May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
January 26, 2010
Spread the news: Roberto Rossellini’s groundbreaking War Trilogy is finally available, together at last on DVD — which, for these films, is in itself a cause for celebration. But this is much more than just “available” — Rome, Open City, Paisà and Germany, Year Zero look and sound better than I’ve ever seen, and they’re packaged in a comprehensive and classy box-set from the Criterion Collection. Pinch me. These films have long been among my all-time favorites, even though I’ve been watching them on beat-up virtually samizdat versions all these years. To see them now, in these fresh digital transfers, as clean, crisp and constrasty as technologically possible, makes this a very merry January – and that’s not even talking about the bounty of Special Features with them.
It seems borderline crazy that it’s taken this long and has been so hard to get decent releases of much of the filmography of one of the key figures in film history. In a certain sense, though, maybe that’s apropos. Roberto Rossellini is one of the most elusive, unlikely, maddening, flighty, brilliant, persistent characters to repeatedly shatter and remake cinema. His career was a roller-coaster ride of acclaim and derision. Through it all, he scratched out one of the richest veins of film history, one that is still producing all these years later, drawn upon by generations of filmmakers worldwide. Not bad for an incurable playboy-artist who drove crazy his actors, crew, funders, audiences and critics, pooh-poohing his own personal myth even as he wove it. The War Trilogy was snatched out of the fires of World War II, and Rossellini began even before the fire was out with an unexpected critical and box-office hit from occupied Rome. In the process, he created a new film style and rehabilitated Italy’s image in world opinion. Then he wheeled around and invested that capital in ways that turned the world against him, sparked notorious scandals, got himself exiled from polite company, only to end up canonized by one cinematic New Wave after another. No wonder so many people have had such a hard time keeping up.
Me, I just got used to things like long stretches of dialogue untranslated into subtitles on my ancient, crappy VHS copies of his films. But not only is the translation and subtitle problem remedied in this new Criterion set, but the image and sound — while it isn’t quite “slick” — is better than we have a right to expect from that earthy ideal, neorealism. And there it is, showing up right on time, “a term that ranks with noir as one of the most contested in film history,” says James Quant in the introductory essay that opens the 45-page booklet from this box-set. “Neorealism” — nobody was more surprised than Rossellini at his invention, and then subsequent betrayal of this protean absolute. Might as well add my own definition: neorealism, rather than a means of telling a story, is a way of letting the story tell itself. In other words, the materials of the film — the location, the actors, the things — all have their own message that deserves to be heard; a neorealist artist has a special capacity to receive and not just impose meaning. Or, to let Rossellini try his hand at it: “Neorealism consists in following a person with love.”
If Rossellini was the father, necessity was the mother of this invention. The Italian film industry was in shambles. Rome’s Cinecittà studio was a refugee camp. Filmmakers, screenwriters, producers, actors, and crew people were as defeated as the rest of their nation. Yet Rossellini, who’d been making films under the Fascists, determined to make one now that he was free of them. The production of Rome, Open City is the stuff of legend: the begging, borrowing and stealing film stock and power from the occupiers; the corralling of money, cast and crew — the continuing of the Resistance by other means. Principle photography began before the dust settled on German convoys departing the capital, long before the Nazis surrendered their control of he rest of the country. To make a film on the very recent past, with actual participants, in actual locations, under extreme conditions, created a new filmmaking method: in its ideal form, neorealism came to mean shooting on location, with natural light, with amateur actors, improvising small stories, from the “here and now,” and energized by a stark moral urgency.
Of course, Rome, Open City does not give us neorealism in its ideal form. This is a conventional film in many ways — so much so, that Rossellini came to hate it, the sentimentality and stock villains. It had too much of “the old ingredients.” He hated it for another reason, too: audiences, if they could, would have forced him to remake it again and again for the rest of his career — and they never forgave him when he refused. It’s easy to understand both the audience here and the director. Note this isn’t a perfect film, but — the radical circumstances of its production aside — it’s still a great film. Open City is so full of tenderness and humanity in that Catholic Fordian way, with a casual earthiness Ford would never be able to achieve in the Hollywood system. The plot follows (“with love”) the crossing paths of a diverse Italian resistance against Nazi occupation: Communists, priests, ordinary folks find an almost utopian community in the fight against evil. Making any kind of film work is a miracle, and if there are such things as miracles, there’s probably not much difference between a big one and little one: nevertheless, Open City seems an especially big miracle — imagine a film masterpiece emerging today from the streets of Baghdad or Kabul — or even Port Au Prince.
