Life & Liberty: Ayn Rand Rediscovered


The rediscovery of a long-lost film version of Ayn Rand's great first novel, We the Living, adds another remarkable chapter to the almost legendary life of this Russian-born novelist and philosopher.

The circumstances of the film's original production, now released in a restored and edited version by Angelika Films, must have suited Rand's sense of dramatic irony. She was an uncompromising advocate of individualism, private property, and capitalism. And though set in Russia in the wake of the Revolution, We the Living is a bitter, harrowing condemnation of all forms of collectivism and totalitarianism. Yet the brilliant and faithful film adaptation of her semi-autobiographical 1936 novel was made—without her knowledge or permission—during World War II in Fascist Italy.

Italian director Goffredo Alessandrini wanted to make a statement against fascism, under the guise of an "anti-Soviet" picture. Since America and Italy were at war, no efforts were made to buy the legal rights to Rand's novel: her story was simply pirated.

The more than four-hour-long epic was produced originally as two films, Noi Vivi ("We the Living") and Adio, Kira ("Goodbye, Kira"), and was shot with almost scene-by-scene fidelity to Rand's novel. Touting top Italian film stars, lavish production values, and an ostensibly anti-Soviet theme, a carefully edited advance version was shown to the censors at the Fascist Ministry of Culture—after which the director restored his original material. The film was completed just a day before its premiere at the 1942 Venice Film Festival, where it won the top award and was described as "superb" and "monumental" by critics.

Public response was wildly enthusiastic. Oppressed citizens immediately grasped that the film was as much a condemnation of fascism as of communism. People began naming their new-born children after the characters in the story and wore "Noi Vivi" buttons bearing the photo of Rossano Brazzi, the film's young star. It was enormously popular for five months. Then legend has it that Fascist censors finally caught on to its "individual versus the state" message, banned further showings, and confiscated the prints.

In the mid-1960s, Erika and Henry Mark Holzer, then Ayn Rand's attorneys, began a long quest to track down the lost film. Finally, in the summer of 1968, they located and purchased the original nitrate negatives, which had found their way into a film vault outside Rome.

Then followed efforts by the Holzers and film producer Duncan Scott to restore and edit the screen masterpiece. Ayn Rand herself initially cut an hour of extraneous, confusing, and artistically unsuccessful scenes. For example, the novel's tragic ending did not translate well to the screen and had to be dropped; the film now ends with a beautifully poignant scene.

Years later, Erika Holzer and Scott finally began the work of subtitling the movie in English. One climactic scene proved particularly challenging: Rand's individualistic philosophy was butchered by the original screenwriters, sweating under the watchful gaze of Mussolini's censors. That scene was rewritten back to Rand's original words and finally redubbed by newly hired Italian actors.

Regrettably, Rand, who died in 1982, never lived to see the release of the restored film. It premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in 1986 to rave reviews—acclaim since echoed at special showings and film festivals in New York, Miami, and Boston. Now, after a 46-year odyssey, We the Living has at last opened in major cities in the United States.

Not just a curio for Ayn Rand fans, it's "they don't make 'em like this anymore" entertainment for anyone who loves a great story. We the Living—unlike Rand's more upbeat novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged—is an almost mythic tragedy of love, betrayal, ideology, and social upheaval. Filmed in the grand, old-fashioned, extravagantly romantic Hollywood manner, it's the story that Reds pretended to be; but unlike that pale pretender, We the Living has a plot, style, and grandeur reminiscent of such cinematic classics as Camille.

It's the tale of a beautiful young Russian engineering student, Kira Argounova (played by 21-year-old Alida Valli), who openly detests the new Communist regime that has seized her country. One day she meets Leo Kovalensky (Rossano Brazzi)—a bitter, arrogant son of an aristocrat executed by the Communists, and himself a fugitive from the secret police (GPU). Soon, Kira and Leo fall desperately in love and are captured trying to smuggle themselves out of Russia.

Leo is imprisoned, but an influential friend secures his release and the defiant young lovers move in together. But their "bourgeois" backgrounds make it impossible to get decent jobs, and Kira is expelled from the university. Meanwhile, she has begun a wary friendship with a strangely idealistic GPU agent, Andrei Taganov (Fosco Giachetti).

When Leo contracts tuberculosis, Kira tries frantically to get him admitted to a government hospital but is rebuffed—again on ideological grounds. Leo's only chance is an expensive private sanitarium, but Kira has no money. In desperation she resorts to duplicity, involving Andrei, to get money for Leo's secret medical care.

Months later, Leo returns, cured but cynical. Now determined to succeed ruthlessly by the rules of "the system," he takes up dangerous black-market activities. In the wrenching climax, Andrei is dispatched to arrest Leo…only to discover Kira's duplicity.

His former ideals in ashes, and facing imminent liquidation in a Party purge, Andrei defies the system to which he had devoted his life. Meanwhile, Kira must face Leo and make a decision upon which both of their lives depend.

The hallmark of an Ayn Rand story is the spiritual grandeur of her protagonists. Exquisitely lovely Alida Valli is magnificent as Kira, embodying all the strength, sensitivity, and sensuality of Rand's child-woman heroine. Twenty-six-year-old Rossano Brazzi is perfect as Leo, Kira's disillusioned and disintegrating lover. But Fosco Giachetti, as the doomed idealist, Andrei, towers over even his splendid costars. His controlled mannerisms and craggy good looks project an awesome screen presence.

The drab costumes and bleak, claustrophobia-inducing indoor sets—all filmed in stark black-and-white—convey the excruciating desolation of life in a totalitarian state. Unlike King Vidor's frenetic direction of Rand's Fountainhead, Alessandrini's approach takes its time, focusing on nuances of character and plot development. For once, the psychological depth of Rand's characters is fully realized; indeed, this is as rich a portrait of the Ayn Rand hero as we are likely to see on the screen in our time.

We the Living is a cinematic jewel that has repaid the 20-year effort to salvage and polish it. It stands on its own as great film. It also stands, in our collectivist era, as a poignant vision of individual courage and nobility.

Robert James Bidinotto is a free-lance writer and lecturer.