With a sparkly new symposium on the books, Oscar-bait movies starting to stir and quake their creaky limbs, and Rivette looming out in Queens, something had to spill over from the RS main site. It’s no small news that the Museum of Modern Art is putting up this season’s other great retrospective of an ill-seen European master, proffering up as much Roberto Rossellini as can be comfortably stomached through to the end of the December. The hope is that I’ll post here about Rossellini over the coming weeks, subject to the vagaries of slobbering Gotham film obsession (I was, for instance, shut out of MoMA’s opening night Rome Open City because of schlubs willing to line up for tickets at 10am. Something about the world’s hottest 54 year old. Perhaps Isabella.) As such, this journal will not unfold chronologically, but in the order I see the films.
I’d rather not recycle the established wisdom on Rossellini and then pass it off as my own, so head on over to the Times, where Manohla Dargis has written an elegant introduction to the director (registration required). As cnw mused, it’s a fine piece, not merely because she’s surveyed the biographical-sociological-aesthetic currents of Rossellini’s work in a way that doesn’t feel reductive. If I may add something to Dargis, it’s from a more modern context: though he may have fallen out of favour, without Rossellini, we simply wouldn’t have many of the cinema’s current realist traditions, from Mike Leigh through to the brothers Dardennes. So put that alongside the other thoughts of life caught unawares, exigencies of reality, etc. etc. With that in mind, on with the more subjective thoughts.
Paisan (1946) was Rossellini’s postwar omnibus project, an amalgam of six vignettes directed by Rossellini, for which he solicited scenarios from the likes of Sergio Amidei, Klauss Mann, and most notably, Frederico Fellini (though the credits are so poorly laid out, I could not tell who was responsible for each). It’s a military travelogue through, following Allied (mainly American) soldiers during six particularly notable stops along the 1943 invasion of Italy as they eventually wrested the country from Fascist control. Moving from Sicily to Naples to Rome, then onto Florence, and the north, the characters have nothing to connect one another save for the inexorable tide of liberating troops marching across the landscape. After the pessimism of Rome Open City is a film primarily of healing, an expression of regeneration and hope now that the long nightmare has come to an end—yet tempered by the legacy of rampant material and social destruction. Rossellini and cinematographer deploy a familiar trope of discreet, respectful observation to capture life unvarnished, and also in media res, with scenes usually ending as abruptly as they began, with closure as frequently as without. Romantic entanglements are left dangling because of military duty, and characters are left dangling, trying to cope with the weight of what they’ve just seen.
Each vignette is prefaced by a Voice of God narration talking over a map showing the advancing tide of invasion, which then frequently stock war footage of rolling American tanks, and troops liberating various cities. Lending a note not just of realism, and of documentary veracity (though we should always be wary of asserting propaganda footage as truth), Rossellini deploys these traditions against his dramatic scenes also to suggest their inadequacies. The preface footage may be accurate in its delineation of times, and places, but they are ill-equipped to convey the depth of the fractured zeitgeist, which is the director’s project.
In the first few sketches, we get the expected repertoire of devices (I’d seen both Rome Open City and Germany Year Zero a few years back)—rubble, aimless children, poverty, etc.—which in Rome, are oddly filtered, through a sense of optimism: life may have been bad before, but seems to be getting better now in the rosy glow of Fascism newly-banished. It’s momentarily unsettling in light of the dourness of the two works that bookend Paisan. Six months later however, those feelings are banished: one sketch addresses the disenfranchisement that happens with the passage of time, highlighting the divide between initial concord with the Americans and half a year removed when old, petty jealousies once put aside begin to resurface, because complacency can allow them to. Beautifully-executed revelations abound: an American MP in Naples, bristling when he finally catches the kid that stole his boots one drunken evening, suddenly softens once he learns that the kid lives, along with countless other families, in a mossy catacomb; a nurse and her friend running trying to cross into occupied Florence, run though the Uffizi, whose treasures are packed in crates; a Catholic military chaplain, treasures the generosity and open-mindedness of the monks offering him shelter up, until they (the monks) go into an tizzy over the “fallen souls” of his Protestant and Jewish compatriots, and try, subtly, to evangelize them. The dawning of social responsibility, personal peril, and cultural differences, respectively, resound with heft and warmth. The last tale is a nightmare of swamp-dwelling partisans (the Italian underground/soldiers working with the Allies against the Axis) brutally massacred near the northern border, and brings a crashing sobriety to the affair. It begins with a dead Partisan stuck through a life saver, floating in the river with a placard scrawling out his crime. Mid-story, the poor man is buried, with the placard serving as his tombstone: Rossellini is fiercely proud of these men who courted certain death to fight an absolute evil. Once can appreciate that pride, but Rossellini doesn’t attend well to a more unpleasant side of the equation: he doesn’t explore the uncomfortable fact of Fascist sympathizers, which is rather like leaving out slave-owners in a tale of the Underground Railroad. The Fascist sympathizers are a structuring absence, their presence experienced mainly through gunshots and puffs of smoke in a Florence street standoff—and only two are ever seen in closeup.
It’s the only qualification I can muster in a film that seeks to represent the variety of experience—military, civilian, medical, religious, rebel, etc.—near the end of World War II, and does it wonderfully.