual affirmations and negation. Its aesthetic principles and compositional methods are ways of thinking about the problems of truth and knowledge, actions and reflection. What will make the break from a middle-class consciousness into a revolutionary and proletariat consciousness is not a change of content but a change of form.[39] The attempt of modernist artists to unsettle the legibility of narrative and action troubled him. Narration in written as in oral literature doesn’t just list events or record disjointed episodes; it relates them to character and conditions, to the past and to possible futures, disclosing a critical understanding of time and history. It has different aims, a different flow, a different purpose from description. Description functions to create the reality and the plausibility of a literary world, to clarify background and foreground and to intimate the activity of consciousness, the way things appear to the mind of a character, a narrator, or an author. Description can be far more than a tool in the service of plot. But to pursue it as a stylistic dominant  leads to the exhaustion of the writer’s shaping powers. In the quasi-journalistic detachment of literary naturalism (which Jameson argues was Lukács’s “code word for socialist realism”[40] ) Lukács believed he saw a lack of artistic spine, a weakness for the desultory, the trivial  and the unexamined fact. Late 19th century naturalist writers like Zola or Gissing or Verga had a passion for the descriptive mode. Could that be a symptom of inertia, the artist’s unwillingness to select and judge?[41] Naturalism looked progressive. It was anti-sentimental and pro-science. Its faith was in the hands of Darwin and its conception of human reality was deterministic. Humans are animals who have inherited hundreds of years of social evolution and technological alteration, but their primary drives are just as basic as ever. Naturalism had a Feuerbach in its family tree: one is what one eats.  The practitioners of naturalism in fiction, authors like Zola, Maupassant, Verga, George Moore, even Ibsen, later Dreiser, Frank Norris and Dos Passos, were very often adherents of radical causes, champions of the under-privileged, opponents of imperialism and capital. But, despite all the avowed claims for empirical and social truthfulness, despite the naturalist’s credo “to show all is to expose all”, there is for Lukács a hollowness in the form. Despite the justified indignation that inspired the drive to look under every stone, tear down every veil, the naturalist neglects the search for meaning and momentum. Narrative is an art of time, description an art of space.  Description is stasis.

Visconti’s work denies this antithesis, as does the whole movement of neorealism in its epoch. Cinema is a narrative art and a descriptive art. Cinema, as Bazin advised, can take the temporality of narrative structure perfected by the novel and gave it a new context, a spatial extension, a new situation, a translation into the non-linear, ambiguous image of modernity.[42] Visconti is a filmmaker whose work Lukács could have approved.[43] Refusing to remain tied to any dogma, either that of the Party or the neorealism code of practice, Visconti unites history with nature, human with material reality, the industrial North of the Italian proletariat with the Southern peasantry. Attacked by purists for abandoning location shooting and humble social settings for melodrama and the operatic, Visconti was unmoved. What he cared about in the neorealist project was the moral position, the search for an honesty of image and language; what he had no use for was sentimentality, fatalism and the romanticisation of defeat. His closest counterpart is Gramsci, whose example and analysis Visconti remained faithful to throughout his career: pessimism of the intelligence, Gramsci wrote in 1930, borrowing a phrase from Romain Rolland, is not incompatible with optimism of the will, in the realist.[44]

Luchino Visconti is the most novelistic of realists. In his rigorously neo-realist film, La Terra Trema[45] , he turned to literary narrative to make the landscape speak, to transcend the stagnation of a vision that merely records. Visconti – an aesthete, a Marxist, contending with his own romantic sensibility and an uncompromising belief in the discipline of work and precision – might be called an unconsciously Lukácsian filmmaker. Yet his advocacy of realism, like that of the Italian filmmakers of his generation, was non-dogmatic. His utopias are in the future, not the past. Neorealist film overcomes Lukács’s worry about modernist decadence. It lays bare the grandeur in the small and the commonplace. Political conscience and aesthetic beauty temper each other, fighting against their respective temptations to self-idolatry (or fetishism). That is the lesson of Visconti.

4: The Path to La Terra Trema
When Visconti carried out a long-held plan of making a film inspired by the fiction of Giovanni Verga, the first thing to be changed is the form. Narration and description swap positions: the verbosity of Verga’s colloquial narrative voice is stripped down; the movement between settings (inside and outside, home and sea) slows, as the camera pauses and moves in closer, leaving less space for commentary or comedy, both of which Verga lavished on his text. La Terra Trema is a film where actions are inconclusive, key figures and plot-strands disappear without explanation or follow-up. The central event – the young male protagonist’s defiant and courageous bid for independence, when he calls the impoverished fishermen to co-operate in determining their own fate – is a grand rhetorical gesture.  It has no precedent in its source, Verga’s 1881 novel, I Malavoglia.[46]   ‘Ntoni is the young son of the Valastro family in the film (Visconti changes most of the names from Verga’s novel). ‘Ntoni challenges his grandfather’s dominance over the opinions and values of the village.  He has ‘new ideas’, ideas that anticipate the Autonomia movement of the 1970s. His namesake in the novel was also a rebel against the status quo, against the pastoral truisms of his grandfather, against the impassivity and pettiness of his neighbours. But in Verga young ‘Ntoni’s “rather diffuse, ineffectual” attempts to master circumstances lead him, as Millicent Marcus says, “to seek refuge in physical escape, drunkenness, criminality, and finally the forced exile of imprisonment”.[47]

Visconti had no use for such fatalistic resolutions. His ‘Ntoni seizes the position of political activist, if only for all too brief a time. He is committed to awakening the consciousness of the other exploited fishermen and aligning them with his family’s cause. Awakening the peasantry is not a straightforward task, as many involved in earlier Italian campaigns and social uprisings had discovered.   A subsistence economy is all most of the villagers aspire to, as the voice-over relates: “A sip of wine, some bread, sardines, they were earned with yesterday’s labor to have the strength to return to the sea tonight to earn sardines, wine, and bread for tomorrow.” The young marry, have children, only to do more of the same. But ‘Ntoni cannot settle for this: he wants them to think of the future, not to block the unknown just because it is unknown. As the males of the village – elderly, young and even children – huddle on a boat in the dark sea, isolated in the night and depressed by their scanty catch, ‘Ntoni’s brightly lit face, handsome and chiseled in his oilcloth jacket and ragged jumper, is a magnet, mobile and expressive. One by one his recalcitrant fellows yield to his eloquence. Co-operation seems achievable. Why can’t they pool their resources, buy their own boats, salt and sell their own fish?

