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1— Early Film Projects
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Early Film Projects

Born on May 8, 1906, in Rome, the city that was to figure so importantly in his films, Roberto Rossellini was the first child of wealthy parents. Twenty months later, Roberto's birth was followed by that of his brother Renzo, who was to compose most of the music for Roberto's films and become a highly regarded composer in his own right. A year or so later came Marcella and then, apparently as an accident, Micaela twelve years after that.

According to Marcella, their childhood was "simply marvelous."[1] She readily admits that they were all thoroughly spoiled, the beautiful Roberto, as the oldest, perhaps even more than the others. The Rossellinis were among the first in Rome to own an automobile, and the various palazzi in which they lived always included enough room for a chauffeur, cook, butler, maid, and their mother's personal servant. Roberto ruled the game room, which their indulgent father had filled with an immense wooden battlefield complete with Italian and Turkish lead soldiers (this was the time, just prior to World War I, when Italy was contending with Turkey for control of Libya). Roberto, the aggressive, dominant figure, always claimed the Italian soldiers, while Renzo, frailer, more introspective, and—even by his own later account—unhealthily dependent on his brother, would be stuck with the Turks. Marcella willingly served as Roberto's "little slave."

There is no doubt that growing up rich had a great impact on the future director's life and films. Some reproached Rossellini later on, especially when it became fashionable to speak of his abandonment of neorealist principles, for not having had the proper background to understand the poor people who were the orthodox subjects of neorealist films. Others have suggested, with equal plausi-


bility, that his privileged childhood and consequent disdain for money account for his lifelong battle with the compromises of commercial cinema. In any case, it is clear that Rossellini made few artistic decisions based on money.

From a young age enormously attracted to mechanical things, Roberto established a small workshop in the attic of their building, where he busied himself inventing things, readily receiving financial assistance from his father, who was clearly the most important influence on his childhood. A successful builder, like his father before him, he had been mortally infected by the germ of culture and for years harbored the dream of becoming a novelist. In his autobiography, Renzo Rossellini describes how his father would sometimes get up in the middle of the night to write, or try to write, until it was time to go to work in the morning. Years later, in fact, Renzo was still upset by his father's torment over writing and remained convinced that it contributed to his premature death at age forty-nine. His novel was published just before he died but, unfortunately, went unnoticed.[2] Roberto himself would later think of becoming a novelist, but more out of the desperation caused by his initial inability to raise funds for another film after Open City than in imitation of his father. It is clear that the cinema—that unique hybrid of the artistic and the mechanical—would be a more appropriate place for this lover of culture and the intellectual life who was no less enamored of science and technology.

But if Roberto's father could not fulfill his dream of becoming a writer, he "felt like a poet and lived like one" on Sunday afternoons, when all of his intellectual friends dropped in to discuss each other's work and debate the great aesthetic matters of the day. The children would be allowed to listen, and all of them remember it as the most exceptional schooling imaginable. According to Renzo, the men were much influenced by the Croceans in the group, whose aesthetic exalted the romantic notion of art as self-expression, an aesthetic that Rossellini, as an adult, would utterly reject. It is clear that this sort of learning by discussion, in bits and pieces over a wide range of topics, set the pattern for Rossellini's lifelong intellectual habits. Never having completed a unified educational program of any sort—again, perhaps, because his family's wealth made preparation for a career seem superfluous—Rossellini's immensely varied learning nevertheless astounded everyone he met throughout his life.

Roberto's halcyon childhood was marked by only one blemish. When the influenza epidemic stalked the world immediately after the end of World War I, everyone in the family contracted it. Roberto was afflicted most seriously and hovered between life and death for some months. Marcella recounts how her elegant, refined mother, overwhelmed by the apparently imminent death of her firstborn, made a vow that if he came out of it alive she would wear only black the rest of her life. When Roberto recovered, she kept the vow.

