“You mustn’t lose courage now.”
Every film is in some way a revealing product of its time. But only the most sensitive and culturally attuned exist as definitive statements from that historic and geographic context. Only a select few could have never existed at any other period, in any other place. This is partly what lies behind the enduring legacy of Italian Neorealism, a movement born from a specific series of events and dispatched from a well-defined region of the world. It’s exactly why Roberto Rossellini’s so-called “War Trilogy” remains such a potent collective document. The films included in this cycle—Rome Open City (1945), Paisan (1946), and Germany Year Zero (1948)—demand to be placed within an exclusive framework, not only to appreciate what they achieve in terms of technique, but to emphasize how boldly contemporary they were at the time of their release. In addition to introducing emotive faces to the anonymous newsreel footage of World War II and its aftermath, these films and others like them (Bicycle Thieves, Umberto D., Shoeshine) yield powerful stories with authentic characters, breathing still resonant life into textbook chronicles of war and its atrocities.
If there’s one overriding sensation of this trilogy, a direct result of this historical foundation as well as the artistic abilities of Rossellini, his cast, and crew, it’s the indescribable dread of war, from occupation to reconstruction. Throughout these three films, central characters physically convey their relentless unease: terrified faces, anguished expressions of sorrow, reserved postures hardened by exhausted endurance. Suspicion and tension are inherent in the unsettled environments and in the narratives placed by Rossellini. As Adriano Aprà remarks, during this period “life meant constant danger,” and that anxiety develops from devastation and destitution; these are good people pushed to extremes, left with little choice when dire conditions call for action. They are forced into potentially combustible close quarters, situations that may foster togetherness (one routinely sees the forging of family units) or may result in unforgiving betrayal. At the same time, bravery and perseverance drive characters forward, as does a persistent optimism. But then we see the fine line between survival and opportunism, and ethical boundaries prove as mutable as the borders of a conquered nation. This is what Rossellini was hoping to establish with these films. It was a new “moral position,” he said, the invention of a “new technical method.” Or, as Tag Gallagher observes, it was about taking current events and turning them into history. In any case, it all adds up to a perfect storm of tragedy, violence, and compassion.
Of the three films included in this trilogy, all of which have been recently released by the Criterion Collection in a new Blu-ray set with a wealth of extras, Rome Open City is possibly the most famous and traditionally important, if not necessary the best, most audacious, or most innovative. Candidly shot in recently liberated Rome (while other parts of Italy were still at war), its multifaceted story chronicles the local overlap of a brave priest (Aldo Fabrizi), a dogged bride to be (Anna Magnani), a resistance fighter on the run (Marcello Pagliero), children caught in the complex crossfire, and Nazi oppressors enacting their twisted ideology with devious aplomb. The priest, Don Pietro Pellegrini, and the widowed fiancée, Pina, are the most likeable, each living under degrees of covert necessity and each a representative type (and each played by actors who actually got their start in comedy). Pina, in particular, wearily evokes the constitution of one who has seen a thing or two and has learned to live with the harsh realities. She embodies the beleaguered “Immortal City,” a correlative many subsequently assigned to the robust Magnani herself (little wonder Pier Paolo Pasolini cast her in the title role of his 1962 film, Mamma Roma).
For Don Pietro, his exemplary spirit touches on the importance of faith in times of struggle. For these characters, relentlessly inundated by external conflict, religion is something to hold on to, a familiar and firm refuge from the enveloping chaos. But it’s not easy. “Doesn’t Christ see us?” pleads Pina, questioning a supposedly omnipotent God that remains silent during such horrific times. Father Virgilio Fantuzzi, a friend of Rossellini’s interviewed for Criterion, observes the recurrent religious implications and iconography present in much of the director’s work, not just the obvious films like The Flowers of St. Francis (1950), Giovanna d’Arco al rogo (1954), and the extraordinary Il messia (1975). Frequency notwithstanding, though, Rossellini’s view of religion was a thorny one, and in these three Neorealist films, he openly disputes the efficacy of faith and points to religion’s latent hypocrisies. This is perhaps best seen in a segment of the six-part Paisan, where a group of military clergymen stay at a monastery, a place of ostensive sanctuary detached from the surrounding hostilities. Yet even there, the Jew and Protestant of the group are subjected to pious bigotry.
Still, the general idea is to preserve not only faith, but domestic tradition—simplicity to sustain normalcy. If there is the good, however, there is most certainly bad. These demarcations are less severe in Paisan and Germany Year Zero, but in Rome Open City, the lines are clearly drawn. In that film’s decidedly more lugubrious and stifling second half, leading up to a prolonged torture scene, Rossellini shows Nazi methodology with an emphasis on excruciatingly casual cruelty; as the Germans take their psychopathic time, there is a disturbing juxtaposition of brutal viciousness in one room and drink, merriment, and music right next door.
Production on Rome Open City started just after the liberation of the city in 1944, when the Italian film industry was in shambles and Rossellini had to scrounge for what little film stock was available. He couldn’t view rushes during filming and had to put his property up for sale in order to secure the compulsory funds. Improvisation and sacrifice was essential, especially if he wanted to preserve the film’s on-the-spot immediacy, which is today one of its hallmarks. Rome Open City is about the here and now, and Rossellini was committed to identify and testify, for all to see, what a select unfortunate group had to endure. Paisan, on the other hand, extends its scope. It’s not just about a confined community in one particular city; with his follow-up, Rossellini aimed for a cross-cultural canvass.
