A double-bill of obscure but inventive films, Lionsgate’s Roberto Rossellini: Director’s Series set highlights the great Italian director’s refusal to simply rest on his neorealist laurels. The older of the two, Dov’è la libertà...?, is a Chaplinesque shaggy-dog tale that, appropriately, uses a scene from Modern Times as its point of departure. Freedom is scarier than imprisonment to Salvatore (legendary Neapolitan comic Totò), a barber who, after spending two decades in jail for killing his wife’s lover, finds himself reentering a society he no longer recognizes. Despite the humorous trappings of the story, the Rome Salvatore steps into is still Rossellini’s city, a place marked by dilapidated tenements, slaughterhouses and swindlers and chipping away at the protagonist’s illusory notions of order. Salvatore’s family is a pack of vultures willing to use the Holocaust to fleece a Jewish clan of their riches, and even his wife, whose memory he has sanctified since her death, is revealed as a perfidious schemer. What’s left for him to do but scramble back to the stability of his cell? Made with the anxiety one expects of a comedy shoehorned between Europa ‘51 and Viaggio in Italia, Rossellini’s 1954 mid-career curio is peculiarly disjointed (the courtroom-set bracketing sequences were reportedly shot by Federico Fellini and added after Rossellini lost interest in the project). Still, its bitterness fascinates, a bitterness that, Totò‘s beguiling mix of mugging and courtliness notwithstanding, feels directed less at a shifting world than at a character who’d rather escape from it than struggle with it.
Released in 1960, Era Notte a Roma contrasts intriguingly with the filmmaker’s previous hit, General Della Rovere. Both deal with subjects from Rossellini’s breakthrough works—partisan resistance in WWII Italy—while extending an interest in the slender line between saints and impostors. (Notte opens with a trio of hilariously tough-dealing black marketeers disguised as nuns.) Where General focused exclusively on the changing psyche of Vittorio De Sica’s redeemed pimp, however, Notte dispels identification through a batch of characters of various nationalities and interests, from the underground dealer reluctantly dragged into heroism (Giovanna Ralli) to the Allied fugitives hiding in her attic (Leo Genn, Peter Baldwin and Sergei Bondarchuk). Also unlike General (and at the opposite pole from Open City), the film displays Rossellini’s growing preference for ruminating long takes over urgent montage, a stylistic advance greatly aided by the zoom lens employed to analyze elements within a composition without cutting away from it. (Rossellini’s use of the technique here is still tentative, yet several scenes, like the virtuosic crisscross of codes and betrayals in a church meeting between rebels, show an acute understanding of its potential.) If Notte is too diffuse to rank with his other masterpieces, it nevertheless sows the seeds of the contemplative approach of the director’s later historical portraits, a characteristically Rossellinian instance of seeming haphazardness leading to new ways of seeing.
Given its age and obscurity, Dov'è la libertà...? looks quite sharp, though the transfer for Era Notte a Roma is hazy, with details dulled by gray clouds. The mono sound is full of echoes.
Snippets from other Lionsgate releases (Diva, The Red Violin) are mixed in a quick promo.
A throwaway package for a pair of interesting Rossellini curios.