CAUTION: CONTAINS “SPOILERS”
A friend recently invited me to watch “Noi viva” (“We the Living”) the unauthorized and later banned 1942 film adaptation of Ayn Rand’s novel. Now I’m not much of the Ayn-ite, so if you’re looking for a discussion of her source novel or her ideas, check out now. My curiosity about the film was based upon my ongoing interest in Luchino Visconti’s debut film “Ossessione” which was a similarly unauthorized film adaption of a novel (James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice). It too was filmed, then briefly screened and subsequently banned by the Mussolini government. Because Visconti was, and is, a more renowned director than Goffredo Alessandrini, “Ossessione” was rescued from the ash-heap of cinema history much sooner than “Noi viva.”
“We the Living” in its original form was actually two films–“Noi viva” and “Addio, Kira”–both of which ran for about two hours. When Rand relented in her opposition to this unauthorized work being shown, her estate licensed a single continuous 170-minute condensed version of the two films. I’m not at all certain that they did Alessandrini any favors.
The film as we now have it is an overstuffed bon-bon of 1940s black-and-white romanticism. It starred the luminous Alida Valli, in the hands of cinematographer Giuseppe Caracciolo looking a bit less severe than she does under the lens of Robert Krasker in “The Third Man.” She plays Kira Argounova, an independent-minded young woman struggling to thrive in the miasma of mind-numbing conformity that was Stalinist Russia. You might suppose that Mussolini’s fascist government would be tickled pink with a film depicting the conditions of life under Communist Party rule, but the Duce’s censors were clever enough to pick up on the fact that Alessandrini’s critique of Communism could be read as an equally valid critique of Fascism, so the curtain was rung down on both films. I suspect that viewing the work in two 120-minute installments on two evenings would actually allow it to move more swiftly and hence seem more alive. A single three-hour stretch is just too much of a good thing, with the result that scenes that should be dramatic highpoints, like the suicide of Valli’s spurned lover, tend to be subsumed and homogenized into a single romantic fever-dream. The original Italian films were apparently much harsher affairs with all three principals destroyed by the Communist system. (“We the Living” ends on a hopeful note with Valli’s heroine about to flee Mother Russia. The aptly-titled “Addio, Kira” ends with her being gunned down in the snow, her mother’s white wedding gown failing to provide her with the protective camouflage that she had hoped for.) In the version that we now have, Rossano Brazzi’s pauperized aristocrat Leo Kovalenski becomes the most tragic character as we watch the system turn him from an idealist to a petty-criminal leeching his way through life. At least Fosco Giachetti, as the spurned party-man Andrei Tagonov, gets to voice his dismay over what “his” revolution has become in the hands of political opportunists like the Dunaevs, played by Annibale and Elvira Betrone as out-and-out Warner Brothers-style villains. In case you don’t get the point, Alessandrini and his co-scripter Anton Majano give us a secondary character, Giovanni Grasso’s old revolutionary Stephan Tishenko, once a big name when he was tossing bound officers into a bonfire, but apparently Stalinist Russia is like Hollywood and Stephan hasn’t done much for the cause lately. He even allows Kira and her hunted lover Leo to escape the clutches of the secret police. Tishenko apparently believes the Revolution still allows its adherents to make their own value judgments. When he finds this is no longer the case, he precedes Tagonov in suicide. But in the best gangster tradition, the Party gives him a hell of a nice funeral.
In the end “We the Living” emerges as a sort of Italian answer to “Gone With the Wind,” a very long, very romantic drama set against a backdrop of political and social turmoil. It’s a beautiful piece of work, but it would have been both beautiful and great as two pieces of work.