You’d think any filmmaker who can make this kind of film under these kinds of conditions should be allowed to make whatever kind of film he or she wants to make after that. Instead, Rossellini was pilloried for his every move — for violating convention, for violating the new conventions of neorealism. He was haunted by Open City for the rest of his life; yet, unlike many a filmmaker in that position may have done, he refused to turn success into a franchise. Instead, he let the voices within and without chase him out of his own box — and produced a succession of important works unrivaled in film history. At times it seemed like only Andre Bazin, the pioneer French film critic and most articulate patron of neorealism, understood what Rossellini was doing and defended him the whole way. (Of course, there was also Ingrid Bergman, who after seeing Open City and the follow-up, Paisà, was ready to throw away her Hollywood career in order to work with Rossellini — but that’s another story.)
Until this Criterion release, I’d only seen the American cut of Paisà (and barely that, given the image quality.) The new DVD is crystal clear in comparison, if still gritty. Paisà is an anthology film: a half dozen short stories, some better than others, following the American army from landing in Sicily up the boot of Italy. Along the way, they encounter the enemy and the locals, which often threaten to be one and the same. The theme is cross-cultural communication: everybody is always misinterpreting somebody else, trying or failing to speak or understand another language. They stare across a great divide until (as somebody has said) a spark jumps the divide and (as Peter Brunette says) “their humanity is revealed to one another and they can no longer treat each other as objects.” From the initial, abortive attempts of Sicilian girl Carmela and “Joe from Jersey” to the total identification by the Americans with the Partisan cause in the north, we see the connections increase as the story and journey continue and leave us with hope in the midst of tragedy.
Language problems here may include a more neorealist vocabulary: unconventional structure, production values and performances. The stiff American G.I.s in the “Sicily” episode might scare some viewers away; the “Naples” episode is better — a confrontation with American racism in a story of a black soldier and a street urchin. The director relates, in an interview included here, how he cadged from the occupiers vehicles and both American and German soldiers — the latter POWs, of course. They drove around Italy (Rossellini claims he drove the tank), working as cast and crew. At one point the POWs, worried about losing their guard, wandered into a monastery and gave themselves up to the monks. This became the setting for the “Romagna” episode (even if it was filmed in Sicily), where the cloistered monks meet a trio of American army chaplains — men of war facing men of peace, yes, but even worse, one of them is a Protestant and another a Jew! “Paisà” is a name for someone from one’s own village: this is a film about the possibility of moving from uninvolved outsider to sympathetic insider.
The most daring such movement in the War Trilogy involves seeing through the eyes of the enemy in Germany, Year Zero. The audacity of making a film amid the ruins of the Third Reich — while they were practically still smoldering! In shattered Berlin, the survivors are forced together in any place still marginally intact. Edmund is a boy trying to be a man in a world where adults are swindlers, hookers, predators — everybody is selling something; openness, innocence, purity seem liabilities if you want to survive. Yet Edmund seems to embody these virtues — even more than I’d realized. Until this release, I’d only seen the Italian-dubbed version of this film. Yet the dubbing actor was much older than the child on the screen — his voice had already changed! Hearing Edmund’s real voice transforms the experience, elevates the character even more as a tragic figure. (The Italian version also sports a clunky prologue, here thankfully absent.) The polarities could not be more stark: a sweet little child wandering among the Nazi ruins.
When a former teacher continues to inculcate Edmund with the Nazi Gospel of strength, the boy takes the lessons to heart. And some broken things just can’t be fixed. To heal his nation, Edmund has to find a way to start over. “He’s the sacrificial lamb in a certain sense,” says film scholar Adriano Aprà. Indeed, Edmund is Isaac, and this film offers a shocking — and ultimately redemptive — image of the Kierkegaardian leap. In one of two interviews included in the set, Aprà muses on how the death of the director’s son Romano overlaid Rossellini’s grappling with Europe’s tragedy in this film, infusing it with a very personal processing of grief and loss. “It’s only if we journey into the depths of hell – that is, accept the hell within us – that we can hope to re-emerge on the other side and build a better future.” Aprà joins a growing critical consensus that Germany, Year Zero is Rossellini’s masterpiece.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
After breaking things down in his War Trilogy, Rossellini ascended again, reaching forward and behind, to the roots of European virtue — even as he, personally, was caught up in an explosive moral scandal. He drew upon some hidden source to press on, pouring himself into films that were, at the time, spurned as failures — several of which have come to be numbered among most influential masterpieces of cinema. He later reconciled with the public and moved on to a new frontier, a series of historical films for television, in which he continued to plumb for foundations of Italian and Western civilization. Last year, Criterion brought out a box set of “Rossellini’s History Films-Renaissance and Enlightenment,” including Blaise Pascal (1972), The Age of the Medici (1973) and Cartesius (1974). These go with other Criterion editions of Generale della Rovere (1959) and The Flowers of St. Francis (1950). Based on the superb image quality of some of the clips used in special features on the “War Trilogy” set, I’ll take a wild guess that other films now being readied for release include Socrates (1971), Augustine of Hippo (1972), and — more importantly — L’Amore (1948, an anthology film, with “Una Voce Humana” and one of my favorites, “Il Miracolo”) along with Stromboli (1950) and Europa ’51 (1952). If only!
