This Italian film has a reputation among film scholars; it’s based on the same book as Hollywood’s own The Postman Always Rings Twice, and it’s an advance taste of the upcoming “neorealism” movement in Italian cinema. For me, however, it reminds me of neither – instead I kept comparing it to The Baker’s Wife.
In my defense, there are parallels. Giovanna (Clara Calamai) is the much younger wife of Giuseppe (Juan de Landa), the owner of a roadside tavern and gas station out in the middle of nowhere; she married Giuseppe out of a fear of poverty more than love, and is unattracted to the boorish Giuseppe. When a hot young drifter named Gino (Massimo Girotti) turns up hoping to bum a meal and a place to stay in exchange for doing odd jobs, Giovanna persuades Giuseppe to agree – and comes up with an additional, er, unorthodox means of compensation. After just a couple days the lovers are scheming to run away together, much like the lovers in The Baker’s Wife.
That’s where the similarities end, though. After making their escape, Giovanna returns to Giuseppe – but not out of regret. She still hates Giuseppe, she’s just uneasy about the uncertain future she and Gino face and has decided that the devil she knows is at least more stable. Gino throws himself into a roving lifestyle again, taking up with a circus barker (Elio Marcuzzo) who tries to help him get over Giovanna – but when Giovanna and Giuseppe turn up at their circus a little while later, they run into Gino and persuade him to return with them (albeit for different reasons). Giuseppe is in an especially good mood at the circus and drinks rather more than he planned – an event which Gino and Giovanna decide to use to their advantage, taking rash action to get Giuseppe out of their way for good. But the aftermath of their actions is not quite so simple as either one anticipated.
It’s only in the aftermath of the film that I realize that there are things that I wish I’d seen. In her marriage to Giuseppe, she’s the one in charge of the tavern’s kitchen, and bristles at that role in her first conversations with Gino. “You’re a lady,” he gushes. “You don’t belong in a kitchen.” However, Giovanna ends up back in the kitchen when she and Gino take over the tavern – and she turns it from a sleepy little dive bar of a place into what looks like a swinging spot, with about twenty times the clientele and people lining up to get in. She also flits among the guests bussing cheeks and cheerfully welcoming all comers. Something in her enjoyed being the hostess, it seems; so that made me question what she’d said to Gino before.
I also wished I’d seen a little bit more of the inquiry into “what happened to Giuseppe”. His death understandably looks hinky to the authorities, and a plainclothes police officer starts hanging around the tavern and subtly following Gino, hoping to turn things up about him; but he’s kept out of the way for a good while, reduced to being a mysterious figure hovering in the background. No doubt we’re meant to think that Gino is being paranoid about the mystery man watching him, but the police-procedural fan in me wanted to know more about what the cops were doing to investigate.
Ultimately things end badly for our heros. And ultimately this meant things also ended badly for the production itself; the Fascist authorities weren’t fond of the dark turn and downer ending and banned the film after just a few screenings, going so far as to confiscate and destroy all the prints they could get their hands on. Director Luchino Visconti managed to save one copy, though, and patiently waited until after the war ended and the Fascist government fell to try rereleasing it. However, by that time the Hollywood adaptation was hitting cinemas, prompting accusations of plagiarism and blocking Ossessione from a release outside Italy for thirty years.
By that time, though, Italian cinema had endeared itself to cinema scholars with a movement called “neorealism” – films which dealt with poor or working-class characters, set in rural communities, and often using non-professional actors. Neorealism was a reaction to the polished perfection the Hollywood studios had been offering, and filmgoers of the 1970s embraced it wholeheartedly. So when Ossessione was finally released in 1976, scholars spotted it as an early example of neorealism – predating what they’d thought was the birth of the movement – and Ossessione finally got its due.