In the next scene they gather excitedly on the cobblestones of the village square in the early morning, jostling with the wholesalers, struggling to get the voice that will allow them to negotiate for fair prices. It is a moment the novel could not have imagined. Verga had no villains. His episodic series of narrative tableaus, set just before the Risorgimento movement began to criss-cross the peninsula, is populated by an array of characters, some just escaping caricature, none of imposing moral stature except the young and virginal women.  Everyone who passes by the seafront of Aci Trezza appears, holds forth in dialect, and is ‘placed’ socially, their dreams and rivalries noted. The ambitious, the sad and the deluded, the violent and the sententious, all mix; they cheat at one time and show generosity at another in a world where patience and pointless rage are equally matched, equally ineffectual.

That is Verga’s Sicilian world. The kaleidoscopic technique, the dispassion of the narrative voice, give credibility to Lukács’s strictures against naturalism. Like the mythmaker, the epic storyteller like Homer to whom Verga wants to be compared, the novelist has re-interpreted culture as nature; social pressures, economic instabilities, appear to him as temporary manifestations of an essentially unchanging and cyclical order. It is an ideological vision the island has found difficult to dispel: “Why do anything?” The Prince in Lampedusa’s The Leopard addresses the question to an ancient landscape he believes will not answer back. Sicilians will never change. Their fate under the Greeks and the Saracens was no different than their fate when subjected to the modernizing ‘invaders’ from Rome and Milan. But Visconti’s adaptation of Verga avoids the naturalist pastoral. Denouncing exploitation and a social system that has long treated Sicily as a backward colony, his film has obvious villains: his merchants and wholesalers, who have the skill and the power to operate beyond the rocks of the harbour, are depicted in crudely unflattering ways. They over-eat, their bodies are graceless, their faces distorted with contempt, laughing at those they plan to cheat. When ‘Ntoni leads the boatmen onto the wharfside, the scene is disorderly, with quick cuts and confusing changes of camera position, as children run underfoot, fishermen brawl with sellers, women push in, and everyone yelling to be heard. Grabbing one of the bosses by the lapels, ‘Ntoni orders him to stop the selling: he denounces the merchants for fixing the prices and throws his scales into the sea; the traditional sign of distributive justice has failed.

In a Russian film this would turn everything upside down and lead to revolutionary upheaval. But here ‘Ntoni’s initiative changes nothing; it sinks into the past as if it were a careless eccentricity. The Valastros lose everything. Their boat is wrecked in a storm; Cola, the other older brother, runs away to join some black-marketers; one daughter yields to a seducer and becomes a prostitute. The family structure disintegrates, as one by one the photographs and paintings on the walls of their bare house slip away. Their poverty is heart-breaking: long takes and a panning camera show the emptiness of their rooms and the holes in their clothes. By the end no one has shoes; the marriages that were planned when the Valastros still had a house and a boat are cancelled; the young men must swallow their pride and beg work from the wholesalers. It is certainly not a film where nothing ‘happens’. Nor is it one where lingering description, and detached observation, replace plot. Yet at the end there is stalemate: one family has declined, its hopes of love and prosperity dashed, and can only save what remnants remain by returning, shamed, to the oppressive service of the owners of capital. No one rules the action; no singular heroism turns situation into drama; no moral or analytic thesis resolves the fragments into a model for action.

4: Neorealism, Morality and Art
In the 1940s, the “right way” to make “responsible cinema” that “is not corrupted by a decadent vision of existence”[48] began taking shape for Visconti and a number of his friends who also had a passion for Verga and the verismo movement in literature. Visconti had learned much from the aesthetic realism of Renoir, and Ossessione (1942), his first feature and a transposition of James M Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice to the semi-industrial landscape of the Po Valley, took the French style of the 1930s into another register. If neorealism could be defined at all, in those first few years of war-time and Italian defeat, was what Roberto Rossellini called a “moral position”.[49]

Moral commitment was certainly at full strength in Visconti’s early career as an artist, both on stage and in film. Converted to a principled leftism during the 1930s when he worked with Renoir in Paris and sympathised with the Popular Front, Visconti became a close associate of the PCI, his political emotions further aroused by repugnance against the rhetorical corruptions of Fascism and its false, melodramatic claim to populism. That repugnance was a feeling he shared with the rest of the Italian film community after the war. Neorealism, if that is the best name for the event that briefly unified the best work and workers of Italian cinema in the years from 1941 to 1953 or thereabouts, took seriously the obligation for cinema to be of its time, to participate in history as a judge and a witness. The neorealists declared that something more could be expected from Italian film, something neither lusciously glamorous nor simplistically melodramatic, something neither spectacular nor moralistic.

What its specific components would be, that was less clear.[50] Lucia Re, in a study of the writer Italo Calvino, distinguishes between the broadly “progressive”, anti-capitalist commitment of neorealism, and its more substantial politics of representation, a politics she contextualizes by comparing it to the famous debates between Georg Lukács, Ernst Bloch, Adorno and Brecht in the fraught days of 1936-38. The word neorealismo, she explains, first appeared “in the 1920s as a (rather imprecise) rendering of the German Neue Sachlichkeit (‘Neo-objectivism’).”[51] Yet the continuity of the word does not guarantee a similarity of programme. What the Italian writers and filmmakers were drawn to in wartime and after had little in common with the atmosphere of the Weimar-era Neue Sachlichkeit – a revolt of disillusioned ex-Expressionists like Otto Dix, Georg Grosz, and John Heartfield, tired of Expressionism’s subjectivism and its declamatory style. The neorealists did have something of the German artists’ gritty and anti-theatrical sobriety, their fascination for what can be seen and heard in the street, for the unadorned aesthetics of the ordinary human face and setting.[52] But what they had in mind for cinema was a different kind of simplicity, a pared-down social honesty and a new way of story-telling – open-ended, non-aggressive, free from stylization, less ‘literary’ and more porous to present-day language, idioms, and modes of discourse. Calvino, later to take story-telling into extraordinary directions, was part of this initiative: he had joined the militant artists in the 1940s and 1950s in what he called “the explosion of neorealism”.

Calvino’s judgment on the movement is interesting.  It was, he noted, “less an artistic event than a physiological, existential, collective event”.[53] Calvino’s characterization is ambitious, but not so far from the normative claims for literary realism Georg Lukács was making in the 1930s. Realism, the Hungarian Marxist declared, is more than a choice of representational conventions, a writerly method with specific advantages over, say, expressionism or the nouveau roman. It is humanism, a philosophy of history, a principle of virtue and an epistemological credo.

