If Jean-Luc Godard is to be considered the true father of modern cinema then it’s not too much of a stretch to anoint Roberto Rossellini as its cranky godfather. Indeed, Rossellini’s subjective way of filming a story was perhaps the greatest aesthetic inspiration to the future auteurs of the Cahiers du cinema Crowd. Despairing of ever breaking into an increasingly conservative French film industry, Godard, Truffaut, Rivette, Rohmer and Chabrol were also ecstatic to find a muse who could stitch together a compelling screen narrative on the thinnest of budgets. Rarely armed with more than a pledge of funds from a dodgy producer, a mere outline of a screenplay, a crew of close friends and a handful of amateur thespians, this revolutionary filmmaker went to the streets and countryside of Italy to shoot reality as he could only see it.
To the uninitiated Rossellini’s films might seem maddeningly Impressionist or dismally arcane. The Neo-Realism of Rossellini is nothing like that of De Sica’s; he does not drown us in lyricism or make us feel guilty about the sufferings of the little man. Rossellini’s people are complex, elusive, irritating and when threatened, can kick like a mule. Thankfully, Rossellini had an unerring sense of what could play in front of his anxious camera to create searing portraits of a people and great culture in flux during the difficult post-war years.
Unfortunately, these probing films ran afoul of a long-suffering public itching to escape the humiliation of Axis collaboration and defeat on the world stage. In the twilight of his career, Rossellini completely ditched the traditional cinema—and his own creature comforts—to film biographies of history’s great men for public television. Many of Rossellini’s few remaining followers lamented his drift towards Ivory Tower Academia, but the old neo-realist was invigorated by rubbing shoulders with these men of enlightenment and created a final act worthy of the ages.
This son of an architect from a well to do family began life’s journey as a mechanical genius with a wide range of interests, especially in nature and the sciences. As a young man Roberto began to tinker in film, finding it to be the perfect medium to explore his intellectual curiosity. After the death of his father, Rossellini advanced further into Italy’s burgeoning film industry, taking jobs in editing and dubbing, writing scripts and shooting short films on his own.
During the late 1930s and early 1940s Roberto made a series of shorts peaking with Fantasia sottomarina (Undersea Fantasy) a witty story about boy and girl fish that live in fear of a dastardly octopus. Shot over a period of two months, Rossellini crammed a large tank full of different marine species and used quick edits to create a sense of peril for the two lovers who are finally saved by a sympathetic eel.
The aspiring filmmaker soon found himself under the wing of Francesco De Robertis, a writer-director and influential officer in the Italian Navy. De Robertis was a champion of documentary filmmaking which very much interested the serious-minded Rossellini. Early on, both mentor and student used amateur actors and shot their films in a gritty, realistic style. Rossellini also found a champion in a most unlikely place. Benito Mussolini’s son Vittorio, a card-carrying member of the fascist party, became friends with Roberto and helped him get his foot in the door at Cinecitta, Il Duce’s new film company.
In 1942, after De Robertis quarreled with a producer on the set of La nave bianca (The White Ship), Roberto inherited the directing duties of the propaganda feature. Rossellini’s controversial “fascist” films (Bianca, Un pilota ritorna, L’uomo della croce) embraced nationalistic themes supportive of the Military, God, and Country, but they seem mild compared to the Aryan Love Fests of Leni Riefenstahl, Eisenstein’s the championing of Stalin’s Five Year Plan in The General Line, or certain American wartime propaganda films aimed at stirring up racial hatred.
In La nave bianca Rossellini tempered a by the numbers programmer about the care injured sailors receive on a hospital at sea with a lyricism not typically found in De Robertis’ rigidly storyboarded scenarios. The opening is not very different from any commercial American propaganda feature. A jocular group of sailors prepare for a battle at sea and one of the men is gently ridiculed for his naïveté. A bombing raid wounds the sailor and the injured man is transported to a ship where he is cared for by an angelic nurse. These tender scenes bump up against what was intended as the real show, the might of an Italian warship accompanied by brother Renzo Rossellini’s majestic musical score.
As a reward for the success of La nave bianca Rossellini’s next film would be a feature about an Italian air force pilot shot down behind enemy lines and captured by the British. Co-scripted by the young Michelangelo Antonioni Un pilota ritorna follows the plight of Lt. Gino Rossati (Massimo Girotti) who as a P.O.W. experiences the trials and tribulations of Greek and Yugoslavian civilians caught between German and English bullets.
Taking a page from Renoir’s famous anti-war epic La grande illusion, Rossellini instilled some of the French filmmaker’s humanism and heroism into his own film transforming the riveting final sequence (where Rossati steals a British plane and dodges his own army’s bullets to return home) into something less triumphant. Far from being a flag-waving product of propaganda, Un pilota ritorna seemed to reflect the thoughts and feelings of many Italians reluctant to take part in Mussolini’s war.
Rossellini’s third film in this trilogy L’uomo della croce follows the plight of a self-sacrificing Italian priest (Alberto Tavazzi) stranded on the Russian front and encircled by the enemy with a group of women, children, and three “God-less” Russian soldiers. In light of the approaching Cold War the grandstanding Soviets aren’t portrayed much differently than they would be in American films during the next forty years, but here they are given the opportunity for Christian redemption, albeit in a heavy-handed manner. L’uomo della croce is also notable for its graphic battle scenes shot on the Cinecitta lot in Rome, all quite remarkable considering how soon the country would fall to the Allied Forces.
Rossellini survived several close brushes with death at hands of the retreating Nazis. He disapproved of Italy’s wartime alliance with Germany and secretly hoped they would lose. But as in the case of many artists of aristocratic demeanor the director never placed a high moral price on just who was funding his work.
In the late 1940s Rossellini would repudiate the fascist trilogy to save face, but his involvement no matter how benign, stained his credibility with certain critics. Still, these early works did provide an opportunity for the fledgling filmmaker to hone his skills and in the coming years he would make the explicitly humane, ground-breaking films which would prove his own redemption.
Before the war, Italian cinema was mostly known for its posh entertainments nicknamed “white telephone” comedies and often starring the dashing Vittorio De Sica, a major matinee idol. The first wave of the Italian neo-realists (including De Sica, Luchino Visconti, screenwriter Cesare Zavattini and Federico Fellini) were influenced by the poetical realist films coming out of France, particularly the works of Jean Renoir and Marcel Carne.
Rossellini was very impressed by Visconti’s 1943 debut Ossessione, an independently financed film loosely based on American pulp writer James Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. Rossellini soon borrowed Visconti screenwriter Giuseppe De Santis to help pen Desiderio, a film strikingly similar to the lusty Ossessione.
Here, we follow the sad plight of Paola Previtsli (Elli Parvo), a Milan prostitute who by chance meets and falls in love with a good man. But before tying the knot with her new fiancé, Paola returns to her small hometown to mend fences with her estranged friends and family. Paola’s arrival does little to please her father who refuses to talk to her. She finds the local men are only interested in either shaking her down for money or taking her to bed.
When Paola’s sister learns of her husband’s attempts to seduce the former call girl, she asks Paola to go away for good. In despair over having failed to win her way back into the family’s graces, Paola jumps to her death off a bridge. About halfway through filming, Rossellini’s company ran out of cash and Desiderio lay incomplete for three years.
