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Italian Neorealism is probably the most influential film movement since the end of World War II. The fighting wasn't even finished when Roberto Rossellini began filming the essential drama of the Italian war experience, Rome Open City. Made with scavenged B&W stock, some of it stolen from American newsreel cameramen, Rossellini's story of Italians caught up in the ruthless occupation made a powerful statement.
The term Italian Neorealism is now equally associated with Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. Later analysis has nominated De Sica's wartime The Children are Watching Us (1944) and Luchino Visconti's Ossessione (1943) as prototype forerunners for the style. To paraphrase a dozen film school classes, Italian Neorealism ran counter to Mussolini's glossy escapist "white telephone" dramas. Filmed outside the studio environment, often with non-actors, they attempted to reflect the human condition as experienced by the common man on the street. Poverty, despair and other social ills were presented in an unflinching manner.
Previously a director of short subjects and features (some with pro-fascist themes), Rossellini quickly earned international acclaim. For its 500th spine number the Criterion Collection has assembled a box set of his war-era films called Roberto Rossellini's War Trilogy. It's a very welcome release, as quality presentations of these films have long eluded collectors.
Rome, Open City (Roma, città aperta) is Neorealist mainly in spirit. The depiction of German troops and fascist Italian police arresting civilians must have been a shock to Roman audiences that had just spent five years under wartime terror and twenty-five under fascist rule. The images have a gritty, unpolished look, some of which is attributable to the mismatched film stock that was used. Rossellini used German prisoners to play "themselves", but only a few of the speaking parts are filled by non-professionals. The two most important roles went to well-known film personalities associated with comedy. Legends about Rossellini filming secretly while Rome was still occupied are not true. The director says that filming was begun as soon as the city was liberated; others report that the start of production was in January of 1945, half a year later.
The script acknowledges the role of Fascist collaborators in the arrest and torture of the mostly communist resistance. The Germans are portrayed much the same as those in a Hollywood anti-Nazi film. The SS commandant is determined to arrest resistance leader Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero). Ingrid (Giovanna Galletti), a predatory lesbian agent in the pay of the SS, has located Manfredi's girlfriend Marina (Maria Michi), a dissolute Italian showgirl. Ingrid plies the thoughtless Marina with cocaine and expensive furs. The ensuing wave of arrests swallows up the film's romantic working couple, Pina and Francesco (Anna Magnani & Francesco Grandjacquet). She's a widow pregnant with Francesco's child and preparing for her wedding day; warm hearted priest Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi) has agreed to give them a church wedding. Pina's son Marcello (Vito Annichiarico) belongs to a gang of pre-teen saboteurs. Marina's betrayal results in grief for the apolitical Pina as well as the active resistance partisans.
Open City is traditionally scripted, but its subject matter is very daring. Actors recite fairly crude position speeches, as when the anguished Don Pietro curses the Germans: cue audience approval. A drunken German officer pointedly condemns his superior's vile methods, already shown in a graphic torture scene. In one shot a man's chest, scorched with a blowtorch, actually burns for a second. The movie spells out how easily the corrupt Marina is manipulated; the perverted Ingrid is rewarded with money and sex. Rossellini expresses his country's mixed feelings toward the U.S. with a sly aside: when asked if the Americans really exist, Anna Magnani's Pina points to a bombed building.
Rossellini's most pure Neorealist movie is the impassioned, bleak Paisan (Paisà), a collection of brief sketches that follow the Allied advance northward, starting with Sicily. Many of the performers are first-time actors. Each freestanding little drama ends on a note of irony, if not outright tragedy, although one chapter in a monastery is lighter in tone. Between each episode is a buffer montage of newsreel footage.
Paisan has a much more authentic feel than Open City. The loose form offers a variety of viewpoints and the moral lessons are often conveyed through visuals. Each episode carries a potent emotional kick. Americans landing in Sicily enlist a frightened young woman (Carmela Sazio) as a guide. A black G.I. in Naples (Dots Johnson) chases down a scavenging local kid who steals his shoes. Screenwriters Sergio Amedei and Federico Fellini advance each story just far enough to hit an emotional nerve, without spilling over into outright sentimentalism.