5: Film and Literature, a Revolutionary Couple
“Cinema” writes Millicent Marcus in her study of Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism, “must learn the lessons of nineteenth-century literary realism before it can find its own unmediated realist vocation”.[54] Exactly that was the argument Mario Alicata and Giuseppe De Santis made in October 1941, just before they started work on Visconti’s Ossessione:

When most of its technical problems were solved, the cinema – which has moved from documentary to narrative – realized that its destiny was linked with literature…. It remains evident that when the cinema began to create characters, and to examine the change in men’s souls in relationship to their concrete environment, it was necessarily influenced by Nineteenth Century European realism.[55]

In 1944, entering into a different conversation about the development of film, Eisenstein agreed with Alicata and De Santis. For him, however, the patron, the muse of cinema, was Dickens. To figure out “the possibilities of a profound, intelligent, class-directed use of this wonderful tool”, you had to go to the novelists. In order to become more intelligent, less superficial and reproductively inert, film needed to master the magic of narration as Dickens had perfected that, and not just Dickens but Thackeray, George Eliot, Tolstoy, Turgenev and Balzac.[56] Literature, far from being superseded by moving pictures and photoplays, gave them their eyes and ears:

“The kettle began it…”
Thus Dickens opens his Cricket on the Hearth.
“The kettle began it…”
What could be further from films!  Trains, cowboys, chases…And The Cricket on the hearth! But, strange as it may seem, movies also were boiling in that kettle.[57]

Our cinema, writes Eisenstein,

is not altogether without parents and without pedigree, without a past, without the traditions and rich cultural heritage of the past epochs.  It is only very thoughtless and presumptuous people who can erect laws and an esthetic for cinema, proceeding from premises of some incredible virgin-birth of this art![58]

For filmmakers concerned about composition, technique and construction, the realist novel has the key. Everything – close-up, parallel montage and cross-cutting, dissolve, city-symphony – is already there. Indeed, Eisenstein argues, the realist novel, especially that of Dickens, is in fact more ideologically advanced than the film, since it can create an organic whole, a rhythmic totality, complex but with an “inner unity”, compared to which filmmakers often fall short. Griffith and others, despite their genius, reproduce the metaphysics of the bourgeois world, its contradictions but not its dialectic. Montage itself will be no more than dualistic until it can develop the art of ‘inner speech’ and ‘sensual thinking’. It will do so when the insights of the great novelists are united with Marx, with “the laws of the process that stand behind miscellaneous separate data”.  Philosophy might have been expected to provide the intellectual tools here. Perhaps its ahistoricism excludes it from the kind of dynamic integration of whole and part, abstraction and detail, that literature is so well-versed in. The novel’s art of seeking narrative momentum and meaning within the observational, descriptive field – of temporalizing space and spatialising time – is (to push Eisenstein a bit further) a powerful way to achieve “a thoughtful abstraction of phenomena”, to generalize in a concrete manner “from a wide variety of historical data”.[59]

The novelists may not have understood all that they were doing, and seeing: this is a point a Marxist critic like Lukács readily admits is true for Balzac or Tolstoy. Revolutionary art will need to progress further than the monuments of 19th century realism. The dialectical materialist can anticipate, or prophesise, the “new social structure” that will, according to Eisenstein, give full realization to our dreams. Or, as Alicata and De Santis, veterans of the underground Communist Party and its anti-Fascist war, put it: the realist novel can “redeem cinema” from its all-too-comfortable accommodation to the imaginary of the bourgeoisie:

It is, perhaps, helpful to indicate in the cinema that instead of the more habitual of back doors to realism, there is a main entrance. The most intelligent of readers, of course, will have already understood that our argument leads us necessarily to one name: Giovanni Verga. Not only did he create a great body of poetry, but he created a country as well, an epoch, a society. Since we believe in an art which above all creates truth, the Homeric, legendary Sicily of I malavoglia, Maestro Don Gesualdo, L’Amante di Gramigna, and Jeli il pastore offers us both the human experience and a concrete atmosphere.  Miraculously stark and real, it could give inspiration to the imagination of our cinema that looks for things in the space-time of reality to redeem itself from the easy suggestions of a moribund bourgeois state.[60]

A “revolutionary art”, “an inspiration to humanity which hopes and suffers”, an art which would not be “Arcadian or academic” but which preserves the “lucid balance between intelligence and moral strength”:  this is what Alicata and De Santis want neorealist cinema to be, and they recommended a recourse to Verga as this realism’s “main entrance”.

Verga’s ‘door’ is one Visconti passed through: La Terra Trema is the result, his answer to his comrades’ request for a ‘poetry of truth’. In making the film, Visconti started with the plan for a heroic narrative with three interlocking episodes, leading from defeat to solidarity, from despair to collective action against the ‘moribund bourgeois state’ and its vested interests, the capitalists, industrialists and landowners of the South and North. But he found it could not fulfill his concept except by turning back through ‘Nineteenth Century European realism’, to the literary tradition of story-telling and psychological observation. The film theory that seemed most hospitable to the neorealist sensibility might have displaced this emphasis on narrative in favour of a neutral act of observation, a photographic detachment, a documentary ‘permission’ for phenomena to provide their own means of presentation: let nature, rather than the author, make the choices.  But such a naturalist dream, if it ever had any credibility, fell away very quickly in Visconti’s practice.  Literature began playing a much more assertive role.

Visconti’s ‘dialectical integration’ of naturalism with what André Bazin praises as a ‘larger, richer aesthetics’ is arguably a function of the way he has transformed a literary style into a cinematic one, while preserving much of the quality and specificity of literary realism.  Despite the extravagant homage of Alicata and De Santis, the Verga material that Visconti and his friends placed so much of their hopes in had some of the weakness of naturalism: a certain stagnation, a fondness for regionalist ‘common sense’, a vivacity achieved at the price of avoiding any claims on history larger than the local facts of place, people, region and language, Visconti could never remain at the kind of deliberate naiveté a Vergaesque cinema might cherish.

By cultural background, literary inheritance and politics, Visconti was a figure too large for the provinces, too independent even for neorealism. He was a European rather than a cosmopolitan (his trips to the United States always put him in a bad mood). An intellectual with an autocratic way of working and a sophisticated taste in opera, poetry and decor, he was a ‘leopard’ like the Prince Fabrizio Salina, and like the Prince he represented a civilization in decline, still confident of its mystique even if well aware that history has no further place for it.[61] Like the Sicilian grand seigneur, Visconti could take from the ‘tradition’ what he needed without feeling apologetic or intimidated; but like the Prince he was not interested in preserving the old for its own sake. If Thomas Mann, or Proust, or Camus, or even Edith Wharton, or any monument of the classical and bourgeois inheritance, offer searching and complex narrative material, why should cinema avoid serious literature in an attempt to be ‘popular’? At the same time Alicata and De Santis write their tribute to Verga in ‘Truth and Poetry’, Visconti writes this:

It may sound obvious but I have often asked myself, as there is a solid literary tradition which in hundreds of novels and stories has realized in fantasy such genuine and pure ‘truths’ about human life, why should cinema, which in its more exterior access to life could actually be documentary, complacently accustom the audience to petty plotting and pompous melodrama the mechanical logic of which protects the spectator from the risks of whim and invention. In such a situation it becomes natural for those who sincerely believe in the cinema to turn their eyes nostalgically to the grand narrative structures of European literature and to think of them as the truest source of inspiration of our time. It is good to have the courage to say ‘truest’ even though some people might label it as impotence or at least as lack in cinematic purity. (Visconti, “Tradizione ed invenzione”)[62]

