Under Close Watch: Under the Olive Tree

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What scans Non c’è pace tra gli ulivi/Under the Olive Tree is Giuseppe De Santis’ own voice over: at the very beginning; twice during the story, when it announces the arrival of the first winter snowstorms, then of springtime and the oncoming Easter; and again at the very end of the film.

His is an unusual voice over because the source of the voice is specified each time: «This is the director of the film speaking to you. I, too, was born near here»; «This year snow came early to my town in the mountains»; «It’s already springtime. The shepherds from my region are leaving the coastal areas»; and, finally, «People in this part of my country are often forced to act like this». This is not a usual procedure in the cinema, where that kind of voice usually remains anonymous. De Santis, clearly confirming his “behind-the-scenes” presence, not only gives the narrated events a demonstrative, didactic quality not exclusively typical of those places and times, but also introduces an alternative point of view with respect to those represented directly by the characters themselves. The narrating “I” is also a seeing “I”; and, effectively, in he first intervention, the voice names the protagonist of the film and his family: «Here is a shepherd’s family [...]. This is Francesco Dominici [...]. His father [...]. Concetta, his mother [...]. Maria Grazia, Francesco’s sister», and the words are accompanied by a full shot from behind and by four frontal close-ups.

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Such a process brings out the formal scheme of the film: the characters, as a general tendency, do not look at one another but are looked at by the camera that, therefore, places itself purposely as a character between the other characters. Just think, in particular but not exclusively, about the many shots and reverse shots and about the two-shots of Raf Vallone and Lucia Bosè, where the director’s wish to avoid having them look into one another’s eyes is so noticeable that it makes the spectator feel particularly uncomfortable. In this, the actors’artificial behavior in Non c’è pace tra gli ulivi is highly justified. The actors “pose” for the camera, not for the other actors. All naturalistic behavior is programmatically excluded. We are in a “theater” throughout the film, and not only in the scene of the “matrimonial stroll” in which Bonfiglio addresses Maria Grazia directly. «Have you come here to playact a scene?» he asks, to which she replies, interrupting the semblance of harmony, «it’s you who’s being theatrical!». The whole film is structurally and methodically conceived along the lines of a “construction” restricting the characters and the landscape to respect the sharply defined limits of the shot frame, without leaving them any way to escape or to “breathe”. The “De Santis character” is the puppet master who performs in front of his own spectators by maneuvering the threads of the characters and those of the apologue.

Each shot would deserve mention: to emphasize the sculptural nature of the poses, the way the gazes are blocked, the deep focus compositionand the diagonals correlating the characters, the extremely contrasted whites and blacks. This would, in theory, give an impression of lack of motion, but, instead, the film is animated, almost musically marked by the editing cuts that are systematically opposed to one another, even if not necessarily dissonant, and by the camera movements, always aimed not at accompanying an action but, as visible as they are, at “choreographing” it. This musicality of the film – to which, it seems to me, the music composed by Goffredo Petrassi contributes to a lesser extent than expected – is not as fluid and harmonic as that inan American musical; if anything, it is that of a “rustic” opera, full of brutal contrasts, of energetic emphases, of exemplary cases of actors seizing the limelight, to which the “staged” popular songs and dances make a determining contribution.

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All this makes it hard if not impossible to speak of Neo-Realism, even if some references to which De Santis’ film owes a debt were mainstays of that school: La terra trema (1948) by Luchino Visconti and In nome della Legge/In the Name of the Law (1949) by Pietro Germi; but, precisely, such films as those help us to understand that beneath the label of Neo-Realism is concealed – although sharing similar purposes of social protest– the most contrasting of formal tendencies. But De Santis also looks farther across the horizon: to Orson Welles (to whom the unusual use of the voice over technique could well be ascribed), to the Mexican, Emilio Fernández (well thought of in Italy at that time, and a master of black and white contrasts along with his cinematographer, Gabriel Figueroa, by whom Piero Portalupi may have been inspired for the lighting in this film), without forgetting the more formalist Soviets, not only Sergej Ejzenštejn (if you think of the way the shots were framed in ¡Qué viva México!, 1932), but also directors like Grigorij Aleksandrov. And, presumably, the didactics displayed in Non c’è pace tra gli ulivi owe enormous debts to these directors.

Seen today, it is more than understandable to us that De Santis, at that time, encountered not onlythe ideological resistance of the conservative critics, something entirely predictable, but also the formal resistance of the political area closer to him, which was from that point of view equally conservative. It has become easier today to re-evaluate the director as a formalist. Paradoxically, it is more difficult to defend him for his Communist Utopia, that here – despite a partially accommodating ending, in the most traditional Soviet-Hollywood tendency – is exhibited in a more declaredly open way than in other films of his. But the Utopia lies more in the story than in the “message”, and better yet we could say, in the didactic “song”: a song with popular roots whose energy for becoming modern and updated, with accents still unusual and admirable these days, stems from tradition.

 

Published in Marco Grossi (ed.), Giuseppe De Santis. La trasfigurazione della realtà/The Transfiguration of Reality, Associazione Giuseppe De Santis-Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, Fondi-Roma 2007, pp. 71-76

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