The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Bandits of Orgosolo • Ten Documentary Shorts by Vittorio De Seta.
Heralded by Martin Scorsese as “an anthropologist who speaks with the voice of a poet,” Italian director Vittorio De Seta produced a string of extraordinary short documentaries in the 1950s that distill their subjects to pure cinema. Shooting in vivid color in the rural villages of Sicily, Sardinia, and Calabria, De Seta captured the rhythms and rituals of everyday life among the fishermen, miners, shepherds, and farmers who continued to live and work according to the preindustrial traditions of their ancestors. These shorts were followed by Bandits of Orgosolo, which presented with neorealist authenticity the tragic plight of a poor Sardinian shepherd unfairly accused of rustling and murder. Together, these miniature marvels and this hardscrabble feature-film debut stand as essential, ennobling records of a vanished world.
- New, restored 4K digital transfers of all eleven films, overseen by the World Cinema Project in collaboration with the Cineteca di Bologna, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks on the Blu-rays:
- The Age of Swordfish (1954 • 11 minutes • Color • Monaural • 2.35:1 aspect ratio) Vittorio De Seta’s rhythmic editing adds drama to this chronicle of a Sicilian spearfishing expedition.
- Islands of Fire (1954 • 11 minutes • Monaural • 2.35:1 aspect ratio) This prize-winning short is a poetic portrait of life on the coast of Sicily before, during, and following a volcanic eruption.
- Solfatara (1955 • 11 minutes • Color • Monaural • 2.35:1 aspect ratio) Harshness and beauty exist side by side in this look at the lives of sulfur mine workers and their families in southern Italy.
- Easter in Sicily (1955 • 10 minutes • Color • Monaural • 2:35:1 aspect ratio) De Seta captures the music and pageantry of an Easter celebration in Sicily.
- Sea Countrymen (1955 • 11 minutes • Color • Monaural • 2.35:1 aspect ratio) The rhythms of the sea set the tempo for this vivid account of a day in the lives of Sicilian fishermen.
- Golden Parable (1955 • 10 minutes • Color • Monaural • 2.35:1 aspect ratio) Filming amid the flaxen wheat fields of Sicily, De Seta documents the everyday rituals of farmers during harvest time.
- Fishing Boats (1958 • 11 minutes • Color • Monaural • 2.35:1 aspect ratio) The unpredictable nature of the sea governs the world of Sicilian fishermen as they work, rest, and seek refuge from a storm.
- Orgosolo’s Shepherds (1958 • 11 minutes • Color • Monaural • 2.35:1 aspect ratio) The striking landscapes of rural Sardinia provide the backdrop to this lyrical look at the hard-earned lives of the region’s shepherds in winter.
- A Day in Barbagia (1958 • 11 minutes • Color • Monaural • 2.35:1 aspect ratio) From sunrise to sunset, De Seta chronicles the lives of Sardinian women who look after both home and fields while their shepherd husbands are away tending their flocks.
- The Forgotten (1959 • 21 minutes • Color • Monaural • 2.35:1 aspect ratio) De Seta travels to a remote province in southern Italy to capture a unique celebration known as the “Feast of Silver.”
- Bandits of Orgosolo (1961 • 95 minutes • Black and White • Monaural • 1.37:1 aspect ratio) Returning to the Sardinian countryside, De Seta presents a ruinous portrait of a poor shepherd wrongfully associated with some bandits and forced to flee, taking his flock and his younger brother into remote, inhospitable lands.
- Introduction by Il Cinema Ritrovato film festival chief Gian Luca Farinelli
- New interview with director Martin Scorsese
- Détour De Seta, a 2004 documentary by Salvo Cuccia
- The Filmmaker is an Athlete: Conversations with Vittorio De Seta, Vincent Sorrel and Barbara Vey’s 2010 interview with De Seta
- New English subtitle translations
- PLUS: Essays by scholar Alexander Stille and critic J. Hoberman
With ten revelatory short documentaries charting the traditional lives of isolated communities in Italy’s impoverished south, Vittorio De Seta claimed his legacy as the father of Italian documentary, yet this role could hardly have been predicted prior to these films. De Seta was born in Palermo, Sicily, in 1923 to an aristocratic family. He studied architecture until his education was interrupted by World War II. Serving as an officer, he was captured by the Nazis and held in an Austrian concentration camp. Despite having no previous relationship with cinema other than having seen a few movies and having been impressed with the films of Sergei Eisenstein, De Seta worked as an assistant director on a couple of productions following the war, then turned his attention to creating ten documentaries observing peasant life in Sicily, Sardinia, and Calabria. These ten shorts deviated from typical Italian production practices, were unique in their subject matter and approach, and had a remarkable impact on their national cinema. Pier Paolo Pasolini cited De Seta as a key influence on The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964) and hailed the director as a “poet of reality.”