From his sickbed, Roberto was for perhaps the first time in his life dependent on Marcella, who would bring him anxiously awaited reports each week on the latest exploits of whatever movie serial hero was their current favorite. The children had become enamored of the movies because of a marvelously fortuitous circumstance: their father had built two of the most elaborate theaters in Rome, the Corso and the Barberini. This entitled them to free access, and Roberto quickly became the scourge of both managements because he would in-


sist on bringing along twenty or thirty of his and Renzo's sailor-suited, spirited classmates from the Collegio Nazareno.

It is not clear how Rossellini became seriously interested in the cinema, at least beyond these paradisal teenage days of free viewing. In later years he was to confess to having been struck by Vidor's films The Crowd and Hallelujah , and the early version of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse . He told the Italian film critic Pio Baldelli and his students in 1969 that he went to the movies constantly as a youth and was especially impressed by the work of Griffith and Murnau. He also recounted a scene from The Crowd in which a character, nervous about meeting his bride's family, forgets to wipe a bit of soap from his earlobe after shaving: "These things struck me and perhaps put me on the road of truth, of reality, no?"[3]

It is clear that Rossellini never made a conscious, specific decision to become a director, but instead drifted into it the way rich, idle young men are apt to drift into things. His sister Marcella thinks it was because he was in love with the well-known actress Assia Noris. Already a notorious playboy, Rossellini hung around the studio and ended up doing sound effects and some editing, and writing parts of screenplays.[4] He began making short documentaries with his own money, perhaps simply to master a new territory. Next to nothing is known about most of these short films, unfortunately, since all but one have long since disappeared. Massimo Mida, who wrote the first full-length treatment of Rossellini's films in 1953, says that the director began experimenting with his new toy as early as 1934. By the mid-thirties he had produced two short films on nature subjects: Daphne , about which nothing seems to be known, and Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune . The latter, Rossellini was to point out in later years, was not a filmed ballet, as the title might suggest. Rather, the film was inspired by his closeness to nature and by Debussy's music. According to Mida, it was never projected in Italy because the censors had decided that a few of the shots were indecent. Mida feels that even in these slight documentaries Rossellini was demonstrating his "revolutionary" new vision of life, simply by refusing to make the standard tourist landscape documentaries and instead turning directly to nature.[5] Rossellini told Mario Verdone in 1952 that, in one of these early shorts, he "was struck by the water with the serpent slithering about in it and the dragonfly overhead. It's the kind of sensitivity you see in the puppies on the main deck in La nave bianca , or the flower caught by the sailor as he disembarks."[6]

Refusing to be discouraged by the Fascist censorship of Prélude , Rossellini went ahead with plans to set up a complete studio in his family's summer villa outside Rome. It was here that he made his next short, Fantasia sottomarina (1939), which Mida calls his best, and which, in any case, is the only one still extant. The story, if one may call it that, concerns the vicissitudes of some fish and other underwater denizens that Rossellini staged in a large aquarium. He admitted to two Spanish interviewers in 1970 that the fish were sometimes moved by strings (Mida says by long hairs) "because we were filming in an aquarium and some fish died very quickly, so that for some scenes we had to manipulate them like puppets."[7] This apparently throwaway answer indicates, I think, that Rossellini, at least at this time, was not moved by any special sensitivity to na-


ture, which presumably would have made him upset about the fish he was killing, but rather by a simple and absolutely implacable desire to understand how things worked. The film took a great deal of time and effort to put together, was sold to Esperia Films, and, given the modesty of its means, was quite successful.

If an absolute veracity is demanded, this little film will disappoint: since Rossellini's camera pans but is unable to dolly or move in depth, given the limitations of the tank, alert viewers will quickly become aware that they are not really on location in the briny deep. Immediately noticeable as well is Rossellini's heavy reliance on montage, given the later fame of his long take. Here he unreservedly uses crosscutting to provoke a sense of conflict and suspense—in this case between an octopus and the fish it is about to strike, and later, when some larger fish, in turn, attack the ink-squirting octopus. And he has somewhere learned about film's basic potential to deceive, for his cuts often suggest a particular action that we never quite see. Further on, the cutting becomes feverish when the wounded octopus is attacked by hundreds of smaller fish who sense its vulnerability.

