Roberto Rossellini, one of the pivotal artists in cinema history and perhaps the most influential of all European filmmakers, remains best known for his seminal works of the Italian movement labeled neorealism at the close of WWII. Operating with low funds and improvised materials, the former maker of propagandistic entertainments under Mussolini’s reign—including a collaboration with Il Duce’s son—found, in the liberation of Rome in June 1944 and the precedent of compatriots’ gritty (and domestically banned) movies such as Visconti’s Ossessione, the impetus to reinvent himself creatively and dramatize the bloodiest days of his nation and continent with a force that changed narrative-film aesthetics permanently. Martin Scorsese has described him as “the father of us all,” and Rossellini’s descendants most obviously include the French new wave, the British social-realist films of the early ‘60s, American mavericks from John Cassavetes to Hal Ashby, and even documentary makers of postwar generations across the globe.
In their international breakthrough, Rossellini and his team (including co-scripter Federico Fellini) used fly-by-night financing and scarce supplies of 35-mm film stock to forge a portrait of the city under Nazi occupation that, while more melodramatic than the two films that followed, is suffused with the sorrow and outrage occasioned by freshly experienced national trauma. Shot months after the Allies’ arrival, Rome Open City is concerned with a circle of salt-of-the-earth Romans in the early months of 1944 and their efforts to hide a fugitive anti-Fascist leader (Marcello Pagliero) from a dragnet. Given its landmark reputation for quick, newsreel-like location work, the movie’s interior scenes are more conventionally shot than one might expect, save for some vertiginous tenement stairway footage, but are galvanized by the quasi-folksy yet black-humored mise-en-scène and lustrous performances by a pair of schooled actors (to be dispensed with by Rossellini in many subsequent projects).
Aldo Fabrizi, as the neighborhood priest Don Pietro, is comically introduced with a soccer ball’s bounce off his head but proves to be a holy fool on the side of the angels, smuggling books with lire in place of pages between urban guerillas. The pudgy, bespectacled cleric is the audience’s surrogate among the heroic figures, and he’s at the center of double-edged farcical passages like his use of a bedridden man’s blanket to hide a rifle from the SS; Fabrizi, an established comedic performer, plays him as a practical Christian whose weary saintliness comes naturally. He frequently shares the screen with the dynamic Anna Magnani, who became an international star with her eye-rolling earth-mother turn as pregnant widow and bride-to-be Pina. Amid food rationing, she conducts raids on bakeries with the tactical acumen of a general and answers a query, “You think these Americans really exist?” with a shrug toward a bomb-blasted building: “It looks that way.” “We’ll see a better world,” Pina’s fiancée tells her on the eve of their wedding, and the tragic fate of nearly all the pro-resistance characters underlines the film’s balance of bleak reportage and romantic idealism. (Pina’s son and the boys he bands together with for petty nocturnal sabotage ultimately become the inheritors of the struggle for liberty.)
The elements of Rome Open City with the strongest whiff of showbiz are the epicene Gestapo chief (“How these Italians scream!” he mutters at the sounds of enhanced interrogation) and the hunted fugitive’s traitorous mistress, a nightclub floozie who betrays him in exchange for drugs and the lesbian favors of a German siren; but even in these stereotypes one can feel the movie’s loathing for the realities behind the cartoonishly drawn villains. From Magnani’s shockingly sudden exit—a harrowing high point of neorealist camera and editing aesthetics—to the torture of Pagliero by acetylene torch, this touchstone film looks with palpable agony at everyday life torn by war and compromised by the shifting price of survival. Its final sequence of an execution nervously prepared for, prolonged by shame, then brutally concluded, is typical of the unflinching emotional truth with which it regards horrors routinely fudged or avoided by the commercial cinema to date.
With Paisan following in 1946, Rossellini was determined to make something “purer” without sentimental touches, and again working with writers Fellini and Sergio Amidei produced a six-episode wartime drama with theme, as he described it, of “the problem of language…people absolutely unable to understand each other directly.” Geographically progressing with the Allies’ Italian campaign from its start in Sicily to the northern Po Valley, Paisan‘s American soldiers (and one nurse) love, fight alongside, pray with, and struggle to comprehend the motives of the natives they encounter. A young Sicilian woman (Carmela Sazio) huddles in a cave with “Joe from Jersey” while his patrol scouts the area, but his indiscreet cigarette flame leads to tragedy and her posthumous condemnation. In the Roman segment, a bright-faced girl (Maria Michi) comforts one of the US liberators with pidgin English and a washing bowl; six months later, amid black-market chaos, she’s a desperate prostitute and he’s too drunk to recognize her. And OSS officers battling the Germans with local partisans in the tall reeds of the Po delta are unable to save their fellows from execution. (A floating corpse with a “PARTIGIANO” sign hung on its neck is one of the movie’s enduring images.)
With more consistently documentary-like visuals than Open City, Paisan keeps its brief plots anecdotal and arguably too abrupt; the nurse (Harriet White) who scrambles through the rubble of Florence in search of an old lover, and an African-American MP (Dots Johnson) in search of the Neapolitan urchin who swiped his boots both make revelatory discoveries, and their stories fade out. But the humane, vernacular atmosphere particularly created by Rossellini’s handling of amateur actors (including the American soldiers often playing GIs, dodgy post-synched line readings and all) and exploitation of the battle-bruised cityscapes, is the film’s fabric; the mood of interpersonal yearnings and failures in the context of mortal danger and epochal events is what sticks. When three American chaplains make an overnight stay in an Apennine monastery, then discover its monks are fasting in hopes that the souls of the Jewish and Protestant clerics will be saved, the depth of Rossellini’s humor and compassion render the episode touching instead of queasy.
