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The ‘Lost World’ of Vittorio De Seta

J. Hoberman
These luminous shorts depicting the hardscrabble lives of fishermen, shepherds, peasants, and miners in rural Italy turn documentary into art film.

Criterion Collection

A scene from Lu tempu di li pisci spata, 1954

Time stands still in the series of luminous short documentaries that Italian filmmaker Vittorio De Seta (1923–2011), not to be confused with his near namesake Vittorio De Sica, would later call “The Lost World.”

Made in southern Italy and Sardinia between 1954 and 1959, the ten films of “The Lost World” might be considered examples of a hyper-Neorealism. De Seta, who did most of his own cinematography, uses glorious color and luxuriant widescreen to enshrine the ancient, pre-industrial folkways and hardscrabble work lives of fishermen, shepherds, peasants, and miners—presented without an explanatory voiceover to distract from the filmmaker’s virtuoso camera placement.

“Italian films are first and foremost reconstituted reportage,” wrote the French critic André Bazin, an early champion of Italian Neorealism. Recently restored and newly available, De Seta’s films appear as the hot-house flowering of an Italian tradition. De Seta’s subjects never acknowledge his 16mm camera. Nor, with few exceptions, does the camera acknowledge modern technology (besides its own). The effect is powerful enough to transport some viewers back to the dawn of cinema. The critic Kent Jones has compared De Seta’s documentaries’ “poetic” economy of form to the one-reel Biograph films with which D.W. Griffith invented cinematic narrative.

Art films fashioned from documentary elements, the movies of “The Lost World” are more studied and accomplished than lay musicologist Les Blank’s vérité celebration of American folk cultures, less fragmentary and concentrated than avant-garde filmmaker Bruce Baillie’s lyrical reportage. They are closest to the late films of the ethnographer-aesthete Robert Gardner, a patrician like De Seta, who was born to a noble family in Palermo, Sicily. Both men’s labor-intensive work was largely self-financed.

Lu tempu di li pisci spata (The Age of Swordfish, 1954), De Seta’s first film, and the first of three depicting Sicilian fishermen, sets the template for his subsequent work. The movie opens at dawn with the sound of a worker’s chant and ends after the day’s catch at dusk, fishermen framed against the sky. In between, De Seta manages to show their labors from dizzying angles and in extreme close-ups, matching their skill and concentration with his own.

Less anti-capitalist than a-capitalist, De Seta’s first documentaries eschewed the criticism of poverty and underdevelopment implicit in Neorealist reportage like Michelangelo Antonioni’s truncated 1943 documentary People of the Po Valley or the work of muckraking photographers like Tino Petrelli. One wonders if De Seta, nominally a Communist, was committed to a celebratory view of labor or had rather internalized the rules enforced by Giulio Andreotti, the Christian Democrat official in charge of the performing arts (and later prime minister), who, concerned with Italy’s image abroad, campaigned against representations of Italy’s impoverished south. Perhaps it was both.

If not exactly a tourist film, Isole di fuoco (Islands of Fire, 1954) is a spectacular account of the Stromboli volcano’s 1954 eruptions, cross cut with a raging storm. Conjuring primordial struggle, orange rivulets of lava are juxtaposed with a terrain of ancient stone houses. Calmer but no less colorful, Pasqua in Sicilia (Easter in Sicily, 1955) feasts on the rude pageantry of a village passion play. Costumed centurions and capering devils pass through the narrow streets. The sense of pagan awe is palpable.

The least alienated depiction of labor imaginable, Parabola d’oro (Golden Parable, 1955) is a pastoral idyll focusing on the one of the least respected sectors of Italian society. Harvest time in Sicily: a gentle zephyr ruffles the wheat as, heroically molded by the low-angle camera, men and women work the fields. Although the movie follows De Seta’s dawn-to-dusk paradigm, it seems mainly shot during the late afternoon “magic hour,” when the light is most aureate.

With no indication whether the peasants are bringing in the produce of their own land or that belonging to a wealthy padrone, Parabola exemplifies De Seta’s celebratory filmmaking. In depicting the Sicilian sulfur miners, who, given their terrible working conditions, embodied class exploitation, Solfatara (1955) is less idyllic. Workers arrive in the misty dawn, crouch and crawl through tunnels to begin their daily drilling. A sudden silence and a montage of frozen gestures evoke the danger to their lives, if not its privation.

Nonetheless, Solfatara introduces a new element in the hitherto romantic “Lost World.” Subsequent documentaries of Sicilian fishermen, Contadini del mare (Sea Countrymen, 1955) and Pescherecci (Fishing Boats, 1958), complicate the idealization of Lu tempu di li pisci spata.

The fisherman of Contadini are introduced as singing silhouettes, but are later more purposefully shown constructing a corral of long boats and nets around a trapped school of tuna, hauling in the agitated fish with grappling hooks to create a thrashing, gore-stained hubbub that recalls the brutality of Georges Franju’s abattoir documentary Blood of the Beasts (1949). Pescherecci is less violent but even more insistent on the industrial nature of fishing (in this case, of sardines); here, the work songs are overpowered by the roar of boat engines. Still, the film is often beautiful as the somber gray-blue palette is illuminated by unexpected rainbows.


In 1958, along with Pescherecci, De Seta made two, more ethnographic documentaries in Sardinia. The desolate landscape of the island’s mountainous interior seems to have affected him in the same way that Carlo Levi, author of the hugely influential nonfiction novel Christ Stopped at Eboli (1945), was affected by his exile to the impoverished southern region of Basilicata. He is a foreigner in a prehistoric land.

Pastori di Orgosolo (Orgosolo’s Shepherds, 1958) ponders the difficult lives of the men who tend the herds, milk goats, and make cheese by an open fire, enduring windy torrents of rain and sleet in their cave shelters. The experience inspired De Seta’s first and most important feature film, Banditi a Orgosolo (Bandits of Orgosolo, 1961), a forcefully laconic account of a shepherd driven by misfortune to become an outlaw. (The movie won a prize at the 1961 Venice Film Festival and intermittently surfaces for streaming, most recently on MUBI.)

De Seta made one more documentary in Sardinia, Un giorno in Barbagia (A Day in Barbagia, 1958), regarded by some as his crowning achievement. In ten minutes, De Seta maps the complicated daily routine of a town left largely to women and children while the men tend their flocks in the hills. Beginning with the shepherds leaving at daybreak and ending with their children tucked in for the night, the movie admires a poor but harmonious world of total, albeit gendered, industriousness, as the rhythm of wood-gathering and foraging gives way to communal bread-baking and sewing.

Criterion Collection

A scene from I dimenticati, 1959

The last and longest of De Seta’s documentaries, I dimenticati (The Forgotten, 1959), is almost a critique of Un giorno’s tribute to human persistence and ingenuity. Set in Calabria (where De Seta’s family was from), it depicts a mountain village at the end of an abandoned road, described in a rare voiceover as “an archaic, lifeless, forgotten world.” Noting the numerous difficulties the villagers endure, while implicitly asking why they cling to this precarious place, De Seta chronicles an annual spring celebration that involves cutting down a giant fir tree, stripping it, raising it up, and engaging in a competition to see who can shimmy to the top as the whole village gathers to watch.

The sense of absurdity is beyond poignant. The invisible narrator explains that this ritual is “the only chance for these forgotten souls to feel alive.” This world was lost long before De Seta found it.

Restored by the Film Foundation, the series “Documentary Shorts by Vittorio De Seta” is available for streaming from the Criterion Channel.

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