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5— Desiderio—A Special Case (1943–46)
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Desiderio—A Special Case

One more film must be discussed before we arrive at Open City and the beginning of Rossellini's fame. This is a project he began working on in 1943 as Scalo merci (Freight Yard); completed by his old schoolboy friend Marcello Pagliero (who became more famous for his role as the partisan chief Manfredi in Open City ), it was released in 1946 as Desiderio (Desire). (More accurately, the film was originally released in 1946 as Rinuncia [Renunciation], ran into problems with the censor, then, with some scenes cut, was rereleased as Desiderio .) As finally made, it concerns a young call girl named Paola, sick of the corrupt sophistication of the city, who returns to her native village only to find the same destructive passions rampant there. Pursued by her brother-in-law (Massimo Girotti) and a blackmailing former lover, the pressure finally becomes too great and she commits suicide. Rossellini has essentially disclaimed any responsibility for the film (insisting that only about ten or fifteen minutes of what remains are his). But though he did little of the actual filming,[1] he was involved from the very beginning in planning its locale, characters, and themes. Hence, a brief discussion seems warranted.

The spring and summer of 1943, just before L'uomo dalla croce was released, were difficult times. The tide of the war had finally begun to turn against the Axis powers, with their defeat in North Africa and the Allied landing in Sicily on July 10, 1943, and a general malaise pervaded the civilian population. It was in this climate that Rossellini was trying to find an appropriate subject for his next film. In an interview with Francesco Savio in 1974, he said that he and another director had been refused permission to make films by the newly organized Consortium of Filmmakers, but he could not remember why. He went to


see his friend Vittorio Mussolini, president of the consortium, and argued that since his father's antistrike law also forbade lockouts, the consortium had actually violated the law because he was not being allowed to work. Convinced, Mussolini fils obtained permission for Rossellini to begin filming again. "Thus I jumped on an idea of Peppe [Giuseppe] De Santis' which was called Scalo merci , and we got this thing together in about a month's time. . . . I started shooting on July 19. . . . A bad day to start a film."[2] A bad day because, after spending a month in planning specifically in terms of the San Lorenzo quarter of Rome, where the freight yard was located, on this day that entire area of Rome was destroyed in an Allied bombing attack. Since the actual physical environment, which was becoming increasingly important to the director, no longer existed, the treatment had to be drastically changed.[3]

At this point the story was shifted to the mountains, an especially convenient location given the confusion of the moment (Mussolini had just been arrested) and the general fear that the Germans were about to descend en masse on Rome. According to De Santis' version of the events:

[After the bombing of San Lorenzo], Rossellini thought that in order to finish the film it would be more prudent to get away, and so he took off for the Abruzzi, inviting me to follow, but I declined the invitation because I had some work that was a little more important, and not in films, work at the heart of the [Communist] party and with the clandestine group, and so I didn't budge. Actually, I don't think that Roberto shot a single meter of film in the Abruzzi; more than anything else, it was an excuse to get away from the bombs.[4]

According to Giuseppe Ferrara, however, who has given the most complete accounting of the background of Desiderio , Rossellini did continue filming in the mountains, right through a roundup of draft dodgers and the confusion of the armistice signed with the Allies on September 8.[5] Finally, however, in spite of already legendary skills in the financial area, Rossellini ran out of money and had to put away the film for good.

De Santis' involvement in the film was significant, for a year earlier he had been working with Visconti on Ossessione , clearly the most aesthetically progressive Italian film to be made during the war. Desiderio , like Ossessione , is concerned with the arousal of "illicit" passions among people living in close proximity, and De Santis seems the obvious link between these two films (his own Bitter Rice [1949] is both socially aware and sexually melodramatic). Carlo Lizzani, another Communist member of the staff of Cinema , has said in an interview that, while Rossellini was not as close to the journal as Visconti, De Sica, or Zavattini, they felt he was one of them, especially because they liked some of the documentary scenes of Un pilota ritorna . Lizzani is convinced that their long discussions with the director during the planning of Scalo merci influenced the choices he made.[6]

The film also shows Rossellini moving closer to making human beings, within their environment, the central focus of his documentary impulse. Before this, one always feels that his loyalties are divided between a depiction of human realities and a fascination with the sheer facticity of objects, especially the mechanical.


The intent in Desiderio is to examine place as a locus of motivation for a character's actions, and we see the powerful influence the village has over Paola, far from the glamorous call-girl's life she leads in Rome. In the mountains she is trapped by atavistic passions and a rigorous, uncompromising system of values that rob her of her freedom and prevent her from being welcomed into the unity of her family. Probably the most significant thematic connection between this film and Rossellini's later work, however, is the obsession with death and, more particularly, suicide. In fact, the picture opens with a suicide that foreshadows and is repeated by Paola's suicide at the end. Both Open City and Paisan will close on the sad, sour notes of executions, and both the third film in the postwar trilogy, Germany, Year Zero , and the later Europa '51 contain child suicides. The deaths in these films are clearly linked, but there are differences as well, and it should be remembered that Desiderio , like Ossessione , remains principally a tale of sexual passion. Edmund's suicide in Germany, Year Zero , on the contrary, implies the rejection of an entire world.