The ‘grand narrative structures of European literature’ are Visconti’s intended models. One should take him at his word. Putting him in the company of Lukács’s cultural touchstones (Mann, Balzac, Tolstoy) is a warranted promotion. However moved by the magic of the South and the poetry of everyday life, Visconti takes verismo a step further – into critical realism. In so doing he breaks out of the Lukácisan impasse. For Lukács, art must obey the guidelines of mode and genre, or it risks creating a meaningless compromise: modernism or classicism, epic or lyric, narrate or describe. Literary cinema does both. Visconti in the 1940s was moved by the ‘expressive universe of the people’ that Verga had taught him to appreciate. He wanted to make a film that spoke directly to its environment, to a specific social situation, and one with contemporary urgency. Film, the popular art, the art of vivid and immediate description, that takes its photographic imprint from nature itself, could be the right vehicle to expose the miseries of exploitation and social neglect. It could do so by working with the techniques neorealism began to celebrate: the use of non-studio settings, of nonprofessional actors speaking and acting in ways they would do without the camera in their faces. But Visconti, as he worked, added to the neorealist style something else: the tragic dignity and poetic resonance of the subject as it might be treated by a Tolstoy or a Melville. The ragged fishermen, in their stoic nobility, might have no awareness of the literary culture they evoked. But the viewer would.

6: Beyond Naturalism
Visconti shared the hopes Alicata and De Santis were expressing. He too loved Verga, reading him again in the depressing months of 1939 when he and his friends (Alicata was the leader of the clandestine Roman Communist Party) clustered around the magazine Cinema, discussing the “need to achieve some form of realism in the context of a national cinema which was insipid and conformist”, as Nowell-Smith writes.[63] Social analysis, class conflict, the effect of environment and the conditions of production: these were themes the group looked for in the texts they read. Melville appeared, Hemingway and Steinbeck, the Russians, even Alain-Fournier, Dumas and Proust.[64] Anything but cling too closely to the decaying Italian corpse! Could an honest type of cinema be made in such times? Anti-Fascist agitation was dangerous. Giovanni Verga, on the other hand, was a literary master, and a writer whose regionalism was in principle attractive to the Fascists. In 1941 the group collaborated on a script based on Verga’s L’Amante di Gramigna, the story of a peasant woman in love with a bandit; Visconti was to direct it. The Minister of Popular Culture refused. It was not until 1947 that Visconti got his chance to work on Verga, and in the interim had come the Resistance and Visconti’s narrow escape from execution by the Germans. Literary sources were still dominant in his mind; Alicata and De Santis had praised literary realists for achieving a “poetic image of society” in which men lived; that was essential. But so was social criticism.

Stalled in late 1947 by his documentary concept for La Terra Trema, Visconti chose activism and historical urgency to push the Sicilian material out of its stasis and mythic languor. In the six months he spent in Sicily, writing down the speech and expressions of the locals, composing the elegant frames he would bring to his shots of the ‘Homeric’ landscape of Aci-Trezza, Visconti reshaped the narrative and presentation. Letting the villagers devise their own dialogue in their local dialectic, he provided a counterpart, an interspersed voice-over in ‘proper’ Italian, that comments on the action and the characters.  Remaining at a slight distance from the characters and events, his camera rarely goes further in than the middle-distance, so that the dramatic effects of individual initiative, or excitement, or pain, is slightly deflected, moved into the longer, more patient perspective of epic. The film has no political or dramatic closure. Exploitation is exposed, but solidarity fails to take fire and expand. The collective moment, when the villagers could produce their own changes in the economic and social conditions they passively endure, passes by. The audience can identify: feeling for the devastated Valastro family, with their ragged beauty and their still, classically-composed interiors; despising the vulgar capitalists and the neighbours who seem to enjoy watching the Valastros’s rebellion fail. But there is no narrative reward, no compensation now or in the hereafter. The film has no easy judgment, neither happy ending nor tragic catharsis. Time passes; people struggle; the sea comes in and out. Some marry; some fail to marry because they haven’t the money. But at the same time, modernity’s disruptive forces hammer away at the resolve and pride of individuals.

Realism in literature is not possible at all times. It is, as Fredric Jameson explains,”dependent on those privileged historical moments in which access to society as a totality may once again be invented”.[65]   The realist perspective, as Lukács defended it in a late work, Realism in Our Time: Literature and the Class Struggle, “meant a grasp of the underlying dynamics of historical development, a corresponding vision of the future which will emerge from the movement of history so discerned, and a belief that the social order is modifiable and therefore perfectible.”[66] For Lukács, the privileged moments of concrete perception arrive, like revolution, when the objective conditions are right, when there is an opening for individual and collective to the “forces of change”.[67] Realism in cinema as it found its language in the period of the 1940s was an event and a change of perception. It was far more than an aesthetic choice, a preference for deep-focus, long-takes, panoramic shots, unobtrusive mise en scène, for the scene rather than the shot, for nonprofessional actors speaking local dialect. It was an attempt to shift moral perception, to re-align relations between nature, environment, emotion and language. In short, it was a political stance, a call or different attitudes, a different kind of patience and expectation. And it was a different orientation towards time, history and truth.

Neorealism, André Bazin announced in 1953, as the movement was winding down, “knows only immanence”.[68] For Deleuze, such immanence is related to the development of depth of field in the films of Renoir, Welles, Visconti, who create a “crystalline” relation to history, temporalizing the image, making present moments pass, while “going towards the future, but also preserving the past”.[69]   Time appears in more than one plane at once, just as space, in the preternatural clarity of the deep focus frames of Welles and the early Visconti, twists itself towards us all at once. “Immanence”, not transcendence. And this immanence, if both Bazin and Deleuze are right, forces the viewer to attend more intelligently, actively, unable to defer to the adjudicating gaze of the camera. Ontologically, the character of the realist/modernist film style as practiced by a Welles or a Visconti is both modest and confrontational: it does not ‘push’ its meaning at the viewer, but it frames the possibilities of knowledge and perception just in the way it frames time and space. The mise en scène (to which Visconti devoted the intense perfectionism also evident in his approach to the stage) is what Millicent Marcus has called “splendidly three-dimensional”,[70] often allowing more than one situation to be shown at a time. It is a goal worth emulating. Modern anthropologists, acutely aware of the problem of interpretative coercion, aspiring to a form of knowledge that would approach what the literary theorist calls ‘critical realism’, sometimes call their objective ‘thick description’.