The music, by Edoardo Micucci, is also tightly keyed to the editing to allow for the maximum in "thrills," an aim that Rossellini's later aesthetic will denounce. When the various creatures are introduced to us, the music is the sort of impressionist composition that convinces us of the idyllic, easy harmony of nature. Later, when open struggle has broken out, the music matches the frenzy of the editing and at one point even sounds like a kind of Morse code that warns away the smaller fish. The principal struggle between the octopus and what appears to be a moray eel serves, interestingly enough, more as a focusing device than as the real subject of the film. Though the reliance on close-ups is extensive, Rossellini generally takes pains to stress the overall ambience and the complex interrelations among the various species. Hence, the coralità so often stressed by his early admirers—Rossellini's choice of portraying the collective group rather than concentrating solely on the main figures—perhaps can be seen here in embryo.

One other aspect of Rossellini's later films in evidence here is an interest in lighting and shot composition for their own sake—an interest that, in spite of his continual denials, persists in a subdued fashion throughout his career. Rossellini's focus, of course, is on presenting the reality of these fish as best he can (even if it means, paradoxically, a bit of trucage here and there in his watery studio), but the creatures also clearly function as abstract elements of a formal composition.

At the end, the octopus escapes the fish, lobsters, and crabs that have been tearing at it, and the music reverts to the sweet melodies heard in the film's beginning. Strong light comes from the right, beautifully modeling the fish and perhaps suggesting the end of day, and then becomes a dramatic, but peaceful, backlighting. Near the end, several fish come together, and harmony is restored. The final shot, beautifully composed, is of two fish of the same species who slowly swim toward each other. One is above the other, and their heads point toward the center of the frame, perfectly perpendicular to the camera. The composition suggests an aesthetic stasis that symbolizes the reigning natural stasis; once this is achieved, we fade to "The End."


After the small, but encouraging, success of Fantasia sottomarina , Rossellini went on to make three other short nature films, Il tacchino prepotente (1939), La vispa Teresa (1939), and Il ruscello di Ripasottile (1941), none of which survive. (Two of their titles signal their subjects, an overbearing turkey and a babbling brook; La vispa Teresa means simply "The Lively Teresa.") What is perhaps finally most significant about this early period—at least as far as one can judge by Fantasia sottomarina , whose very title points to the fact that Rossellini's reality is always informed by the imagination—is the tentative emergence of a dialectic between the facts of the real and a personal interpretation of these facts. We shall have to address these concepts more closely later on, but it is clear that Rossellini understood from the first that neither could exist without the other. Mario Verdone has said of these films: "They don't go only in the direction of a simple photographic recording, but also allow for a personal and poetic creative interpretation. These are the same qualities which will emerge even more clearly in Rossellini's later films, where creation, lyricism, and personal interpretation almost always arise from the document, from the world that we know, from man, from the epoch itself."[8]

It was about halfway through this period of making documentary shorts that Rossellini got his first real opportunity in the world of cinema, when he was asked to collaborate on the screenplay of Luciano Serra, pilota , a film ostensibly directed by Goffredo Alessandrini and released in 1938. One of the most popular films of the entire decade, it shared the prestigious Mussolini Cup with Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia at the 1938 Venice film festival. It concerns the exploits of a young pilot, Luciano Serra, who, disillusioned at the end of World War I, abandons his family and goes off to South America for nearly fifteen years. There he becomes a kind of flying adventurer, but when Italy gets involved in the war with Ethiopia, he returns, at age forty, to help his country. His son, whom he has never known, has also become a pilot; the younger Serra is killed attempting to protect the train on which his father is traveling, unknown to him, from an Ethiopian attack. Sergio Amidei, Rossellini's great collaborator on Open City , whose relations with the director were later to be marked by some bitterness, has insisted in a discussion of Rossellini's "sins" that "Luciano Serra, pilota was a film produced by Vittorio Mussolini, supported by his father; it was a Fascist film."[9]

