Preferred Citation: Brunette, Peter. Roberto Rossellini. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996.

22— Era Notte a Roma (1960)

Era Notte a Roma

Era notte a Roma (It Was Night in Rome) has most often been seen as a companion piece to General della Rovere since it, too, looks back to the war years and the Resistance for its subject matter. The films, in fact, do share common themes, attitudes, and formal techniques, but are finally quite different than their chronological proximity would suggest.

Era notte a Roma tells the story of three escaped Allied prisoners—a British captain, an American lieutenant, and a Russian sergeant—who are reluctantly hidden by Esperia, a beautiful black marketeer, while they are in Nazi-occupied Rome seeking to rejoin their lines. (The period is thus the same months of severe deprivation portrayed in Open City , but now seen through the eyes of three outsiders.) The Fascist Tarcisio, a crippled, "spoiled" priest, spies for the Germans; when he tracks down the Allied soldiers' hideout in Esperia's attic, the Russian sergeant and Esperia's boyfriend Renato, a working-class Roman Communist, are killed. Pemberton, the British officer, is subsequently hidden by an aristocratic Roman family and later in a monastery with other escaped Allied prisoners disguised as priests. While trying to help Esperia, he is forced to kill Tarcisio, who wants Esperia to go north with him when the Germans abandon Rome. After their night of suffering ends with the coming of dawn and the American liberation of the city, Pemberton and Esperia are, at the end of the film, too psychologically exhausted and overwhelmed by events to celebrate.[1]

Era notte a Roma is a curious film, not easily domesticated and understood, because it straddles an aesthetic fence. On the one hand, the film is clearly related to the conventional "good" filmmaking that we saw in full operation in



The Resistance revisited: The Russian sergeant (Serge Bondarchuk), the British major
(Leo Genn), the Italian Communist (Renato Salvatori), and the black marketeer Esperia
(Giovanna Ralli) in  Era notte a Roma  (1960).

General della Rovere . It has a strong plot, dramatic emotion is heightened whenever possible rather than undercut, the music is scored for a full orchestra, and the lighting is professional if unexciting. Yet conventional narrative expectations are not always fulfilled. Thus, when Bradley, the American, decides late in the film to try to get back to the American lines at Anzio on his own, this potentially exciting interlude is casually reported to Pemberton as though it were an offstage death in Greek tragedy. The spots of "dead time" are also less thoroughly pruned here than in General della Rovere . The film seems, in other words, to occupy some uncomfortable position between two aesthetics and often threatens to fulfill neither. The problem for criticism arises when one tries to judge: looked at from the perspective of General della Rovere , it might be said that these moments when "nothing happens" are boring and that the entire film needs to be cut drastically in order to enhance dramatic interest. But if judged from the perspective of Voyage to Italy , say, we can regard Rossellini's longueurs as temps morts that refuse the shortcuts of conventional film grammar and thus begin to move from a smooth realism toward the disjunctive real.

In many ways Era notte a Roma is excellent as a "straight" film, and its depiction of immobility and stasis, the claims of Christian brotherhood, and the desire of all good men to live in peace is convincing and often moving. One


scene, in particular—the touching Christmas dinner in the attic—is especially memorable. The film likewise seems to be a fair portrayal of a particular historical moment: "Jane Scrivener" reports in Inside Rome With the Germans , her detailed diary of the occupation of the city, that it was quite common for Jews, patriots, and escaped prisoners of war to hide in extraterritorial Vatican convents and elsewhere, as Pemberton does, and her diary entry of January 8, 1944, estimates that more than four hundred escaped British prisoners were being hidden in Rome at that time.[2] Other aspects of the film, however, are much less conventional, especially its presentation of character. Thus, the American is "unconvincing" by any normal acting standards, but like "Joe from Jersey" in Paisan , he thereby challenges the film's prevailing realism with the tonic power of the apparently more real. The Englishman delivers his lines so slowly and artificially (in a manner that looks forward to the ponderous, yet effective, deliberation of La Prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV ) that we are continuously prevented from identifying with him emotionally. The Russian remains a mystery to us because he speaks only Russian throughout. In effect, Rossellini refuses to let us get to "know" these men. Similarly, years of indoctrination by Hollywood-style filmmaking lead us to expect that when Esperia and Pemberton get back together again at the end, after her boyfriend Renato's death, some love interest will develop between them. In fact, a ghastly publicity photo reproduced in Renzo Renzi's book on the film shows Leo Genn (Pemberton) and Giovanna Ralli (Esperia) enormously uncomfortable in each other's arms, trying to look amorous. Nothing could be further from the spirit of the film, however, and, defeating conventional expectations, nothing of the sort ever arises. For Rossellini, the depiction of the historical situation is more important than any banal love story. Even more powerfully, most viewers must surely be struck by how hard Pemberton takes Tarcisio's death at the end of the film. The moment is even further underlined by the uncomfortable silence and a restless, wandering camera. In most conventional films, of course, only women are allowed to be horrified after they have killed someone, and it comes as something of a shock to realize just how deeply disturbed Pemberton is. Paradoxically, our shock first registers in terms of a lack of belief, for Pemberton's is an emotion that somehow does not "fit," and thus a sense of "real-life" emotion once again breaks the illusionistic web of realism. What is perhaps most interesting is that, while we see these characters as somehow closer to the real, it is also true that they are stock types. The Russian is impetuous and emotional,[3] the American is practical but whiny, and the Englishman, replete with pipe, is the very embodiment of propriety and good sense. Though many critics have objected to this kind of national stereotyping, our double, contradictory sense of them as types and as unknowable, unpredictable individuals, "real people," actually makes them even more forceful as characters in a film.

