Apart from Michelangelo Antonioni, whose filmmaking in part derives from his, Roberto Rossellini is Italy’s preeminent film artist. His career comes to us in overlapping phases. A Fascist filmmaker, Rossellini shifted to the side of the angels with one of the most important political films ever, Rome, Open City (1945), whose co-scenarist, Federico Fellini, was another artist who, having acquiesced to national orthodoxy, saw fit to rehabilitate himself with this great, surreptitiously shot anti-Fascist drama of the Resistance. Highlighted by a tremendous performance by Anna Magnani embodying the spirit of Italian independence, family and communal commitment and sacrifice, Rome, Open City brings the immediacy of a newsreel to its visual aspect, liberating the camera from its tripod and thus giving neorealismo one of its stylistic signatures: camera as dynamic character rather than passive observer—an event linking Italian Neorealism to such documentary artists of the 1920s and 1930s as America’s Robert J. Flaherty and Holland’s Joris Ivens. To be sure, there is stark melodrama around the fringes that Rossellini’s film cannot quite absorb; but even this seems justified by the dire nature—the life-and-death struggle—of the political context. No number of viewings exhausts the excitement of this film.
Rome, Open City’s riveting, highly expressive use of camera achieved an even more trenchant result with Germany, Year Zero (1947), which Rossellini shot using nonprofessional cast members in both German- and Italian-language versions—it is the East German version that has become a classic—in his attempt to grasp the complete tragedy of war’s aftermath. Germany, Year Zero studies the vanquished, its camera, probing and dynamic rather than observing, assuming the lead role in the unfolding tragedy of a child in postwar Berlin, on whose shoulders his destitute family places a burden of responsibility beyond his scant means to support, and who, in a rare moment at play, commits suicide, thus becoming, as it were, another fatality of the war. A near clinical approach particularizes this case study and abstracts it into a postwar generalization. In effect, 12-year-old Edmund’s death, by extending his solitary childish play in the rubble of a bombed-out building, signals the childhood that war did not permit him, Rossellini’s camera—throughout, really, Rossellini—surviving to testify to the event and to attempt to fathom its meaning for European history and development. It is a colder film than Rome, Open City in its determination not to sentimentalize Edmund and the plight he represents. It is also, all the more so, an even more startling film.
In between Rome, Open City and Germany, Year Zero, Rossellini made Paisan (Paisà—Paese—Homeland, 1946), whose composite nature in surveying episodes of the Allied liberation of Italy unhinges conventional narrative by compounding it in order to create an epic portrait of Italian struggle, determination and survival in the last years of the Second World War. It is a terrible mistake to see this film as in any way indebted to earlier entertainments that use some narrative device to link separate episodes (for instance, Ernst Lubitsch and Norman Taurog’s If I Had a Million, 1932, or Julien Duvivier’s Un carnet de bal, 1937); Paisan is not the stringing of parts but the sum of its parts—and more than that sum. It is a completely original concept that looks ahead to Antonioni’s further experiments in unhinging film narrative in order to challenge filmmaking orthodoxies and, by extension, social and political reactionaryism. Paisan’s episodes are cumulative, the complete work, momentous.
