“My father was a genius… I think.” Isabella Rossellini’s line in My Dad Is 100 Years Old is playfully knowing, much like the rest of Guy Maddin’s tender short, but it expresses the mystery that Roberto Rossellini could embody to even those closest to him. In the 1940s, Ingrid Bergman was driven to meet the Italian director (and future husband) after being overwhelmed by Open City, but after a turbulent marriage and a chain of very anxious collaborations, she proclaimed herself relieved to be back among Hollywood’s stolid “professionals.” If the actress was baffled by the filmmaker’s methods, contemporary critics felt downright betrayed by Rossellini’s supposed drift from the neorealist movement that originally made his name to melodramatic portraits of a slumming glamour queen and, later, allegedly boring educational specials. Today, even with Rossellini securely standing next to the likes of Renoir, Ford, Dreyer and Mizoguchi, the various disconcerting aspects of his work remain stubbornly in place, refusing reductive tidiness. Rossellini was a genius for sure—one whose searching aesthetic should be experienced in its many phases in order to be fully assessed. The Museum of Modern Art provides such a chance with the first comprehensive American retrospective of Rossellini (November 15 - December 22).
Born into a bourgeois family, Rossellini (1906 - 1977) became interested in filmmaking during Mussolini’s fascist regime, and his first films were made under official government supervision. Whereas Leni Riefenstahl’s camera was forever tilted for ecstatic low-angle enshrinement, Rossellini’s was, even during a dalliance with propaganda, kept at eye-level contemplation; the airy attention to human interaction in early films like La Nave Bianca and L’Uomo dalla Croce is the exact opposite of the single-mindedness of the fascist cinema of, say, Triumph of the Will. WWII pulverized most of the nation’s film industry, and Rossellini’s epochal Open City can be seen as both an immediate recollection of the war and a gesture toward political, cinematic and human regeneration. Made under shaky conditions from scraps of film stock, this account of underground resistance to Nazi occupation brims with the freshly experienced privations and horrors of war, using the raw quality of the materials for newsreel urgency—Rossellini’s famous anti-artifice line (“Things are there. Why invent them?”) could have its origins here. The effusive international success of the film huddled Open City with Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief as staples of neorealism, although, as early as Paisà the following year, it was clear that many of the movement’s pet tropes (nonprofessional actors, “simple folks” narrative arcs) could be more constrictive than nourishing to Rossellini’s restlessness.
Paisà and Germany Year Zero are ferocious present-tense documents, with the entire condition of razed countries crystallized into startling fragments which seem to “catch” reality rather than reproduce it. Germany Year Zero climaxes with an anguished leap into the void; the films afterward are attuned to tentative healing, reflecting Rossellini’s sense of the valiant complexity of people and, perhaps, his new relationship with Ingrid Bergman. Rossellini’s films with Bergman were thought, at the time, to be a slap in the face of neorealism’s no-stars dogma, but, seen now, they are central to the auteur’s style and worldview, and as harrowing a collection of scenes from a marriage as anything Ingmar Bergman would later devise. The here-and-now aspect of the films is tersely expressed in the title of Europa ’51, the middle installment of a sublime trilogy (Stromboli and Viaggio in Italia are the others) that analyzes spiritual longing in a morally degraded Europe. Rossellini’s Bergman films anticipate Antonioni’s anguished cosmopolitan heroines, though there is an added dimension to Rossellini’s works: Much of the terseness of the movies is derived from the actress’s palpable confusion and discomfort in pictures that deny her the safety-net “direction” of Hollywood. Rossellini saw truth in recorded behavior instead of manipulative performance, and his emotional inquiry took its toll on the couple’s marriage. (Tag Gallagher’s marvelous book The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini offers an extraordinarily rich version of their relationship.)
To the characters embodied (“played” comes off like an inappropriate term) by Bergman, nothing less than a miracle is needed to rouse them out of their spiritual stupor, and Rossellini provides it: Stromboli’s moment of clarity atop a volcano, the realization that “you are not alone” in Europa ’51, the suddenly ardent reunion with emotionally aloof George Sanders in Viaggio a Italia are all instances of transcendence, yet Rossellini shoots them in a dedramatized way that suggests that miraculous moments are ultimately impossible to isolate from the rest of life, and that, by extension, life itself is miraculous. Here lies the Rossellini paradox—a filmmaker whose unadorned style is attuned to the physicality of the world, yet who continually searches for abstract concepts such as faith, identity and redemption. The truth is that, just like there are no barriers between image and meaning in Rossellini (few other directors have as little use for metaphor), there are no frontiers between flesh and soul: The near-slapstick bumbling of the real-life Franciscan monks in The Flowers of St. Francis enhances the film’s view of sainthood, and in The Miracle Anna Magnani’s pregnancy after an encounter with a man she thinks is St. Joseph posits that the title refers not to any sort of supernatural wonder but to a woman’s emotions, no less religious for being inextricably tied to the body.
The debate invited by Rossellini’s work is not so much between image and meaning as it is between viewer and screen, with the director encouraging us to gaze beyond the interpretative spectrum as active participants; the drive of the films is that of a journeying conscience, and we are continuously asked to share into it. To Rossellini, style bridges the two sides. The factory-machine montage in Europa ’51 is the opposite of those long takes that seem to drink in the wholeness of the world in India, and yet both function equally in connecting spectator and film. The young turks from the Cahiers du Cinéma passionately took to Rossellini’s teachings, yet by the late 1950s the Italian master had already moved on to his next phase, bringing to the screen essays on historical figures (Garibaldi, Louis XIV, Socrates) that make all other attempts at reconstructing the past look like antique furniture. To the end, Rossellini kept leaping from method to method, always searching. “There’s no technique for capturing truth,” the director said when accused of having ditched the original neorealist style. “Only a moral position can do it.” The retrospective, which screens the filmmaker’s most popular works as well as many long-unavailable projects and ventures, offers the opportunity to rediscover Rossellini as one of the most moral of old masters.