Thick description – occupying all the facets of the crystal, if not all simultaneously – is a moral stance, and it is an achievement Deleuze credits to the early ‘revolutionary’ film Visconti made in 1947. La Terra Trema has a definite and uncompromising political vision yet it avoids the reductionism of the film ‘à thèse’. Not a work of propaganda, but, as Geoffrey Nowell-Smith memorably wrote, an “intransigent film”,[71] La Terra Trema is widely considered the most rigorous and accomplished of the neorealist films.[72] Visconti, rejecting the ‘hands off’ approach of the naturalist, observational perspective, made his film look towards the future, away from the cyclical recurrence of sky and storm, poor harvest and rich harvest, towards a day when, as Lukács puts it, “the social order is modifiable”. Not a documentary or a ‘docu-fiction’, the film is a visionary, ambivalent study of a poor Sicilian backwater, its revolt and its failure. Visconti invests the setting with the seeds of the action or passion that is to be ‘born’, ‘erupting in a pre-existing daily life’.  Locating La Terra Trema in his series of modern ‘crystals of time’, Deleuze writes:

(T)his embryonic ‘communist consciousness’ here depends less on a struggle with nature and between men than on a grand vision of man and nature, of their perceptible and sensual unity, from which the ‘rich’ are excluded and which constitutes the hope of the revolution, beyond the setbacks of the floating action: a Marxist romanticism.[73]

It is this Marxist romanticism in Visconti I want to draw attention to here, while at the same time correcting Deleuze: Visconti was an aesthete, a grand seigneur, an intellectual. He was, nonetheless, a realist and not a romantic. Realism was a principled turn of the gaze to a world of facts and feelings that had been obscured by other aesthetic hierarchies, that had seemed too banal, too undramatic, to be the material for narrative action and poetic aspiration. Visconti, as Bazin acknowledges with mixed feelings in his review of La Terra Trema in December 1948, “aimed at and unquestionably achieved a paradoxical synthesis of realism and aestheticism”.[74] He has achieved an “unlikely sobriety”, an intimate knowledge of the ordinary households and interiors of the poor, and made it all seem “natural”.  Bazin confesses himself slightly put off by something he was not ready for in the work of this “great aristocrat, an artist to the tips of his fingers”: “What is at issue, maybe, is an aesthetic participation in history.” The film, doubtlessly, is not just a work of art. It is a Communist film; it has “propaganda value”.[75] Can an aesthete be a Communist? Lucia Re does not have any of Bazin’s hesitations: “At few other moments in the history of modern European culture” was “the political value of realism so crucial an issue for artists and critics alike”.[76]

The moment looked right. If art and revolution would ever be in the same boat, it would have to be now. Fascism had been defeated, the King removed; Togliatti and the restored Communist Party joined the coalition government; members of the Resistance were the new leaders of cultural and industrial institutions.[77] And the cultural tastes of prewar Italy (a similar story could be told for Germany) had lost some of their gloss, their credibility tarnished by the association with the bluster of nationalism and the traditional unwillingness to look directly at the seedier side of life. André Bazin was one of the first to recognize how much had changed. “Since the war began”, Bazin writes in reference to the Italian film industry, “this papier-mâché forest has begun to open onto a clearing…”[78] Not everyone was delighted. Neorealist filmmakers soon attracted the displeasure of the establishment; the government complained they were propagating a sordid image of unemployment and futility; the ticket-buying public took its enthusiasm elsewhere. But for a while they were the face that a reconstructed Italy offered to the world. And it was a radical face, passionately modern, socially critical and often disarmingly satirical.  It was a time for the artists to define themselves as workers – as the patrician Visconti did in his early piece on ‘Anthropomorphic cinema’, written when he had barely begun to test his strengths in this medium. Visconti, like the other neorealists, made films that forced audiences to look at the ordinary, the everyday, the life of the streets, the poor, the struggling. It was not what the Fascists wanted to show.  Nor did it change cinematic and literary conventions for good. But, as Visconti’s collaborator, Antonio Pietrangeli, described Visconti’s first film, something disruptive was happening here:

A bare, avid, sensual and enraged humanity – which has become this way through the daily struggle for survival and for satisfaction of its uncontrollable instincts; a humanity that bursts forward into action, without the corrective stage of thought itself, but with that impetuous impulse for which desire and having constitute a single spontaneous act.[79]

7: Narrate and Describe?
There were many contradictions facing a realist aesthetic that aspires to the kind of ‘national-popular’ character advocated by the Communist leader and theorist Antonio Gramsci, and in 1947 Visconti had been reading Gramsci with a keen sense of identification and admiration. (He continued to acknowledge Gramsci as his inspiration throughout his career.[80] ) Local traditions, however poetic, could be regressive and mindless. Beauty and banality were as intertwined among the peasantry as among the decadent socialites whose luxurious interiors and outfits the pre-war ‘white telephone’ cinema of Italy liked to depict. Visconti was an idealist. But he was not one to be afraid of contradictions. The ragged villagers clinging to the Sicilian sea coast at Aci-Trezza, for whom every day and night – as the film’s voice-over explains – were the same day and night their ancestors had known for hundreds of years, had a photogenic nobility, a stoic grace and austerity. Their gestures and phrases were as woven into myth as the proverbs they liked to repeat. But they were also fatalistic, deferential towards the ‘masters’, impressed by money, suspicious and spiteful. Was reality going to be a problem for the committed realist?

For the Russian filmmakers, the Eisensteins and Pudovkins, whose work the neorealists knew and admired, the recalcitrance of reality was not a problem. Idea triumphs over observation because the reality the artist needed to be faithful to was the reality of the future. According to the dialectical model of history, the present is not a static picture but an ensemble of conditions whose internal momentum, if properly analysed, had nowhere to go but towards change. Nature is not frozen, nor a heartless tyrant. Nature is the milieu that men and women can transform into something else, something more plastic and relational: life. Marxist aesthetics from Marx and Engels to Lukács inclined to a hierarchy of genre: epic is greater than lyric and narrative more progressive than still life. Any philosophical account that pushes humanity to the margins, displacing narrative movement and possibility in favour of rigid regularities, is hostile to the struggle for freedom, no matter how ‘scientific’ or materialist it may appear. Environment did not rule men; action ruled history. This credo received its most sophisticated articulation in the 1930s criticism of Georg Lukács, whose determined promotion of the realist conventions of the 19th century novel and the values of European classicism pushed radical modernists into a defensive position.

