Martin Scorsese hit the nail on the head when he described Vittorio De Seta as “an anthropologist who speaks with the voice of a poet.” De Seta, who came from an aristocratic family, captured the lives of fishermen and farmers in Italy’s impoverished south.
The ten documentaries he made in the period from 1954 to 1959 are regarded as classics. A few lines of introductory text, ingenious close-ups, and a distinctly rhythmic pace were all he needed to reveal enormous amounts of information in just ten minutes: about artisanal cheese production, the violence involved in tuna fishing, the amount of organization and sheer muscle power required to fell and transport a tree, and the rituals associated with these age-old activities.
De Seta’s body of work forms a filmic counterpart to the field recordings of ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. With a keen eye for detail, De Seta committed to film the customs and habits of communities that were still largely isolated at the time, but that he probably sensed were on the verge of disappearing.