Roberto Rossellini and World War II: Part Two

On July 10, 1943, combined American and British Commonwealth troops invaded Sicily. Nine days later, the first air raid on Rome sent a signal that the Allies were on the move. This march north through Italy is the subject of Rossellini’s Paisà. Told in six discrete episodes, with newsreel footage of combat as a bridge between the stories, Rossellini is here able to expand the scale of his narrative beyond the confines of the Italian capital. The success of Rome, Open City in the United States made it possible for him to exploit a much larger budget and a broader scope. Partly funded by US sources brought together by a WWII GI, producer Rod Geiger, who had acquired the American rights to the first film, and who had re-invested his money back into Paisà, MGM acquired the US rights; it is more than a bit surprising to see the MGM Studio credit in front of the main title.

The American studio’s interest may have been canny, however, as filming began only months after the end of the war. Impressions of the war in Europe were fresh in Americans' minds, as well as in the minds of the GIs who were starring in all six of the episodes. Many of these actors came from Off-Broadway theater and had seen service in Italy only the year before.

The film critic Andre Bazin, father of the French New Wave, held Paisan in even higher regard than Rome, Open City. Writer Colin MacCabe refers to Bazin in a booklet essay that is included in The Criterion Collection 3 DVD box set:

[Paisan] was for European cinema what Citizen Kane was for Hollywood: an extraordinary advance in the ability of film to capture reality. Welles’s innovation, for Bazin, was formal and technological. He used the new lenses available at the end of the thirties to produce a depth of field that left the spectator free to pick out significance in a more complex image. The complexity of Rossellini’s image and its greater grasp of reality, according to Bazin, were achieved by a strange amalgam of documentary technique and fiction. This is most noticeable in the use of nonprofessional actors; the streets of the towns and cities are so vivid because the figures inhabiting them are not actors but the men, women, and children living through the dreadful realities of postwar Italy.

Whenever I read a critic’s analysis of directorial visual style, I always ask myself about the whereabouts of the cinematographer during the shooting: Where was cinematographer Gregg Toland when Welles was “using” these new deep focus lenses? I guess he was in the same place that Ottello Martelli was when Rossellini was “using” documentary techniques to capture the new realism of Paisan. Maybe it was only happenstance (I say with irony) that Martelli went on to photograph many of the early “neo-realist” films, especially of Rossellini’s young collaborator, Frederico Fellini.

Because the dramatic and narrative skein of Paisan is so different from either the interlocking relationships of Rome, Open City or that of the relentlessly close scrutiny of the German boy, Edmund, in Germany, Year Zero, it is necessary to give a brief summary of the storyline of each episode. Each story moves the action farther north, from the night time Allied invasion of Sicily in episode one, to the dénouement of episode six in the murky waters of the Po River marshes. These six episodes of Paisan employ camera and dramatic techniques that alternate between a more traditional style of early forties Italian studio cinema evident in the Rome episode (three), and a more severe documentary technique that reaches its apogee in the tension of the Po Valley episode (six). The Criterion Collection DVD of Paisan in this box set reflects the restored Italian version of the film rather than the You Tube clips that I reference in this essay, which are from the American release version. The Sicilian episode here is especially murky, but be patient. The compromised visual quality  in this embedded clip only emphasizes the terrific restoration that has been done in the new Criterion set.

Here are the storylines of the six episodes with illustrative video clips:

Sicily: An American squad recently landed on the beach, comes upon peasants huddled in a local church. A young girl offers to lead them through a German minefield outside of town. Left behind by the rest of his squad to guard a high lookout tower with the girl (Carmela), the soldier, Joe, tries to tell her about his family back in New Jersey. Joe’s effort to engage Carmella in conversation allows Rossellini to feature long takes with only a few, almost unnoticed, cuts. Warming to memories of his family, Joe flicks on his cigarette lighter to illuminate a photo. He is shot dead by a German rifleman.

Joe the MP and the raggazo Pasquale sit atop rubble of Naples' bombing (episode two).

Naples: A drunk, black, MP named Joe befriends an orphan boy, Pasquale. Sitting with Pasquale on a pile of rubble created by the American bombing, the GI fantasizes about his unlikely homecoming reception at the Waldorf-Astoria. He drives the boy home in his Jeep, cursing Pasquale for earlier having stolen his shoes when he had passed out. Pasquale’s “home” is a squalid, crowded cave. When the boy tells Joe that his parents were killed by bombs, Joe can’t bear the thought of becoming responsible for the boy, and he races away in his Jeep.