Some of the episodes involve misunderstandings between the Italians and their liberators. Maria Michi returns for a romantic piece set in Rome about a young woman who has turned to prostitution. Harriet White Medin, a USO performer who jumped ship to join Rossellini's movie troupe, plays an American nurse who crosses enemy lines in Florence. The young Giulieta Masina (The Nights of Cabiria) makes a brief appearance in a scene on a stairwell. William Tubbs (The Wages of Fear) is a chaplain who tries to explain his tolerance of Protestants and Jews to a group of Catholic monks.
Paisan concludes with an uncompromising look at guerilla warfare. American OSS agents and Italian partisans fight a losing skirmish against Germans in the Po Valley, a marshland with few hiding places. The American officers use crude Italian to communicate with their comrades. Rossellini pushes the episode forward without sentiment or "style", and the underdog raiders are soon routed. The bleak finale, contrasted with a voiceover announcing the soon-to-come victory, puts glamorous depictions of war to shame.
Germany Year Zero (Germania anno zero) sees Rossellini capping his trilogy with a story from the enemy's point of view. The result is a much more obvious message movie. Caught in the war's aftermath is Edmund (Edmund Meschke), a small boy in the ruins of Berlin. His sick father can't work so he tries unsuccessfully to fit into the black-market netherworld of have-nots, thieves and scammers. Unfortunately, Edmund falls under the influence of his ex- teacher, a bitter philosopher (and possible pedophile) who fills the boy's head with the fatalistic idea that the weak (like Edmund's father) must be killed to make room for the strong. Cheated and misled, Edmund takes some tragic actions.
Filmed in the German ruins, Germany Year Zero has convincing settings but manages little relief from its one note of despair. Although Rossellini's handling of non-pro actors is better than ever, his story's profoundly negative ending is far too easy to predict. Rossellini's picture makes an interesting comparison with Fred Zinnemann's superficially similar, more accessible The Search. Both films are blunt about the effects of the war on children.
Criterion's 3-Disc set of Roberto Rossellini's War Trilogy presents good transfers of films rarely seen in anything better than ragged, sometimes incomplete dupes with inaudible soundtracks. Rome, Open City and Germany Year Zero are in good condition; Paisan is by far the most improved although some passages are still worn and scratched. Germany Year Zero finally appears here with its original German dialogue track. In Paisan, it's amusing to hear Rossellini's American non-actors: their appropriately awkward accents don't match the too-perfect grammar in the dialogue provided by the Italians. One obvious jump cut in Paisan arouses our attention: it occurs in the middle of a speech about religious tolerance, and we can't help but wonder what might have been excised.
Disc producer Johanna Schiller has assembled a mountain of fascinating extras. Among the associates and experts contributing to the new interview pieces is Roberto Rossellini's daughter Isabella. Filmed interviews with spouse Ingrid Bergman help illuminate the director's fascinating career, through the 1950s to his self-banishment to television projects in his later years.
Introductions by the director accompany each film; they're from a 1965 French TV presentation. Roma carries a commentary by Peter Bondanella. In addition to the lengthy documentaries Once Upon a time ... (2006) and Roberto Rossellini (Carlo Lizzani, 2001), shorter featurettes cover Rossellini's Rome locations and offer visual essays by Tag Gallagher and Thomas Meder. A videotaped lecture and a podium discussion are also included, as well as an Italian credit sequence for Germany Year Zero.
The set definitely does not lack for expert critical comment and opinion. A 44-page insert booklet has essays by James Quandt, Irene Bignardi, Colin MacCabe and Jonathan Rosenbaum. Seeing the films before sampling the extras is a recommended choice, as the video pieces are loaded with visual spoilers. The most famous shot from Rome, Open City must be repeated five times in various featurettes.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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