De Seta’s films of the 1950s and early ’60s document a vanishing world of peasant traditions. The first wave of six films released in 1954 and 1955 attend primarily to the subsistence of working Sicilians: Ganzirri fishermen madly rowing small boats in pursuit of swordfish (The Age of Swordfish); the bloody spectacle of hauling in massive tuna from a roiling, netted mass (Sea Countrymen); the toiling work within the Cozzo Disi sulfur mines (Solfatara); the pastoral beauty of the wheat harvest (Golden Parable). De Seta also shows Sicily at rest, whether it is waiting out a storm and volcanic eruption in Islands of Fire, celebrating a hard day’s work with song and dance in The Age of Swordfish, or observing Easter with processions, music, and races in Easter in Sicily. The remaining four documentaries arrive just a few years later in 1958 and 1959 and find De Seta exploring the Italian south beyond Sicily, starting with Sicilians working on a commercial fishing vessel amid a tumultuous sea in Fishing Boats and moving on to the lives of Sardinian shepherds in the countryside and of their families left in town in Orgosolo’s Shepherds and A Day in Barbagia, then concluding with a Calabrian “Feast of Silver” punctuated by the erection and harrowing climb of a massive pole by some brave citizens. De Seta’s time in the Sardinian municipality of Orgosolo was obviously significant as he returned there for his first feature, the award-winning Bandits of Orgosolo. Cast with local peasantry, Bandits owes a significant debt to Vittorio’s wife Vera Gherarducci who was instrumental in establishing trust with the women of Orgosolo and providing De Seta with the rapport necessary to produce the feature as well as the two earlier shorts.
While post-dubbed sound was the standard practice of Italian cinema, De Seta’s documentaries stand out for their use of direct-recordings. As observed by Gian Luca Farinelli, De Seta was Italy’s first director to employ direct-sound recordings and the sonic landscape of these documentaries provide them with a distinctive authenticity. Sound has always held better claim to truth in cinema than its visuals — the eye may be tricked, but less so the ear. Speaking about The Age of Swordfish, the director explains his unusual approach to sound and its prized role to access the authentic.
I started shooting without having a clear project in mind. By night, I would carefully listen to the abundant recorded sound of the voices, the sounds, the singing, the music, the noises of the sea, the atmosphere. I felt it was crucial because suppressing the speaker, which was the ideological skeleton of the documentary, the film had to stand by itself. This way, the sound becomes prevalent; all the structure has to be based on the rhythm. The sound was not live recorded, it was “montaged” in the studio, and based on it I would compose the structure of the film in my mind, and only afterwards I would take a look at the images.
De Seta’s practice of mentally editing the film using only his direct-sound recordings and using that framework to arrange his visual content creates documentary shorts that exhibit a rhythm that reflects either the natural world (winds, waves) or of people acting in unison as part of larger enterprise (rowing, hauling, baking), often placing the two spheres in compliment with each other. The filmmaker does little to intervene on these observations, limiting his use of title cards, crawling text, or voice-over narration. Emiliano Guaraldo Rodríguez locates De Seta’s early documentaries close to the tradition of ethnographic surrealism as exhibited in Luis Buñuel’s Land Without Bread (1933) and the work of Jean Painlevé. With his uncharacteristic choices to shoot in vivid colour, use direct-recorded sound, and sync his images to his contructed soundscape, De Seta’s documentaries become almost dissonantly dreamlike in the lack of convention. His documentaries display a painterly eye with keen aesthetic sophistication — the “golden hour” harvest of Golden Parable seems to directly anticipate Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978) and his vibrant views of life amid the deep shadows of a sulfur mine in Solfatara resembles the work of a Dutch master — while his vibrantly colourful, sonically-led constructions are innovative and unconventional, a progenitor to the experimental documentaries of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab — De Seta’s Fishing Boat seems to remarkably foresee Véréna Paravel’s celebrated Leviathan (2012).
