DVD Review Of Il Grido
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/3/07
So much attention has been paid to Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni’s later New Wave films that his earlier Neo-Realistic films of the 1950s have been overlooked, as if the work of merely a talented tyro. But, even though he was not as consciously ‘experimental’ in those films as he was in the films of the L’Alienation trilogy (L’Avventura, La Notte, and L’Eclisse), and later classics like Blowup and The Passenger, his earlier films were visually well composed and well written films that both played upon the viewers’ emotions and gave them believable characters and situations that could be related to. That Antonioni’s filmic career started out working in the documentary format should not come as a surprise to those familiar with those earlier films.
One of the best of those films is 1957’s black and white Il Grido (The Outcry), which Antonioni also wrote, along with Elio Bartolini and Ennio de Concini. It’s a nearly two hour long film that has much in common with Federico Fellini’s 1954 classic La Strada, save that the film is a bit more believable and less patently heart-tugging. It also prefigures many of the themes that would recur in Antonioni’s later work, such as alienation, apathy, and anomy, as well as possesses a political edge those later films lack.
The lead character is a small town (actually crappy shacks and huts) Italian refinery worker and mechanical engineer named Aldo, played by American B film actor Steve Cochran, who is utterly believable as an Italian native. His reputation in this country was mostly in gangster films, but her he plays a member of the Italian Postwar proletariat, as the country is just on the verge of pulling out of its long economic slump. He has been having an affair with a sexy older blond woman named Irma, played by Alida Valli- most famed for her role in the 1949 film noir classic The Third Man, starring (and likely directed by) Orson Welles. Irma, though, is married, but her husband has been gone for almost seven years, working in Australia, thus letting Aldo squire her at will. The pair even have a young blond daughter together, named Rosina (Mirna Girardi).
As the film opens, Irma finds out that her husband has died, and Aldo now assumes that they are free to marry. But Irma’s been cheating on him, as well, and wants to move away from the town, and take their daughter with her. Aldo explodes, and several times slaps and physically abuses her, until Irma finally dumps him. As revenge, Aldo takes Rosina with him, on the road for months, after quitting his job. Their adventures together recall both Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief and La Strada in the camaraderie the pair exhibit. Aldo heads to another small town to meet an old flame, Elvia, also played convincingly by an American- Betsy Blair, and she is thrilled that he stops by. It seems Aldo is one of those men with women strewn across his past, all of whom would take him back in a heartbeat. But, just as things between them seem to be going well- i.e.- Aldo sponges off of her for a time, his past returns, albeit without his knowledge. Irma shows up with a valise filled with clothes for him and Rosina. As she explains the circumstances of her breakup, and Elvia realizes Aldo did not return for her, she rages, and he decides to take off again. But not before her younger sister Edera, (Gabriella Pallotta), makes a play for him, after she gets home from a night on the town. Aldo responds, a bit, then rejects her, and she laughs at him as he lays down to sleep. The next morning she finds out that he has left. Elvia knows the real reason, but there is a look of distress in Edera’s eyes that reveals that she believes that she has caused his disappearance from her sister’s life- either with her flirtations or by her emasculating him with the ridicule of her laughter. It is in small but great moments like this that the difference between great and simply average film directors is shown; and it also betrays Antonioni’s background as a documentarian who sees even the smallest actions as holding keys to a character, story, or even just a telling psychological moment.
Back on the road, and three months later, Aldo and Rosina hitchhike on the top of a gasoline truck- a dangerous ride if there ever was one. But they have to stop at a gas station along a stretch of highway, where Aldo meets and connects with a widow named Virginia (Dorian Gray), who sold her family farm when widowed, and bought the franchise to support her old father (Guerrino Campanini), a loony lush who gets into fights with neighbors, causes fruit trucks to spill their cargo, and does many other wacky things that draw Rosina to him, as a surrogate grandpa, until he is shipped to an old folks home. Naturally, Aldo and Virginia get it on, until Rosina catches them, one day, doing it on the side of a road. This is the excuse Aldo needs to abandon the widow. He does so- after sending Rosina back to Irma on a bus, and ends up in a small fishing town, where he takes up with the local ‘lady of the night,’ a young woman named Andreina, played by yet another American actress- Lynn Shaw.
