On the Po

By Rosy Rockets

il-grido-michelangelo-antonioni.jpgIl Grido, 1957

The European Atomic Energy Community first cast a shadow over Italy’s coal and steel industry in 1957. This year also brought us Michelangelo Antonioni’s Il Grido, the story of a refinery worker, Aldo (Steve Cochran) whose homeland is drowning in its own waters and giving way to the dawn of the war machine. Il Grido is set in the Po Valley, dubbed by Napoleon his “Kingdom of Italy”. The streets are waterlogged. The workers are revolting. The housewives are immaculately dressed, but their shoes and stockings are splattered with mud. Grido is a simple tale of lost love and bleak perambulation, of snatched moments and merciless mechanics. Giovanni Fusco’s wonky accordion and “accidenti!” xylophone trills lead us in and out, and his spare, Satie-esque shreds of piano drift past on the body of the story, repeating and reflecting the futility of the journey. Antonioni and Elio Bartolini’s dialogue offers little in the way of direct didacticism – the story is plain as the Po, and the plight of the people is expressed vehemently and artlessly. That is, with the exception of the grocers, who offer lumpen aphorisms for our consideration. If you sell door to door, warns one of them, “it might be convenient but the quality suffers”. Another declares, “If you enter and won’t pay, you may as well go away”. Aldo flees the swelling of the river as his lover drifts away from him, and offers himself door to door – but what has he to offer in return for a lifeline, from the women he pursues, or to the daughter he has borne away with him?

Steve Cochran, as the malcontent mug of a hero, presents with all the charisma of Captain Scarlett. His dialogue is dubbed by a native Italian. This conceit, along with Cochran’s village-theatre performance in the early scenes, alienates his stubborn, uncomprehending character all the more. Irma (Alida Valli, of The Third Man) has catlike eyes which flash melodramatically in a way that was later to be appropriated by Glenn “Divine” Milstead in his many melodramatic moments. However, their sturdy daughter, six-year-old Rosina (Mirna Girardi), takes after her phlegmatic father; indeed, Irma largely accepts that Rosina should leave with Aldo when he is banished from the family home. Like Aldo, Rosina wants a chocolate AND a caramel, given the choice. Like him, she’s pragmatic, measured, and interested in the mechanical hearts of boats and cars - those icons of industrialisation that are encroaching on the countryside as the Po waters burst their banks and sweep away old for new.

il-grido-michelangelo-antonioni-2.jpgIl Grido, 1957

The tide is high, but Aldo is holding on. He is number one to nobody but his little blondie – Cochran’s perfomance grows tender and compelling in Aldo’s interaction with the child – but even she has itchy feet. Do little girls every really skip, or do they only do it in films, to taunt us with their innocence? The endless flow of traffic and hitched lifts belittle his escape – no matter how far he runs, everything is just a bus ride away. In Italy, “Ciao” can mean hello or goodbye, and here it is often both at once. Cinematographer Gianni de Venanzo’s valley is foggy and grey as a bathroom mirror, but in real life the valley is streaked with rust, moss and wet denim, spiked with shards of dark cypress and shrugs of navy mountain. The buildings are painted in custard and duck egg, but in Grido the charming irregularity of the villages is rendered cold and unforgiving by monochrome – just as Escher depicted them in his earliest lithographs.

il-grido-michelangelo-antonioni-3.jpgIl Grido, 1957

Aldo’s hitch hiking leads him naturally to a petrol station, the only remaining patch of a tired farmer’s property which has been taken over by the industrialists. The farmer drives his daughter Virginia (Dorian Gray) to distraction with his constant forays – Aldo looks on in amusement as the tired, drunken old man repeatedly dodders off, fleeing mindlessly in his stupor, finding childish solace in the vexing of passersby. Rosina dotes on the old man, and entertains him with songs and riddles such as “what do you call someone with a neck but no head, arms but no legs?”. “Aldo”, perhaps? Virginia and her father illustrate a possible fate for Aldo and his daughter. Virginia has never seen the mountains, but she has doubtless fallen foul of the dry foehn winds – the “snow eaters” – which tumble from their heights, confounding climbers in the Alps and allegedly provoking all manner of mental afflictions from “Föhnkrankheit” to suicide. Aldo leaps from treadmill to treadmill, truck to truck. Hesends his daughter back home, where she belongs, and contrives to learn a little Spanish, that he might find work in Venezuela. But, like the emotional language barrier between men and women, it is at once too similar and too alien to his own tongue and he tosses his phrasebook away.

il-grido-michelangelo-antonioni-4.jpgIl Grido, 1957

Andreina (Lyn Shaw), the concubine of the hedgehog-eating dredge workers, is the last to fall into Aldo’s wake. She is like David Copperfield’s wife, Dora – stubborn, skittish, beautiful. She and Aldo take a walk together on the tideless sand where two sodden driftwood ducks are beached aground – one for he who lost his hearth, one for she who seeks one. She wins only amusement and scorn from Aldo until her final tirade, when she rails at him for trying to prevent her from earning a crust, through manual labour as all the Po workers must. Finally Aldo’s dogged face shows empathy and respect for her strength and spirit. But he cannot moor himself with her – he is drawn back to a family which no longer exists. Il Grido translates as The Cry – but what is the cry? Is it a silent cry for help, like the flags that the sick Po villagers raise from their muddy shacks, to attract the cursory attention of the inept doctor? Or is it the ubiquitous cry of “Aldo! Come back!”? One might look back, for an alternative outcome to the tale, to Cochran’s Come Next Spring filmed the year before: here, as an alcoholic husband, he returns to his family and attempts to rekindle family life. However, Il Grido resolves itself more abruptly and cruelly, and Aldo’s pin-balling around the Po culminates in the inevitable fall.

Rosy Rockets is a freelance journalist based in Cambridge.