In purely formal, and especially visual, terms, it must be admitted that one finds little of Rossellini in the final product, though some critics have seen more than others. The editing, supervised by Pagliero, is so superfluously fast that annoying jump cuts often result. At times the camera even moves slightly after cutting, simply to get a better angle or tighter shot—an awkward, amateur's mistake—instead of dollying, a standard technique Rossellini had mastered by the time of L'uomo dalla croce . Similarly, the camera is obsessively taken by the face of Elli Parvo, who plays Paola, even when someone else is talking, in a total indulgence of the male gaze that is uncharacteristic of Rossellini. Throughout the film, in fact, the camera resolutely stresses reaction shots, something equally inconsistent with the rest of Rossellini's work, including the early films.

But it would be incorrect to suggest that the film does not have occasional brilliant visual moments. Chief among these is the powerful shot of Paola's sister Anna, in bed with her husband Nando (Massimo Girotti), who is becoming ever more obsessed by Paola. Anna is talking to him, but remains in the background of the shot while her husband, his back to her, is close to the camera so that we can detect his slightest reaction to everything she says. The lighting is also excellently suggestive in this scene, as well as at the end, when Paola has made up her mind to kill herself. It is strongly reminiscent of French thirties film and the American film noir yet to come.

As Gianni Rondolino has pointed out, "on one side the upsetting of the dramatic conventions, with the sudden suicide of the heroine, and on the other, the deep analysis of a split society particularized in its contradictions, misery, selfishness and cruelty, confer on Desiderio an unusual dimension in Italian cinema of those years."[7] This much is clearly true. The problem, with Desiderio , as with most of Rossellini's early films, concerns the precise locus of the auteur. The original subject and at least part of the treatment came from De Santis; the vast majority of the images and all of the editing seem to have come from Pagliero. Again we must ask: where is Rossellini in all of this?

How can these early films be summarized? What conclusions can be drawn? In thematic terms, we have seen the importance of coralità , which will become fur-


ther emphasized in Open City and Paisan , yet also the first stirrings of interest in the lone individual trying to work out his or her—usually her—salvation amidst the world's hostility. Perhaps even more important, we have seen that the startling realism that was to take the film world by such surprise in 1945 had been prepared for in the earlier trilogy; it is all there—the use of actual languages, real locations, and real props, as well as nonprofessional actors for all the secondary roles and many of the principal roles as well. Furthermore, Rossellini's documentary impulse also jostles with standard narrative patterns in the most basic formal ways; thus, an aesthetic of montage, used primarily to heighten excitement, exists alongside the tentative use of the long take to convey temps mort and a sense of lived experience.

At this stage, I think two points of tension or opposition can be sketched out, one perhaps more consciously apparent to Rossellini than the other. In a sense, these are enabling or dialectical oppositions, for they establish the disturbance, the disharmony, that in turn provide the energy that motivates the films. The first is a tension between Rossellini's desire to document the material world, the sheer "thereness" of the natural and the built, on the one hand, and his belief in the imaginative capability of human beings, the spiritual nature that makes them strive for something beyond the material, on the other. The second, related tension—of which Rossellini was probably less aware and which is only slightly in evidence in the early trilogy—is that between depicting human beings as fully historical, always marked by the particular social forces acting upon them at any given time, and the opposite desire to reveal an eternal human essence. Thus, specific places and times will become supremely important—India '58 , Europa '51 , Era notte a Roma —and Rossellini is intent on being as precise as possible about the exact historical realities into which he places his characters. Yet, as we shall see more fully in subsequent chapters, his ultimate project is finally transhistorical or ahistorical, for the careful specificity is always meant to reveal the permanent or general, that which manifests itself as an unchanging human nature throughout the whole of history. Difference, in Rossellini, always ends up as sameness.

But the more particular historical question we must summarize at this point, before embarking upon a study of the superb accomplishment of the postwar trilogy and the problematics of realism, is the nature and extent of Rossellini's putative fascism. Most of his earlier critics, for various polemical reasons, have had very specific views on the subject. The Marxist critics Raymond Borde and André Bouissy, for example, apropos of La nave bianca , s ay that "in selling his soul to the regime, Rossellini was learning his trade," and admit freely that "we scarcely like the character," but patronizingly give him credit for "the pioneering role he had on the financial and technical level."[8] Nino Frank, on the other hand, in his study of Italian film entitled Cinema dell'arte , lets Rossellini off too easily—or perhaps unwittingly condemns him even more grievously by his defense.