Rome: It begins with a documentary montage of the liberation of Rome, then transitions into the main story, a flash forward six months later. In this most conventionally told episode of the film, a story of love lost, found, and again lost, (including a major flashback) an American GI, Fred, spends the night with a whore. He tells her about an innocent Roman girl he had fallen in love with six months earlier when he had been in the first wave of the American liberating troops. But he has now lost contact with her. The girl, Francesa, (actress Maria Michi who had played the drug addict girlfriend in Rome, Open City) realizes that she is the very same girl that Fred remembers. She leaves a note for the sleeping GI asking him to meet her in the morning. The next day Fred examines Francesca's note while standing across the street from the Coliseum. When his fellow soldiers pile into a vehicle to leave, and encourage him to join them, he tosses out the note and jumps in, making an escape much like Joe’s from Pasquale at the end of the second episode.

Florence: The area south of the Arno has been liberated but the fascists and the Germans are still sniping in the northern part of the city. An American woman, Harriet, who is trying to find her Italian artist boyfriend, a partisan fighter nicknamed “Lupo”, joins with Massimo, a wounded partisan who wants to reach his own neighborhood and find his wife and two children. Their traversal through a no-man’s land via the Uffizi Passageway, across the Piazza degli Signora, past the Duomo and Baptistery, is a startlingly bleak vision for anyone who has ever been a tourist in the heart of Florence.

A partisan is shot and, dying in Harriet’s arms, he reveals that her artist boyfriend “Lupo” has been killed. She holds the young partisan’s dead body in a courtyard entranceway, again in a Pieta-like pose similar to the end of the first part of Rome, Open City, while partisans drag away several Italian collaborators to their execution.

The Monastery: This episode is the only relief from the grim litany of death, betrayal, and evasion that constitutes the rest of the film, much like the comic relief in a Shakespeare tragedy. A community of monks takes in three American Army chaplains for dinner and a night’s lodging. The Italian-American, (in real life an actor named Bill Tubbs) is the Catholic priest; the Protestant chaplain is played by real-life Captain Owen Jones, and the Jewish chaplain by Sergeant Elmer Feldman. When they realize that the monks have themselves gone without food in order to feed their guests (“We are fasting”), Tubbs rises to make a moving declaration of thanks for the charity and grace of the monks.

The GI chaplains and monks at prayer before dinner (episode five).

This episode is the most dialogue intense of the six episodes and it contrasts with the almost monosyllabic speech of the final episode on the Po River. The American chaplain speaks slow but excellent Italian while most of the Americans in the other episodes speak mostly English.

A floating dead partisan opens episode six.

The Po River Valley: The action has moved to the extreme north of Italy where the Germans are making a last stand amid the grassy marshes. Most of the action takes place in and around the narrow, poled boats that glide through the shallow water. The partisans and the English and American soldiers hunker low against the horizon. Death waits at every turn and the deceptively quiet and natural sounds of wind, water, and birds create an atmosphere, not of calm, but of heightened tension.

GIs and partisans bury their dead comrade.

The partisans are captured by the merciless Germans and in a grim finale, though they are soon to lose the war in Italy, the German soldiers execute six insurgents, pushing their bound bodies into the water.

Germans execute six partisans at the end of episode six.

The film ends abruptly with a held shot of the water’s wake after the last partisan body has sunk below the surface. A voiceover informs us that a few weeks later the war in Italy was over.

The ironic legend that ends "Paisan."

These clips are not of great quality and detailed maps with a voice-over explanation of the war’s progress are placed between the episodes. This was intended for the American market, as though the film itself were a quasi-documentary about the Italian campaign; it is intrusive, but this is how the film was first released in the United States. None of this ephemera, thankfully, is in The Criterion Collection set, and the film is wonderfully restored to its taut and unsentimental structure without any bridging history lessons.

There is every reason to believe that this restored edition of Paisan, a film long legendary in Europe, will now become a revelation for American viewers who have never had an opportunity to experience the full range of Rossellini’s stylistic evolution especially in his early work.

The film that comes next, the intense and closely observed Germany, Year Zero, concludes the trilogy. It is a profound meditation on a country’s guilt and expiation, ensouled in the journey of a quiet and delicate eleven year-old boy. It is a national examination that continues even now—more than sixty years later.

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