Its title derived from a term roughly translated as “friend” or “countryman,” Paisan’s focus is also more thematic than plot-driven. Rossellini sacrifices extended character engagement for episodic portraits of fraternity and solidarity, a mutual striving for the common good. Originally titled “Seven from the U.S.” (only six stories would make the cut), the film highlights the American liberating presence as GIs chart a course northward throughout Italy. Set in six distinct regions (so distinct that the film was often shown with subtitles, even in Italy, due to the diverse dialects), Paisan examines the precarious process of allied collaboration or, at the very least, cohabitation. Each sector essentially breaks down along the barriers of communication and understanding, as Rossellini presents an at times jarring diversity of ethnicity, ideology, and social conditioning. There are moments of fleeting happiness—something so modest as a cordial conversation or the blessings of a Hershey bar—but more often than not, the film poignantly revisits jaded slants on race, crime, seduction, and the hazy morality of makeshift lives in a war-torn nation.
Paisan is an undeniably bleak film, full of tearful individual scenes and one unhappy ending after another. But it’s uncompromisingly animated by convincing characters and insightful reflections on battle-scarred perspective (when stolen boots hardly matter in the face of truly profound hardship). As Colin MacCabe states in an essay fittingly titled “More Real Than Real,” “Any simple description of Paisan would make it sound both miserable and despairing, but the verve of the stories and the sense of the camera finding realities as yet unseen actually make it one of the most inspiring and energizing of films.” Though the film proved to be quite divisive, politicly and socially, it is arguably Rossellini’s strongest creative amalgam of disparate parts into a solidified illuminating whole. Rossellini himself called the picture the “roughest of sketches” … “neither completely fictional nor absolutely true, but they’re probable.”
Though Jonathan Rosenbaum writes about the vague title of the final film in this trilogy, the proposition of Germany Year Zero seems clear enough. As Rossellini switches national focus to the vanquished city of Berlin, he takes a challenging look at how the enemy starts from scratch and begins again. In doing so, he puts forth a film of remarkable and rather daring empathy. When a father tells his ex-combatant son, “That was war. You were doing your duty as a soldier,” the unjudgmental conclusion concerning guilt and innocence is staggeringly provocative. Like Rome Open City and Paisan, Germany Year Zero is an exposé assembled from strong contrasts, where trendy night life meets the burdens of rationed power, water, and food, where a country’s inhabitants peddle records of Hitler’s speeches on the black market and promote photo-ops where the tyrant was killed. It’s a curious way to reconcile Germany’s condition, but it’s only unusual because it’s so rarely seen. With Germany Year Zero, Rossellini said he wanted to “complete the canvas of the tragedy we lived through,” and that he does. But the result is brutal. Bombed-out rubble lines the street like a mountain of plowed snow and destitute Germans of all ages make ends meet by digging graves and surviving on the foul meat of a dead horse; they are assailed on all sides by thievery and misery, regret and responsibility, resolution and corruption. Aprà rightly points to the “moral poverty” of these figures and conditions so disheartened it “hurts to watch.”
The only film of the trilogy with a singular protagonist, Germany Year Zero stars 11-year-old Edmund Meschke as Edmund Köhler, a naive youth who falls under the devious wing of a creepy former teacher, a criminal pedophile (the film has a surprising amount of alarming sexuality) whose comments have a palpable tinge of fascist sentiment. Misinterpreting the man’s disengaged remarks, the boy performs a terrible act of misguided charity. Children were a mainstay of Italian Neorealism, appearing as budding soldiers, tough-talking scamps raised amongst the wreckage, and smoking, wise-cracking adolescent schemers, but Edmund is none of these. He is simply an innocent struggling in a world of perpetual confusion and hopelessness. As one of the more tragic figures to emerge from Rossellini’s trilogy, his impact is two-fold when one realizes, as many have detected, that Meschke bore a strong resemblance to Rossellini’s own son, Roman, who had recently died at the age of nine.
Aside from the dominant topicality of these three films, also notable is Rossellini’s variable style and comportment. “The fusing of seemingly incompatible modes in Rome Open City would increasingly become a hallmark of his idiosyncratic art,” writes James Quandt, and this idiosyncrasy included eclectic casting (professionals and amateurs), contrasting locations (found sites and studio sets), and incongruous characters (broad types and precise individuals). Rossellini was a wonderfully complicated filmmaker, and his fascinating formal fluidity is no more evident than in these three films. He finds warmth and humor amongst the casualties and coldness and the mundane amongst the madness. Despite any superficial crudity, there is skill that surpasses technical and financial limitations, from Rossellini’s own striking shot selection, to the keen sense of pacing and structure courtesy of his screenwriting collaborators (Sergio Amidei and Federico Fellini among them), to the suspenseful musical accompaniment from brother Renzo Rossellini. The impact of Italian Neorealism generally, and Rossellini’s contributions specifically, cannot be understated. In the wake of these films, as Aprà notes, “cinema now wounds us.” It’s not just entertainment. What Rossellini and his filmmaking compatriots heralded was a new phase of modern art. What he wanted to do, and what he accomplished, was to “make cinema meaningful.” And surely, cinema doesn’t get more meaningful than this.