While director Luchino Visconti is probably best known today for his lush, later work, he was, with Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio DeSica, initially famous as one of the Big Three of Italian Neorealism. Instead of the glossy perfection and larger-than-life gods and goddesses of the screen, Neorealism offered rough-edged execution and non-professional actors in stories drawn from daily life that promised little guarantee of ending happily. While its participants inevitably developed in other directions, it is difficult to exaggerate the movement’s influence and importance.

La Terra Trema focuses on Sicilian fishermen shortly after World War II who fight back when the unscrupulous middlemen with whom they deal go too far. They are led by ’Ntoni Valastro (Antonio Arcidiacono), who tries to seize the moment to create a unified resistance to exploitation. When his arguments fall on deaf ears, he mortgages his family’s home in order to buy his own boat and establish independence, with eventually disastrous consequences. 

Terra is not a documentary, but it is a document from a moment in cinematic and social history when politically committed artists could muster sufficient resources to express controversial points of view and explore the world outside the studio gates. Because the communist Visconti’s sympathy with the downtrodden is a given, he unabashedly, even predictably, shows the Valastros as victims of a socioeconomic situation far greater than ’Ntoni’s ability to fight it.

Nonetheless, despite sympathy with the oppressed, the result is not a simple tract. The fishermen’s ignorance and contradictory personal motivations make them unwittingly complicit in their exploitation. The villagers are unsympathetic to ’Ntoni’s efforts, and when things go wrong, his neighbors are happy to cut him down to size for acting above his station. Indeed, by exposing the lesions within the community, the film seems almost to argue against ’Ntoni’s notions of group solidarity because the goal has little chance of overcoming the fishermen’s divisions. 

These ambiguities are complemented by the execution. Although the subject does not lend itself to the extravagant sensualism of the director’s later work, Visconti and his technicians still show the village of Arcitrezza and its surroundings as a vibrant, ruggedly beautiful world of waves, fields, stone and plaster. Finding drama in the fall of light, swirls of dust, the creases and wrinkles of faces hewn by the sun and wind, the depiction is Neorealism at its finest.

Yet the film is seldom cited as one of the movement’s major achievements, as if it is almost forgotten. The long, slow running time may be partly to blame, since it offers a challenge to the easily distracted. The bigger problem is that it is a touch too complex and thematically sophisticated to involve as much as it might. There are no easy sympathies or simple solutions on offer. As a result, La Terra Trema is an undeniable accomplishment, but it fails to stick in the memory. It is about as good as a movie can be without being great.