In a famous dichotomy, Lukács used crude simplification to withering effect. Narrate or describe? Have a soul or be soul-less? Be a tribune or a bureaucrat?  It boils down to a choice between activity and passivity, between dialectic and the “dance of the dead… a fetishized acquisition of autonomy” at the price of “divorce from the overall social process” and the concomitant “stunting of human beings”.[81] In Lukács’ view, the formalist and the sociologically-inclined naturalist à la Zola equally miss the appointment with history. Both feed the ‘decadence’ of modernism because they have renounced the obligation of the critical artist. Formalism cultivates interiority at the expense of objective reality. Naturalism did have some promise of remaining connected to the workers’ movement, when it was at its height in the 1880s and 1890s, but its ideological unclarity, and worse – its ‘vulgarity’ – weakened its initial ‘heroic’ instincts, making its materialism reproductive rather than critical.[82]

As a technique, naturalism turns everything into the present tense. It devotes itself to the portrayal of an objective world, banishing the moralistic or interpretative standpoint of the author. In the process, however, it displaces all belief in history as a positive or meaningful process. Past and present become, simply, different situations and attitudes; time is spatialised, and all action collapses into immediacy. There is no way to select, to differentiate the important from the unimportant, the critical from the inessential. Historical perspective disintegrates. How can that help the victims of capital’s massive injustices become masters of their own fates? It will take critical realism, Lukács’s preferred literary mode, to save literature from becoming “a mere playground for formal experiments”; only the tools of realist narrative are sufficient to achieve “the self-critical dissolution of the capitalist illusion”.[83]

Conclusion: Realism and History

Realistic means: discovering the causal complexes of society
Unmasking the prevailing view of things as the view of those who are in power
Writing from the standpoint of the class which offers the broadest solutions for the pressing difficulties in which human society is caught up
Emphasizing the element of development
Making possible the concrete, and making possible abstraction from it.
(Bertolt Brecht, Contra Georg Lukács)[84]

Lukács’s urgency is worth keeping alive. A ‘philosophy of composition’ is not incidental. It is an ethical and a political choice. Style is not reality. But it is an attitude to reality. Neorealism knew this. What Lukács prescribes to literature has a relevance to the new forms developed by the Italian artists who taught themselves a different cinematic eye in those short years from 1941-1953. Like the realist novelists, they wanted to avoid stylization and abstraction, even if those methods had brought brilliant dividends in the Russian use of montage. But they also wanted to create a warmer, more ‘loving’ relationship to the characters and settings they depict. ‘Loving’: the adjective is André Bazin’s. Italian neorealism “imposes on us a relationship that can only be called love, but love that is not sentimental and that one could go so far as to call metaphysical”.[85]  In the writings of Giovanni Verga, like those of Zola or Dreiser, there are no heroes. And there are no Romantic ‘lost causes’ in naturalism.  Marxism, the historical vision of Visconti and Lukács, needed both. It needed reckless revolutionaries like ‘Ntoni, who could say to the child Rosa who is moved by his desolation and his ostracism:

They should have understood that I did it for everybody, not just for myself. But one day they’ll realize I was right.  Then it will be a blessing for everyone to lose everything as I did. We have to learn to stand up for each other, to stick together. Only then can we move forward.

History’s dispossessed and betrayed need to be remembered, and that means that culture needs to have room for the grandeur of presumption and disenchantment. At least until the glorious future finds its generation, and keeps its promise to the people, as Visconti insisted, there will need to be a space for an aesthetic of loss and regret. Visconti lingered on his themes of betrayal and loss throughout his filmmaking career: the community fails to rise to the opportunity ‘Ntoni offers them in La Terra Trema; Gustav Aschenbach  in Death in Venice fails to find the sensuality he needs for his art until it is too late; the Countess Serpieri in Senso steals the partisans’ money and gives it to her Austrian lover: Rocco and his family lose their innocence when they leave their Sicilian home, and are driven to deadly violence by the cold hostility of Milan. Alex Garcia Duttmann, in his difficult but fascinating study of Visconti, draws attention to the revelation that (in Deleuze’s words) something ‘arrives too late’. But that ‘too late’ is not simply the prohibition of utopia, the abandonment of the revolutionary hope. “The ‘too-late’ is not an accident that takes place in time but a dimension of time itself.”[86]   If possibility is not ‘blocked off’, then reality can be transformed: time will always have room for change, that is what time is like. In I Malavoglia, Verga takes possibility away from his fishermen; Visconti is determined to give it back. Visconti’s film, without falsifying utopia by giving it a specific habitation and a name, takes seriously Adorno’s taboo against the representation of the future, of hope, of the time to come. But possibility is returned to those who can live it, in time, not just on the screen.


