The Criterion Collection's recent release of "Roberto Rossellini's War Trilogy (Rome Open City / Paisan / Germany Year Zero), presents us with clean, remastered copies of these three memorable films. In them, we can see Rossellini invent Italian neo-realism on the screen; he had to, as, at the time he was working, Italy and Germany were nearly destroyed by World War II bombing, there was very little infrastructure left, and it was hard to get film, filmmaking equipment - and everything else. Thus, the director worked with natural light and sound. The trilogy also presents many informative extras: interviews with Rossellini's actress daughter Isabella; interviews with many of the films' actors, and film scholars, and Once Upon a Time . . . Rome Open City, a 2006 documentary on the making of Rossellini's most influential, important film.
"Rome Open City," (1945). This black and white, 100 minute long, unsettling war drama packs a lot into its brief running time. It is set in Rome, 1944, the waning days of World War II. The Germans are on the run, but still occupy the war-battered city that has been declared "Open" by parties to the war. It's anybody's for the taking. Its residents, largely old men, women and children endure a harrowing struggle with curfews, food shortages, joblessness, poverty, hunger and allied bombing raids. Meanwhile, they are trying to shield resistance forces from their de facto Nazi occupiers, and to maintain their self-respect. Rossellini's astonishing landmark film, which made its sensational debut at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for an Oscar for best screenplay, shows the Italian people's heartsick, weary despair and collective resolve to survive.
Giorgio Manfredi, AKA Luigi Ferraris, a Communist and an engineer, who's one of the Italian resistance leaders, is tracked down by the Nazis. He flees to his friend Francesco's place, where Francesco's pregnant fiancée Pina, unforgettably played by Ann Magnani ( The Secret of Santa Vittoria
, The Rose Tattoo
), finds him, and carries a message for him to the local priest, Don Pietro Pellegrini, who's to marry the lovers in a day or two. But the Nazis are hard on Manfredi's heels.
Rossellini ( [Stromboli
, Europa '51
), actually co-wrote the screenplay - with possibly the greatest Italian star director of them all, Federico Fellini (Criterion Collection: 8 1/2
,La Dolce Vita
)while the Germans still occupied Rome. Rossellini also started filming it while the Germans were still there. He had no film, and so had to piece together little bits and pieces he'd begged from the city's photographers. He was determined to have the film ready to release as soon as the Germans left Rome/were defeated in Italy. Therefore, he built no sets, and, for the first time in Italian cinema, filmed his story entirely on the actual streets and in the actual buildings of Rome. (He thereby established the Italian cinema protocol of realism, or neo-realism, as they preferred to call it, which held sway in Italian film for several decades.) He also didn't take much time - how could he--in composing the composition, the lighting - he used natural light--or the shadows of his film. He used actual German prisoners of war to portray his film's Germans - no Roman would have played a German at that time. As the dialog is entirely in Italian, this film has English subtitles, thank goodness.
There is a scalding scene of the pregnant Pina's murder by the Germans, as she is dressed for her wedding, in her best, but still laddered stockings. She is killed in front of her son, an altar boy in a blinding white cassock, made even brighter by the Italian sun. Upon release of the picture, which was an enormous hit, Magnani was widely anointed "the Mother of Rome."
Ironically enough, Rossellini, Fellini, and Michelangelo Antonioni,(L'Avventura, L'Eclisse ) another great and famous Italian director, all got their starts making propaganda films, depicting a happy Italy, under the aegis of Vittorio Mussolini, son of the Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. These were called white telephone films, as they depicted pretty young women lounging next to their white telephones, waiting for their lovers to call. There's another pretty young woman lounging near her white telephone in ROME OPEN CITY, waiting for her lover's call; Marina Mari, Manfredi's mistress, and the relationship does not ultimately serve him well.
PAISAN, (1946) a 120-minute black and white war drama continues the director's depiction of Italy at the end of the war. In six vignettes, it follows the allied invasion of the country, from south to north from July 1943 to winter 1944. It begins in Sicily, where a young girl who is helping the American soldiers is killed. Thence to Naples, where an orphaned local boy steals the shoes from a sleeping-it-off black American MP, who tracks him to a shantytown. To Rome, where an American GI meets a lovely young woman the day the Americans liberate Rome: six months later they meet again; he is cynical, she is a prostitute. In Florence, an American nurse braves a dangerous trip across the Arno in a doomed search for the partisan leader she loves. In Monte Cassino, for which the allied and axis forces battled the longest, from January to May 1944, the arrival of three U.S. Army chaplains, including a Protestant and a Jew, upsets a local monastery. Finally, in the northern marshes of the Po River, which waters both Milan and Venice, we find Allied soldiers and partisans seamlessly working together. This is an ambitious, very moving film, now available here for the first time in its full original release version. But one caveat: while we get subtitles for the Italians, we get none for the Americans. And natural, outdoors sound, nonprofessional actors make their dialog very difficult to follow. However, it is possible to follow the action in outline.
GERMANY YEAR ZERO, (1948), (78 minutes), gives us a horrifying snapshot of civilian life in war-ravaged Berlin shortly after the war. The concluding chapter of the war trilogy is devastatingly intense and effective, a portrait of an obliterated Berlin shown through the eyes of Edmund Kohler, a twelve-year-old boy whom Rossellini told interviewers strongly resembled his own son, who had been dead for a year at the time of filming. Edmund lives in a bombed-out apartment building, where ten families have been jammed into one apartment, with a bedridden father and two older siblings. His older brother Karl-Heinz had been in the German Army and fought up to the end, the corner of the block on which they live, so is afraid of reprisals for this, and accordingly has never registered with the postwar authorities. Therefore, the family of four has only three ration cards. Edmund's pretty older sister Eva gets dressed up to go out every night drinking and dancing. But she does not pursue these evenings to what a viewer would expect to be their obvious conclusion, and therefore comes home every night with only a few cigarettes, rather than cash money, to show for her time. This leaves handsome young Edmund as the sole breadwinner for his family. He is mostly left to wander unsupervised, seeking to bring back money and/or food to these hungry people. Edmund gets involved in the black-market schemes of a group of teenagers. He also comes under the malign influence of a Nazi-sympathizing former teacher of his, whose ideas sway him in anti-sociall ways. Rossellini seems to be telling us that the boy's former teacher is probably homosexual, and therefore immoral. By the way, as this movie is in German, it is fully subtitled, thank goodness.
If you are interested in history, World War II, or Italy and/or Germany, you probably should see these films, though they certainly can be downers. No contemporary audience can quite imagine how powerful these films were in their time, but, believe me, they are still tremendously powerful, and will certainly live a good long time because of their overwhelming performances and documentary value. Not to be missed.