By 1946, Rossellini had moved on to more pressing matters (Paisa), so Marcello Pagliero was given the task of finishing the project for a commercial release. The resulting film is an entertaining mix of melodrama and poetic realism with a whole lot of Latin sensuality thrown in for good measure. While Desiderio may come off as too polished for many of the director’s admirers, Paola’s self-loathing and sense of doom turned out to be precursors of themes Rossellini would explore more vividly in the years to come.
The devastation of the war and rebuilding of Italy provided many provocative new stories for a re-energized Rossellini. But was anybody truly ready for Roma citta aperta (Rome Open City)? While Rossellini always talked a good game about making a new, realistic cinema to friends and producers, it had to be hard for them to visualize Roberto taking his cameras to the streets, reenacting Rome’s recent history under German occupation with only scant reference to a shooting script.
The film, shot under grim circumstances from late 1944 into the spring of 1945 is an expert and spontaneous blend of conventional technique and gut-wrenching neorealism. Out of necessity, Rossellini paints this bleak portrait of a people under siege with some of the broadest strokes he would ever use but the poignancy and power of the results can’t be denied.
Giorgio Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero) is on the run from the Nazis. The legendary resistance leader takes cover in the home of his friend’s fiancée, Sora Pina (Anna Magnani), whose sister Lauretta (Carla Rovere) runs with a fast crowd. Lauretta’s morphine-addicted friend and Manfredi’s former lover, Mara Michi (Marina Mari), learns the wanted man is holed up in Pina’s flat and she turns him into the Gestapo for a fix. Manfredi and friend Francesco (Gransco Grandjacquet) are arrested and Pina is killed by machine gun fire when she tries to follow the doomed men.
A surprise resistance attack sacks the Nazi caravan and frees the prisoners who find refuge in Mara’s fancy flat. After a confrontation with Manfredi reveals the depth of her self-loathing, Mara turns the men in to a Sapphic friend working for the Gestapo, this time for an expensive coat.
The Nazis have also rounded up another resistance fighter, the priest Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi). Rather than rat out his comrades, Manfredi resigns himself to a hideous death at the hands of his sadistic interrogator Major Bergmann (Harry Feist), who forces Don Pietro to witness the backroom torture. Unwilling to let the brave Manfredi die in vain, Don Pietro also refuses to name names, so he is led to an open field where he is to be executed. But the Italian firing squad refuses to shoot the holy man prompting a soulless Nazi officer to finish the task.
Rather than romanticize the plight of his resistance fighters, Rossellini used an off-the-cuff style to shoot his film in the bomb-scarred streets of the Eternal City. In just two short years, the tide had turned for Romans who now saw the Nazis as their enemies but did not know what yet to make of the Allied armies stationed at the outskirts of town. Perhaps unrealistically, Rossellini’s Romans fell on either side of the resistance or Gestapo collaborators prompting many post-war critics to damn the film as communist propaganda. But, having lived through the occupation himself, Rossellini presented his captors as both decadent and brutal and the choices his countrymen are forced to make had better be the right ones.
The episodic Paisa, chronicling the two dangerous years (1943-44) of German retreat and Allied occupation through the eyes of nervous Italian citizens, proved more true to the neo-realist spirit than Roma citta aperta. Originally intended as a propaganda piece to form a better understanding between America and its new ally, the artistic direction was ultimately taken over by Rossellini who gave the film its Italian emphasis. The stories (set in Sicily, Naples, Rome, Florence, Romagna and the Po Delta) portray an uneasy alliance between Italians (represented here as peasants, scavenger children, the clergy, unlikely prostitutes and the resistance) and liberating American GIs.
In Sicily a poor teenage girl leads a small American battalion through a dangerous mine field to their post on the coast of the Mediterranean. She strikes up an awkward friendship with the New Jersey soldier chosen to keep watch over her just before he is shot by a German sniper. The returning GIs think the girl has ratted out their buddy to the Nazis unaware her body lies on the rocks below.
In Naples a lonely, black American M.P. befriends an urchin boy who pilfers the man’s boots after he falls asleep. Days later, the M.P. catches the boy stealing from the back of a supply truck and drives the urchin home to retrieve the boots. They arrive at a bombed-out hovel where the MP is shocked to find a scrawny, glassy-eyed community living in dire poverty.
In Rome a young prostitute picks-up a drunken American soldier for a “date” only to find he is the handsome young man with whom she fell in love just months before on the day when he helped liberate the city. An American nurse leaves the relative safety of Rome for the dangerous streets and museums of Florence, where she has to avoid German bombs and bullets to meet up with her partisan lover.
The humorous Romagna finds three American chaplains (a Catholic, Protestant and Jew) visiting a remote monastery where the sequestered monks teach the worldly holy men a thing or two about love and tolerance. The film’s signature piece, Po, finds a small allotment of American troops stepping-up to aid the resistance who are vastly outnumbered by German forces. Inevitably, the Americans and Italians are captured and since the Germans don’t recognize the members of the resistance as POWs they are executed as terrorists.
Seen today, Paisa can look like an example of post-war propaganda meant to soothe the guilty conscience of a country, but to his credit Rossellini refrains from being sanctimonious in this stark representation of Italy in its darkest hour. The naïve Americans seem lost or out of place in this strange, old world, but the Italians cannot afford to pay these invader-saviors too much mind. They are doing what they need to do to get on with their shattered lives. Paisa is a humanitarian work of art about a people hoping to rise from the ashes of fascism.
Germania, anno zero (Germany Year Zero) rounds out Rossellini’s war trilogy in a nightmarish tale about a twelve year old Berlin boy who helps his destitute family and sick father by getting involved in a black market racket run by his former teacher. Life in the bombed-out flat is dreary enough but young Edmund (Edmund Moeschke) feels pressured by his family’s landlord to help earn their keep and the incessant nagging by his sister drives him out to the mean streets of Berlin.
Edmund runs with a band of teenage grifters, but he is rejected for being too young and inexperienced. He meets up with the teacher who takes a keen interest in the boy. The teacher, who buys and sells cheap goods to American soldiers and local aristocrats, hires innocent Edmund as a runner. The boy is star struck by this closet pederast who shows him affection and guidance.
Edmund misinterprets his mentor’s hard-bitten speech about survival and poisons his sickly father for the sake of the family. Fearing he will be implemented in the crime, the cowardly teacher chastises Edmund. Feeling rejected the boy runs out into the streets to begin his final odyssey. Spurned by family and friends, Edmund jumps off the roof of a new building rising in the wake of the city’s devastation.
Taking a cue from the simple yet often emotionally wrenching films of De Sica, Rossellini stripped the narrative of Germania, anno zero to this single thread in creating what is probably the most satisfying film in the trilogy. Eschewing the strained techniques employed by his neo-realist rival, Rossellini’s mobile camera records these cruelties, never lingering a beat too long to create false sympathy. This post-apocalyptic world is experienced through the eyes of a restless child searching in vain for a kind word or human touch.
Although, the film offers a much more breathless take on bombed-out Berlin than most documentaries of the period, Rossellini’s vision is a claustrophobic one. The city’s citizens are surrounded and trapped by their gloomy, skeletal architecture and Rossellini leads us to the inevitable conclusion that when Edmund finally stops running these crumbling buildings will collapse upon him.
