Il Generale Della Rovere was Roberto Rossellini's only post-Open City film to be critically and commercially successful upon its initial release, a fact that reportedly irritated the great Italian director to no end. To reviewers, the picture signaled a welcome return to the settings and themes of Rossellini's neorealist origins after years of baffling experiments; to Rossellini himself, however, the project marked a step backward toward safe territory after more daring, exploratory works.
Bardone (Vittorio De Sica) is a graying, small-time swindler in 1943 Genoa, supporting his gambling habit by palming off phony jewels and bilking money from the relatives of Gestapo prisoners. Arrested, he's offered a deal by the Nazis: In exchange for a pardon, he will impersonate General Della Rovere, a Resistance hero who was killed prematurely. Bardone is sent to prison in hopes that his disguise will draw information from the other prisoners of war, but as he gets to know their cause and witnesses Nazi tortures, his assignment goes from another charade in the con man's life to the painful awakening of his political conscience.
A fascinating crossroads in Rossellini's career, the film looks back at the furious urgency of his earlier postwar sketches and ahead to the contemplation of his later, stylized portraits. Artifice mingles with rawness: grainy newsreel views of wartime depredations segue into the reconstructed rubble of Cinecittà studio sets, location filming coexists with rear projection. Some critics saw this mix as a betrayal of neorealist ideals, yet it's a strategy that strikingly reflects the impulses increasingly at odds within the protagonist.
General Della Rovere takes its shape from the progress of Bardone's masquerade, from the perfunctory "Be strong, boys" he first gives his awed fellow cellmates to the night he quells air-raid hysteria with a heroic conviction which startles himself above all. The film builds to a characteristically devastating Rossellinian moment, as Bardone becomes Della Rovere by impulsively taking his place in front of the Nazi firing squad. To Rossellini, cinema's great moments are the ones that bridge performance and life, when barriers separating the player and the mask break down. It's no accident that the final image of the executed prisoners, slumped against a fresco of a painted cityscape, functions as both the cast's final bow on a blatant stage and a trenchant glimpse of history's collective horrors.