This tension between realism and the real is also seen in Rossellini's typical opposition of fiction and documentary, and during the course of the film we see archival footage of the Allied landing at Anzio, the Americans arriving in Rome at the end of the film and, of course, the Germans leaving. Most important is the footage at the very beginning. We learn of the hundreds of Allied soldiers, especially pilots, who were rescued by ordinary Italians at great risk to their


own safety. A voice comes on, speaking American English, with the clear purpose of putting things in context for the film we are about to see, but surprisingly, this neutral, objective, unidentifiable voice suddenly moves into the first person and says, "I'd like to make a statement."[4] Here, perhaps, Rossellini is rehearsing the lesson of India: the only truth is a subjective one, and must always be based in the vagaries of the individual perceiver. In this case, the perception is thematically and formally made relative through its presentation by this unnamed American officer. (During the filming, the director told a reporter for the New York Times that the film would be "an eyewitness testimony . . . as seen by three hiding soldiers.") The voice functions both specifically, as an eyewitness, somebody who asserts and fills the "I" category of grammar, thus motivating the narrative, and generally since, unnamed, it is meant to stand for the entire group of Allied prisoners.[5] And then, brilliantly, Rossellini removes even the grounding of the subjective consciousness, for the speech ends by lavishly praising the "Christian charity" that was everywhere evident and that was the source of these good deeds, and insisting that no one ever acted out of selfish motives. At this moment the film cuts to the three "nuns," in a humorous visual ironization of the voice-over's remarks; we soon see what sharp dealers they are, and how little interested in accepting responsibility for the prisoners, doing so only when it appears they will profit financially.

Another major theme that reappears is that of communication. The languages come at the audience in an alarming and confusing barrage as the characters struggle to understand one another. Early in the film, for example, a comic scene has Pemberton say to Esperia in his faulty Italian, "I want you" instead of "I want tea." The communication theme is also broadened to include the relativity of culture. Thus, when Ivan is ashamed at having chased a live turkey out into the street, thus risking his friends' lives, he wants to leave the attic where they are hiding so that the others will be safe. He warmly embraces them one by one, but since he is speaking only Russian, they have no inkling of his intentions. He then abruptly sits down (which, we learn later, is part of the Russian ritual of leave-taking). Even more moving is the moment during the Christmas dinner in the attic when Ivan, trying to express how much his friends mean to him, begins with a few words of broken Italian, gives up, and speaks passionately in his native language. Neither we nor the others have the faintest idea what he is saying, but the experience is intensely emotional nonetheless. Heavily stressed in terms of the Pancinor zoom technique (which I will discuss in more detail later in this chapter), the moment obviously represents to Rossellini the dream of a full, feeling communication unmediated by the imperfections and false boundaries of diverse human languages. As such, it can be seen as obliquely related to the neorealist dream of the direct presentation of the essence of reality on the screen. This language-subverting outburst works so well, however, precisely because it occurs in the context of, and is defined against, all the other conventional linguistic signification generated in the film.

Other typical Rossellinian themes, such as concealment, imprisonment, and waiting, are continued in Era notte a Roma , but are less narrowly focused on a single strong personality like De Sica's in General della Rovere . Here the narrative is carried by a number of people—which some critics have claimed gives it


a certain undesirable diffuseness, but which also relates it to the decentered coralità of Francesco . Yet Rossellini had already gone too far in his exploration of the individual to be able to reimmerse himself in a simple anonymous group with a mind and will and spirit of its own, and in many ways the film is less choral than simply about a loose collection of individuals who remain individuals.

