Out of the vaults, this largely unknown and newly restored 1921 adaptation of Émile Zola’s La Terre (The Earth) is a remarkably direct transposition of the French novelist’s ferocious naturalism to early cinema. La Terre doesn’t change one’s sense of film history as drastically as did Milestone’s most recent release (not yet on DVD), Piccadilly. But it does attest to the existence of the neorealist impulse long before neorealism. Director André Antoine had staged La Terre at his own Théatre Antoine in 1901, but there is nothing of the studio here. Having turned to filmmaking in his mid fifties, Antoine was not only unfashionably literary but also an advocate of what were then called plein air films or vérisme. He shot this stark peasant drama on location in the flat fields of north-central France. The compositions may evoke Millet paintings but the brutality of the narrative—a Lear-like tale of filial greed and betrayal—is underscored by having the cast, largely drawn from the Comédie Française, play their scenes amid ubiquitous farm animals. Humans are the interlopers in this land of hard feelings, nefarious plots, and cruel rules. Every other word is a lie, and every farm implement seems to be a potential weapon.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 10, 2004