BluRay/DVD Reviews

Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy: ROME OPEN CITY/ PAISAN/ GERMANY YEAR ZERO

By • Apr 17th, 2010 •

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Of the many ways in which The Criterion Collection fulfills its mission of being the world’s de facto cinematheque, none is more important than its recent restoration and release of Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy. These three films – the heroic and justly celebrated, ROME OPEN CITY (ROMA, CITTA APERTA); the less well-known (today) but equally important, PAISAN (PAISA); and the extraordinary, GERMANY YEAR ZERO (GERMANNIA, ANNO ZERO), which has been all but impossible to see since its theatrical release in 1948 – form the heart of Rossellini’s oeuvre and reputation. They are artistically revolutionary, historically critical and almost inestimably influential. Given Rossellini’s restless impatience with his own pace of innovation, it is ironic to call them canonical, but they are to the canon of film what Michelangelo is to the canon of art: a renaissance.

During WWII, Italy was a fascist country and Mussolini was Hitler’s ally. In fact, Rossellini grew up on the same street the Mussolinis lived on, and was hired by his son, Vittorio Mussolini to make films for the fascist propaganda ministry. Vittorio, by then an old man living in obscurity, is actually interviewed in a 2006 French documentary included on the OPEN CITY disc. Though he has his father’s porcine looks, he was apparently a much better judge of people. Rossellini’s father owned the first movie house in Rome and he had apprenticed in every part of filmmaking. Not only was he thought of as the most talented young director in Rome, he was able to assemble around himself a group that comprised most of the others, including his great friend, Federico Fellini.

Though Rossellini’s propaganda films were geared to stirring the nation’s heart to war, they are not what Italians call “white telephone” films – the strange Fascist/Hollywood hybrid fantasies of women in white satin gowns, lounging on white satin couches, talking to their lovers on – you guessed it. They are more in the Eisenstein vein of populist film craft, honoring pilots and sailors, extolling the sacrifices the people make for la patria. Even Mussolini’s son says Rossellini wasn’t motivated by the message but the filmmaking itself, and the chance to pick up girls. It is therefore all the more extraordinary that Rossellini should be the one to shatter the link between cinema and control.

Preproduction for ROMA, CITTA APERTA, had taken place while the Germans were still in Rome, and at that point Rossellini, who was now in the Resistance, had to move to another apartment every few days. Even in this beautifully restored copy, the film feels at times grainy and jarring especially in the beginning, as if they were shooting on a battlefield. This is because Rossellini began shooting literally within days of the Americans marching into Rome and there was no film stock. They used scraps and mismatched stock. Rossellini set up camera outside the offices of the American army news organization, Stars and Stripes, to steal electricity.

One of the most stunning things discussed in detail in several of the documentaries and interviews which accompany the film is that the lead actors – Anna Magnani and Aldo Fabrizi – were actually comic performers. Magnani was a vaudeville singer and Fabrizi a hugely popular comedian on stage and screen. O[PEN CITY changed not only their careers but their lives. Fabrizi astonished audiences with his anguished performance as the Priest aiding the Communists; Anna Magnani not only went on to work internationally and win an Oscar (for the Tennessee William’s THE ROSE TATTOO, 1956), she became so identified with Rome that her death scene in OPEN CITY was used all over Rome as the official image of the city’s commemoration of the 50th year of the war’s end. (Not to mention that Pasolini cast her quite consciously as Mama Roma.)

