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Rand's We the Living Film Restored

Copyright © 2024 by Ari Armstrong
May 3, 2023; ported here on May 29, 2024

The only good cinematic adaptation of one of Ayn Rand's novels is the unauthorized Italian film We the Living, leaving The Fountainhead a distant second. It was unauthorized because it was filmed under the noses of the fascists during the second World War. It survived only because its creators declined to comply with the fascists' demands to destroy the tape—the filmmakers pretended to comply, sending another reel to the shredder.

The film premiered in 1942. Eventually Rand and her lawyers got hold of a copy, and Duncan Scott reedited it with English subtitles, shortening it and cutting out the propaganda scenes government officials had required. That version came out in America in the 1980s. Now Scott has worked up a restored version of the film. See some of the work on YouTube.

Recently I had the opportunity to view the restored film, having previously seen the reedited version.

It is spectacular. The scenes are (much!) clearer and less jumpy. The subtitles are clearer and easier to read. The only problem that I noticed is that sometimes white spots, especially eyes, "star out" in a distracting way. But that's a minor problem in the context of radically improved production quality.

Cinematically, the restored version holds over some of the problems with the previous version, mainly some very choppy edits and some degraded segments. Again, especially considering the age of the film and its background, such problems are minor.

As a movie, We the Living holds up spectacularly well. In many ways it feels outright modern, as with Kira's choice to become an engineer, her haughty disdain for a suitor, her outspokenness, and her willingness to break conventions in love as well as in career.

The actors are phenomenally good, offering some of the best performances you will ever see (assuming you see the film). I cannot conceive a more perfect casting of Kira than Alida Valli. Fosco Giachetti as Andrei also is outstanding.

Spoilers to follow:

Rossano Brazzi also is very good as Leo, but the problem for me is I don't much like Leo as a character. He ends up not being worthy of Kira's love. He gives up too easily.

Rand's love triangle holds up well as a plot device. Basically, Kira fakes a romance with a Communist official, Andrei, to secure the funds to pay for health care for her true love, Leo. To make this more complex, Kira genuinely respects Andrei—he is serious about his principles even as they turn him into a violent oppressor.

The only (but important) part of the story that I don't buy is Kira's "love at first site" attraction to Leo. Granted, the film version of the character gets an assist with Brazzi's charm and dashing good looks. But then Rand has always believed in love at first site and I have always been suspicious of it. I believe there's often "interest at first site," and I think love sometimes can take hold despite a bad first impression.

Still, I can imagine that, in a decent country, Leo could have become a respectable person and kept Kira's interest until she divorced him in her late thirties and eventually landed with someone rather more like Andrei, someone more impressive.

It hardly takes a lot of imagination to see that the Communist system ground down many a good man and woman (and this is aside from the many millions of people the Communists outright murdered, starved, or caged), and that is all that is necessary to give an understanding audience enough sympathy with Leo to make the story work.

What about the ending? I prefer the movie's ending to that of the novel. In the movie, Kira talks about trying to escape—leaving some hope that she actually can make it out—and the film ends with her reflecting back on falling in love with Leo. Heartbreak but thinly lined with hope.

They did film the scene of Kira getting shot to death by the boarder patrol; that's released as a deleted scene with a previous version of the film. I suppose that scene works better in the novel, which has space to fill out the broader theme of the "airtight" Communist oppression, but, in the film, which focuses more squarely on the love story, it was best left out.

All this inspires me to go back and reread the novel, which I have not done in many years. It is Rand's most underrated—and some even say her best—work.

I leave off with a selection of Rand's 1958 foreword to the novel:

We the Living is not a novel "about Soviet Russia." It is a novel about Man against the State. Its basic theme is the sanctity of human life—using the word "sanctity" not in a mystical sense, but in the sense of "supreme value." The essence of my theme is contained in the words of Irina, a minor character of the story, a young girl who is sentenced to imprisonment in Siberia and knows that she will never return: "There's something I would like to understand. And I don't think anyone can explain it . . . There's your life. You begin it, feeling that it's something so precious and rare, so beautiful that it's like a sacred treasure. Now it's over, and it doesn't make any difference to anyone, and it isn't that they are indifferent, it's just that they don't know, they don't know what it means, that treasure of mine, and there's something about it that they should understand. . . ."

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