A Fantasy Of Reel-ism: Roberto Rossellini’s The Machine That Kills Bad People – Blu-ray review
The master of cinematic realism wonders how ‘realistic’ the act of filming is, and delivers this delightfully strange, subversive fantasy.
The Machine That Kills Bad People
(Roberto Rossellini, 1952)
For the past few weeks, I’ve been charting the apparent end of Roberto Rossellini‘s neo-realism throughout the films he made with Ingrid Bergman; however, it would have taken just one viewing of The Machine That Kills Bad People (the film Rossellini was working on when he received the historic letter from his Hollywood superfan and future wife) to realise that the “R” word doesn’t really matter to Rossellini at all.
This is a flat-out fantasy, at once a satirical fable of civic bad manners following WWII and a surreal farce of the place of religion in the age of cinema. The titular machine is a camera, which simple-minded photographer Celestino discovers can kill… but only when it is used to take a picture of a picture, a recursion that highlights Rossellini’s understanding of the artifice of his medium.
Much of this is still, nominally, in the docudrama style that Rossellini perfected in the 1940s, notably a strikingly captured saint’s day parade that anticipates the one Scorsese shot in Mean Streets. Yet Rossellini gives fair warning that reality is but a backdrop in this film with a charmingly odd prologue in which a hand (the director’s, we assume) places cardboard cutouts of buildings and people to create the ‘set’ of the town and the dramatic personae of the story.
The playfulness extends to the madcap escalation of murders, making this a cheerfully twisted serial killer movie as each death reveals another bad person who needs to be offed. In an inspired touch, the camera turns the ‘real’ person into the same immobile pose as the original photograph… yet on-screen, Rossellini doesn’t freeze-frame but has the actor stand as still as possible. The result creates a dialectic between still and moving images, the sense of how the ‘machine’ betrays reality even as it professes to prolong it.
Such self-referential games are arguably undercut by the laden-with-a-trowel moral that everybody will appear bad in some way… so who can judge bar the Lord? Particularly at the end, this becomes as daft a film about angels and demons as anything Hollywood has produced. Nonetheless, Rossellini is too astute a director to leave it at that. The film achieves a brilliant image system by being set in a town on a hill, whose myriad staircases symbolise a correlation (or, ironically, not) between Heaven and hell, and the social hierarchy of the village where rich people literally rise above the sewer-less stench of the common folk. Morality gets conspicuously jumbled up, just in time when Americans have arrived to commercialise and exploit the legacy of war. One character even confuses Germans with Americans, a sign perhaps that one invasion feels much the same as another when ‘bad’ is so relative.
The Machine That Kills Bad People is released as an extra as part of the ace Roberto Rosselini / Ingrid Bergman Blu-ray Collection, which also features Stromboli, Journey To Italy and La Paura, all of which are reviewed here.