Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Not too many films by the famed Roberto Rossellini are available on Region 1 DVD. Open City and Germany Year Zero can be had on discs of mediocre quality, and just one classic, The Flowers of St. Francis is a Criterion release. While we wait for quality presentations of Paisan, Stromboli, Europa '51, Voyage to Italy and Il Generale della Rovere, Lionsgate is offering two of Rossellini's lesser-known titles in a no-frills 2-Disc Collector's Edition. They're not the best introduction to this important Italian filmmaker, but Rossellini fans will rush to see them.
Dov'è la libertà...?
1954 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 91 min.
Starring Totò, Nyta Dover, Franca Faldini, Vera Molnar, Leopoldo Trieste
Cinematography Tonino Delli Colli, Aldo Tonti
Production Design Virgilio Marchi, Flavio Mogherini
Film Editor Jolanda Benvenuti
Original Music Renzo Rossellini
Written by Vitaliano Brancati, Ennio Flaiano, Antonio Pietrangeli, Roberto Rossellini, Vincenzo Talarico
Produced by Carlo Ponti, Dino De Laurentiis
1954's Dov'è la libertà...? (Where is Freedom?) is a vehicle for the comedian Totò but its screenplay reaches for satire and social comment over easy laughs. A spirited little man with a clownish face, Totò ambles through comic episodes like an Italian Charlie Chaplin, but not quite as innocent. The story recycles the old idea that a man released after many years in prison will prefer incarceration to living in the world in its present state.
Caught trying to break back into jail, the hapless Salvatore Lojacono (Totò) tells his story to the judge. After 22 years in stir the little barber encounters more than a few troubles in the outside world. Enlisted by an amusing streetwalker (Nyta Dover), Salvatore tries to help some exhausted contestants of a dance marathon, only to find that the producer has absconded with their prize money. An ex-con tries to enlist Salvatore to pass counterfeit bills. As soon as the word spreads that Salvatore went to jail for murder with a razor, he has trouble finding customers for his haircutting services. He objects loudly: It was a crime of passion!
The softhearted little man invents songs to serenade Maria (Franca Faldini), his landlord's attractive but selfish daughter. He is thrown out on the street in favor of another tenant more able to pay. Then Salvatore's luck changes for the better. He locates his dead wife's relations, who welcome him to their house and introduce him to Agnesina (Vera Molnar), a pretty girl available for marriage. But their generosity is too good to be true.
Aided by fine cinematography by Aldo Tonti and Tonino Delli Colli, Rossellini makes Dov'è la libertà...? a classy offering with a social conscience. Salvatore's in-laws are merciless schemers responsible for his 22-year jail term. Now they're trying to trick him into committing another murder. The supposed comedy turns very dark with the arrival of the sad-faced Abramo Piperno (Leopoldo Trieste of Fellini's The White Sheik), a Jew just returned from the North after losing his entire family to the Nazis. Salvatore discovers that his relatives betrayed the Pipernos during the war, to earn petty advantages from the occupiers.
Unlike many neorealist films Dov'è la libertà...? seems to blame the Italian character for society's ills. The fairly grim story needs Totò's clowning to finish on a positive note, as Salvatore Lojacono finds happiness behind prison bars. Lionsgate's presentation is quite good, with a solid B&W transfer and adequate sound; some passages are a bit distorted and a couple of moments have sustained some track damage. Both films offer removable subtitles in English and Spanish.
Era notte a Roma
1960 / B&W / 1:66 flat letterbox anamorphic widescreen / 82 138 145 134 min. / Escape by Night
Starring Giovanna Ralli, Renato Salvatori, Leo Genn, Sergei Bondarchuk, Peter Baldwin, Paolo Stoppa, Enrico Maria Salerno, Hannes Messemer, Sergio Fantoni, Laura Betti, Rosalba Neri.
