Nobody could make impressively downbeat-yet-poetic films as well as those post-World War II Italians who, responding to the moral and physical devastation of the war, spurned escapism for a reclaimed realism. This neorealism, in retrospect as time-bound a genre as film noir, was best realized by the towering but opposite poles of Vittoria de Sica’s humanism (The Bicycle Thieves, 1948, and Umberto D, 1952) and Roberto Rossellini’s ennui (Stromboli, 1949, and Voyage In Italy, 1953). By the mid-’50s, as Italy began to prosper once more, neorealism’s pertinence began to dissolve, elements of it surviving most notably in the metaphysically bleak dramas of Michelangelo Antonioni.
The Wide Blue Road (1957), the first feature by writer-director Gillo Pontecorvo, could be categorized as compromised late-neorealism, a gritty tale of impoverished fishermen made hyper-real by its luscious color and a charismatic star in the lead. Although Pontecorvo was a Marxist and so, one assumes, prone to a literal sort of humanism, his first feature leans toward the Rossellini end of the spectrum. Later he would make two explicitly leftist films — the brilliant and intense The Battle of Algiers (1965) and the confused but intriguing Marlon Brando vehicle Queimada! (Burn!, 1968) — but his debut is a more inwardly directed study of futility. Neither its evocation of a fisherman’s cooperative nor its stock villain capitalist can mitigate that the hero is alone in his dilemma of having to choose from several bad options.
Not that he didn’t put himself in that position in the first place. As played by Yves Montand, Squarcio is a rugged, insolent, broody, larger-than-life macho fuck-up. With a wife and three children to feed, he’s decided to abandon net fishing for the more expedient but illegal method of using small underwater bombs and then having his two young sons scoop up the floating bounty.
As in another Montand film, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1953), explosives are used to heighten the existential quotient — with death constantly lurking, every decision comes with a dispiriting shadow. But unlike the Clouzot film, which maintained its tension for nearly unbearable lengths of time, Pontecorvo is relatively more merciful. Squarcio has to defuse old bombs to get the gunpowder for his own devices and so, near the beginning, there’s a scene of him at work, sweating and cautiously tapping with hammer and chisel (where we know nothing will probably happen) and toward the end there’s a similar scene (where we know that something probably will).
Squarcio is tolerated in his small village as long as he does his dirty work away from the other fisherman — and besides, everybody knows everybody else and all disputes are a type of family feud. Even Gaspare, the local Coast Guard commander who’s trying to catch him in the act, is an old childhood chum. But when Gaspare inadvertently causes a young man’s death — one should never yell “halt!” at someone carrying a box of explosives over rocky terrain — he resigns and is replaced by a hard-ass outsider. The plot then goes into a tightened cat-and-mouse mode, with a subplot about Squarcio’s tragically nubile daughter and his long-suffering wife (a woefully miscast Alida Vali).
The Wide Blue Road is an interesting film of its type, alternately languid and melodramatic, dated but well acted. It could be occasionally be seen on TV back in the ’60s and ’70s, badly dubbed and seriously cut, and it’s a revelation of this restoration that what seemed like a really dreary piece is actually quite well done (the new subtitles afford some unintentional laughs, when the fishermen start talking like Mafia wise guys, saying “fawgettabaatit” and “I was just busting your balls.”) But claims for it being a “lost masterpiece” are just the hollow music of marketing from its releasing company, picked up by those critics whose anxiety at not being heard over the white noise of general hype has turned them into carnival barkers. Yet though it’s a long way from being a great film, it’s still good enough to be worth seeing.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday through Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.