The commercial failure of Germany, Year Zero—the film did not have a stirring aspect, as had Rome, Open City and Paisan—found Rossellini returning to this “episodism” in the medieval Francesco, giullare di Dio (Francis, God’s Fool, 1950), which reunited him with Fellini, one of his collaborators also on the script for Paisan. Based on I fioretti (The Little Flowers), a cumulative collection of tales about San Francesco d’Assisi (St. Giovanni Francesco Bernardone), St. Francis of Assisi, composed by Franciscan monks and completed in the fourteenth century (in the States the film was called The Flowers of St. Francis), Rossellini’s greatest work—with Antonioni’s masterpieces, at the pinnacle of Italian cinema—follows a humble, occasionally bumbling nomadic community of God’s servants whose heartrending humanity unfolds beneath a variable—now stormy, now placid—sky figuring forth eternity. The complexity of the film’s tone and achievement in part derives from the nonreligious nature of the film. A humanist rather than a religionist, Rossellini links the spiritual nature of his characters to the earth (to Nature, that is), and he understands eternity, culminating in the closing upward pan, in secular terms, as the consignment of human activity to legend, which is to say, art, and, above all, as the infinite measure of human aspiration. Thus is Rossellini able to convey the depth of religious feeling of his characters, which he utterly respects, while creating a context that is analytical of those feelings. Rossellini’s theme is human nature (note the title, which identifies Francesco as fool, as jester, not as saint), and Francesco and his “flowers” provide an astonishingly rich tapestry of it. However, the film is in no way comparable in this regard to, say, Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales because the individual characters per se are less important to Rossellini, who instead stresses community. Francesco and his “flowers” compose a roving garden, and few other films convey so powerfully the need for people to come together and join destinies in order to withstand the harshness and hardships of human life, including mortal awareness—the motive behind the creation of Church in the first place. What an antidote to nonsense about rugged individualism this incomparably beautiful film is!
Of course, the film is not unrelated to Rossellini’s other work around the same time. As artists so often do, Rossellini has gone to the past to comment on the present, creating a mosaic of episodes creating a unified vision of innocence, humility and spiritual harmony to form an indirect commentary on Italy’s present—collapse, humiliation, disarray, political turmoil. Although something of a stretch because of the different nature of those films, one can also say that Francesco, giulllare di Dio looks ahead to the present-tense histories that would occupy the filmmaker in a later phase of his artistic labor.
In love with Anna Magnani, in between Germany, Year Zero and Francesco, giullare di Dio Rossellini made the short films “The Miracle” and, from Jean Cocteau’s play, “The Human Voice” (1948), in the latter of which his star especially shines, with a rich and subtly shaded performance as the woman, alone, on the telephone with the lover who has abandoned her. Irony of ironies: Rossellini was about to abandon Magnani—for (and this is saying a lot) an even more beautiful woman and possibly even greater actress: Ingrid Bergman. Bergman had been magnificent in Sweden, achieving an amazing performance as the vicious, facially scarred woman redeemed by the innocence of the child she is plotting to kill, in Gustaf Molander’s splendid A Woman’s Face (1938), and had become an immense star in Hollywood, giving thrilling performances in For Whom the Bell Tolls (Sam Wood, 1943)—as Hemingway’s Maria, part of a mountain-roaming band of anti-Franco guerrilla fighters, she is almost like a wild animal—and George Cukor’s Gaslight (1944), where her idealistic Paula clings to the idea of marriage and the love that accompanies it, even as her sadistic spouse plots to drive her into an insane asylum, and achieving especial brilliance for Alfred Hitchcock, first as the psychoanalyst desperate to prove her beloved’s innocence of murder in Spellbound (1945), and then as Alicia Huberman, a Nazi’s daughter who falls in love with a federal agent loath to believe that she can mend her sexually “loose” ways, in Notorious (1946). Bergman also had major successes with Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942) and The Bells of St. Mary’s (Leo McCarey, 1945). However, after turning down parts that won Oscars for Olivia de Havilland and Loretta Young, and after giving three bad performances in three bad films in a row, she felt the need for a career change. Bergman thus wrote Rossellini, whom she had never met but whose Rome, Open City and Paisan she greatly admired; they fell in love while making Stromboli (1949), married, and continued a series of films together that constitutes one of the most remarkable collaborations in film history—films that dwarfed all that Bergman had previously done, with the single exception of Notorious. A cynical soul might say that these films did more artistically for their star than for their director, but these were important and necessary films also for Rossellini. However, one cannot dispute his concessions; for instance, these films were made in English because English was the language that he and Bergman most comfortably shared.
