The Other Day in Polesella

Written by  Guido Fink
Ferrara, June 1942: Luchino Visconti shoots Obsession, a seminal work of Neorealism.
These days we are used to it, several films have been shot in Ferrara, while Italy has been covered inch by inch by the cinema - and not just the Italian cinema either - starting from the days when the Americans of Paisà discovered it for us, as they worked their way up from Sicily to the Po delta.

But in an even more distant past, when the world war could still have seemed one of Mussolini's many disastrous adventures overseas, a young director decided to shoot his first film in Ferrara (and in Codigoro, Comacchio, even as far as Ancona), inspired, although he couldn't admit as much in the title or in the posters, by an American novel then still unavailable in translation.

It was the summer of 1942, and the film was Obsession: a film in which the sunny countryside of the Po valley was intended to serve as a home grown Italian substitute for the original Californian setting, and at the same time was to mark a radical departure from the contrived style of the melodramas and comedies then being produced in the studios at Cinecittà.

The birth of the golden age of Neorealism? Perhaps, although I think that what inspired the settings of Obsession was a desire to compete with the atmosphere of the French cinema and certain American landscapes: in any event, what was happening in Italian literature was not that different, what with Pavese's Paesi Tuoi, modelled on the same American author, James M. Cain, whose plot Visconti had involuntarily filched for Obsession.
These days, as I was saying, we are used to it. But then? Even after the war, I recall, enthusiastic murmurs would run through the audience at the Nuovo cinema, when Silvana Mangano, the splendid rice-weeder in Riso Amaro, responded to the question: "WHERE ARE you FROM?", with a bright: "FROM Ferrara!», while AT the Apollino rather MORE polite laughter greeted the equally glamorous Lucia Bosé, during the premiere OF Cronaca di un amore, WHEN she said TO Massimo Girotti: «why don't you go to Matilde's place IN Ferrara? It's the only way to find everything out as quickly as possible.»

This second case was a bit more obvious because people knew that the director, Michelangelo Antonioni, hailed from Ferrara. On the other hand, I can only imagine the reactions of the audience in the Apollo during the first screenings of Obsession, in 1943, which opened with a shot of the main road to Padua, a few miles beyond the Po, near where the old Customs house used to be. And one of Bragana's FIRST lines called up an evocative sense OF place: «One hears so much OF this sort OF thing these days... The other DAY, IN Polesella. someone broke INTO a house... THEN he made himself scarce, eh, it's in the papers too.»

No, I can't really imagine it: AT that TIME, you could enter a cinema AT ANY TIME, even half way through the film: THEN, IN 1943, people had other things ON their minds, AND Obsession, decried by censorious Catholic critics even MORE than the Fascists, was doomed TO enjoy a very short spell ON the circuit.
When I was even smaller, one morning in June 1942, in front of the synagogue, some excited people asked my mother if they could come in to look out through our window because the actress Clara Calamai was in a shop across the way. But, on seeing the rapidly growing crowd in via Mazzini. the actress asked to leave by the back door of the shop, which gave onto via Contrari.

It was only many years later, through books and newspapers, that I learned what had gone on behind the scenes: in a memorable quote, Ms Calamai said she had spent a bad night "in that squalid hotel in Ferrara» in which a good three actresses were staying, all ignoring one another, as they waited to try out for the same role: one, Anna Magnani, was the director's choice even though she was noticeably pregnant; another, Maria Denis, was a close friend ol Visconti's who, however, thanked her and, seeing as she was otherwise occupied, packed her off back to Rome to look after his dogs; the third, Clara Calamai, who had called in from Florence, where she was filming I masnadieri, was accepted by the director, but with his reluctance: «He was forever scolding me, while he would forgive Girotti everything, and like the idiot I am I fell desperately in love with him from the moment he saw me and said: 'those clothes are no good, run down to the ghetto and find some little shop where they'll sell you a cheap little black dress.'"
It is amusing to remark the way in which the Ferrarese setting of the film was perceived, and in certain cases, described, by people connected with the film who were not from Ferrara.

If we look at the script of the first scene shot in the city, in which Girotti, who is waiting for Calamai, meets Anita (Dhia Cristiani), a dancer, we see that the scriptwriter mentions «various wooden benches on which people are taking the sun». But there is no mention of the Castle, clearly visible in the background and a local landmark as recognizable as the Eiffel tower is for Paris.

Instead he dwells on two ice-cream carts - the first surmounted by a white dragon; the second, by a black dragon - a detail often considered symbolic, while local folk of my age will remember Gigetto the ice cream man and will also know that those coloured dragons were certainly not an invention of Visconti's.
Lino Micciché, in his wide-ranging analysis of Obsession in Visconti e il neorealismo (1990), reconstructs Girotti's escape from Ferrara: «Gino escapes over the rooftops, running towards the railway station whence - on seeing that it is surrounded by police - he runs along an adjacent road, where he manages to leap aboard a passing truck.» But we are well aware that that road - in reality piazza San Giorgio - is "adjacent" to the station only in the imaginary geography of the film.

The only street that is always correctly located is the one on which Anita lives, via Saraceno, number 15. And I think I must have watched that scene - Girotti and Dhia Cristiani leaving number fifteen, and the dramatic meeting with Clara Calamai in front of the former Café Tripoli - as it was being filmed.

I have a confused memory of a crowd in via Saraceno, and of my mother pointing out an old acquaintance of hers, a Mrs Ida Coen, who was sitting at a table in the bar sipping a coffee: nothing unusual about that, but the cup was empty, and Mrs Coen was only pretending to drink, she had already repeated that action twenty times: that's cinema for you. And she was getting paid for it: the incredible sum of twenty liras a day, or so they said.
The day was to come, many years later, when I would take friends and visitors who chanced by Ferrara on a pilgrimage to places immortalized by Visconti: the former Customs house, the little square near the castle, and the former Café Tripoli, today the Napoli. By then I had already seen Obsession dozens of times and knew that it was a seminal work of Neorealism, a harbinger of the fall of Fascism.

And, at that point, the pilgrimage around the streets of Ferrara and district was further extended to include other places: the grammar school, the tennis club, and the palazzo on via Ercole d'Este where the private detective in Cronaca di un amore carried out his investigation of the adolescence of Paola Molon - Lucia Bosé: the chemist's, the FIS bar, and the wall of the Castle in Lunga notte del '43.

I am writing these few lines in a distant land, where Obsession has never been shown, for reasons connected with the rights sold by Cain to MGM and then sold again to the creators of the umpteenth "remake".
But there is a very badly subtitled copy in the Museum of Modern Art, in which the line, «We're from Ferrara too», delivered by Bragana to some customers in the Café in Ancona, is memorably translated as «We too are iron workers». And that much - as far as any local pride is concerned - will have to do us.

Latest from Guido Fink