Neo Signs: Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy (1945-8) – Blu-ray review
The shock of the neo – for all their stylistic innovations, what really impresses is Rossellini’s growing ambition and ambiguity in charting the post-war hangover.
Rome, Open City / Paisà / Germany Year Zero / L’Amore
(Robert Rossellini, 1945 / 1946 / 1948 / 1948)
One of the first things that film students learn about as they get to grips with the history of cinema is the importance of Italian neo-realism in forging new aesthetic and political ideas into the medium. The films that Roberto Rossellini made in the immediate aftermath of WWII are regarded as standard-bearers for neo-realism, yet watching his ‘war trilogy’ (plus one non-war film) together in this excellent new BFI box-set proves that things were never that simple.
1945’s Rome, Open City is the most overt source of the neo-realist legend, given the sheer chutzpah with which Rossellini recaptures the feeling of an occupied city mere months after the events actually occurred. Most people’s response on being liberated would be to celebrate; Rossellini preferred to rope a load of non-professionals into re-enacting the suffering they’d just endured.
The result: this isn’t dry reportage but punchy docu-drama, a touchstone for the careers of Gillo Pontecorvo, Oliver Stone, Paul Greengrass and many others. The classically structured Resistance thrills (co-written by none other than future auteur Federico Fellini) pulse with the same gripping set-pieces and surging emotion that could be found in any Hollywood melodrama of the period – so what makes it so influential?
The ‘neo’ rests on two crucial differences. Lacking money or resources, Rossellini hit the streets guerrilla-style, using scavenged film stock to capture a bona fide landscape of bombed-out ruins and eerily empty streets that money (and art direction) couldn’t buy. The rough-and-ready texture has the vibrancy of fact – and certainly this isn’t a disc to show off Blu-ray’s capabilities, given how variable the source material was in technical quality. Yet check out any contemporary newsreels and you’ll see that Rome’s liberated streets were thronged with G.I.s and jubilant Italians. The contrast highlights how remarkable Rossellini’s restaging actually was.
In fact, surprisingly little of the film is out in the open. Those budgetary limitations saw Rossellini centre the action on a handful of sets to control the complicated comings-and-goings of partisans, traitors and occupiers. If not quite noir, the film shares a stark, stripped-down claustrophobia of a world under curfew, and the lighting favours expressionism over literal realism just as the production design conjures up a factually nonsensical but dramatically gripping floor plan for the Nazi headquarters, where a decadent entertainment lounge is only a few paces away from a torture chamber.
Which leads to the second difference: tone. If the schematic characterisation (partisans, good; Nazis, bad) echoes the patriotic fervour of those movies (like Casablanca) that emerged from the Allies’ propaganda movie-machine, Rossellini’s first-hand view of occupation leaves no room for glamour or softness. If the long, dialogue scenes look slow and stagey to today’s eyes, the emotional urgency never flags and its immediacy is still potent thanks to Rossellini’s canny blending of non-professionals with more experienced thesps.
So slapstick gives way to ferocious combat and senseless slaughter, children become saboteurs and the tools of torture are left in plain sight during a grim final act that could teach Eli Roth a thing or two about getting under the audience’s skin. This isn’t a film made by victors but by victims, the urge to document the horrors doubling as remembrance and catharsis. The ending – a plaintive shot of children trudging to an uncertain future after witnessing the execution of their priest – highlights how close to the bone Rossellini was.
Rossellini didn’t only want to show what it was like to live in a warzone but to have the audience feel it. Rossellini’s mission to document the emotional reality of that sensation is expressed in 1946’s Paisà, during which he took the ideas of the earlier film on the road for an episodic study of the Italian experience during those years. Yet Rossellini is experimenting with his new techniques. In contrast to the directness of Rome, Open City, the collective lack of closure in Paisa carries a nervy, claustrophobic charge in which explanations are tantalisingly out of reach.
This is a director stretching outwards from an artistic breakthrough; the earlier film had shown the virtues of a docudrama approach and Rossellini sees how it can work in different contexts. Bookended by the most conventional combat sequences, in between there is a bittersweet buddy-comedy, a fatalistic romance, a tense quest thriller and a serene meditation on religion. As in the earlier film, Rossellini mixes conventional techniques (studio sets, chiaroscuro lighting) with the immediacy of shooting amongst bombed-out ruins. Here’s proof that neo-realism isn’t tied to a subject; at times, it is as exciting as a conventional war pic.
What is that subject? As the title – Italian for countrymen – suggests, this is a mosaic of Italy at the fag end of the war, a nation stubbornly surviving, be it through petty theft, prostitution or partisan fighting. The running theme is their interactions with the American liberators: genial, naïve and hopelessly unsuited to understanding the fractured psyche of their hosts (although at least they try: the Brits are characterised as lazy elitists more concerned with protecting Florence’s cultural legacy than its population).
Rossellini centres on two-handed conversations, long takes whose awkward bi-lingual conversations are full of fragile hope and bitter ironies; it is much more complex than the straightforward morality of Rome, Open City and it’s perhaps no surprise that the only recognisable face to reappear from the earlier film is Maria Michi, who played its most conflicted character. Her episode best captures the mood of the film as a whole, in which the Americans are tourists and it is the Italians who have to pick up the pieces – and yet, largely studio-bound and blessed with a flashback worthy of Hollywood melodrama – it is the episode which least resembles the dictionary definition of neo-realism.