The theme of appearance versus reality of General della Rovere , especially located around the construction of self and identify, is here, too. Thus, the attic in which most of the action takes place is reached only through a fake cupboard, and the film is preoccupied with disguise and role-playing. Esperia and her fellow black marketeers are first introduced to us as innocent nuns on a foraging expedition among the farms in the Cerveteri region, where they agree to accept the escaped prisoners in exchange for olive oil and some very good prosciutto. This disguise (kept from the spectator as well) leads, back in Esperia's apartment in Rome, to some pleasant comic business when she begins to disrobe in front of the soldiers. Similarly, Pemberton's last disguise is as a priest.

The particular form of these disguises also points up a specific and important connection between Era notte a Roma and Open City , the association of Catholicism and the largely Communist Resistance. Priests like Don Valerio, for example, risk death by hiding Pemberton and the other soldiers in their monastery. Their religious charity, clearly an ongoing value of exceptional importance to the director, hearkens back to the innocent monks of the monastery sequence of Paisan and to the "perfect joy" of Francesco . Most important, it is they who show coralità when, in the second half of the film, the camera zooms slowly back from them at the refectory table (after the news of the German massacre of more than three hundred civilians at the Fosse Ardeatine) from an individual shot to a powerful group shot that suggests a modern recreation of the communality and brotherhood of the Last Supper, the scene represented in the fresco behind them.

Opposed to their goodness stands the corruption represented by Tarcisio, who is short, crippled, and—perhaps worst of all for Rossellini—a spoiled priest.[6] Like the lesbian Ingrid and the sadist Bergmann in Open City , and Enning, the homosexual teacher of Germany, Year Zero , Tarcisio functions emblematically throughout the film. This is true even when he is dead; at the very end, as the approaching dawn brings the American liberators, his lifeless foot sticking out of the door clearly signifies the death of a decadent fascism as well. Even more impressive is the scene in which Tarcisio, having tracked the escaped pilot to the monastery, is able to separate the real priests from those merely masquerading as priests by forcing them to complete a Latin prayer (and thus perverting its purpose). Don Valerio and his fellow priests foil Tarcisio's plan and effect a beautiful, literally choral statement of brotherhood at the same time by beginning to recite the prayer in unison . Tarcisio is shown in a one-shot, appropriately, completely frustrated.

Perhaps the film's closest connection with Open City is the motif of Rome itself. In the earlier film, it will be remembered, the Germans could come in contact with the city only through second-level representations like maps and photographs. In Era notte a Roma , as well, the outsider Pemberton can look


out upon Rome only through the window of his attic prison, as through a frame. Again, the visual shorthand for this motif becomes the dome of Saint Peter's, which is made much of throughout. It is, in fact, as though the director meant to enfold the whole of Open City within the later film, providing it with a significant intertextual resonance that also, of course, is meant to help legitimatize it.

As a marker and reification of history, Rome represents the possibility of a future beyond and without the Nazis, because it so clearly stands for the power and vastness of the past, before the German occupation. The cripple removes all doubt about his depravity when, at the end of the film, he says he longs for all of Rome to be destroyed when the Germans leave. The Latin language operates in similar terms: though Tarcisio temporarily controls the language and uses it for corrupt purposes, the real priests, as we saw, move quickly to reinstitute its historical and spiritual claim. The link with the past is asserted in other places as well: just as in Europa '51 and Voyage to Italy , classical sculpture—which in this film is packed for safekeeping, significantly, in the underground headquarters of the Resistance—states the ongoing presence of a potentially fruitful, if temporarily mislaid, tradition and further legitimatizes the anti-Fascist struggle. (Nor is it an accident that, when we first meet the three escaped soldiers, they are hiding in an ancient Etruscan tomb.) In addition, the unexplained presence of the religious statuary that crowds Esperia's attic and the continuous appearance of bells and churches (as well as the dome of Saint Peter's and the Latin language itself) are clear indications of the central place of the Catholic church in this tradition.

Rossellini's original impetus in making this particular film seems to have been didactic, for he told Renzi that he was concerned about the younger generation's ignorance of fascism. What worried him was the story he had heard about an Italian high school student who, when asked who Mussolini was, guessed that he was a neorealist film director. Yet one would be hard pressed to claim that Era notte a Roma is a historical film in the manner of the films of the last period of the director's career. Nor can it be compared with films like Francesco or even Europa '51; history is taken up here, yes, but the commercial demands for high drama and a strong plot line based on character, however unconventional that character might be, seem finally to work against any truly didactic purpose, at least as Rossellini would later define it.