There is in existence not one but two Strombolis: one, the official version assigned to Rossellini by the American studio RKO—the version distributed in the States and Britain; the other, the version that, using RKO money and equipment, Rossellini surreptitiously made for (excepting Britain) European consumption. The first is trash—unadulterated trash; the other is a stunning piece of work. (This assessment doesn’t mean that I buy the legend that every shot in one version differs from every shot in the other.) And although he doesn’t fail to give Bergman an extraordinary part (Italy’s film critics named her the year’s best actress, as they had for Spellbound), Rossellini was again engaging vital issues of Europe’s postwar experience. Indeed, he was taking up the issue of postwar dislocation at the heart of Germany, Year Zero, only in this instance powerfully mining its spiritual fallout. Bergman plays a cultured bourgeois who resists feeling humbled by her displaced refugee status in an internment camp after the Second World War. To exit her confinement, Karen opportunistically marries a simple island fisherman, and a process of humiliation and rehumanization is begun. Karen comes to embody a paralyzed Europe at a crossroads between selfish material survival and selfless spiritual survival, with no path in sight to strike a balance between the two. Rossellini essays class differences that, persisting even in a shattered Europe, make all the more elusive the task of making Europe “whole again.” Thus the mesmerizing passages of the fishermen at work—it is not surprising that the first of the Rossellini-Bergmans should be the one with the deepest neorealist roots—disclose a world that Karen resists by bourgeois breeding as well as by temperament. The sea is an alien place for Karen—a fact Rossellini stresses when, making an honest attempt to bridge the gap between them, Karen briefly joins her husband for a work break.
The title of the next major Rossellini-Bergman collaboration stakes out the urgency and immensity of the filmmaker’s concerns: Europa 51 (1951). (The American title is, by contrast, irrelevant and silly: The Greatest Love. On the other hand, the version released in the States, butchered to the point of being incomprehensible, deserves no better title.) A much more complex film, Europa 51 continues Stromboli’s social investigation, only this time essaying the gap between rich and poor rather than bourgeois and subsistent. Europa 51 is also more abstract, more personal, but still holding onto Neorealism by fingertips. Following her son’s suicide, an American living in Rome abandons an empty, wealthy lifestyle and, choosing to live among them, helps the poor instead, prompting her spouse to commit her to an insane asylum. Because Irene’s pilgrimage ends rather than begins in confinement, Europa 51 is a kind of Stromboli in reverse—a commentary on Europe’s current course. Politically, the film confounds; for Rossellini finds the one possible solution, Communism, a fraud, thus implying for Europe a tragic circumstance there may be no getting out of. Irene fascinates; here is a dauntingly independent, secular saint who falls in battle only because she lacks the sanctioning armor of political and religious institutions whose own “good works” proceed from aims perhaps too divided to redeem a broken Europe. To be sure, Irene may in some sense prevail in her imprisonment, a sign of the cost of reactionary thinking, but Europe may prove the loser for marginalizing her and limiting her sphere of influence. Bergman’s performance is among her highest attainments as an artist; it won her another best actress accolade from Italy’s film critics—this time, however, as the best Italian rather than foreign actress.
Rossellini may have made the couple American to reflect not only the greater possibilities that the United States seemed to have at its disposal right then but also the Americanization of Europe that had begun as the United States helped to rebuild Europe. (I intend here a nuanced phrasing: “. . . as the United States helped to rebuild Europe” rather than “. . . as the United States helped Europe to rebuild.”) But there is a larger purpose achieved by this choice: a persistent sense throughout the film of Italy’s—and Europe’s—confusion of identity. What is “Europe” now, and what does it mean? And how, if one is uncertain about this, can people aim at creating, or recreating, Europe? (Too, Italy in particular was coping with having given birth to Fascism and with how this fact bore on the character of the nation.) Moreover, the implacable cruelty of Irene’s husband, an American businessman, implies America’s incapacity to offer any kind of assistance except on its own calculating, self-serving terms. Indeed, nothing in the film so underscores the theme of American encroachment of Europe as the casting in the role of George, Irene’s husband, Alexander Knox, the actor famous for playing Woodrow Wilson (Wilson, Henry King, 1944), the U.S. president who commandeered demands on Germany following the First World War that helped sow seeds of European discontent and economic ruin that contributed to the next “great war.”
