Lucino Visconti’s 1943 adaptation of James Cain’s Depression-era novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, is truer to the novelist’s vision than the 1946 Hollywood film of the same name. For one thing, the Frank character, Gino (Massimo Girotti), is more convincing as a drifter. Wearing a threadbare undershirt beneath his tattered jacket, he is drawn by hunger to the kitchen of the roadside tavern, where Giovanna (Clara Calamai) sits on a table, dangling her legs while unselfconsciously singing and polishing her nails, oblivious to the newcomer who has come to stand in the doorway. Visconti places the camera behind Gino, obscuring our view of the woman. We observe them falling into sin, but from a safe distance.
Gino and Giovanna are victims weighed down by social and economic forces beyond their control, and it is these forces that corrupt and ultimately destroy them. Only one character in Ossessione appears to have any choice, a Spanish gypsy who takes Gino under his wing and tries to show him how to live as a free man, beholden to nobody. Generous, carefree, with soulful brown eyes, there is nobody remotely like the Spaniard in the book. Every scene in which he appears brims with life and hope, but when he shows up at the tavern after the murder of Giovanna’s husband and urges Gino to leave, to take to the open road, Gino drives him away. The next thing we know, the Spaniard is being questioned by the police, setting into motion the film’s tragic denouement.
Ossessione opened to popular acclaim but was quickly banned by the Mussolini regime, all copies ordered destroyed. The movie was considered subversive, not only on account of its immorality but because of the political statement it made, a statement at odds with fascist values. “The film is just imitating the French kind of realism that must not be imported to Italy,” complained a critic in the Bologna newspaper, Avenire d’Italia, who then proceeded to disparage it as “a concoction of repulsive passions, humiliation, and decay, [and] an offense to the Italian people.” In fact, Visconti and the circle of young filmmakers who assisted him in bringing Cain’s story to the screen sought to liberate the Italian people by showing them the truth, for once.
Ossessione cast light on poverty and despair, exposing the lies of nationalism. In place of the regime’s insistence on family, church, and country, the film showed women turning to prostitution because they had no other means of supporting themselves. Men defeated by their inability to find dignified work. Dirty streets, abandoned children, domestic squalor. This was life as the majority of Italians experienced it under fascism, and as was the case in life, the story of Gino and Giovanna did not resolve cleanly. As screenwriter Cesare Zagattini wrote in “Some Ideas on the Cinema,” his famous essay on neorealism, “It is not the concern of an artist to propound solutions. It is enough, and quite a lot, I should say, to make an audience feel the need, the urgency, for them.”