While visiting friends in Paris, Rossellini decided to film Jean Cocteau’s one-act play Una voce umana starring Anna Magnani. Having acted in a version of the play five years earlier in Rome, Magnani had firsthand knowledge of the demanding material. Under Rossellini’s guidance, and prodding, she gives a tour de force performance as a scorned woman telephoning an anguished farewell to a faithless lover who has chosen to marry into wealth.
Shot in the claustrophobic quarters of a closed bedroom, the restless Magnani rolls across the rumpled bed like a tigress, haunted by the sounds of happy life in the neighbors’ apartments while she bitterly mocks then pleads for the man who has caused such misery in her life. With a running time of about thirty-five minutes this major collaboration between a star and her favorite director had difficulty in finding a distributor.
Rossellini chose to shoot a companion piece Il miracolo (also featuring Magnani and based on an idea by Federico Fellini) to complete the now two-part film known as L’amore. In Il miracolo Magnani plays Nannina, a simple-minded Shepard from Amalfi who mistakes a wandering hobo (Fellini) for Saint Joseph. In a moment of religious ecstasy Nannina lets the man have his way with her, but after recovering from the encounter she finds he is gone with the wind. Nannina spends the next several months trying to convince everybody she is carrying the son of God, but the locals only tease and torment her. To be closer to her God, Nannina treks up the steep and treacherous steps to a hilltop church where she gives birth to her sacred love child.
Sadly, these emotionally naked films marked the end of Magnani’s working with Rossellini, but many of the themes touched upon here helped generate a turning point in the director’s career. As his brooding protagonists embarked on personal odysseys and spiritual searches Rosselini’s films took on a mystical quality culminating in the series of revealing portraits featuring his future wife Ingrid Bergman.
Rossellini’s film about the early teachings of St. Francis of Assisi (Francesco giullare di Dio aka The Flowers of St. Francis) is his most relaxed and enchanting work, a fact all the more remarkable since it was made during one of the emotionally turbulent periods of his life. Based on The Little Flowers of St. Francis and The Life of Brother Ginepro, Rossellini and assistant Federico Fellini cobbled together ten short vignettes about the 13th century aristocrat who gave up all his worldly goods to preach in poverty with his band of gentle monks. Shot in the rolling hills near his estate outside Rome and “starring” several of the monks featured in Paisa, Rosselllini’s film has an elfin, playful quality duly inspired by this patron saint of animals, nature, and all of Italy.
Francis (Brother Nazario Geraldi) is careful to lead by example and he is tolerant of the fools in his flock, most notably the demented Brother Ginepro (Peparulo) and the senile Giovanni, a motley but tremendously appealing pair. Rossellini’s one nod to convention, the scene in which Ginepro visits the camp of the Barbarians is both shocking and funny, but given the director’s penchant for realism viewers could be led to believe the Brother will be executed on orders of Nicolaio, the tyrant of Viterbo (Aldo Fabrizi). But the brutal Nicolaio is impressed by Ginepro who, though meek, shows no fear and aims to win the brute to the ways of God through kindness.
Though Rossellini would claim to be atheist he, like Bunuel, was raised a Catholic and couldn’t help but be influenced by the culture of the church. And indeed, it took a certain detachment to shoot a humorous film about a universally beloved figure as St. Francis, who didn’t fare nearly as well in other bloated Italian and Hollywood productions about his life.
Rossellini’s two darkly funny comedies from this era, La macchina ammazzacattivi (The Machine That Kills Bad People) and Dove la liberta…? (Where Is Freedom?), are often pegged as minor and get short shrift from critics and historians, but both films go a long way in revealing their director’s pessimism with humankind.
The killing machine is actually a still camera blessed by a devil masquerading as Saint Andrew (Giovanni Amato) who tricks well-meaning photographer Celestine (Gennaro Pisano) into eliminating every greedy soul in a small Amalfi coast town. The problem, Celestine soon learns, is virtually everyone in town is a swindler looking to cash in on a dying woman’s will or selling pieces of land that doesn’t belong to them. In a fit of conscience Celestine summons the devil who restores life to the unworthy souls and life in town will continue on its crooked path.
Made during a rare break from the Bergman films Dove la liberta…? was a more commercial vehicle starring the popular horse-faced comedian Toto as Salvatore Lojacono, a jailbird paroled after spending the last twenty-two years in prison for murdering a man who made a pass at his wife. The Rome Lojacono returns to is hardly the civilized society he left behind in 1930. The former barber finds it impossible to get work because of his reputation (he slit his victim’s neck in a fit of rage) and he also finds his former friends and in-laws to be utterly corrupt.
In despair, Salvatore smuggles himself back into the more gentile society of prison, but he is quickly captured and put on trial. The judges fine the loafer a huge sum of cash prompting our hero to bite off the ear of his bombastic attorney so he can be sent back to jail.
Rossellini’s sense of the ridiculous runs rampant in both films and his satirical and scathing takes on both pillars of society and the kinds of little men and women championed in the neo-realist films may well have put off critics who wanted to believe Italy was on the road to post-fascist rehabilitation. Rossellini suggests it’s the scavengers, not the meek, who will inherit the earth. It’s a bitter pill to swallow.
The films with Ingrid Bergman marked a major turning point in Rossellini’s life and career. His affair and subsequent marriage to the beautiful Swede movie star caused massive negative publicity in Italy which haunted him to his dying day. While visiting Hollywood, Rossellini charmed and seduced Bergman prompting the brave actress to leave her husband and her reputation behind to work with the uncompromising, noncommercial filmmaker. Bergman’s friendship with Howard Hughes helped get Stromboli, the necessary funding and a distribution deal from the mogul’s studio RKO. Rossellini, Bergman and crew shot almost all of the film on the forbidding volcanic island off the coast of Sicily under primitive conditions.
In Stromboli Ingrid plays Karin, a Lithuanian widow trapped in a refugee camp after the war. After being denied immigration to Argentina Karin enters into a loveless marriage with an Italian fisherman Antonio (Mario Vitale) who is temporarily detained at the camp. When Antonio transports his new bride back to his home island of Stromboli Karin finds she has entered into a prison she will be unable to escape.
While the men on the island seem to welcome the presence of the free-spirited blonde, the women turn their backs on Karin and succeed in making her life miserable. Her friendliness is misread by the villagers who suspect her of being a loose woman. Karin complains to Antonio and the town’s priest (Renzo Cesana) about her hardships on the island, but the worldly padre advises her to be patient and make the best of the situation. After the island’s volcano blows, the pregnant Karin enlists the lighthouse keeper (Mario Sponza) to help her escape from the island.
To avoid further scrutiny from the villagers, Karin walks across the island to a port town where she can catch a boat to the mainland. But the fumes from the active volcano choke Karin, prompting her to call out to God for guidance. Karin is left on top of the volcano, unable to cross over to the other side yet dreading a return to her unhappy home.
Brittle and punishing, Stromboli was a strange property for the two lovers to make as a debut, but the rocky plight of Karin and Antonio seemed to foreshadow the difficulties in the Rossellinis’ partnership. Bergman has never been more unsympathetic as the complaining and manipulative refugee, but it is a very admirable performance in light of the transition to Rossellini’s script-less style of shooting and the turmoil in her personal life.