Yet, he cannot stay with Andreina, either- for his personal disintegration has gone too far, and she does not idolize him the way the other women in his life have, so he decides to head back to his daughter and Irma- whom he has never really gotten over. On the way back to his hometown he hitches a ride that stops back at Virginia’s gas station, and the duo exchange sarcastic remarks, as he gets the valise he forgot. When he returns to his town, he finds it cordoned off by police, as the town has been targeted for razing for a military airport. Aldo sees Rosina head into her mother’s home, and when he looks into the window he sees Irma has a new baby. Aldo assumes the worst, that she’s moved on, and makes it to his old place of work, the refinery tower- where the film opened, and he climbs the tower. The plant is deserted. Irma saw him through the window and followed Aldo there. She calls up to him at tower’s top, where he has returned. Earlier, he told Andreina that he loved that spot for it gave him a feeling of power (as well as the manifest phallic motif). He hears and sees Irma below, but is so distraught that he has lost her for good that he seems to get woozy, holds his hand up to his head, and falls to his death as Irma is horrified. The film ends there.
Many critics see the ending as showing Aldo committing suicide, but clearly it is an accidental death. Yet, the idea that Aldo is a victim of his social status has some merit, even if the near-universal claim of suicide does not. Although a skilled worker, Aldo- as a single parent, cannot get back on his feet, and rejects jobs that he could take if alone. The film also focuses on the working class of Italy, not Antonioni’s later focus on the idle bourgeoisie. But, to read too much ideology into this small and personal film takes too much away from the excellent acting of Cochran- who may have had his voice dubbed into Italian, as well as the other actors- especially the Americans who also may have had their voices dubbed. That Cochran lucked out by getting this role after a long career playing one dimensional heavies or swingers shows that an actor’s career is as dependent upon luck as any other person’s.
The DVD, put out by Kino Video, has absolutely no extras, and only the original 1950s white subtitles, which are interesting to watch, for they flash onscreen for a shorter period than most modern DVD subtitles, and because they are original with the film cannot be turned off. There is also much that goes untranslated, including epithets like Goddamn, which is rendered as G_damn. The print is also utterly uncleaned- filled with scratches and it has a muddy quality to it. Yet, this is not as big a distraction as it might seem, for it adds to the ‘realistic’ documentary-like feel of the film, and the muddy print accentuates Antonioni’s own dreary, often cloudy and desolate landscapes, shot in the Po Valley region near Bologna (where he also shot his first documentary during the Second World War- Gente Del Po). Those shots of depressed industrial landscapes enshrouded in fog lend the whole film a dreamy state, not unlike Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr. Gianni de Venanzo does an excellent job as cinematographer, but even better is the musical score- especially a haunting Erik Satie-like piano theme by Giovanni Fusco, which only details the inner turmoil of Aldo even more convincingly.
The film has been compared, in some circles, to the plays of Samuel Beckett, and this is one of the rare times that such comparisons are apt. No, even Antonioni’s landscapes are not as bleak, nor his characters as satiric, as Beckett’s, but much of the film is a physical journey to nowhere, for Aldo ends up back where he started, except having failed even more frequently. Il Grido is not as praised as much as Antonioni’s later films, but it is better than the film that proceeded it, L’Avventura- which saw him break with his past totally, even if a failed break, and skirts near and above greatness. Only its rather abrupt, if appropriate, ending, can be argued against its greatness, just as Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon can be said to miss greatness only for its weak ending.
Still, this film contains many moments that show how good a screenwriter Antonioni was, such as a shot of a man briefly entering Elvia’s house, asking her out on a date- a movie or dancing, and her rejecting him casually- offering to go out on another Sunday evening. He cynically scoffs that her promise will be ‘like every other Sunday.’ In that brief scene, with a minor character- Elvia, and a small unnamed role, we know all we need to of Elvia- that she is still obsessed with Aldo, as we see her out dancing with him in the next scene, and that her hurt when she knows he is using her to forget Irma, is genuine. There is no need for a flashback on Elvia’s past with either man, for that brief scene and comment sums it up with wonderful poesy and concision. Would more filmmakers learn the lessons that Antonioni did half a century ago, with Il Grido, and more of them would produce films of quality, and a few would augur great art. Ah, perchance to....
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]
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