Here’s a director who deserves a lot more attention. His documentary shorts in the 50s, depicting lives of peasants, fishermen and ordinary folk in poor parts of Italy and islands such as Sicily and Sardinia, may not be revolutionary or shout their qualities from the rooftops but are to be treasured. De Seta has an eye, and an unerring sense of rhythm- a little increase in editing speed during dramatic moments in Isole di Fuoco is like a heart beating faster, not a grand explosive statement. His images are measured, his style unpretentious. It seems to me he aimed not so much to depict the dignity or nobility of age-old customs in a manner which in lesser hands might carry overtones of condescension, but simply to honour ways of life, people living close to nature, by the fact of filming. Landscape shots are not held too long to milk their beauty, less spectacular moments and chores have their own worth too. Many “contemplative” film-makers today would give us longer films with long takes on such subjects; De Seta has no hurry, but condenses to greater effect.
Arsaib (a seriously knowledgeable list-maker) has done an excellent list, The Documentary Films of Vittorio de Seta, with links to view the 1950s films
I agree with Arsaib that 2 shorts from 1958, A Day in Barbagia, which is centred on women and village life, and Shepherds of Orgosolo, featuring goatherders in the same region of Sardinia, are outstanding. The images have their own merit and meanings without the need for explanation or further dramatisation. In Shepherds of Orgosolo, the herders carry young kids to be suckled by their mothers- we can infer that they know each goat individually. De Seta’s films may seem simple, may not ever be fashionable or deal with themes and subjects beloved of critics, but (certainly the best) appear to me like miniature miracles of wise timing and judgment.
Thanks for starting in on this topic, Kenji. What you say about De Seta filming his subjects in a contemplative way but then condensing the action is spot on, and I think it’s where much of the poignancy of his films lies. The edits are well-timed and incisive, and lead the viewer along a sort of fractal coastline of activity, bland certainty ensconced in times of noisy action and chaos, or even dread (as with the lava flow in ‘Isole Di Fuoco’) lying in wait within moments of calm.
I first watched De Seta’s films back when I was on a pastoral kick – really digging ‘Tree of Wooden Clogs’ as well as Monteiro’s ‘The Mother’ and Joao Pedro Rodrigues’ ‘The Shepherd’ et al. De Seta’s fiction work is the least condescending of any of those, the most honestly thoughtful – contemplative, yes, but always in the moment.
I’m a very big fan of de Seta’s short works. They are incredibly composed and I could see him as a precursor to the supposed contemplative movement.
The feature Bandits of Orgosolo may be one of the best films I’ve seen all year.
Thanks for this thread Kenji. I had seen Fishing Boats earlier while I was randomly browsing mubi but never pursued the other films. I am watching the rest now and they are all fascinating to say the least. Thanks also to Arsaib for his wonderful list on De Seta and others who have put the youtube links on the pages of his films.
Anyone know what happened between the astounding Bandits of Orgosolo and the much more ‘psychological’ Half a Man? (apart from the sixties) To paraphrase my fave movie quote – ‘Vittorio, tu es au bord de l’antonionisme!’
I’d be interested to know what led to the creation of Half a Man too. Quite the departure from his previous realist work. He’s certainly a considerable talent that could use some more attention.
Anyone have access to his last four features?
With the documentary shorts, De Seta likes low-angle views of silhouettes against the early morning or evening sky. Films often follow a day’s work to darkness and the moon. There are high angle shots too, a mix. Some scenes like fish being caught, or the pack animals in Golden Parable (about wheat harvest and threshing) being lightly whipped as they laboured in circles under a blazing sun, weren’’t so much to my liking- being a softie. But then again, i eat fish and don’t have to labour like the peasants.
Diary of a Master, about a school teacher, is a well thought of film in the 70s that isn’t yet on mubi.
Here is his obituary in The Guardian late last year