An account of the unification of Italy’s nation-states, Viva l’Italia! primarily follows Giuseppe Girabaldi (Renzo Ricci), the general who led the Expedition of the Thousand to conquer Italy under the banner of Victor Emmanuel II. Outmanned by the various kingdoms resisting his campaign, Garibaldi must rely on shock tactics and guerrilla warfare, mounting skirmishes on multiple fronts to create the illusion that he has a larger fighting force. Aiding him in this effort are technological breakthroughs in communication such as telegrams and mass-market printing presses that allow for the swift dissemination of information necessary to command several fronts of action. Such advances also make it easier to create and distribute propaganda, which sympathetic citizens across Italy use to drum up support for unification.
Structured largely like a Hollywood epic such as Ben-Hur, Viva l’Italia! nonetheless betrays its maker’s unorthodox, humanist approach even in its most grandiose sequences. Rossellini shoots the film’s battles as if from the perspective of an overseeing general, with his camera frequently situated atop hills and zooming in and out of specific parts of a skirmish. In doing so, the filmmaker captures the overall progression of a fight rather than the visceral thrill of being in combat. Even when the camera moves closer to the action, it takes up position in relative safety; it surveys scenes perpendicular to marching soldiers, or situates itself at a distance behind the men as they move toward the enemy. As in the film’s depiction of communication methods between cities and across battle lines, this method of action filmmaking stresses the process by which Garibaldi succeeded and the manner in which his skilled plans routed enemies with advantages in numbers and geography.
The emphasis on group action constantly rubs against the portrayal of Garibaldi as a larger-than-life figure, a Great Man of singular charisma and almost beatific wisdom. In shots inundated with people, Garibaldi’s stiff posture and shock of red hair immediately funnel everyone’s attention toward him, and he projects such magnanimity and nobility than even the enemy regards him with awe. At times, the general is almost comically pure-hearted, congratulating wounded enemy soldiers on a battle well fought and claiming that he would rather lose a battle than risk civilian lives, yet Rossellini always finds ways to resolve Garibaldi’s force of will around larger networks of action. The filmmaker squares the distinction between the protagonist’s magnetic personality and sway and the collective movement of history by suggesting that figures like Garibaldi act as lightning rods that give momentum to actions then taken up by others to reshape history. No blockbuster has ever felt so interested in what happens around its central hero.
In that respect, Viva l’Italia! points the way toward Rossellini’s late period, during which he shifted toward projects that focused on the manner in which individuals became important agents of historical change thanks to their exploitation of social and technological advances. Garibaldi’s use of new forms of communication to aid his conquests prefigures the relationships that Rossellini’s later subjects would have with unlikely tools of social conquest, such as Louis XIV’s use of fashion to keep nobles shackled to him in debt or the Medici family’s patronage of the nascent Renaissance as a display of their wealth and cultural importance. Rossellini would also deploy this film’s aesthetic style, of painterly formalism constantly disrupted and reconfigured with zooms and pans, throughout his later work as a means of exploring the social and personal spaces around his protagonists.
The bright blue skies and verdant backdrops to the film’s sweeping battle sequences look clear and naturalistic on Arrow’s Blu-ray; compare the image with the unrestored clips used on one of the special features included on this disc to get a sense of the richness of this restoration, how the natural sunlight no longer washes out the earthen textures of the Italian countryside. More noticeable is how sharply the soldier uniforms cut against the film’s backgrounds: The blues of the enemies’ formal attire stands out from all the surrounding browns and greens, but not as distinctly as the red shirts that mark Garibaldi’s men so forcefully that the impact of their guerrilla tactics feels even more overwhelming. The disc’s lossless mono track betrays the occasional tinniness of Italian dubbing practices from the time of the film’s making but is otherwise clear. Renzo Rossellini’s score is particularly overwhelming in the mix, but the music never crowds out the dialogue, which retains subtleties such as the faint echo of orders shouted across a battlefield and the conspiratorial hush of whispers between civilian conspirators.
Arrow's disc comes with Garibaldi, a re-cut and English-dubbed version of Viva l'Italia! for its American release. Though it still showcases Roberto Rossellini's unorthodox approach to war filmmaking, Garibaldi smooths the original cut into a more conventional Hollywood epic, adding clumsy narration to explain the on-screen action and eliminating many scenes which capture degrees of nuance in the filmmaker's view of the civil war. Ruggero Deodato, one of Rossellini's assistants on the film, gives a long account of the production, including the myriad difficulties of staging the battles on the actual grounds where the real skirmishes were fought. Deodato also delves into the complications of Rossellini's use of zooms during the action sequences, specifically the nightmare of trying to achieve consistent lighting. A video essay by critic Tag Gallagher explores both Rossellini's approach to the history of the subject and how his formal devices constantly shift focus throughout the film. Finally, an accompanying booklet contains an excellent essay by Michael Pattison that details how the film defies conventions.
One of Roberto Rossellini’s best and most important films receives a sterling home-video transfer that does justice to its blockbuster panorama.