[1] Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, Visconti (New York: Viking, 1973): ‘Visconti adopts from the outset a position of total revolutionary intransigence, and though forced to abandon one of the political premises on which his original project was based, remains intransigent to the end. This intransigence, aesthetic even more than political, is what gives the film the elemental quality that has always struck and dumbfounded critics.’(28)
[2] Gaia Servadio, Luchino Visconti: a Biography (New York: Franklin Watts, 1983), 65-113, describes the years of Visconti’s political awakening, his time underground and his near-execution by Pietro Koch, the Head of the Nazi Special Squad. Visconti later filmed the trial and execution of Koch as a segment in Giorni di Gloria (1945).
[3] ‘Anthropomorphic Cinema’, re-printed in David Overbey, ed., Springtime in Italy: A Reader on Neo-Realism (Hamden, CT: Archon Books: Hamden, 1978), 83-85.
[4] Bazin, ‘For an Impure Cinema: In Defence of Adaptation’, in What is Cinema? trans. Timothy Barnard (Montreal: Caboose, 2009), 107-137 (136).
[5] Bazin, ‘Cinematic Realism and the Italian School of the Liberation’, in What is Cinema? trans. Barnard: ‘The aesthetic of Italian cinema, at least of its most developed sectors and amongst filmmakers so aware of the resources at their disposal as someone like Rossellini, is simply the cinematic equivalent of the American novel.’(243)
[6] As Eisenstein argues in ‘Dickens, Griffith, and the FilmToday’(1944), in Film Form: Essays in Film Theory, ed. and trans. by Jay Leyda (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1977), 211f.
[7] Bazin, ‘For an Impure Cinema: In Defence of Adaptation’, in What is Cinema? trans. Timothy Barnard,  (121).
[8] Alicata and De Santis, ‘Truth and Poetry: Verga and the Italian Cinema’, in David Overbey, ed, Springtime in Italy, 131-138 (133).
[9] Luigi Chiarini, ‘A Discourse on Neo-Realism’ (1950), in David Overbey, ed., Springtime in Italy, 57
[10] I am summarising Chiarini’s lecture, which surveys a large number of films. (Springtime in Italy, 139-168).
[11] Bazin, ‘Diary of a Country Priest and the Robert Bresson Style’, in What is Cinema? trans. Barnard,  139-159 (141, 159).
[12] ibid., 157.
[13] Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: the Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (London: the Athlone Press, 1989), 4.
[14] Bazin, ‘Cinematic Realism and the Italian School of the Liberation’, in What is Cinema?, trans. Barnard,  215-149 (226).
[15] Deleuze, Cinema 2, 2.  Deleuze refers to the notion of ‘l’image-fait’ in the essay of Bazin’s cited above, in the one-volume Cerf edition (André Bazin, Qu’est-ce que le cinéma? (Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 2002), 282 and passim. Bazin may not ‘define’ neo-realism by its social content, but he is highly aware of its importance: ‘It follows that an Italian film has exceptional documentary value and that it is impossible to extract the screenplay from it without also removing the entire social landscape into which the film has sunk its roots’ (‘Cinematic realism and the Italian School of the Liberation’, 220) Bazin has a lovely way of dividing these two aspects, the social and the aesthetic: ‘Having tried to delineate the geography of this cinema, with its acute social descriptions and meticulous and perspicacious choice of real and significant details, it remains to understand its aesthetic geology.’(ibid., 232)  Deleuze, as one might expect from the ci-author of Mille Plateaux, prefers the geology.
[16] For a critical yet respectful account of Deleuze that questions the historicisation of film’s ‘thoughts’, see András Balint Kovács, ‘The Film History of Thought’, trans. Sándor Hervey, in Gregory Flaxman, ed., The Brain is the Screen: Deleuze and the Philosophy of Cinema (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 153-170.
[17] Gilles Deleuze, Cinéma 2: L’image-temps (Paris:  Les Éditions de Minuit, 1985), 7-12.
[18] The essay is in Springtime in Italy, 131-138.
[19] See his 1948 Preface to Studies in European Realism, trans. Edith Bone (reprint edition, New York:  Howard Fertig, 2002), 1-19; ‘Healthy or Sick Art?’, in Writer and Critic and other essays, ed. and trans. Arthur Kahn (London: Merlin, 1970), 103-109; and ‘Realism in the Balance’, trans. Rodney Livingstone, in Fredric Jameson, ed., Aesthetics and Politics (London: Verso, 1980), 28-59; and Jameson’s helpful ‘Afterword’ to this last collection (ibid., 196-213).
[20] My account of Lukács here is deeply indebted to J.M. Bernstein, The Philosophy of the Novel: Lukács, Marxism and the Dialectics of Form (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1984) see 44-76 and 228-267.
[21] ibid., 228.
[22] See Lukács’‘Introduction’ to Studies in European Realism, 9; and Bernstein, Philosophy of the Novel,  230.
[23] Lukács would not make use of such a formulation, but I think it captures something of his critique.
[24] Georg Lukács, The Destruction of Reason, trans. Peter Palmer (London: Merlin Press, 1980), 204-209.
[25] Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, 2-3)
[26] This inward-turning corresponds, as Lukács acknowledges, to the flight towards abstraction which the art historian Wilhelm Worringer identified as the consequence of humanity’s disaffection from a world grown unfriendly and unintelligible. See Lukács’s comments on Worringer in ‘Expressionism: its Significance and Decline’, in Georg Lukács, Essays on Realism, ed. Rodney Livingstone, trans. David Fernbach (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981), 76-113.
[27] Published as ‘Realism in the Balance’ in Aesthetics and Politics, 28-59 (44).
[28] See, for confirmation, the article from 1934 mentioned above ‘Expressionism: its Significance and Decline’, in Georg Lukács, Essays on Realism, 76-113.
[29] Deleuze, Cinema 2: the Time-Image, 5.
[30] Deleuze, Cinema 2: the Time-Image,  xi.
[31] Deleuze, Cinema 2: the Time-Image, op.cit., 1-4.
[32] Michael Löwy, Georg Lukács – From Romanticism to Bolshevism, trans. Patrick Camiller (London: New Left Books, 1979), 91-113.
[33] See the Introduction (by Judith Butler) and the Afterword, ‘The Legacy of Form’ (by Katie Terezakis), in György Lukács, Soul and Form, trans. Anna Bostock (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 1-15, 215-234.
[34] See Georg Lukács, Record of a Life: an Autobiographical Sketch, ed. István Eörsi, trans. Rodney Livingstone (London: Verso, 1983)
[35] On this point, see Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Form: Twentieth Century Dialectical Theories of Literature, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971), 163-182.
[36] Georg Lukács, The Theory of the Novel, trans. Anna Bostock (London: Merlin Press, 1978), 73.
[37] ‘Diary of a Country Priest and the Robert Bresson Style, in What is Cinema? trans. Barnard, op.cit., 145.
[38]  Ibid., 145-146. See also Ian Aitken, Lukácsian Film Theory and Cinema (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012), 176, and for a skeptical critique of a tradition that shares some features with Bazinian realism, Malcolm Turvey, Doubting Vision: Film and the Revelationist Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).
[39] An insight Jameson underlines, see Marxism and Form, 185.
[40] Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (London: Methuen, 1983), 37.
[41] See Lukács, ‘Narrate or Describe?: a Preliminary Discussion of Naturalism and Formalism’, in Writer and Critic and Other Essays, trans. Arthur Kahn (London: Merlin, 1970), 110-148 (128).
[42] Again, compare his remarks in ‘For an Impure Cinema: In Defence of Adaptation’ and ‘Cinematic Realism and the Italian School of the Liberation’, in What is Cinema? trans. Barnard.
