'We the Living' Released on DVD

If you're depressed by the paucity of movies sympathetic to capitalism, this foreign blast from the past might interest you. Best of all, this version of the movie had Ayn Rand's active involvement and approval.

An extraordinary film just came out on DVD which couldn’t be more timely. It’s about a fiercely outspoken, beautiful woman trapped in a country rapidly descending into socialism, with the government steadily ratcheting up control over all aspects of life

The movie is We the Living, based on the Ayn Rand novel of the same title. Rand said that this work “is as near to an autobiography as I will ever write.”

Conservatives and libertarians have long lamented the scarcity of movies that depict the evils of communism. Let’s see, there’s Doctor Zhivago, The Killing Fields, The Lives of Others, and ... well, now there’s We the Living — a long-lost classic filmed in 1942, and now available on DVD for the first time ever.

We the Living takes place soon after the Bolshevik takeover of Russia, which Rand experienced as a young woman. The stunning Alida Valli plays Kira, a fiery college student who detests the communists ruining her country. (Valli is perhaps best known to American audiences for her indelible performances in The Third Man and The Paradine Case.)

Kira’s formerly bourgeois family struggles to survive as the government outlaws most private trade, rations food and shelter, and implements health-care death panels. (Okay, I might be confused about that last part.)

Alida Valli and Rossano Brazzi in We the Living
Life is a grind for all but the politically privileged. The masses endure shortages and injustice, while well-connected Party members enjoy special treatment and profit from corruption. Everything is politicized: the economy, education, even science — as Party officials inform Kira and her fellow students.

But some forces override politics and even good sense. At college one day, secret police officer Andrei (Fosco Giachetti) overhears Kira pouring scorn on Bolshevism. Instead of arresting Kira, the officer is smitten with her. In turn Kira develops a respect for Andrei bordering on love, despite their ideological differences.

Shortly thereafter, Kira has a chance encounter with the handsome, mysterious Leo (Rossano Brazzi), a free spirit like her, hunted by the authorities. Kira and Leo have an immediate, almost animal chemistry.

This is one of the most affecting scenes in the movie, an instance of “love at first sight” made credible by the sublimity of the acting. When they agree to see each other in a month in the same spot, you can’t wait for that month to pass so you can see what happens next. From here unfolds a tragic romantic triangle marked by jealousy, deception and sacrifice.

We the Living has some of Rand’s most layered characters. In her later work, a character like Andrei the communist might be portrayed as an unalloyed villain. But in We the Living, Andrei gradually reveals a sensitive and decent humanity at odds with his repellent politics. (Who hasn’t encountered such paradoxes in real people?)

The story behind the movie is nearly as remarkable as the film itself, further proof there is little daylight between fascism and communism.

We the Living was made during World War II in Mussolini’s Italy, of all places. The government warily allowed it to be filmed as a propaganda vehicle against the Soviet Union. But when Mussolini realized the movie was a critique not only of communism but of all forms of statism, he banned it from theatres, where it had been a smash hit.

The government rounded up and destroyed all copies of the film — save one, the original negative, which was secreted away. As we are informed by the fascinating documentary (included among the DVD extras), the film’s reels languished unseen for decades until Ayn Rand attorneys Erika and Henry Mark Holzer went hunting for it among the Italian film community.

Duncan Scott, who produced the DVD release, explains how as a young editor he talked his way into recutting the film alongside Ayn Rand herself. "We the Living" had originally been released as two separate films. They combined them, trimmed away some of the excess, and removed or redubbed pro-fascist propaganda speeches inserted at the insistence of the authorities.

Scott tells how in the original version, Andrei delivered a heated diatribe against the evils of capitalism. Needless to say, this speech didn’t exactly belong. Not content merely to change the subtitles, Scott actually hired a sound-alike Italian actor so he could redub the voice track in Italian to match the new subtitles.

Unfortunately the digital transfer was done in 1987, and the cost of a high-definition remastering was prohibitive for this DVD release, so the picture quality isn’t quite as crisp as one might wish. Nevertheless, it is completely watchable.

Considering the circumstances under which We the Living was made and later restored, this inspiring classic is a tremendous achievement, and a worthy addition to every liberty-lover’s DVD library — and to the too-brief list of films exposing the pitfalls of socialism in whatever form.

The We the Living two-disc Special Edition DVD is available at WeTheLivingMovie.com for $39.95, including free shipping within the USA. The bonus features include almost 50 minutes of never-before-seen deleted scenes and a 35 minute documentary that features a first-hand account of the banning of We the Living, as told by an Italian studio executive. Clips from the movie can be found at the website, as well as production photos, screen credits, reviews, and additional background information.

Andrew Leigh is a screenwriter and relapsed journalist. He is currently producing and writing a feature comedy about the growth of government. Andrew is a contributor to BigHollywood.com. His writing has appeared in numerous publications including the Washington Post, Investor's Business Daily, Weekly Standard, National Review, and Sculpture magazine.

5 comments from readers  

To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.
Great review, Mr. Leigh. When we marvel at Ayn Rand's extraordinary prescience, it helps to understand that she had seen it all before! And kudos to the Holzers for their great work as well!!
Mr. Leigh: Interesting! I shall try to find a copy here in Ontario, but if not will order the one you mentioned. I am a 50 year student of Objectivism and Ayn Rand. Fully committed to her ideas. I have been ostracised by my family for it, they choose to see me as a snob intellectual, especially when I am proven right. I have been writing my interpretation of her ideas for the last 25 years, and only get the occasion letter to the editor published. Philosophy and Psychology professors at the local University whom I have met, won't deal with me once they learn where I am coming from. Of all that I have read of Rand's, this book is the only fiction I have not fully read, I may attack it again. It is now time for Anthem. That is the world we are entering.
I saw "We The Living" in its first release in this country. It was a damn good film. And the additonal footage should make it better.

If I were you I would add Clark Gables' and Spencer Tracy's 1940 "Boom Town" to your list of capitalistic films. Like "Atlas Shrugged" "Boom Town" is like reading the daily newspaper in the 1970's.
To this day, my husband and I take great pride in havng found and helped resurrect this excellent lost film of Ayn Rand's. And Andrew Leigh is right on the money when he speaks of the exceptionally layered characterization in this movie.

I'm grateful to Mr. Leigh for this thoughtful, intelligent review.
Every time I watch this film, I am reminded once again of the brilliance of Ayn Rand's mind. That she lived among us is a gift we can all treasure.
To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.