A PILOT’S RETURN (Roberto Rossellini, 1942)

“I need a depth of field which perhaps only the cinema can give, and to see people and things from every side, and to be able to use the ‘cut’ and the ellipsis, the dissolve and the interior monologue. Not, of course, that of Joyce, but rather that of Dos Passos. To take and to leave, inserting that which is around the fact or event and which is perhaps its remote origin.” — Roberto Rossellini

In Roberto Rossellini’s wartime so-called Fascist Trilogy, each work focuses on a different branch of Italy’s military: its navy, air force, infantry. The middle and perhaps most powerful entry, Un pilota ritorna, proceeds from a group portrait to a young pilot who is new to the squadron, and from him to a wider and deeper portrait, in which he is enmeshed, that depicts the environment of suffering that war imposes. As we would expect him to, cinema’s greatest humanist transcends the patriotic intent of the original story, by the son of Italy’s dictator Mussolini, to create a vision of war’s capacity, not only to maim and kill, but also to thwart, even crush, the simple aspirations of the individual. Michelangelo Antonioni was among those who contributed to Rossellini’s characteristically evolving script, which includes a remarkably casual passage in which squadron members openly mock the “heroism” of fighter pilots that newspaper headlines, in blindly rapid succession, extol.
     In 1941, during Italy’s war with Greece, Gino Rossati, the film’s protagonist, is shot down from the skies and interned in a British camp before becoming a prisoner of the Greeks. There, he meets and falls in love with Anna, a teenaged prisoner whose composure in assisting her father in a makeshift leg amputation, as well as her kindness to the patient afterwards, somehow in the midst of war promises a respite, even an antidote. In one of the film’s bravura 360° pans, each of which surveys a restricted environment that manifests the incursion of war into people’s lives, Anna sits by the amputee’s bedside and reads aloud to him; by the time the camera, having noted the faces of others in the shelter, has returned to her, Anna has fallen asleep from exhaustion, by extension, from war’s burden. Unselfishly, Anna urges Gino to attempt the escape he desires, asking only that he at some point of safety find her again; Gino, stealing a plane, does escape. (The tight confinement of the cockpit is, for us, sorely ironic.) Gino is shot by his own side—he is, after all, piloting an enemy plane—but manages to land safely. Amidst countrymen rejoicing, learning of Greek surrender, perhaps he wonders whether he and Anna will reunite. Perhaps he will forget her.
     Like all stories, this one admits its clichés; but the hard, detailed realism that Rossellini pursues, tempered by the sensitive hopefulness of the beginning romance, and the ordinariness of the young pair’s lives and of the lives of others that we glimpse all point to the new lifeblood that Rossellini was helping to inject into Italian cinema. Intriguingly, Massimo Girotti is cast as Gino; that same year, he also starred in Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione, thus linking the two founding works of the Neorealist movement. Its masterpiece, about the postwar toll of war, would come five years hence: Rossellini’s unconquerable Germany, Year Zero (1947).

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