Further receding from neorealismo, with its emphasis on social environment and lower-class experience (it is contact with the latter that both redeems and ruins Irene in Europa 51), Voyage in Italy—Viaggio in Italia—is the zenith of the Rossellini-Bergmans. (In an abbreviated form the film was released in the States as Strangers.) For Rossellini, it is an intensely personal work as it surveys the psychology and the humanity of a faltering marriage. Nevertheless, Rossellini himself spoke of its social dimension, describing the film’s subject matter as “a couple’s relationship under the influence of a third person: the exterior world.” Separately the man and the woman, Alexander and Katherine Joyce, a British couple on business in Italy, respond to this strange environment, and just when these unfamiliar sights and sounds seem to seal the couple’s division they in fact suddenly bring the couple closer together. Italy gives inexplicable rebirth to the estranged couple’s love and mutual commitment in one of the most debated finales in all of cinema. Away from England, then, where the social structures with which they are familiar reinforce their complacency, the Joyces find fresh opportunity for revival in a place that counters this complacency with new stimuli for thought and feeling.
The film financially failed, but Jean-Luc Godard and his critical cohorts at Cahiers du Cinéma, Eric Rohmer, François Truffaut and Jacques Rivette, proclaimed it a masterpiece, and it’s their judgment that has prevailed. Today, only the most jaded filmgoer is blind to the beauties of Rossellini’s marital diary excerpt, the second great (after Francesco) and first great contemporary postwar “road film” or odyssey film and thus an immediate influence on Antonioni and a prophet of what has become the signature European genre, most closely identified later, perhaps, with Theodoros Angelopoulos. It is the story of postwar Europe, where Europe is no longer a thing of fixed tradition but the new new world, a state of mind as much as a geographical place, a world mixing the old and the new, a place ripe for rediscovery, which is to say, reinvention, in the wake of its being savaged from within and without in two world wars. Everything depends, Rossellini makes us feel, on the course of the Joyces’ marriage, just as nearly a decade later, in the greatest film of the 1960s, L’eclisse (1962), Antonioni would make us feel that the world’s very existence depends on the course of a love affair. Antonioni ends his masterpiece by imagining the end of the world; Rossellini’s Voyage ends in hope and reconciliation.
The film opens on a vacant, seemingly endless country road. The Joyces are in a car; as they will throughout the film, cameras strapped to the front and side of the car evoke a sense of possibility as correlative to the “freedom of the road.” But at the start of the film the Joyces are not open to any such possibility. We take in the expansive opening and its sense of nearly infinite movement, while the Joyces, despite terse attempts at conversation, are entrenched in their private thoughts, which we soon learn have a common theme: mutual disappointment in their marriage. They agree that this is the first time since their wedding less than a decade ago that they have been alone with one another. In their case, to paraphrase Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis clos, “Hell is one other person: one’s spouse.” The childless Joyces appear to be a miserable, bored couple.
The Joyces also are rich and full of British reserve. They evidence a hardened crust of emotion through which, like small volcanoes, bitterness on occasion bubbles up; but a vast territory of other feelings seems repressed—suppressed—in either case. Their wealth and breeding have helped codify the Joyces’ reserve into a show of politeness that all the more underscores their remove from the mutual affection, even the mature passion, that a middle-aged couple should evidence. They are on the road to Naples in order to help sell a villa that an uncle of theirs has willed to them. British, this man had chosen to remain in Italy during the war. Besides suggesting the complexity of European allegiances and politics that might have resulted in such a possibility, this deceased family member immediately embodies the fresh discoveries—the possibilities—that await the Joyces in Italy. His “voyage” in effect has preceded and smoothed the rough path for theirs. For now, though, we can imagine only Katherine’s openness to any extent to the country the two are visiting. Almost immediately Alex is complaining about the noisiness of Italy, that is, its intrusion into the settled nature of his life.