De Seta is typically considered a filmmaker without an apparent political commitment. As Farinelli describes, “He observes the great issues and shows them to us, intact.” If it is true that De Seta is not political in his artistry, politics nevertheless seem loaded in his subjects. Initially, his films offer portraits of cultural traditions otherwise unseen and presumably self-contained, however the precarious nature of these customs against an encroaching modernity becomes increasingly explicit. Rodríguez maintains that De Seta captures the point of no return for a vanishing Sicily where “life, death, nature and culture are tightly inter-connected, until the emergence of the capitalist logic of exploitation of the natural resources and the technological evolution of the means of production put at risk the human culture that derives from this relationship.” De Seta documents a “necro-region” where the story and wisdom of a place verges on extinction. Such a shift is discernible between the practice of fishing in The Age of Swordfish, which ends with a nighttime celebration of song and dance following the catch, and in Fishing Boats four years later, where a fishing vessel operates like a floating factory dominated by the sound of a chugging engine and for which the work generates no cultural engagement. Among these ten short documentaries, it is in The Forgotten where De Seta comes closest to spelling out the economic and cultural plight of his subject, remarking in an early voice-over on the isolation of his Calabrian subject, on the failure of authorities to connect this community to the rest of Italy with a proper and sustainable roadway, and on the economic consequences felt in the price of goods forced to ship on the backs of mules. Still, one can’t help but wonder if the construction of a proper roadway would bring an economic and cultural onslaught that would lessen the cost of essential goods while also paving over The Forgotten’s cultural idiosyncrasies in the process.
The impact of economic conditions on social behaviour is central to De Seta’s following project and first feature, Bandits of Orgosolo. The film concerns a poor shepherd, Michele (Michele Cossu), who is forced into the role of unwilling host to a group of bandits and is wrongfully implicated with them when they kill a member of the carabinieri. He flees into the inhospitable wilderness of Barbagia with his young brother Peppeddu (Peppeddu Cucco) and their flock of sheep. The decision is ruinous and the tragedy feels inevitable. Practices of herding and cheese-making previously seen in Orgosolo’s Shepherds reappear in Bandits of Orgosolo, but they no longer exist in the isolation of the remote rocky terrain. The carabinieri appear like an occupational force and Michele’s herd has been acquired through a loan he cannot afford without the sheep. These starkly portrayed political and economic pressures, along with De Seta’s black and white cinematography and his non-professional cast, situates Bandits of Orgosolo as a decade-late, neorealist classic; a rural cousin to Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948). De Seta’s peasant farmers are impeccably represented as secretive, shrewd, bitter, and virtuous, struggling to find security and control against pervasive powerlessness. It is, in the words of Toni Flores Fratto, “a superb work of art; direct, unselfconscious, unsentimental, compassionate, and terribly moving” and the Venice Film Festival agreed when it awarded De Seta its prize in 1961 for Best First Work.
The Criterion Channel currently hosts these ten short documentaries for streaming. The Collection has recently opened the door to titles on the Channel making the leap to hard media with the announcement of Frank Borzage’s History is Made at Night (1937) and so a physical version of these documentaries for cineaste shelves is not improbable. The restoration of Bandits of Orgosolo exists without a release available in North America on hard media or streaming and so it is a natural pairing with the short documentaries, adding value to documentary program while standing on its own as a masterpiece of Italian cinema by a director currently without spine-numbered credentials. Bandits of Orgosolo has a few different illustrated posters that could be adapted into a cover treatment but MMC! is most fond of this Hungarian poster which is wonderfully modernist and cool blue stark.
And if you subscribe to the Criterion Channel and haven’t checked out De Seta’s documentaries, do yourself a favour and make these shorts your next screening!
Credits: This imagined edition’s cover summary and description relies heavily on the Criterion Channel’s own descriptions for the De Seta documentaries and includes Farinelli’s introduction to the program. To that, MMC! includes an imagined discussion by Martin Scorsese and a pair of actual documentaries on De Seta. Alexander Stille was chosen to contribute an essay given his recent ones for Francesco Rosi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli (1979) and Antonio Pietrangeli’s I Knew Her Well (1965), while J. Hoberman was chosen as a friend of the Collection who has provided essays for titles including Mario Monicelli’s The Organizer (1963) and wrote a review of De Seta’s documentaries for The New York Review.
This post was greatly informed by Pierre Leprohon’s The Italian Cinema, Peter Bondanella’s A History of Italian Cinema, Emiliano Guaraldo Rodríguez’s “Of swordfish and men. An eco critical reading of Vittorio De Seta’s Sicilian documentaries,” and Toni Flores Fratto’s review for American Anthropologist.