[43] The common term between Visconti and Lukács is Guido Aristarco, the Marxist film critic, founder and editor of Cinema Nuova, and screenwriter for the neorealists, who defended the work of Visconti and served as cinematic muse to Lukács, showing the elderly critic new Hungarian films, encouraging him to write on the subject, and publishing the somewhat desultory judgments on film that emerged from the conversations he had with Lukács in the 1950s.  Lukács, although pressed on the subject, refused to offer any comments on Visconti, so we will never know.  See Ian Aitken, Lukácsian Film Theory, 148-178, 218-262: ‘When Senso arrived on the scene in 1954, the film’s attempt to link the personal to the social and political appeared to Aristarco and others to furnish a model which could be associated with Lukácsian conceptions of critical realism…Affinities between Lukács, Aristarco, and Cinema Nuova were also deepened further in 1963, when the appearance of Visconti’s The Leopard triggered a new round of debate over questions of progressive cinematic realism.’(149)
[44] Antonio Gramsci, The Modern Prince in Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 175.
[45] Chiarini is clear about this.  See ‘A Discourse on Neo-Realism’, Springtime in Italy, 154-156.
[46] Giovanni Verga, I Malavoglia: the House by the Medlar Tree, trans. Judith Landy (London: Dedalus Books, 2009)
[47] Marcus, Filmmaking by the Book: Italian Cinema and Literary Adaptation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 30.
[48] Quotations are from Visconti’s ‘Anthropomorphic Cinema’, see N.3, above (in Springtime in Italy,  83-85).
[49] Rossellini is quoted in Overbey’s ‘Introduction’ to Springtime in Italy, 1.
[50] The editor of Bianco e nero , in a retrospective attempt  (in 1955) to set down the characteristics of the school came up with these four: (I quote from the text reproduced in Henry Bacon, Visconti: Explorations of Beauty and Decay, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.)
(1)             men derived from the audiences’ own reality replaced the pre-conceived characters in conventional narratives of the past;
(2)             the chronicle (if we can call it that), events and facts culled from the daily existence of men, replaced the pre-fabricated adventures of novels and comedies;
(3)             the throbbing photographic document replaced pictorial and figurative virtuosity;
(4)             the cities and countryside, with people effectively living there, replaced the papier-maché scenery of the past. (Bacon, 27)
[51] Lucia Re, Calvino and the Age of Neorealism: Fables of Estrangement (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), 15.
[52] See John Willett’s description of these movements in his books Expressionism (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970) and The Weimar Years: a Culture Cut Short (London: Thames Hudson, 1984).
[53] Re, Calvino and the Age of Neorealism, 12.
[54] Millicent Marcus, Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 16.
[55] The article, from Cinema, 127 (October 10, 1941) is translated by David Overbey in his Springtime in Italy, 131-138.
[56] Sergei Eisenstein, ‘Dickens, Griffith, and the Film Today, in Film Form: Essays in Film Theory, 204-5.
[57] Ibid., 195.
[58] Ibid., 232.
[59] Ibid., 244.
[60] The article, from Cinema, 127 (October 10, 1941) is reprinted in Springtime in Italy, 131-138.
[61] Gaia Servadio’s biography (Luchino Visconti, op.cit.) points to the similarities between the Prince and Visconti (174-77), but without showing how Visconti’s conception of Lampedusa’s novel was profoundly informed by Gramsci’s analysis of the Risorgimento. She quotes from an interview Visconti gave to the London Times, 8 July 1962:  ‘The Prince of Salina knew he belonged to a class doomed to die. Finally he sensed death all around him: it was the only thing that held any meaning for him. I can understand his nostalgia, but his world had to go and that is what I want to show in the film. I am not a southerner and we in the North have a kind of remorse towards the South: a bad conscience. The support we promised has never been given. The movement which released Sicily from the Bourbon came about, like all revolutions, through promises made to the people.  And, as always, those promises were never kept. Garibaldi acted in good faith, but the opportunistic landlords were quick to exploit the changing situation for their own advancement, setting up a new bourgeois oppression. (177)
[62] http://www.luchinovisconti.org/pagine/documenti_vis/documenti_scheda.asp?id_opera=83&id_genere=2., accessed Jul 1, 2013  The essay was published in Stile, Milano, Vol. VII, Winter 1941. I cite the passage as translated by Lucio Angelo Privitello, in his article ‘The Incompossible Language of Natural Aristocracy: Deleuze’s Misreading of Visconti’s The Leopard’, Senses of Cinema, Issue 68, September 2013, http://sensesofcinema.com/2005/feature-articles/leopard/#b53,  accessed July 18, 2013
[63] Nowell-Smith, Visconti, 16.
[64] Gaia Servadio, Luchino Visconti, 69ff.
[65] See Jameson’s essential reading of Lukács in Marxism and Form: Twentieth-Century Dialectical Theories of Literature, 160-205.
[66] I am quoting Millicent Marcus’s excellent summary, in Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism, 9.
[67] Jameson, Marxism and Form,  (quotations are from p.204).
[68] Bazin, ‘Vittorio De Sica: Metteur en Scène’, in André Bazin and Italian Neorealism, ed. Bert Cardullo (London: Continuum, 2011), 77.
[69] Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: the Time-Image, op.cit., 82, 39-41.
[70] Millicent Marcus, Filmmaking by the Book: Italian Cinema and Literary Adaptation, 38-43.
[71] Nowell-Smith, Visconti, 28.
[72] Critics are quick to speak of it as neorealism’s ‘masterpiece’.  Visconti, however, was furious at the mutilation of the film by the Roman producers, and the public’s reaction was a resounding rejection. See Mira Liehm, Passion and Defiance: Film in Italy from 1942 to the Present (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 75, 80-85.
[73] Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, 4-5.
[74] André Bazin and Italian Neorealism,  52.
[75] Ibid, 51-56.
[76] Lucia Re, Calvino and the Age of Neorealism, 7-66 (10).
[77] David Overbey, ‘Introduction’, Springtime in Italy, 1-33.
[78] André Bazin, What is Cinema? trans Timothy Barnard, 219-221.
[79] Pietrangeli, ‘Analisi spettrale’, cited in Re, Calvino and the Age of Neorealism, 141.
[80] See ‘Da Verga a Gramsci’ (1960) and Paola Bonifazio, ‘“Gramsci’s Ashes”:  the Representation of the 1960s lumpen-proletariat in Visconti’s Rocco and his Brothers and Pasolini’s Accatone’, http://www.luchinovisconti.net/visconti_pg/visconti_scritti.htm (accessed 6 June 2013).
[81] The judgements are taken, more or less at random, from Tribune or Bureaucrat? (1940), ‘Reportage or Portrayal? (1932) and ‘Expressionism: its Significance and Decline (1934), all in Georg Lukács, Essays on Realism, and ‘Narrate or Describe?’  (1936), in Writer and Critic and other essays, 110-148.
[82] Lukács, ‘Expressionism: its Significance and Decline’, in Essays on Realism, 84-87.
[83] Lukács, ‘Marx and the Problem of Ideological Decay’, in Essays on Realism, 145.
[84] Brecht, ‘Contra Georg Lukács’, in Aesthetics and Politics, 68-85 (82)
[85] Bazin, ‘De Sica and Rossellini’ (1962) in André Bazin and Italian Neorealism, 175.
[86] Deleuze, Cinema 2, 96.  Alex Garcia Düttmann, Visconti: Insights into Flesh and Blood, trans. Robert Savage (Stanford: Stanford University press, 2008), and Düttmann’s chapter in James Phillips, ed., Cinematic Thinking: Philosophical Approaches to the New Cinema  (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008), 27-39.

About the Author

Lisabeth During

About the Author

Lisabeth During

Lisabeth During studied theology at Cambridge University, taught for many years in the Philosophy Department at the University of New South Wales, and now works at Pratt Institute of Art and Design in Brooklyn. She has published on Hegel, Artaud, George Eliot, Surrealism and André Bazin. Most recently, she co-edited with Lisa Trahair a special issue of Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities on Belief in Cinema which revisits themes from André Bazin (17.4, December 2012). Her “The Book of Chastity: Studies in an Ascetic Ideal” will be out soon.View all posts by Lisabeth During →