As tourists, the Joyces do not remain together for long, Alex retreating to Capri for diversionary night life while Katherine explores Naples. When they are together, each exhibits jealousy vis-à-vis the other: Katherine, because Alex seems to come alive when socializing with a young woman; Alex, because of a tale from her history that she relates—an episode of a boy, a poet, who may have loved her and died for this love, braving a rainstorm while very ill in order to see her. The episode is, of course, lifted from James Joyce’s novella The Dead, but it is presented here as unquestionably part of Katherine’s young life before she met Alex, and the married couple’s name, Joyce, reaffirms a connection that, besides identifying art and life, relates Britain—in this case, Ireland rather than England—to Italy. When Katherine is about to visit a Neapolitan museum, Alex, almost viciously jealous, asks whether it is the same museum that the dead poet wrote about, to which Katherine snaps, “Perhaps!” Rossellini is clear that the jealous feelings each partner reveals is proof of the two’s dormant love for one another.
Katherine’s museum visit is one of the great passages of cinema: a piece of tourism that doubles as a revelation of Katherine’s stirred soul as she takes in ancient sculptures that Rossellini’s closeups and upwardly tilted angles invest with more visible, startling life than we have observed in the character now looking at them. It is this subjectivism that moves Rossellini’s Voyage beyond Neorealism. No less potent is Rossellini’s use of irony: whereas Alex has worried that Katherine’s museum visit would take her farther away from him by reconnecting her to her past (the boy who died), Katherine is really being connected to life-affirming emotions that will help bring the two of them together in a future attempt to renew their marriage. What Katherine may be seeing in these huge, magnificent sculptures with their massive human (including erotic) detail are her own human possibilities. This voyage of hers within the couple’s larger voyage proceeds in stages. In each case she is accompanied by a guide (professionals; in one instance, a personal acquaintance instead), and somehow this accumulates into a stunning suggestion of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, especially as Katherine moves from the hell of her marriage to the heaven of its redeemed state. Here also is art, transmuted, come to thrilling life. Katherine visits ionized craters near Vesuvius in Pompeii, where the spark of a cigarette ignites a gorgeous expanse of voluminous smoke as far as eye can see: a revelation of how one must “lose” the self with which one has grown familiar in order to (re)discover, deep within, a truer self. She also visits ancient catacombs stacked with skulls, a reminder of human mortality and, at Pompeii, other remnants of the past: human remains from Vesuvius’s great eruption. Molten plaster is poured into these so that the forms, as a kind of art, come back to life. A couple is locked for all time into their final embrace: the act of love; the point of death. Love: our human defense against death. All this constitutes Katherine’s soul-turning “voyage in Italy”—only, it is contested by her anxiety that Alex no longer loves her.
So what’s the use? At the volcano, the two agree to divorce: a decision, oddly, that signals hope as the couple concert their efforts to overcome the effect on them of the bubbling pit, a projection of their marriage’s unsettled—dormant, not extinct—state. Because the distance between them is the result of mutually exerted will, the product of their mirror-imaging vulnerability and defensiveness, their mutual agreement to divorce, ironically, sets the stage for their reconciliation—in effect, a mutual reversal of this act of will. Amidst a festive street crowd the reconciliation occurs. At first the crowd physically separates the couple, seemingly sealing the Joyces’ marital doom; but in fact this separation spurs the couple to reunite by providing them with an impediment that they must push their way through. They have been roused from their lethargy, their dormancy, their sleep by the crowd’s humanity—a reflection of the humanity of their own that, for fear of rejection and of being hurt, they had buried deep within themselves. Because the reconciliation seems at a glance to come from nowhere, some commentators have misread into it divine intervention—a possibility that has no place in Rossellini’s humanist vocabulary. On the contrary, everything preceding it has led to this reconciliation, which indeed would never have occurred had the Joyces not really loved one another and had Katherine’s separate, individual odyssey not chipped at the mirror of the couple’s mutual defensiveness.
