The rough, powerful conclusion to his so-called Fascist Trilogy, Roberto Rossellini’s L’uomo dalla croce revolves around an Italian priest, a humble military chaplain, who ministers to the wounded and the dying, and Russians scrambling for refuge after being shelled from their homes, in a bombed-out shack on the Eastern Front during the Second World War. Throughout an apocalyptic night, artillery fire, outside, flashes darkness into bursts of light. At dawn, the chaplain, himself dying, crawls to deliver the message of God’s love to a dying man half of whose face has been shot and burned off; their deaths dove-tail in time. The camera finds the pocket on which the chaplain’s insignia, the cross, is sewn.
The opening panning shot is phenomenal: doves populating a tree, mixed company at a distance in and hovering near a lake, young men reclining on the ground, soaking in the sun. This seeming image of leisure and tranquility is overturned when the men put back on their military uniforms. The film to follow provides a gripping portrait of war.
The imprint of Mussolini’s political intent bears down mostly in the onscreen script that ultimately appears. Only an insane person would find this film as offensive, say, as Hollywood’s warmongering Yankee Doodle Dandy (Michael Curtiz, 1942). Indeed, Rossellini’s humanism opposes war, passionately, and expresses full compassion for all its victims.
It is largely the urgency of Rossellini’s nascent neorealism that assists the film in eluding the script’s schematic quality and labored ironies, for instance, the death of a man as a baby, only yards away, is being born. The chaplain abandons this dying man in order to baptize the newborn, returning in time to pronounce the man dead. For me, at least, human responsibility weighs in, here, problematically.
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