If there were anti-Fascist politicians who emigrated, writers even, or artists, there were never any anti-Fascist Italian filmmakers. And if a Camerini or a Soldati didn't make anything which could be taken, from near or far, as ap-


proval of the acts of Mussolini, or those close to him, both probably hoisted the insignia of the party, as everybody who wanted to work in Italy was obliged to do. So, one more uniform [that is, of those making military propaganda films], over the black shirt, scarcely counts.[9]

To be a member of the Fascist party merely in order to work, however, is hardly tantamount to wearing the black shirt. For one thing, as the Communist De Santis has pointed out, the Communist party recommended that its sympathizers join the Fascists to work against them from within.[10] It is also clear that for a filmmaker, who depends upon collaboration, a large mass audience, and great sums of money, political exile is much more disabling than for the writer, say, who presumably can take his work with him.

Another "apology" for Rossellini that does more harm than good is that offered by Giuseppe Ferrara. Like many other young men of the time, he says, Rossellini was "intrigued by fascism but not corrupted by it." Ferrara compares Rossellini with the confessional Renzo Renzi, who, in Rapporto di un ex-ballila , describes how he was taken in by the promise of fascism, its hope for the future, its declared openness to all solutions, its synthesis of ideologies, and, above all, its professed interest in change. Specifically, Ferrara points out, the opportunity for renewal that fascism seemed to offer was the war, which also lent new possibilities to the cinema and a renewal of "seen facts."[11] The problem with Ferrara's theory is that it implies a greater consciousness, on Rossellini's part, about Fascist ideology and its future "promise" than is warranted by the facts. It seems much more likely that Rossellini never really thought in specifically political terms and thus tended to see the situation statically, as a simple given. The Fascist march on Rome had occurred when Rossellini was sixteen, and thus he had grown into adulthood knowing no other form of government. In the manner of most self-professed "apolitical" artists, it was probably easier to accept the apparent stability of a more or less fixed system, right or wrong, in order to pursue one's own private goals in peace.[12] De Santis says of the Rossellini of this period that he was like those "big Mississippi gamblers who have such great talent for getting things together, for setting themselves up. . . . But I want to insist that Rossellini always did this with a great respect for others and always with enormous generosity. . . . The number of people he helped is infinite."[13]

Perhaps the simplest and best explanation for Rossellini's "collaboration" with the regime can be found in the fact that he was a Roman through and through. Italian intellectuals from other cities have never considered Rome a very serious place and are fond of pointing out that no major publishing house is located there. Roman culture so easily became the seat of Fascist culture because it was the home of the demimonde and hundreds of idle, penniless minor aristocrats. On the other hand, rich families with an intellectual tradition—the Agnellis, Olivettis, and Pirellis—are closely associated with modern, urban industrial life and have all been from northern Italy. The key concept, perhaps, is what Italians call trasformismo —that particularly Roman talent, honed through centuries of constantly changing power relationships, for knowing which way the wind is blowing, for being able to shift loyalties quickly in order to survive.


And fascism is simply what Rossellini and most of his fellow Romans had adapted to, but with no greater loyalty attached to it than to any other "external" force that had ever impinged on Roman life.

But all of this changed when Mussolini was forced from power, the armistice with the Allies was signed (effectively unleashing a civil war), and, above all, the Germans occupied Rome. It was declared an "open city," of course—Rossellini's title is meant to be grimly ironic—but the German presence was ubiquitous and violent. It was during this nine-month period of occupation, from September 1943 until the city was liberated in June 1944, that, through the medium of its infinitely more brutal twin from Germany, the citizens of Rome finally came to understand the true nature of their government. Accounts of the period speak movingly of the horrible tortures in the S.S. headquarters on Via Tasso, the roundups of able-bodied men in the middle of the night to keep the German munitions factories going, and the utter lack of electricity, clothing, and, at times, even food and water. And through it all ran the continuous terror of the ongoing skirmishes between the Nazi occupiers and the Resistance. This desperate urban warfare reached its zenith in the spring of 1944, when, after an especially severe partisan bomb attack that killed thirty-two German soldiers, Hitler, beside himself with anger, ordered the execution of ten Italians for every German killed. Not enough Jews or partisans could be found in the jails at the time to accommodate the order, so hundreds of men were simply grabbed off the street. Over three hundred were then led into the bowels of caves known as the Fosse Ardeatine, just outside Rome, sadistically murdered a few at a time, and piled on top of one another. The Nazis then dynamited shut the entrance to the caves, but the extent of the heinous reprisal became known a few days later.

As countless interviews and personal testimonies have shown, it was in this climate of fear and violence that Rossellini and other lukewarm "Fascists," overwhelmed by the brutality of events, became instantly and genuinely politicized. There is absolutely no reason to doubt Rossellini's sincerity in this change, though it is possible, of course, to see in the movement from courageous Fascist priest of L'uomo dalla croce to courageous partisan priest of Open City merely another example of Roman trasformismo . But the conviction of the great postwar trilogy, to which we now turn, burns too brightly for this explanation to be acceptable.


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