The finish of Voyage in Italy is among the most moving moments in cinema. The rebirth of a marriage is best appreciated against the failure of a marriage: a human tragedy not just for its burial of one-time love but also, like the death of one’s child, for the bankruptcy of hope it represents. I do not understand those who question the ending because the Joyces’ reconciliation may be only temporary. What difference does that make? All the mortal evidence that Rossellini’s film provides (the tale of the poet, the catacombs, the plastered victims of Vesuvius, etc.) reminds us that nothing lasts. Life does not last; it can end at any time. Our awareness of this is part of what makes life precious. So it is with a marriage. So long as it is loving, as is the Joyces’ marriage at the point that we leave it, each additional moment it survives accrues to its value regardless of the ultimate outcome. Indeed, a sense of this is part of the film’s purpose in being.
The film, written by Rossellini and Vitaliano Brancati, is superbly acted, not only by Bergman (her Katherine Joyce includes her most incisive acting; my goodness, what a brilliant performance!), but also, in the performance of his career, by George Sanders as Alexander. The two actors are certainly helped by the fact that, unusual for marital dramas, Rossellini is equally appreciative of the feelings of both the man and the woman.
To what extent was the film a symbolic wishfulfillment for what Rossellini perceived to be his own faltering marriage? I have no idea; the couple at the time, however, probably wasn’t on the brink of divorce. Their marriage lasted a few years longer. It came to an end for many reasons, but the one publicly given was that the Rossellinis’ union was disadvantageous to their careers. Isabella Rossellini, one of the couple’s three offspring, has revealed that her mother especially came to feel that she was hampering her husband’s career. There is some suggestion also that he was possessive of hers, helping to keep her from making Senso (1954) for Luchino Visconti. Bergman, though, did give a great performance in Jean Renoir’s delicious Elena et les hommes (1956), but surely added much more stress to her marriage by her second project away from her spouse, Anastasia (Anatole Litvak, 1956), a tonally indecisive Hollywood romance for which she won a second Oscar. (Her first had been for Gaslight.) Bergman gives a very good performance, but hardly one on a par with her work for Rossellini and Renoir. Nevertheless, the enormous popularity of Anastasia helped make a different impression at the time in pretentious circles. Thus the lead reviewer of the New York Times, Bosley Crowther, announced Anastasia as Bergman’s triumphant return to “commendable” films. Except for a period of retirement when she tended to a seriously ailing daughter (Isabella, in fact), Bergman continued on stage, screen and television, winning a third Oscar (for Murder on the Orient Express, Sidney Lumet, 1974), and closing her career, before cancer overtook her, on two exceptionally high notes, acting brilliantly in Ingmar Bergman’s otherwise disappointing Autumn Sonata (1978) and, on television, as Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in A Woman Called Golda (Alan Gibson, 1982).
Bergman proved a prophet; Rossellini’s career, like hers, revived with the end of their marriage. His return to Neorealism, General Della Rovere (1959), showcasing the great acting of Vittorio De Sica and Hannes Messemer, won the Golden Lion of St. Mark—the top prize—at Venice. However, the composed and refined nature of this (nevertheless good) wartime drama had little of the immediacy or brilliance of his contemporary Neorealism in the 1940s. Isabella Rossellini has remarked that the Venice prize her father had won inaugurated, for him, a crisis; her father knew that he should no longer pursue projects in what had become a faux-Neorealist vein, but at the same time the appearance of success after having been out in the cold for a spell enticed him to keep to familiar paths. After contributing to the script of Godard’s masterpiece about war, Les carabinièrs (1963), Rossellini summoned his artistic integrity and courage and set on a new path: a series of present-tense histories, made for French and Italian television, that viewed notable historical figures in a rich detailing of their social, cultural and intellectual environments. The Rise of Louis XIV (1966) was an early flower of this outgrowth of neorealismo focusing on the past instead of the present and on famous rather than ordinary people. There were also films about Socrates (1971) and Jesus (posthumously, 1978). However, the two pinnacles of the series were the tripartite The Age of Cosimo di Medici (1973) and Blaise Pascal (1974). Rigorous and deeply humanistic (The Age of Cosimo di Medici in fact searches out the birth of humanism), these are the works of his that currently account for Rossellini’s exalted position in the palace of world cinema.
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