Cinematography Carlo Carlini
Art Direction Flavio Mogherini
Original Music Renzo Rossellini
Written by Sergio Amidei, Diego Fabbri, Brunello Rondi, Roberto Rossellini
Produced by Roberto Rossellini
1960's Era notte a Roma (Escape by Night or literally, It Was Nighttime in Rome) returns to the subject matter of the neorealist wartime classics Open City and Paisan. It didn't repeat the success of Rossellini's previous hit General della Rovere, a drama starring the popular Vittorio de Sica as scoundrel forced by the Nazis to impersonate a dead Italian officer. Era notte a Roma tells the story of some Romans trying to hide three Allied airmen from the German occupiers. The 2.5-hour tale never strains credibility, but the script oversells its humanitarian themes. The characterizations stress international cooperation in an obvious nod toward the politics of 1960. Even more troubling is the film's suggestion that the Vatican is innocent of charge of collaboration with the Nazi occupiers during the war.
To survive in a Rome without food, Esperia Belli (Giovanna Ralli of What Did You Do In the War, Daddy?) dresses as a nun to barter with local farmers too stingy to deal with ordinary citizens. She runs a modest black market out of her apartment. A farmer forces Esperia to take three downed fliers off his hands: Englishman Michael Pemberton (Leo Genn of Green for Danger and Moby Dick), Russian Fyodor Nazukov (Sergei Bondarchuk of War and Peace) and wounded American Peter Bradley (Peter Baldwin of Stalag 17 and The Ghost). Esperia fully intends to ditch the men on the road at the first opportunity.
She instead risks her life to hide the Allied fugitives in her apartment. Her fiancé Renato Balducci (Renato Salvatore of Rocco and His Brothers) introduces the men to his friends in the resistance. They live in Esperia's attic knowing that it will be only a matter of time before someone informs.
Once again betrayal is the main theme, as the men are forced to flee across rooftops to new hiding places. Rossellini brings the Catholic Church into play twice. A Vatican Prince (Paolo Stoppa) intercedes with a ranking German General (Hannes Messemer of The Great Escape) to protect the fugitives, implying that the Church accomplished good things by keeping diplomatic ties open with the occupiers. The script acknowledges the Nazi massacre of hundreds of civilians at the caves of the Via Ardeatine, but avoids details embarrassing to the church.
Near the end, we discover that the informer is not a neighbor, but a defrocked priest with a grudge against Esperia's boyfriend. In a chilling scene, the Germans raid a monastery in search of Allied soldiers and resistance fighters. To separate authentic monks from impostors, the informer orders them to quote familiar prayers. The ones that can't deliver are arrested.
Era notte a Roma is weakened by stereotyping. The evil informer not only resents the church, he wants Esperia for himself. Bondarchuk's Fyodor is a "meat & potatoes" Russian given to impulsive emotional outbursts. Genn's Pemberton is an intellectual who quotes from books. Caught in the Prince's study when the German General arrives, Pemberton cooly avoids capture by pretending to be a butler. Giovanna Ralli's Esperia is the most interesting character. She has worked out a mercenary method to endure the occupation, only to see her activism result in death and betrayal for those she loves.
Although the story holds our attention, Roberto Rossellini's direction seems less focused than is his norm. Many scenes stay in static wide shots and others overindulge the zoom lens. He's not helped by the claustrophobic nature of the story and its lack of forward momentum. Our heroes essentially do little but wait for the liberation of the city.
Lionsgate's print and transfer are unexceptional. The flat-letterboxed 1.66:1 image looks somewhat cropped on the sides. Contrast and detail are inconsistent. The packaging celebrates the director but offers no extras. Renzo Rossellini provides music scores befitting both films, and the delicate title theme for Dov'è la libertà...? is quite beautiful.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Rossellini Director's Series rates:
Movies: both Very Good
Video: Liberta Very Good; Roma Good -
Sound: Liberta Good - Roma Good
Packaging: Two discs in keep case in card sleeve
Reviewed: December 1, 2008
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson
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