The raising of a naval ship’s three guns, along with similar flashes of militaristic rhetoric, recalls Battleship Potemkin (1925)—an odd thing, one would think, for a Fascist film to do. Things get stranger, for this Eisensteinian opening is immediately undercut by a warm-hearted, very funny scene among sailors composing letters to female pen-pals, the humanity of which in turn is undercut the next day by a call to posts aboard ship and a spate of officious, impersonal military conduct among officers as battle breaks out. A sailor, Augusto Basso, will not be able to meet Elena, the schoolteacher who is his pen-pal, after all. The filmmaker is Roberto Rossellini, and La nave bianca is the launch of his so-called “Fascist trilogy.” Blending scripted fiction, beautifully enacted by nonprofessionals, and devastating documentary footage, it is one of the most moving films about war I have seen.
Young Basso is badly wounded in the engagement. He is operated on in casualty ward 3—and a shot of a surgeon’s hand, gripping a scalpel and moving towards the patient as bombing shakes up the room, is far more compelling than anything in M*A*S*H (Robert Altman, 1970). Hemorrhaging, Basso is transferred to a Red Cross hospital ship for further surgery in an attempt to save his leg. His volunteer nurse, it turns out, is Elena, who keeps her identity secret from Basso since it is her duty to tend to all patients equally. The closing shot, a closeup of the cross on her uniform, follows heartrending scenes of injured sailors and soldiers, a singalong by patients on deck, and a mass. An Allied bomber flies overhead, honoring the inviolate space that a Red Cross ship represents.
Subversively antiwar and in humanity’s corner, Rossellini’s government-sanctioned first feature shines.
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