Karin is left out to dry by the director who, while not siding with the petty village women, makes no attempt to condemn their prejudices. It’s also clear Karin’s husband is only interested in her as a trophy to be locked away from the unwelcome gazes of other men on the island. With nowhere left to turn Karin is finally shunned by the only sophisticated man on the island, the priest, who may well be fighting his desire for her. Frustrated, she turns to God in an act many critics have felt signaled her conversion. Rossellini pooh-poohed such ideas, but the film’s ambiguous conclusion can’t help but leave its audience to ponder the sublime.
Although his recent films had been flops with both the public and Italian film critics, Rossellini was enthusiastic about his next project Europa 51, a personal work liberally borrowing the generous religious philosophy of Francesco giullare di Dio and ripe with the director’s newfound enthusiasm for Marxism. Shot in both Paris and Rome with Ingrid, this film about the suicide of a young boy and a mother’s spiritual re-birth through carrying out good deeds was a cathartic experience for Rossellini who was still devastated over the death of his young son Romano five years before.
In Europa ’51 Ingrid plays Irene Girard, a socialite living in Rome with her husband George (Alexander Knox) and their pre-adolescent son Michel (Sandro Franchina). One night while entertaining Irene grows annoyed with Michel and sends him to bed. After the unhappy boy makes an attempt to get his mother’s attention, he throws himself down a stairwell and breaks his hip. Wracked with guilt, Irene vows to be a better mother but complications set in and Michel dies of a blood clot.
In despair Irene turns to her cousin Andrea (Ettore Giannini), a communist who suggests she help the needy as a form of therapy. Irene meets with a poor family and offers to pay for a boy’s medical procedures. Buoyed by the satisfaction she gets in being a do-gooder, Irene meets with Passerotto (Giulietta Masina) an upbeat woman living in squalor with her children. To help Passerotto keep her job Irene substitutes for her at a dreary factory.
Convinced she can never return to her comfortable life, Irene quarrels with a jealous George and returns to a poor neighborhood where she rescues Ines (Teresa Pellati), a tubercular prostitute. Irene takes Ines back to her low rent apartment and offers the dying woman comfort before she expires. Given no time to grieve, Irene soon finds herself stuck in the middle of a family quarrel with a teenage boy who has held up a bank. Irene pleads to the boy to turn himself into the police but he runs away instead and is quickly arrested. Irene is picked up as an accomplice to the crime.
George and his lawyer explain Irene’s unfortunate case to the police chief who turns the grieving mother over to a mental hospital for treatment. While there, Irene makes friends with several of the patients and becomes a boon to the overworked staff. Rather than return to an empty life with George and former friends, Irene lets herself be committed to the hospital for an indefinite stay.
Though born into money, Rossellini had little use for creature comforts (a sticking point in his marriage with Bergman) and became increasingly careless with how he spent money. It was not a responsible way to live a gentleman’s life or make films, but this non-conformist philosophy shines through both Irene and the sympathetic Andrea in Europa ’51. Lurking in the shadows throughout the film, Andrea would seem to be a better soul mate for Irene than the brittle and bourgeois George. He is the wise St. Francis to Irene’s naïve Ginepro, offering compassion and guidance. Like the simple brother of Francis’s flock, Irene gains strength through adversity and learns to look her adversaries straight in the eye.
But in the chilly, class-conscious world of modern Europe, Rossellini makes it clear we have taken one step forward and two steps back. Unlike the monks, who are allowed by authorities to put their philosophy to beneficial use, Irene is detained by men of science then determined to be mad as a hatter even though she is the rare person who finds fulfillment in her life.
The greatest Rossellini-Bergman film Viaggio in Italia (Voyage to Italy) chronicles the disintegration and possible resurrection of a modern marriage. Bergman and the ever-urbane George Sanders play Katherine and Alex Joyce, an English couple whose tenuous relationship falls apart amidst the beauty of Naples. While visiting the region to sell a villa belonging to a deceased uncle, the pair separate and journey out to see what the local life has to offer. The romantic Katherine takes in the culture and historical sites, marveling at the sensuality of statues, haunting the catacombs, and dodging sulfur blasts on top of Mt. Vesuvius.
Admittedly bored by such adventures, the more practical Alex hooks up with a younger crowd on Capri and nearly falls for a beautiful woman who is also stuck in a troubled marriage. Rather than return to his unhappy home, Alex takes to prowling Naples nightclubs where he resolves to get a divorce from Katherine. He informs her of his intentions in the ruins of Pompeii where they view the remains of another couple embracing in the last moment of their lives.
As fate would have it, the laid-back rhythm of Italy grounds the pair to a standstill during a religious procession where, after some verbal jousting, Katherine and Alex get out of their car and separate. Carried away by the crowd, the frightened Katherine to Alex who rescues her and the pair renew their vows in midst of the town’s holy fervor.
To make this unlikely pairing work, Rossellini pits Ingrid as meek and slightly cowed by her intimidating husband. Ever fearful of his spiteful tongue, Katherine compartmentalizes her stormy feelings and rarely confronts Alex. In turn, he has grown weary of Katherine’s lack of humor and childish Romanticism and prefers to run with a more worldly set. Alex’s attempt at finding a fountain of youth ultimately is rebuffed and it takes the very serious threat of losing Katherine for him to finally take stock of his true feelings.
Viaggio in Italia has been rightly, or wrongly, pegged as an autobiographical take on the difficult Rossellini marriage but it is clear once Ingrid left his life for good, Roberto would never expose so much naked emotion to the screen ever again.
Rossellini received great critical acclaim for directing Verdi’s Othello at the Naples opera leading to an offer to produce Arthur Honegger’s oratorio Giovanna d’Arco dir ego (Joan Of Arc At The Stake) with the thirty eight year old Bergman playing the teen saint. Roberto’s clever and opulent stage design and Ingrid’s soulful performance wowed audiences inevitably leading to another offer to film the production in color.
Honegger and librettist Paul Claudel had intended for Joan to be literally tied at the stake while scenes from her life played out around her. But in Rossellini’s productions Joan is liberated from her chains and rises to heaven where she is met Brother Dominic (Tullio Carmenati) who reflects with her upon the very earthly scenes below.
Shot completely on a soundstage Giovanna was the neo-realist’s most artificial-looking effort to date, but it also has a refreshing humor and buoyancy rarely found in the countless other takes on the martyred saint (including Victor Fleming’s turgid Joan of Arc also starring Ingrid). Honegger’s unnerving modern score, combining traditional baroque and classical themes with noisy jazz runs contrapuntally to Rossellini’s dreamy set design, inspired by the paintings of the Flemish masters, and, one has to suspect, the surreal musicals of Vincente Minnelli and Michael Powell.
This odd duck of a film has detractors in the Rossellini and Bergman camps, but it had to have been a freeing experience for a director bound by the pressures of local politics and his own legend. While it would be a few years before Rossellini abandoned the neo-realist school, it is clear Giovanna d’Arco dir ego help plant the seeds for escape.
By 1954 Rossellini’s public and professional reputations were in tatters. His films with his wife were unpopular in his homeland and slammed by those who felt Rossellini was betraying the political cause of neo-realism. As filmmakers of merit, De Sica, Visconti and his former assistant Fellini had all passed Roberto by in the eyes of critics and the public. Ingrid remained popular and fielded offers from Roberto’s aforementioned rivals and Alfred Hitchcock, who could have helped pave the way for Ingrid to get back into the good graces of the American public. But, the jealous Rossellini forced her to turn the offers down and continued to feature his wife in their personal and painful series of films.
