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Il Generale Della Rovere

Il Generale Della Rovere
Criterion 463
1959 / Color / 1:37 flat full frame / 132 min. / Street Date March 31, 2009 / 29.95
Starring Vittorio De Sica, Hannes Messemer, Vittorio Caprioli, Sandra Milo, Giovanna Ralli, Anne Vernon, Luciano Pigozzi.
Carlo Carlini
Production Design Piero Zuffi
Film Editor Cesare Cavagna. Ann Maria Montanari
Original Music Renzo Rossellini
Written by Sergio Amidei, Diego Fabbri, Roberto Rossellini from a book by Indro Montanelli
Produced by Moris Ergas
Directed by Roberto Rossellini

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Roberto Rossellini is now considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest Italian film director. In the interview extras for Criterion's new DVD Il Generale Della Rovere we learn that his movies were almost all box office failures. In 1959, after a number of unsuccessful films starring his wife Ingrid Bergman, Rossellini decided to return to the subject matter of his first success Rome, Open City. Rossellini and his star Vittorio De Sica determined to make a show that would win the top prize at the Venice Film Festival. They did just that.

Il Generale Della Rovere changed the way Italian films looked at WW2. Fourteen years after defeat, the public still expected the war to be depicted as a conflict between good Italians and bad Germans. Rovere shows Italian Fascists actively collaborating with their Nazi allies. The film's guilty, compromised protagonist only makes sense in an equally compromised political setting.

Author Indro Montanelli's downbeat, morally uplifting story has its basis in real events. In 1943 Genoa, with the Allies slowly advancing northward, gambler Emanuele Bardone (Vittorio De Sica) has become a petty swindler. Many Italians are desperate to free relatives arrested for desertion or political crimes. Posing as a Colonel from the Great War and pretending to have influence with the Germans, Bardone accepts money to be used for bribes. He gambles most of it away. To cover his losses, Bardone tries to sell a fake emerald to various merchants and old girlfriends, and arranges to overcharge the wealthy Chiara Fassio (Anne Vernon) for the promised release of her husband. Then Bardone befriends the high-ranking German Colonel Mueller (Hannes Messemer), which seems a stroke of luck until bad timing uncovers his entire scheme. Mueller offers Bardone three choices: a firing squad, a long prison term, or ... to spy for the Colonel in a political prison. Mueller wants Bardone to impersonate a dead Italian resistance organizer, the respected General Della Rovere, to identify and neutralize a top resistance operative.

Il Generale Della Rovere is a moving suspense thriller that focuses on moral choices instead of action. Rossellini doesn't attempt a naturalistic atmosphere. Decidedly non- neorealistic studio sets represent the bombed city, some offices and a prison cellblock. Grainy stock shots are cut into the film or used for shaky rear projection plates.

De Sica's "Colonel" Bardone is a peculiarly Italian character. Unlike Graham Greene's ultimately loathsome wartime opportunist Harry Lime, the charlatan Emanuele retains our sympathy even when committing completely unconscionable acts. Every Italian is forced to compromise "to get by" and Bardone's gambling habit simply gives him a heavier burden than most. He promises the moon to his sexy dancer girlfriend Valeria (Giovanna Ralli) so he can pawn her jewelry; she wisely hides her good stuff. Some easily charmed prostitutes almost buy Emanuele's ring. One of them (Sandra Milo) is an old lover aware that the ring is imitation. She breaks down and gives him what little money she has. His pride entirely gone, Bardone accepts the money, hoping to gamble it into the profit margin and cover his responsibilities. But his luck is as bad as ever.

With his cheap crimes exposed, Bardone is once again compelled to compromise his values and collaborate with the enemy. Alone in his cell, forced to impersonate a man of integrity, the old cheat learns what it means to take personal responsibility for others. When he reads the scrawls left by condemned men on the walls of his cell, and sees a common barber (Vittorio Caprioli) die rather than betray his country, his conversion is complete. Il Generale Della Rovere finishes on a scene of selfless purity. Rather than go in for heart-tugging close-ups, Rossellini chooses to film it in one angle, from a respectful distance.

Vittorio De Sica plays the "principled swindler" Bardone almost as would Charlie Chaplin, effortlessly changing his personality to suit a variety of situations. Bardone's saving grace is that he becomes the roles he plays, a quality that De Sica communicates well. Second-billed Hannes Messemer breaks the mold of German officers in Italian films by coming off as a decent and principled man. His Colonel Mueller is perhaps a bit too sympathetic when he regretfully sends men to be tortured, "because they leave him no choice". Messemer continued playing German officers, most famously in John Sturges' 1963 The Great Escape. Anne Vernon makes a strong impression as Bardone's most wronged victim. Giovanna Ralli and Sandra Milo are women that he loves but disappoints. One key scene forces Bardone to face the people he's robbed and cheated. They're too cowed by the occupying Germans to speak up, and Rossellini doesn't emphasize their faces. Do they still regard Emanuele Bardone as someone who tried to help them, or are they memorizing his face for later reprisals?

Il Generale Della Rovere was a big hit for Roberto Rossellini. The next year he returned to the German Occupation for the realistic but surprisingly unemotional Era notte a Roma, bringing back Giovanna Ralli and Hannes Messemer.

Criterion's DVD of Il Generale Della Rovere is formatted at 1:33, when it looks as if a wider format was intended; the only scene that would seem to violate a 1:66 matte is a tacked-on opening card announcing its win at Venice. The image is pristine and the mono audio crystal clear.

Disc producer Issa Clubb has arranged four new interviews. Ingrid, Isabella and Renzo Rossellini talk about their father; Renzo served as a second unit assistant director on the film. Scholar Adriano Aprà offers a fourth interview, while Rossellini biographer Tag Gallagher narrates a well done visual essay on this section of Rossellini's career. The film's original trailer shows only newsreel footage of the film's big win in Venice.  1

Future directors Ruggero Deodato and Tinto Brass were assistant directors as well, and the minor genre favorite Luciano Pigozzi has a small but memorable role as a prison inmate.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Il Generale Della Rovere rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: interviews, visual essay, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 22, 2009

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.


1. Some exterior crowd footage at the Venice triumph shows a plaza surrounded by billboards for Italian movies being promoted that year. Prominent among the more prestigious premieres is a surprising genre title: Calitki!

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2009 Glenn Erickson

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