Filming the trilogy’s conclusion, Germany Year Zero, in infernal, ruined Berlin during the summer of 1947, the director finally succeeded in draining his “real-life” template of sentimentality. Telling the unrelentingly grim story of 13-year-old boy (Edmund Meschke) “so depraved and corrupted” (in the accusation of his bedridden, starving father) by a Hitler Youth childhood and the deprivations of the postwar city that he moves with blinkered logic from hustling goods to considering patricide, his stunted character is perfectly mirrored by setting. The long, depth-of-field street shots—canyons of rubble and sprouting weeds that dwarf the malnourished children and scurrying citizens pushing wheelbarrows—contain the most spectacular evidence of cataclysm Rossellini ever trained his lens on, and the scenario infuses it from the first reel with mortifying moments such as passersby descending upon the carcass of a fallen horse for its meat.
Young Meschke’s face is frequently a dead-eyed blank, his benumbed juvenile seemingly getting little pleasure even from the pastimes of running with a ring of teenage thieves or the sexual initiation they engineer for him with a local girl. Edmund’s older sister, as with many young women in the earlier films, is plying the men of the occupying forces for whatever she can get, while his brother, a soldier of the Reich to the end, fearfully hides from the Allied conquerors in the family’s shared apartment. The boy does show enthusiasm when a former teacher (Erich Guhne), an embittered Nazi turned black marketer, enlists him both as a mule for contraband and a lust object to caress. But even this predatory Fagin is appalled by his protégé‘s ultimate crime, and Rossellini closes his cycle on the century’s great European tragedy with a forlorn death as shocking and pitiable as Pina’s in the Roman street.
After decades in which these films have appeared in washed-out, nearly unwatchable incarnations, the transfers presented here are a new visual experience in detail and clarity. The images are not perfect, with flickering and other instability particularly noticeable in low-light scenes, and scratches appearing at the end of some reels, but it's doubtful that the trilogy has looked this sharp since the '40s. (As the package booklet notes, speculation that Rome Open City owed its long-defective appearance to Rossellini's use of scavenged bits of film stock are dispelled by the quality of this restoration.) The monaural sound is often appropriately harsh and technologically primitive—only Germany Year Zero was shot with direct rather than post-synched sound—but consistently put to canny dramatic use.
In the upper tier of the supplement packages ever presented by Criterion, the extras spread across the three discs in the War Trilogy box amount to a seminar on Roberto Rossellini's life and art. Some are tied to a specific film: A 2006 documentary on the genesis and aftermath of Rome Open City features Isabella Rossellini describing her father's preference for its resonance as history rather than its formal attributes, along with archival comments by François Truffaut, stars Anna Magnani and Aldo Fabrizi, the director (who considered the script's melodramatic flourishes "cheating, a little bit"), and his future wife Ingrid Bergman, who was so moved upon seeing the picture that she wrote its maker a plea to cast her in a future project. Also included is a clip of Mussolini's son Vittorio, who worked on the scenario of a pre-Open City Rossellini movie and says of the renowned auteur, "He was neither Fascist nor anti-Fascist…He only cared about living the good life. Later he became Rossellini."
Open City is also the subject of the set's only feature-length commentary track, recorded for a previous laserdisc edition by Peter Bondanella, who takes perceptive note of the movie's many "artificial" conventions, such as the studio set for the Gestapo lair, classical editing rhythms, and Renzo Rossellini's often insistent musical themes, plus the attempt at "moral rapprochement" between its Christian and Marxist heroes. Included elsewhere are brief introductions to TV broadcasts of the trilogy by the director, new video analyses by Rossellini scholar Adriano Aprà that supply historical context (such as Paisan's geographic evocation of the 1860 campaign of Garibaldi), reminiscences by the filmmaking Taviani brothers on their youthful discovery of the films, and a 1987 discussion with Germany Year Zero assistant director Carlo Lizzani on that film's pre-production.
Taking a wider view, a 2001 hour-long doc by Lizzani follows Rossellini from his privileged Roman youth through his midlife move to France, to his abandonment of cinema for made-for-TV "history films" in the '60s and '70s, taking a mortal view of monarchs, saints, scientists, and Jesus Christ. Martin Scorsese asserts that these late works' capacity to "find the people in the documentary detail" greatly affected his own oeuvre. One clip shows Rossellini disdaining his lionization as an auteur: "I'm a professional, nothing more, and I don't wish to be anything else." He's also seen in video excerpts of a 1970 discussion with American students and faculty at Rice University, in which he defines neorealism as "an escape from the big church of the studio."
Another highlight is author Mark Shiel's video essay "Rossellini and the City," for its insight into the war cycle's "de-monumentalizing" of its historic Italian cities in favor of a vision of populist decency enduring against a backdrop of official breakdown, while the desolate Berlin of the finale evokes an abstracted "endlessness." Biographer Tag Gallagher uses excerpts to dissect filmmaking choices affected by social concerns, such as the softening of native Fascist villainy in the name of postwar reconciliation, and recurring visual tropes like character movement within the frame. An illustrated-text featurette suggests that Rossellini was prompted by his five-year relationship with a German mistress to set the third film in the vanquished seat of Nazism. Finally, the box's booklet offers four critical essays, including James Quandt's overview of the trilogy's fusion of classicism, expressionism, and improvisation, and its creator's eagerness to distance himself from his title of father of neorealism.
Electric, essential cinema framed with love and scholarly reverence.