Loosely based on a Stefan Zweig novella Fear (La Paura) resembles a traditional genre film, no doubt pleasing Ingrid who finally had a role she could dig her teeth into. Here, she plays Irene the attractive 30something wife to Wagner (Mathias Wiedman), a brilliant but controlling German scientist. In the ominous opening sequences Irene drives home through the dark streets of Munich after a tryst with her handsome composer lover, Enrico (Kurt Kreuger).
Feeling guilty about cheating on her husband and children, Irene is confronted by Johanna (Renate Manhardt) a young woman who has knowledge of the affair and plans to blackmail her. It is Wagner who has put Johanna up to this task as a means of ending Irene’s romance and returning her to the role of subservient wife. His plan backfires when Irene gets Johanna to admit to her husband’s participation in the scheme. In despair, Irene decides to commit suicide in Wagner’s gloomy laboratory but a curious miracle sends her back home with the promise of finding harmony.
Once again, Fear ends on a strangely ecstatic note, offering the opportunity for baffled audiences to hurl insults at the screen. To his credit, Rossellini was never concerned about how his characters would carry on after the closing credits but, rather, how they got to that point in the first place. These heroines are dissatisfied and trapped in marriages and close to reaching her boiling point. Yet, Bergman is typically reserved and ready to let the other shoe drop instead of taking a hands-on approach to fixing her relationship.
Much to Ingrid’s consternation director Rossellini isolated his brooding muse and left her alone to try and escape from the maze and find some inner peace. This anxious and gnawing way of chronicling marriage made for strangely riveting, if excruciating, viewing. It was only a matter of time before the collaboration imploded.
Weary of living the struggling artist’s life with Rossellini, Ingrid accepted an offer to make the very commercial Anastasia in London for 20th Century Fox while her husband hustled friends and financiers in Paris to get funding for an epic project about India. Although Rossellini was a pariah in the eyes of Italian critics, the aforementioned filmmakers of the French New Wave championed his work and would soon set out to create their own moral cinema from the Master’s plan. Still, such hero worship didn’t keep Roberto from making promises to the Cahiers crew he couldn’t keep and skipping town with money for their own projects.
After receiving a stipend from the Nehru government, Rosellini arrived in India with his favorite cinematographer Aldo Tonti and set up shop in Bombay. He would soon fall in love with his much younger scriptwriter, Sonali Sen Roy Das Gupta, an event which once again created scandal in both Italy and India. Rossellini and Tonti spent upwards to a year shooting and assembling black and white and color footage for his Indian epic.
The superb black and white material can be seen in L’India vista da Rossellini, a ten part program from 1959 made for Italian television with an in-studio Rossellini providing the narration. One could be tempted to write the shows off as mere travelogues but, even here, Rossellini is careful to avoid cliché (like showing any famous landmarks) and lovingly chronicle the everyday life of his Indian subjects.
For his feature India: Matri Bhumi Rossellini whittled down the color footage from nine to four simple but sublime sequences depicting the country’s calm and resilience when confronted with the dual dilemmas of nature and progress. The first episode follows a day in the life of a laborer and his elephant who turns out to be an intelligent and invaluable help in clearing a nearby field. One of the most amazing sequences concerns the care taken in the bathing of the elephants; hard workers who expect a cool wash and scrub after a day’s toil. The short closes happily with the man beginning to court a young woman under the watchful eye of her mother and a pair of elephants who veer off into the woods for a little hanky-panky.
Hirakud follows the uneasy plight of a worker who will be laid-off after the completion of a dam. Having spent nine years on the project, the man is left with few prospects, a nagging wife and four year old child to feed. Still, he is proud of having been part of the building of this modern structure even if his future looks cloudy.
Ashok and the Tiger is the story of an old man whose family and little backwoods community is threatened by the presence of a man-eating tiger. The mother tiger is threatened, as well, by industrial growth which is wiping out her jungle. Rather than try to kill the noble beast, Ashok decides there is room enough in the neighborhood for his family and the tiger.
Dulip the Monkey is the funny/sad tale of a monkey forced to fend for himself after his master dies of heatstroke in the desert. After warding off a gang of vultures from his master’s carcass, we find Dulip later following a group of boys into a bustling village. He bides his time watching and waiting for the return of his master but in the end Dulip finds work and a rapt audience in a small circus where he performs trapeze acts.
India: Matri Bhumi presents India as we’ve never seen it before and, in all likelihood, again. It does not reek of Korda colonialism (Elephant Boy) nor resemble Renoir’s exquisite but highly Euro-centric take on the mother land (The River). It doesn’t indulge in the lyrical neo-realism found in the films of India’s own Satyajit Ray. Rossellini’s four simple films create a colorful impression of a bountiful but dirt-poor Asian country, a patient (or “lazy”) people, and a culture ripe with ritual and mythology. Stripped of false sentimentality and PC pandering, India: Matri Bhumi achieves a lean perfection of style Rossellini would exploit further in his philosophical films.
During the same busy year (1959) Rossellini returned to his neo-realist roots and turned out a controversial film about occupied Italy that turned out to be one of his most commercial successes to date. This true story (co-scripted by longtime Rossellini collaborator Sergio Amidei) Il generale Della Rovere is the saga of Emanuele Bardone (Vittorio De Sica), a Milanese con-artist who gives false information about imprisoned partisans to worried families in return for cash.
Pressed for money by women and blackmailers, Bardone ups the ante in his dicey game until he is caught by the Germans who force him to assume a false identity as the head of the Resistance and plant him in a Milan prison as a mole. Bardone plays the good soldier until he has a crisis of conscience and turns against the Nazis. Rather than save his own skin, Bardone infuriates his employers by carrying out his Della Rovere impression all the way to the prison yard where he is lined-up against a wall and shot with other partisans.
Fourteen years after the war Rossellini’s new film raised a storm for portraying many Italians as compliant with the Nazis instead of being cast as mere victims of a totalitarian regime. De Sica’s aging matinee idol looks fit the oily character of Bardone well and he gives a marvelous performance as a small-time crook caught in this war not of his making. Thankfully, Rossellini has Bardone do the right thing in the end and offer his life up for the cause and martyrdom. Although slick and hastily made, Il generale Della Rovere is a mature and powerful take on an awkward time in Italian history which gave Rossellini new life as a commercial director in his nation’s film industry.
Rossellini’s next film, Era notte a Roma (It Was Night in Rome), would be another WWII story taking place in Rome during the Nazi occupation. In the days after the German-Italian armistice of 1943, Esperia (Giovanna Ralli), a sly dealer in the black market, offers transport to three escaped Allied POWs (a Brit, a Russian and a wounded American) in exchange for some very valuable food. Disguised as a nun, Esperia and her caravan smuggle the men across a German roadblock but she is unable to ditch them once they arrive in Rome.
They take refuge in her attic where the American’s condition worsens prompting a house call from a doctor who prescribes drugs and rest. The men despair they will never be able to leave Nazi-occupied Rome alive, but Esperia’s Resistance-connected boyfriend Renato (Renato Salvatori) enlists his friends to plot their escape. The Russian (Sergei Bondartchouk), Esperia and Renato are soon arrested but the Brit and American are rescued by an Italian aristocrat. The soldiers are hidden in a local monastery and await word on the success of the Allied invasion at Anzio.