In terms of technique and mise-en-scène, however, Era notte a Roma is clearly the prototype of the films to come. For one thing, the space before the camera, which the camera creates, now becomes fuller, thicker, more volumetric. To accomplish this, Rossellini returns to the large objects, especially tables, that he had used sporadically to organize and give form to this three-dimensional space. In addition, camera and character have been articulated together on a more equal psychological footing; now that the central female object (or victim) of the camera's gaze is gone, the camera is less obsessively stalking its prey. The sense of pursuit of the earlier films was largely an effect of their emotional distanciation coupled with the tracking camera, physically moving its way through space, and the particularly pressing psychological resonance that can accom-


pany such movement. Here even the tracking shots are different. Thus, during three distinct sequences (in the palazzo of the aristocratic family, at the Vatican, and in the monastery, when the disguised Allied soldiers read about the partisans' attack on the Nazis in the Via Rasella), the camera moves lyrically through space—with moments of stasis alternating with flowing pans—but always in tandem with the choreography of the characters, actively discovering new pieces of narrative and thematic information.

At the opposite pole from the Magnani and Bergman—era tracking shot is the most important new technique of all, the Pancinor zoom device, invented and operated by the director himself, which will completely alter his future filmmaking practice.[7] On one level, of course, the smooth optical mobility of the zoom lens promotes an even greater sense of mastery and command of space than does the tracking shot. It also gives the impression that it does not want to miss a single gesture or expression. Nevertheless, in this and in subsequent films, the zoom seems cooperative rather than threatening. Perhaps this is because Rossellini's use of the zoom is always slow and restrained, and because its intrusion on the character is optical rather than palpably physical, as with the tracking shot. It comes to seem more a benign recording device, a simple technological feature of the medium, rather than itself part of the forces oppressing the protagonist.

The device was first used in General della Rovere , as we have seen, but only twice. In Era notte a Roma —despite Renzi's reports of constant breakdowns of the device and the fact that the movement of the lens is not always as smooth as it will be in later films—it comes fully into its own, complementing the new sense of space that has been created. The first major benefit is that it allows Rossellini to reframe without having to cut. This does not mean that there are no cuts in the film; in fact, there are many, and they are handled much more conventionally—carefully cutting on head movements and other action—than in any previous film.[8] Nevertheless, when the director begins a take in medium or long shot and then wants to move in closer to pick up a character's expression, he is able to do so with the zoom, without having to cut to a closer shot. The principal result is to enhance greatly the possibilities of the plan-séquence always so dear to Rossellini and his supporter Bazin; now the only constraint on the length of the take is the amount of film stock that can be held in the magazine at one time. Perhaps the greatest practical benefit, however, one rarely acknowledged by critics, was financial, for the optical "editing in the camera" accomplished during the shooting of the film saved a great deal of postproduction time and expense. It is no exaggeration to say that the later historical films could never have been made without the economies afforded by the use of the zoom.

Aesthetically, the zoom gave Rossellini additional expressive possibilities. He told Renzi, "The Pancinor is like a camera in a vacuum, like holding a camera in your hand. The director, in the course of the scene, can put the accents wherever he wants."[9] One good example of how the Pancinor works occurs during Ivan's impassioned Christmas speech in Russian that was discussed earlier. As he begins speaking, the camera is in medium shot and then, very slowly, almost imperceptibly, zooms in for maximum emotional effect. (Later


the zoom will also be utilized as a rather more distanced probing or investigative device, not unlike the earlier tracking shots—though without their psychological pressure—but in this film its effect is primarily the conventional one of heightening emotion.) As Ivan gives up and begins speaking Russian, the camera zooms back out, just as slowly, as though his very being were expanding through love to encompass the others in the room as the lens movement ends as a group shot. (The other magnificent use of the Pancinor in this film occurs in the Last Supper sequence in the monastery, described earlier.)

These are only the moments that stand out. Ultimately more significant is the general sense of space that is created within the frame when zooms more frequently replace cuts. Simply put, the zoom seems to make the space more whole and, at the same time, more plastic. Because the optical eye can so effortlessly traverse it, this space seems as infinitely expandable and collapsible as a giant accordion. In a way, space comes to seem more malleable, more vulnerable to artistic manipulation; it is less rigidly and uninvitingly simply there as a flat represention, a picture of only two dimensions that lacks depth. With the zoom, space can be entered, pierced, penetrated—but omnisciently, almost magically, without the gross physicality of the tracking movement. Thus, it would seem to approach even closer the neorealist dream of the unmediated presentation of the essence of reality. What is particularly interesting, however, is that, paradoxically, the zoom always insists on calling attention to itself as an effect of technique. This new cinematic device will not ever let us forget that it is precisely that, a cinematic device.


22— Era Notte a Roma (1960)

Preferred Citation: Brunette, Peter. Roberto Rossellini. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996.