In OPEN CITY – as in the whole trilogy, and indeed his whole career — Rossellini says that he was moved by a moral imperative: “To see clearly.” This meant seeing Rome as it was at the moment: a designated “open city,” of historical treasures supposedly safe from bombing, but torn apart any way; starving people resisting the Nazis and rebuilding their lives with every ounce of ingenuity they possessed; a generation of children who lived in the streets and rewrote the rules of growing up. He seemed to simply reveal stories as they were happening – one contemporary critic (Bosley Crowther) said that he even seemed to photograph his characters without their being aware of it. Rossellini’s ethic of truth, and the aesthetic he created and continued to recreate to serve it, did lead to the endlessly debated term: Neo-Realism, which is commonly held to mean films about “real” life, using “real” people instead of actors, taking up the “real” concerns of working people. While he is considered the father of this movement, Rossellini himself often rejected the term, and stated that only a moral position would allow a filmmaker to get at truth, by which if we are to judge by this trilogy, he meant only a devotion to truth would allow the use of any and every means one could create. Perhaps the least Neo-Realist thing in ROME, OPEN CITY is the narrative itself, which is the most classically structured of all of his films, and was written with Sergio Amedei and Federico Fellini. But there were other concessions to artifice, as the four fine essays included with this set make apparent. The essay on OPEN CITY, by James Quandt, is so up-to-date that it treats the recent on-line argument between A.O. Scott of the New York Times and Richard Brody of The New Yorker on the fortunes of Neo-Realism today in the work of Rahmin Bahrani and Kelly Reichardt.

PAISAN, the second of the trilogy, is a collection of six unrelated stories, each dealing with the liberation of Italy with the help of the American Forces. It moves up the boot of the country from the invasion of Sicily to the deadly skirmishing in the swamps of Le Marche, north of Rome. Rossellini uses almost all non-actors, and handles them in a way to make their awkwardness part of the authenticity he was driving for. The stories feel uneven, in the way of anecdotes – sometimes wrapped up too neatly, sometimes incomplete – yet there are unanswerable questions in each that linger long after the tale is told. Each is touched by tragedy in a way that we recognize but can never reconcile. The last, most famous and haunting, shows the execution of partisans, the Germans tying the prisoners’ hands, filling their pockets with stones, and pushing them off a dock. It ends simply with the title: “These things happened” and the date.

Of this trilogy, Francois Truffaut said that Rossellini first needed a city, then a whole country, then a whole continent. Indeed, in order to address the truth of the war, Rossellini would not leave out the vanquished perpetrators. For GERMANY, YEAR ZERO, he went to shoot in Berlin in 1947. To cast the film, he placed a camera in a public square as he did in Italy. Except in Berlin, no one came up to see what was going on. He chose for his lead an 11 year old acrobat named Edmund Meschke who closely resembled Rossellini’s own son, Romano, who had died suddenly a few months earlier of a burst appendix. In his decision to portray the Germans through the character of this boy, Rossellini brings an almost unimaginable personal empathy to his subjects.

Truffaut also said that Rossellini was one of the only filmmakers to treat adolescence without sentimentality. The absence of any romanticization of childhood in GERMANY, YEAR ZERO is horrifying at times, and not only because the film ends with perhaps the ultimate moral dichotomy — a child’s suicide. There is one scene in which the child walks by a group of children kicking a ball in the street and tries to join their game. They reject him with the ordinary cruelty of children excluding a newcomer, but their rejection confirms his tortured sense of himself as unfit to live. This must have been something many people believed that the Germans should feel. Rossellini quietly makes us wonder if this feeling alone is not the worst punishment on earth.

Martin Scorsese has long championed this champion of cinema – his tribute to the major rebels of Italian film, MY VOYAGE TO ITALY, is named after Rossellini’s own, VIAGGIO IN ITALIA. He was, of course, married to Rossellini’s daughter with Ingrid Bergman, Isabella Rossellini and after seeing the three full length documentaries included in this set, one concludes she may have well provided crucial insight into a man whose films — however grand in scope — never managed to reflect the whole of his personality. Since the comprehensive retrospective of Rossellini’s work at the Museum of Modern Art in 2006, it seems, he has come back into public consciousness – there seems to have been one major critical piece a year in the New York Times since then — but his impact on filmmaking has been felt continuously since the spontaneous combustion of ROME OPEN CITY in 1946. It is a tribute to Criterion that this set, with its wonderful additional material, makes quite clear why.

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