Don’t forget, though: this was before that dictionary definition ever existed, and Rossellini went his own way. If Paisà suggested that the Italian experience would provide a seemingly inexhaustible supply of stories for Rossellini, it’s a mark of his ambition and empathy that he wondered about the other side. In Italy, however difficult the transition, the arrival of the Allies was something to celebrate; but in Germany, a much darker ambiguity settled on a nation that – as one character has it – “fought to the very end.”
The variety of stories in Paisà offers a degree of hope; in 1948’s Germany Year Zero, Rossellini zeroes in (pun intended) on the experience of one child, an avatar for the ruined innocence of an entire society. This is a remarkably claustrophobic film, replacing the wide-ranging, cross-country survey for one dilapidated, overcrowded tenement whose occupants are mired in an endless search for food and a constant battle to keep their utilities.
There are hierarchical divisions and snobberies here, as in any group, but Rossellini highlights these as the petty gestures of people trying to cling to a perilously thin moral high ground. Accordingly, his visual style implicates everybody, in long, technically intricate takes that pan and track across confined quarters; it would be much easier to cut around the action and the very act of filming emphasises the hardship, the lack of escape from circumstances.
The unmistakable metaphor is how Germany steps out of the shadow of Nazism. Edmund’s brother is an unrepentant soldier, stubbornly insisting that he was only doing his duty; his father exclaims hollow guilt for lying back and doing nothing; his sister takes to the streets every night to help makes ends meet. Something between these modes lies Rossellini’s sad, wise denuciation of the war; there’s an element of understanding (not surprising, given that the director also lived under Fascist rule) but Rossellini leaves the judgement to history. Was it worth following Hitler when his only use now is to make a few Reichsmarks selling old recording of the Fuhrer’s speech to G.I.s looking for a souvenir?
The legacy of war is Edmund and the other children like him. Rossellini’s children are always wise beyond their years – Rome’s partisan saboteurs or Paisa’s shoe-thieving street urchin – but Edmund represents the curtailment of innocence. Lured by a predatory, paedophile ex-Nazi teacher (sexual deviancy as metaphor for political deviancy, Edmund ‘grows up’ with a chilling nihilism that makes you longer for the equally bleak but somehow more palatable lessons of Rome, Open City. In the bleak final act, as Edmund trudges around the blasted ruins of Berlin, social realism merges with timeless Oedipal drama as the old generation makes way for the new… but is it worth keeping?
Viewed together, it is the subject as much as the style that defines the trilogy. For all that shooting in the shadows of war provides an aesthetic unity to the work of Rossellini’s contemporaries (such as Bicycle Thieves‘ director Vittorio De Sica), what fascinates is the multi-faceted way that Rossellini views the European experience, finding increasingly bolder and more complex vantage points. It remains a useful model for how to tackle war on film – indeed, you might argue that its structure (front-line / back home / enemy’s perspective) was borrowed by Oliver Stone for his own trio of films about Vietnam.
The BFI boxset provides plenty of context, from critical essays to a retrospective documentary on Rome, Open City. Yet the most illuminating ‘extra’ is actually another film by Rossellini, 1948’s L’Amore, whose two episodes were shot either side of Germany Year Zero.
Having ‘done’ war, it’s perhaps no surprise that Rosselllini tackled love, but inevitably L’Amore offers distinct pleasures of its own, as well as a useful alternative to the war films. It’s a chaser to the big drinks of the trilogy and so apt as a bonus feature here. As playful and experimental as it is anchored in long-take performance, it’s hard to see something this symbolic as realism, neo or not.
At 80 minutes long, it comprises just two episodes – a case of shorts linked only by theme (and that’s a charitably broad definition of love) and the shared presence of Rome, Open City’s breakout star Anna Magnani, getting a thorough showcase for her abilities. The first half, The Human Voice, is a chamber drama, a virtuoso solo based on a Jean Cocteau story in which Magnani’s jilted lover has a series of conversations with her ex and going through all emotions possible. She’s half at war with her own conflicted actions (beg? Commit suicide? Accept the end with sanguine grace?) and Rossellini’s long, slow takes track in hopefully and edge away awkwardly like a conductor. It’s far more dynamic that a theatrical piece should be, and even contains one laugh-out-loud reaction shot of a dog.
Part 2, The Miracle, takes Magnani’s self-delusion on a tour of a gorgeously picturesque but socially moribund rural Italy. She’s a crazy woman who mistakes a hillside stranger for St Joseph; duly impregnated, she is variously mocked and run out of town – often with her own connivance, so convinced she’s been earmarked for greater things. It’s at once closer to Rossellini’s war films in the use of outdoor space as a signifier for emotional torment, but also bears many of the hallmarks of writer (and co-star) Federico Fellini in its religious symbolism and loopy picaresque. It’s a telling reminder that there was always an element of artifice in Rossellini, the chinks in the armour that the next generation – led by Fellini – would blow up into something more baroque.