Meanwhile, there are Special Features aplenty to keep ourselves occupied with this latest Criterion set.
* There are introductions by the director himself from the 1963 French TV series, Roberto Rossellini Presents — though he tends to deliver spoilers, and (like most artists) isn’t always the best interpreter of either his own work or others’ discussion of it.
* Roberto Rossellini is a solid biographical and career survey, by Italian filmmaker Carlo Lizzani, a former Rossellini AD, featuring archival footage, clips and interviews — with daughter Isabella Rossellini; lifelong student Martin Scorsese; François Truffaut as representative for a French Wave that owed so much to Rossellini; collaborators Sergio Amidei and Federico Fellini (who directed his first shot in Paisà); Alfonsino Pasca, who was and played a Neapolitan urchin; finally there’s Rossellini himself, at various conferences, eluding the academics who try to chase him into some rigid category.
*The faded clips in Once Upon a Time… Rome, Open City show the huge leap in quality in the new transfer of the film. In this 2006 “making of” documentary, Rossellini shares personal reminiscences of the Allied liberation of Rome, and what it was like pulling together a film project in the midst and aftermath of that. We hear again from Fellini and Carlo Lizzani, and also an unexpected guide, Vittorio Mussolini, cinephile and would-be filmmaker who oversaw Rossellini’s early work.
* Easily the best supplement is Into the Future, a 30-minute visual essay, compiled and narrated by Rossellini scholar, Tag Gallagher (whose The Adventures Of Roberto Rossellini: His Life And Films is the definitive biographical analysis.) Gallagher cuts together stills and clips under a learned and often poetic rumination, with an eagle eye for details and surgical-strike insights. (“The GI seems unaware that the rubble he sits on is due to three years of Allied bombing, killing 20,000 civilians and Pasquale’s parents…”) This essay engages the War Trilogy, in both myth and fact, with loving care.
* There’s more: Italian filmmakers the Taviani brothers, whose WWII drama The Night of the Shooting Stars (1982) offers quirky homage to Paisà, discuss Rossellini’s influence on their own films — but, alas, we don’t hear on that topic from the Dardennes brothers, who have named Germany, Year Zero as their “model film.” German film scholar Thomas Meder offers an illustrated essay to argue that Rossellini’s relationship with his German mistress Roswitha Smith played a role in his sympathetic treatment of the defeated enemy. In Letters from the Front, Carlo Lizzani talks about the challenges of working with Rossellini, reading letters written from the set to an art critic friend. For all this, only one of the films comes with a commentary: Rome, Open City, done by Peter Bondanella, author of Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present.
* Finally, a 45-page booklet, featuring an introductory essay by James Quant of the Toronto Cinemathèque on the complexities of “neorealism” — with a nod to recent conversation of an emerging “neo-neo realism“. Each film in the War Trilogy also gets a brief introduction by a different film critic: Irene Bignardi calls neorealism “an opening onto reality;” Colin McCabe offers further pondering and parsing of this ticklish term, “reality:’ Jonathan Rosenbaum insists on the ethical, even spiritual, thrust of the films.
The War Trilogy summons moral seriousness and grand expectations: Rome, Open City was, as the directors of one documentary in this set declare, “the rallying myth for a new Italy.” Tag Gallagher calls Paisà “the founding epic of the New Italy, like The Aeneid was for the Roman Empire.” For me, it’s impossible to consider the War Trilogy in isolation from the director’s subsequent films; in fact, I’ve long included several of Rossellini’s war and postwar projects as part of a larger unified work — call it The Love & War Cycle. This series continues from Year Zero directly into another film — though not the next one in the director’s filmography — which offers a thematic rejoinder to the end of childhood: its rebirth. The Flowers of St. Francis begins a conversation about love that carries into Europa ’51 with its modern-day Francis, confronts postwar cynicism with fresh spiritual reality in Stromboli, and climaxes in Voyage to Italy. Adding The Miracle somewhere in there, this cycle offers as profound a spiritual and aesthetic journey as an epic Medieval fresco, and with The War Trilogy spans heaven and hell.
Rossellini’s films form an ambitious and prophetic call for a New Europe not seen again until Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski, following the end of the Cold War, unleashes his furious energies on his own European re-founding myth, the Three Colors triptych. The first film of that series, Blue, involves the creation of a symphony to commemorate the unity of Europe. The piece is a setting of St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” Roberto Rossellini’s neorealist postwar journey follows the same thematic quest and reaches the same conclusion. The War Trilogy is the first movement, driving fearlessly into the hole in the Western soul, with a view to the light at the end of the tunnel.