SuperCool Cinema

More Than Just Film

Terminal Station (Stazione Termini,1953)

aka Indiscretion of an American wife furthermore known as Indiscretion

Youtube can be fantastic for watching certain types of films, the only drawback being the constant temptation. It’s not the column of thumbnails at the edge of your vision when using the default miniplayer, demanding your distraction. Those I can mostly resist.

It’s when there’s a lull in the film that I find myself succumbing to my true weakness. Those flames I can’t resist burning myself on. I find myself scrolling down…down…(just for the quickest peep, you understand?) down into the murky, degrading depths…of the user comments. 

‘Typical Italian movie-it’s a mess.’

Hey buddy, life’s a mess. 

One of my favourite things about Italian Neorealism was how it captured on screen the mess of our lives, the inherent chaos of human interaction. Watch and wonder at the crowd scenes in Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948), arguably the pinnacle of a realism movement that changed cinema (apart from Hollywood). See how the thronging mass of existence was recorded so vividly, you just knew each and everyone of them had a story of their own.

By 1953, De Sica was one of the most sought after filmmakers on the planet. Looking for a new challenge he said, ‘sì’ to David O. Selznick’s offer to direct a Hollywood co-production and to all the baggage that came with it; the highly paid, pin-up actors (Montgomery Clift! Jennifer Jones!), the overbearing, control freak producer (Selznick himself) and small armies screenwriters (including Truman Capote who wrote the dialogue). De Sica and Selznick fought endlessly over every aspect of the film for control. The offspring of this most unhappy union were two very different versions of the same story and De Sica vowing never to direct a Hollywood movie again. 

Selznick wanted the tale of Mary Forbes (Jennifer Jones) attempting to flee Rome and the man she had spent the last month having an affair with, Giovanni Doria (Montgomery Clift), to be a by-the-numbers Hollywood romance which placed the focused on them alone. His cut of the film for the American market was little over an hour long and given the not so subtle title of Indiscretion of an American wife

De Sica wanted to instead position Mary and Giovanni’s drama as just one of many being played out on the vast stage of the Roma Termini train station. In his version, titled Terminal Station and half an hour longer, the camera seems to get caught up in the mass of humanity on display. It lingers on other passengers, gives us glimpses into their lives, catches snippets of their conversations. Perhaps it does feel like a mess when compared to Selznick’s cut, but it’s the mess that brings the story alive. 

The vast majority of the action is set in a single location, and even though it feels like we’ll be heading into flashbacks at any moment, De Sica keeps us in the present, this awful, confusing and thrilling present being experienced by Mary and Giovanni (the film is even structured to run in real time, starting a few minutes before Mary enters the train station at 7.00pm and concluding with her finally leaving on the 8.30pm to Milan). This could have resulted in a static and inert piece of cinema but, in De Sica’s hands, the station positively throbs with life. 

‘I cannot understand why movies are so indecent!! Makes me sad because there’s no real heartfelt emotion. Just cold indecency- May as well call them skin flicks!!!’

It seems strange referring to a 1950s Hollywood production in these terms but I guess that Terminal Station does go places where mainstream films didn’t usually go. The love story between Mary and Giovanni can be broken down into indecision, lust, humiliation, rejection and rage. 

The location of the train station matches Mary’s liminal state. She’s somewhere between two identities and states of being, the selfish pleasures of a cheating lover and the responsibilities of wife and mother to her family back in America. This is a film about what we experience when caught outside of our comfort zones, lost in liminal spaces. 

Mary Forbes (Jennifer Jones) caught between two states of being.

Mary goes through the motions of buying a train ticket but her heart and mind are clearly elsewhere. She writes a telegram to her lover then decides not to send it, she pours out her heart in a letter and again keeps it to herself. Those wonderfully drawn commuters all around her, all too aware of their place in the world, fire Mary glances of dismay and annoyance as she drifts, so uncertain, so unsure. 

Her sense of her shame is palpable throughout the film. She is slapped by Giovanna in front of a stunned crowd, later in the film, the lovers sneak into a disused train carriage to make love only to be caught by train guards. They are frog-marched to the station commissioner, past delighted onlookers, and then questioned in a scene that brings back memories of Rome Open City, another strong contender for greatest Italian Neorealist film, and its scenes of Gestapo interrogation. 

‘Monty Clift still had a bit of that old-school-acting style, he appeared labored, you can see him working in this movie, pushing.’

Montgomery Clift also appears at odds with his surroundings. The early 1950s saw him rise as both Hollywood heart throb and outsider who refused to play the game. He picked his roles with unusual care and by 1953 was working with three of the biggest directors, De Sica, Alfred Hitchcock (I Confess) and Fred Zinnemann (From Here to Eternity). His devotion to Method acting was the stuff of legend. Even when working for such respected filmmakers, Clift only took direction from Mira Rostova, his ever-present Method coach. He’s clearly pushing for a greater truth but, to modern eyes, his performance in Terminal Station does indeed appear laboured and fragmented, like something from a different age.

Playing Giovanni Doria was certainly a brave choice, a far from likable character who, in the film’s most shocking moment, slaps Mary in front of startled onlookers. Appearing to be on the verge of a breakdown, Giovanni spends much of his screen time begging for Mary, who has the upper hand throughout, to forgive him, to stay with him. And yet Clift gives him enough charm to show us why she ever fell for him (even if we are urging her to leave him behind). For commitment to the cause, check out Clift’s stumble from the moving train at the film’s climax. How we leave him yet again humiliated and defeated. 

Famously, Clift spent his short life painfully at odds with the social limitations of his times and the expectations from his legions of female fans. The emotional baggage that he brings, or I bring, makes his role something to cherish. 

Terminal Station is a film about emotional baggage, about the how the things we carry around define us and how we try to keep them hidden. This is most evident with Mary, or May to her lover, a name that speaks of her indecision, a word we use when we can’t bring ourselves to say no. She buys a dress for her daughter as a means of reconnecting only to leave it on a train when she spots Giovanni, briefly breaking free of her bonds to home and her family. The ‘will they/won’t they’ love story is dealt a fatal blow when Giovanni catches a glimpse inside Mary’s suitcase and sees a photo of her daughter, a bond that will always overcome his pleas for her to remain in Italy

In order to tie things up with a nice big metaphor, YouTube is like transport hub. People flow through it wanting either escape or something more practical. Its a transitory space as films come and go. Some people will always have something to say and it’s probably best not to blow-up if we disagree. If we pass through these places with the right attitude, we, like Mary, can maybe learn things about ourselves and other people, how we differ and what we have in common. 

Terminal Station, as the name hints, marked the end of De Sica’s work in Italian Neorealism. It may seem an odd film to visit in order to see just what the remarkable realist movement gave cinema and yet it can be seen especially clearly in contrast to the elements of Hollywood melodrama. It provides a canvas on which the love story plays out; the real locations, the lives of the working class, the multitude of (traditionally badly dubbed) voices. De Sica’s cut of the film reminds us that our lives and dramas are just a small, transitory part of a much bigger moving picture.  In Terminal Station the mess of humanity is captured in all its major flaws and minor glories. 

Here are some more amazing examples Italian Neorealism currently free to view; Rome, Open City (Roma città aperta, 1945) Shoeshine (Sciuscià, 1946)  Germany, Year Zero (Germania anno zero, 1948)  Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette, 1948) The Earth Trembles (La Terra Trema, 1948) Beautiful (Bellissima, 1951) and Miracle in Milan (Miracolo a Milano, 1951).

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July 2022

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