Meanwhile Esperia has been released but both Renato and the Russian have been executed by the Nazis. One day, the Brit Pemberton (Leo Genn) arranges to meet Esperia at a church unaware they are being spied upon by the defrocked priest Tarcisio (George Petrarca). Tarcisio tips off the Nazis who arrest all the priests at the monastery where Pemberton and the American Bradley (Peter Baldwin) are hiding. Bradley hitches a ride to the Allied front and Pemberton slinks back to Esperia’s attic where he learns she had also collaborated with the Nazis in a vain effort to save Renato’s life. Together they watch the Allied armies liberate Rome.
Unlike Rossellini’s War Trilogy or Il generale Della Rovere, there are no heroes, victims or martyrs in Era notte a Roma only survivors. As befitting the transient and shadowy nature of the three soldiers they are given an impressionistic treatment by the director. Despite efforts to bond with their landlord the men never really do connect with the ambivalent Esperia who, like her country, blows with the wind of good fortune. In this maddening, yet oddly riveting, film Rossellini levels the playing field, smoothing out the peaks and valleys of his earlier work, and presents a more mature take on the human beast.
Made in collaboration with the Italian government to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of the Risorgimento (realignment of Italy), Vive L’Italia follows the Sicilian exploits of legendary Italian General Giuseppe Garibaldi and his red shirt army. In support of an uprising against the Bourbons in Sicily, Garibaldi (Renzo Ricci) and his thousand soldiers landed upon the east coast of the island and took several cities along the way to Palermo.
Key to Garibaldi’s ultimate triumph was the battle at the hilly terrain of Calatafimi where his vast military experience snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. After taking Palermo and proclaiming himself Dictator of the island, the British navy accompanied Garibaldi to the kingdom of Naples where after a major battle he made peace with the Neapolitan army and accepted exile, leaving his countrymen’s fate in the hands of King Victor Emmanuel II.
Although Vive L’Italia is shot in a wide screen process with eye-popping color, Rossellini’s take on these major historical events is a cool and analytical one. Rossellini makes great use of zoom shots as punctuation for his long graceful pans over the sun-scorched southern battlefields. In fact, there are so many deep, expositional shots it seems likely Rossellini didn’t trust his editors to reshape his film once the shooting was done. This cerebral style levels the playing field between Kings, politicians, soldiers and a merchant’s daughter, as a result, we find Rossellini’s Garibaldi to be both an everyman and a much-worshipped figure for the ages.
Roberto’s next film Vanina Vanini was a more romanticized take on the politics and rebellions of the 1830s leading to the Risorgimento. Based on one of the Italian Chronicles by Stendahl this rare Rossellini melodrama is initially set in Rome where Vanina (Sandra Milo), a headstrong young aristocrat falls in love with Pietro (Laurent Terzieff), a dashing young rebel who is being sheltered by her father the Prince Vanini (Paolo Stoppa).
Pietro belongs to the carbonari, an underground group similar to Free Masons, who seek to rout the Austrians from power in Italy. He is in Rome to assassinate a traitor in the group, but after being wounded Pietro becomes the willing prisoner of the beautiful Vanina with whom he has fallen in love. Pietro recovers and leaves Vanina to become a head carbonari.
Unwilling to let him go without a fight, she betrays his men to the police who stage mass arrests and punishments. Vanina uses her influence to get an audience with a Cardinal who pardons Pietro but when the prisoner finds his lover has betrayed him he denounces her and chooses to die by the guillotine. In her despair, Vanina enters a convent far away from the temptations of her former society.
Made in collaboration with producer Moris Ergas, Sandra Milo’s long-time boyfriend, Vanina Vanini did not suffer from lack of production values. In fact, the lavish art design could well be the most sumptuous in the Rossellini oeuvre. But the film was a bomb, hooted out of theatres by moviegoers and lambasted by critics who preferred a Viscontian touch for this sort of Romantic epic. Rossellini seemed to ignore the limitations of his two leads (Milo and Terzieff), who flounder about for many pivotal, dramatic interludes.
Yet, the film remains a stunning achievement in many ways. The painstaking re-creation of Rome of the 1830s is truly remarkable. The lusty characterizations of the courtesans, rebel rousers and aristocrats are memorable and the chaotic crowd scenes offer many chilling examples of Langian mob rule. Somewhere during the troubled shoot Rossellini does seem to lose his way, but the film’s many flaws don’t keep Vanina Vanini from being a major work of interest.
By the mid-1960s Rossellini’s career had begun to stale though professional inertia, fear of failure, and his own sour take on what he believed to be the manipulative, popular cinema. Fusing his lifelong interest in education with a new economic style influenced by the advent of television, Rossellini embarked upon his historical period filming stories of the great men of the ages. To the casual viewer, these films can be an acquired taste. The visual style is flat, close-ups rare, and the didactic dialogue is read in a limp, emotionless manner by mostly amateur actors. Still, for those make the effort to follow the narrow thread, these films can possess a mesmerizing power.
Oddly enough, Rossellini’s first film in this “series” was not even initiated by him. After being turned down by Jacques Rivette, the desperate producers of the French TV project The Taking of Power by Louis XIV, turned to the old neo-realist who jumped at the chance to become active again. Collaborating with screenwriter Jean Gruault (veteran of Vanina Vanini, Truffaut’s Jules et Jim and Godard’s Les Carabiniers), Rossellini threw out much of the original script to tell the story of a youthful King who sacrifices his own happiness for the good of France.
Although weakened by illness and unnecessary bleeding administered to him by incompetent court doctors, we find the true power behind the French throne, Cardinal Mazarin (Giuio Cesare Silvani), to be a cagey and ruthless politician. On his death bed he offers Louis (Jean-Marie Patte) his fortune in the hopes the twenty two year old King can grease the right palms and keep his enemies at bay. Fearing what his people would think of such a gesture, Louis decides upon a much different approach to ruling. He unexpectedly takes an interest in his corrupt government and boldly orders the arrest of the conniving Fouquet (Pierre Barat), the first in line for the job of Prime Minister.
Along with Mazarin’s former confidante, the idealistic Colbert (Raymond Jourdan), Louis devises a plan to sequester fifteen hundred of the country’s meddling aristocrats with him in the magnificent Versailles palace, so the un-harassed workers and merchant class can build and better and stronger France. After the palace is enlarged to accommodate the swarm of bluebloods, Louis one-ups this in-crowd by cultivating a society of stultifying manners and outlandish fashion. In the end we find The Sun King, like so many Rossellini heroes and heroines, to be alone in a hell of his own making.
Made for Italian television the nearly six hours long Acts of the Apostles turned out to be a great jumping-off point for Rossellini for these acts and the men who performed them helped usher in the beginning of modern Judeo-Christian culture and gave its director the perfect opportunity to perfect his new, expansive style. Shot on stunning, arid locations in Tunisia, the episodic film is pieced together as a journey, chronicling the events in the lives of these men and the people they influence in the thirty-two years after the death of Christ.
