At first glance, Gillo Pontecorvo's debut feature — a robust tale of the men who fish Italy's Dalmatian coast and the women who love them — bears little resemblance to the director's powerful, documentary-style masterpiece, THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS (1967). But beneath the melodrama and spectacular, picture-postcard cinematography lies Pontecorvo's acute...read more
At first glance, Gillo Pontecorvo's debut feature — a robust tale of the men who fish Italy's Dalmatian coast and the women who love them — bears little resemblance to the director's powerful, documentary-style masterpiece, THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS (1967). But beneath the melodrama and spectacular, picture-postcard cinematography lies Pontecorvo's acute political consciousness, and a subtle critique of capitalism's effect on community and the environment. On a small coastal island, where fishermen's lives are lived at the mercy of unpredictable weather and ruthless wholesalers, Squarcio (Yves Montand) has vowed that he, his wife (Alida Valli) and his three children will never again go hungry. While the rest of the island's fishermen use nets to catch the smaller fish that keep close to shore, Squarcio and his two young sons (Ronaldino Bonacchi and Giancarlo Soblone) take their boat — aptly named "Esperanza" ("Hope") — farther out, where they use TNT to blast the larger fish to the surface. His illegal fishing methods put him at odds with his fellow fishermen, particularly childhood friend Salvatore (Francisco Rabal); they complain that dynamite fishing destroys breeding grounds and will soon decimate the fish population. But bigger fish also means Squarcio has greater bargaining power with Natale, the wholesaler and money lender whose access to a refrigeration system means he can set whatever price he likes for the highly perishable fish. As the other fishermen organize, forming a fishing co-op with an eye toward purchasing their own refrigerator, Squarcio prefers to go it alone. But his good fortune is about to change: When a tragic accident drives the island's coast guard official from his post, his replacement arrives with a powerful motorboat and a promise to put an end to Squarcio's unlawful livelihood. Inspired by Visconti's neorealist epic LA TERRA TREMA, Pontecorvo planned to shoot his film in B&W, with an entirely non-professional cast. Pontecorvo's more profit-minded producers, however, insisted on color and two big stars. The result is an interesting hybrid of neorealist grit and star-driven melodrama, in which very real concerns about poverty and social injustice are mixed with a romantic subplot involving Squarcio's 16-year-old daughter (Federica Ranchi) and Salvatore's son (Mario Girotti), as well as the kind of expertly edited suspense sequences that helped make ALGIERS so memorable. The film originally opened in Europe in 1957 to mixed reviews and waited 44 years for its U.S. debut. Time — and a handsome new restoration — have served it well.
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