Usually obscured when not scoffed off as a botched La Terra Trema, Gillo Pontecorvo's first feature lacks the moral passion and hair-trigger dynamics of the director's better-known works, but its humanizing of political lines remains sharply stirring. Set in a rocky island off the Dalmatian coast, the story follows rugged fisherman Yves Montand, whose muscular individualism (to say nothing of his deep-sea dynamiting technique) sets him against the net-throwing locals (led by childhood buddy Francisco Rabal) and makes him the target of the coastal guard. Heads got bumped behind the scenes as well, and it isn't hard to see where Pontecorvo, a committed leftist, and the profit-minded producers clashed -- the filmmaker originally planned to shoot the project in black-and-white grit with actual locals, while the moneylenders imposed tourist-pamphlet hues and big-star wattage. Actually, the film's basic flaw lies on a conceptual level: Pontecorvo and his frequent collaborator, writer Franco Solinas, display a problematically mixed attitude toward their main character, admiring (or at least eulogizing) Montand's independence while condemning it to subjugation for the good of the Group. (The lone-seagull-vs.-flock imagery bookending the plot is symptomatic of the film's occasional clumsiness.) Seen today, the most striking elements are exactly those criticized for running against the film's neorealist template -- Montand, Rabal and Alida Valli (as Montand's wife) imbue their characters with a roundedness that nonprofessionals could hardly summon, while the supposedly vapid pictorialism grounds the ideals with a harsh physicality. In moments such as Montand's dignified farewell to the failed officer, one spots the seeds of the complex relationship between oppressor and oppressed that Pontecorvo brilliantly documented in The Battle of Algiers. With Umberto Spadaro, Peter Carsten, Federica Ranchi, Ronaldino Bonacchi, and Giancarlo Soblone.
--- Fernando F. Croce