The major thread of the five episodes appears in the person of the Hebrew Saul/Paul of Tarsus (Edoardo Torricella) who terrorizes the followers of Christ and instigates the stoning and crucifixion of the apostle Stephen (Zignani Houcine). After being blinded on the road to Damascus Saul’s sight is miraculously restored and he takes the name of Paul on converting to Christianity.
Life on this road not taken proves hard for Paul and the apostles who meet disdain and ridicule along the way culminating in a confrontation between James the Greater (Missoume Ridha) and the notorious King Herod who orders the beheading of the future saint. Paul continues his trek across Israel and southern Europe, risking persecution by preaching the word of Jesus before finally returning to Jerusalem where he is arrested by Roman soldiers. Paul is escorted to Rome where he is placed under house arrest for two years awaiting trial and a date with destiny.
Accompanied by a percussive, Eastern-ambient score by Mario Nascimbene and edited in a nearly invisible style by Rossellini, Acts of the Apostles is a sprawling but extremely effective take on the adventures and spiritual journeys of the men chosen to spread the gentle doctrine of their mentor to a mostly hostile world.
Rossellini’s next project for RAI, Socrates, was a subject the filmmaker had wanted to take on since his neo-realist days. This latest didactic film covered several episodes in the last five years of the philosopher’s life beginning from the fall of Athens to his public trial and execution. After the Spartans have invaded the city, we find many Athenians taking exception to the independent thinker (Jean Sylvere) who is exposed to ridicule and humiliation.
Like many a great man Socrates is a selfless figure who makes the mistake of overestimating the generosity of his foes. Socrates’ philosophical triumphs over his accusers in the forum do little to sway public opinion about the man and few tears are shed when the grim sentence is handed down to him. Socrates turns down an opportunity to escape and surrounded by family and friends in his cell, he drinks the poisonous hemlock sealing his earthly doom.
Basing his material on Plato’s Dialogues Rossellini’s film often feels like a set-piece for Socrates’ monologues and the results, especially in the first half, turn out to be starchy and static. The cinematic technique is similar to Rossellini’s other historical films, but there is a lack of grace and fluidity in Socrates, which the director not so diplomatically attributed to his Spanish cameraman’s inexperience. Like many of the ivory-tower intellectuals Rossellini so admired, the verbose and analytical Socrates proved to be a difficult subject for an audience to warm-up to.
Rossellini’s next Great Man film, Blaise Pascal, leaps from the glory days of Athens to 17th century France where, once again, a philosopher runs up against the same dogma and silly superstitions that has curbed scientific progress since the beginning of recorded history. Pascal (Pierre Arditi) is introduced as a seventeen year old clerk working for his tax collector father Etienne (Giuseppe Addobbati) in Rouen.
Brilliant Blaise is clearly a prodigy but his strict father prefers not to compliment the boy lest his ego get too big. But when young Pascal solves a difficult geometrical problem that has stumped the intellectuals of Paris, Etienne sends the boy’s treatise to government officials to help secure his future. Just as Pascal’s career as a scholar seems to be taking off his delicate health takes a turn for the worse and he spends the rest of his life dependent upon his sister Jacqueline (Rita Forzano) and servants as an invalid.
Blaise’s solitary life turns him inward where he makes a re-affirmation with God. He also finds time to invent the first adding machine, lock horns with prejudicial Parisians, publicly debate the rationalist Descartes, and even devise a public transportation system for Paris before expiring at the age of thirty nine.
After dwelling for so long in the ancient past, it was a relief to find Rossellini back in the relative present and the almost conventional Blaise Pascal turned out to be his most accessible film since The Rise of Louis XIV. Quite unlike Acts of the Apostles and Socrates, Rossellini’s latest film was a chamber piece and its good ratings on Italian TV likely encouraged him to film his future scenarios in a minor key.
It comes as little surprise then Rossellini’s film about his favorite religious philosopher, Agostino d’Ippona, begins the story just as St. Augustine’s life was winding down in his North African monastery. This vital and transitional period of history took the likes of the future Saint from Berber to re-enforce the values of Judeo-Christian culture, planting seeds for the Church to survive the coming dark ages. By 385 AD the withering Roman Empire had split into regional factions, resulting in lawlessness and a decline in religious and moral principles.
The thrust of the narrative has Augustine (Dary Berkany), supporter of the Catholic Church, butting heads with both the defeated people of Rome and the Donatists, a rigid and powerful Berber sect. Forever the philosopher and diplomat, Rossellini cedes the floor equally to the would-be pagans and Augustine in a series of debates designed to capture the heart and imagination of a disillusioned public.
Agostino d’Ippona is one of Rossellini’s more visually striking, yet sloppy, films and the correlations Rossellini draws here between the ancient past and the radical chic of the 1970s was the rare misstep in these historical works. However, it was a stroke of divine inspiration to cast Berkany, a wild-looking Berber filmmaker, to play the worldly, North African priest who can’t help but stand out in stark contrast to the countless bloodless types we are subjected to here and in many of the director’s final films.
The 4½ hour The Age of the Medici follows the rise of Florence’s favorite son Cosimo de Medici over a golden period which Rossellini would champion as “…the grand joining of humanism and mercantilism”. As far as educating and entertaining its audience Medici is the most successful of these late period films, no real surprise given Rossellini’s great enthusiasm for the subject matter (commerce, science and art).
Cosimo (Marcello di Falco) is a crafty businessman who uses his wealth and diplomatic talents to help unify Tuscany with the Lombardy, Venetian and Napoli regions of the country. When his business rivals try to usurp his power by exiling Cosimo to Padua, the young Medici outwits them by bringing his bank along with him, causing Florence to fall into decline. City fathers help overturn Cosimo’s sentence and usher in his triumphant return to Florence. After ridding the city of his enemies, Medici continues to run the city in his low-key style, encouraging the building of churches, grand palaces, strengthening the city’s infra-structure, as well as importing the papacy from turbulent Rome.
One of the many great artists who made Florence his home during this era was architect and art theorist Leon Battista Alberti, the subject of the film’s second half. A well-respected scholar of modest means, Alberti gains influence in Florence by the weight of his intellect and, if we are to believe Rossellini, a sheer gift of gab. While touring the many glories of Florence, including Brunelleschi’s Duomo and the breathtaking frescos of Massacio in the Brancacci Chapel, Alberti gives us an enlightened lesson about the creation of perspective in art through science.
Earnest and intellectually curious, Alberti remains humbled by the city and the genius in its midst. As a reward for a lifetime of service to mankind, Pope Nicolas V honors the aging Alberti by inviting him to Rome to help rebuild the classical city left in ruins by centuries of wars and plundering.
The Age of Medici is rare didactic Rossellini film that is gentle on its viewers and rewards them for their patience. Of course, it helps to follow heroes who are both subtly interesting and charismatic but, here, it’s a joy to find the film’s complex creator swept up in the glorification of man and the innumerable marvels of Renaissance Italy.
Rossellini’s film about French philosopher Rene Descartes, Cartesius, has been referred to as a litmus test to the director’s admirers. The emphasis of this taut and grueling film is placed on the early adult life of the soldier and student Descartes (Ugo Cardea), who leaves his comfortable home in France to experience life and formulate a new philosophy combining reasoning, mathematics, science and theology, all created from a blank slate.
Returning home after the Thirty Years War, Descartes decides to move to Protestant Holland which he believes to be more enlightened about the new advances made in science than the Roman Catholic countries. Although Descartes’ radical philosophy receives accolades from friends and colleagues, his failure to address God’s place risks censure of his writings in both the church and universities.
Rather than risk his life and go public with his findings, like the Italian astronomer Galileo, Descartes meekly withdraws his manuscript from the publisher in hopes the political climate will change in time. Another example of the philosopher’s unappealing reticence occurs after his daughter dies and he retreats into the safe haven of his bedroom where he can work without being bothered by his long suffering mistress, friends or detractors.
Rossellini’s Descartes comes off as aloof, arrogant and “unwilling to look anyone in the eye” making for a chilly viewing experience. Yet, it would be foolish to write Cartesius off so brusquely. Borrowing liberally from the likes of Dutch masters Hals, Rembrandt and Vermeer, Cartesius is one of Rossellini’s most handsome-looking productions. It is also an enlightened and regal film, drawing inspiration from the minds of ground-breaking scientists who contemplated the universe in a whole new way.
Weary of the high maintenance Rossellini and the bad ratings his recent films had generated, RAI finally cut the aging neo-realist loose. Fortunately, the cash-strapped Roberto was offered to direct Anno uno a controversial film about Alcide De Gasperi, former Prime Minister of Italy and head of the Christian Democratic Party during Italy’s “reconstruction” in the late 1940s and ‘50s.
From the get-go the right-wing funded project was viewed with suspicion by Italy’s left, still licking their wounds over the Christian Democrat take down of the Communist Party during De Gasperi’s reign. Although Rossellini had supported the center-left Prime Minister he seemed bored by the project and could hardly be bothered to give props to a man who had heroically stood up to Mussolini in the 1930s.
Rising out of the ashes of postwar Italy, De Gaspari’s Christian Democrats take power in 1945 to the relief of the Americans and other western allies who fear the spread of Soviet-style Communism in Europe. Unfortunately, Rossellini’s stuffy De Gasperi spends much of his screen time in tiny attics, smoky back rooms or bleak landscapes, pontificating to anyone within earshot. Anno uno is similar in style to the rigorous “Great Man” films but it’s clear this important and divisive politician wasn’t interesting enough to capture the director’s imagination. De Gasperi’s eight year reign, and Rossellini’s film, ends in defeat and unresolved, an ominous sign of things to come for a country continually struggling to redefine itself.
When Rossellini finally got the green light to make his film about the Christ, Il messia, he seemed little bothered about the RAI production of Franco Zefferelli’s similarly-themed Gesu being shot concurrently. Once again, Rossellini turned to Tunisia to film his biblical story and the cool, austere settings help give its mythical narrative a neo-realist kind of credibility.
Rossellini got a promissory note for funding from the Roman clergy but his once-promising film about the Christ for “non-believers” was shot hastily and considered unfinished by many scholars of the director. Yet, here was a case of Rossellini’s ascetic style doing justice to the often-filmed story and if, in the end, we are still allowed to be skeptical of the message we have no such reservations about who the director tended to refer to as the “perfect man”.
The future Messiah is shown to be a curious and mischievous boy making his transition to a man of the people easier to digest. Envisioning a kinder and gentler Christ for his film, Rossellini cast the benignly handsome Pier Maria Rossi for the part. But the director’s infamous lack of care in post-production came back to bite him, as the dubbing of Rossi turned this warm and fuzzy Jesus into an often irritable icon.
Rossellini’s choice to play the Virgin Mary was much more radical. The novice Mita Ungaro, a fawn-like seventeen year old, played the role without the benefit of make-up even as she grows into middle-age. Much to the displeasure of the Church, Mary’s youthful appearance turns out to be the lone miracle in Il messia but, oddly enough, this teenage actress exhibited a refreshing energy and surprising calm in the face of the storm, giving strength to Mary Magdalene and the Apostles in their darkest hour.
Perhaps owing to financial necessity, Il messia was Rossellini’s most energetic film in years. The lengthy soliloquies are peppered by accentuated zooms and the director’s restless camera gives extra urgency to dangers lurking just outside the Messiah’s little community and, most importantly, to the power of the man’s Word.
Rossellini spent much of the final two years of his life trying in vain to get a distribution deal for Il messia and funding for a film about Karl Marx. After completing two well-received documentaries in 1977, Rossellini died a virtual pauper in Rome, a city whose tastemakers finally embraced its native son after having spent two decades dismissing his revolutionary body of work.
Books on Rossellini:
The Adventures Of Roberto Rossellini: His Life And Films – Tag Gallagher **** 1/2 An exhaustive, insightful and entertaining biography, the sheer breadth and insight expended on its complex and controversial subject are not likely to be duplicated any time soon.
Roberto Rossellini – Jose Luis Guarner **** Published in 1970 this eloquent and eminently readable work of criticism was the first important study of Rossellini. Out of print.
Roberto Rossellini – Peter Brunette **** Brunette’s book is less speculative than Gallagher’s, but his thoughtful and very informative take on this elusive subject more than holds its own against the mighty competition.
My Method: Writings and Interviews – Roberto Rossellini (ed. Adriano Apra) **** This posthumous collection of essays and interviews is about as close as we’ll ever get to memoir but its reticent subject isn’t all that keen to reveal much to his inquisitors. In the early pieces, Rossellini is irritable and condescending. When the gloom finally lifts he offers singular and fresh insight about the giant subjects of his late period works.
Films by Rossellini:
1939 La vispa Teresa *** (short)
1940 Fantasia sottomarina ***1/2
1942 La nave bianca ***1/2
1942 Un pilota ritorna ***1/2
1943 L’Uomo della croce ***1/2
1943-46 Desiderio ***1/2
1946 Roma citta aperta (Open City) ****
1946 Paisa ****
1947 Germania, anno zero (Germany Year Zero) ****1/2
1948 L’amore ****
1948 La macchina ammazzacattiri ***1/2
1949 Stromboli ****
1950 Francesco giullare di Dio (The Flowers of St. Francis) *****
1951 7 Deadly Sins ***1/2 (segment Envy)
1952 Europa ’51 ****1/2
1952 Siamo donne ***1/2 (segment Ingrid Bergman or The Chicken)
1953 Viaggio in Italia *****
1953 Amori di mezzo secolo ***1/2 (segment Napoli ’43)
1954 Giovanna d’Arco del rogo (Joan of Arc at the Stake) ****
1954 Fear ****
1959 L’India vista da Rossellini ***1/2 (TV program)
1959 India: Matri Bhumi ****1/2
1959 Il generale Della Rovere (General Della Rovere) ****
1959 Era notte a Roma ****
1961 Vive L’Italia! ****
1962 Vanina Vanini ****
1962 Ro.Go.Pa.G. ***1/2 (Illibatezza)
1966 The Taking of Power by Louis XIV ****1/2
1968 Acts of the Apostles ****
1970 Socrates ***1/2
1972 Blaise Pascal ****
1972 Agostino d’Ippona ***1/2 (Augustine of Hippo)
1972 The Age of Medici ****1/2
1974 Cartesius **** (Descartes)
1974 Anno uno ***1/2 (Italy: Year One)
1975 Il messia ****
1977 Beauborg center d’art et de culture Georges Pompideau ***1/2