Actually, the situation was more complicated than Amidei would have us believe. It is true that Mussolini's son Vittorio, an avid flier, came up with the idea for the film, and it is also true that he and Rossellini were friends. But even most anti-Fascists who knew him felt that Vittorio was really a "good guy"—progressive-minded and actually rather embarrassed by his father. He had become greatly attracted during this period to the filmmaking industry, had worked as a producer and screenwriter behind the anagrammatic pseudonym Tito Silvio Mursino, and had been set up as editor of the avant-garde journal Cinema . This government-sponsored journal, published in Rome, was later to prove of enormous importance to the beginnings of neorealism. It was in the pages of Cinema , in fact, that the first calls for a return to the scenes and concerns of "real life" were heard, and within its editorial board that Visconti's revolutionary project Ossessione was born.


Luciano Serra, pilota did indeed have the Duce's support as well. Both Vittorio Mussolini and Ivo Perilli (a popular screenwriter and director who was to work on the script of Rossellini's Europa '51 ) have agreed in interviews that the treatment for the film was approved by the elder Mussolini after his son read it to him while he was shaving, and that it was the Duce, surprisingly, who came up with the rather simple, straightforward title that replaced other more rhetorical suggestions.[10] Rossellini is traditionally listed as coscreenwriter, but recent interviews with many of those involved present a rather more confusing picture, and the nature of Rossellini's participation in the making of this film is unclear. Alessandrini, as might be expected, tended to play down Rossellini's role, claiming that he put Rossellini to work on the script with Vittorio Mussolini because he felt sorry for him. On the other hand, he insisted that if the film had a political message, it came from the screenwriters and not from him.[11] Amidei maintained, on the contrary, that "Rossellini was making Luciano Serra, pilota with a sort of second team, grabbing the film from Alessandrini, who was in Africa; Rossellini, in Rome, was doing things his way."[12] Rossellini spoke vaguely of his part in the film, as he did of all his pre—Open City work: "You must remember what the cinema was in those days. Its ritual was complicated: if you didn't wear the tiara on your head, have the staff in your hand, the ring, the cross, then you didn't make films. . . . Film was a rite which was continually celebrated, and so you could watch the rite, but not enter it and do it yourself."[13] In the more detailed interview with Baldelli, however, he stated flatly and unconvincingly, "It's a film by Alessandrini, and I did absolutely nothing on it."[14]

One of the reasons for this indirection and faulty memory, of course, is the desire to disclaim any closer connection than he needs to with yet another Fascist-era film, especially one conceived by the Duce's son and titled by the Duce himself. Yet like Rossellini's other films of this period, as we shall see, this film is not openly propagandistic in favor of the regime. Fascist ideology in Italy was never as well formed as its counterpart in Nazi Germany; instead, leftists and rightists, priests and atheists, futurists who decried Italy's obsessive regard for its past and imperialists who dreamed of reestablishing that past on a scale that would rival ancient Rome all found something they could associate with in that mess of porridge known as fascism. Hence, Italian films seldom vaunted the Fascist party itself, or its hodgepodge "ideology," which was really little more than belligerent attitudes and rhetorical posturing. Instead, the accent was on nationalism, patriotism, loyalty, bravery, and, above all, efficiency, especially in terms of Italy's preparedness for war. Certainly, some of these films had an offensively martial air—but again, unlike Nazi films, the accent was on the excellence of the Italian fighting units and the durable values that motivated them, rather than on the denigration of enemies like the blacks conquered in Ethiopia. Edward Tannenbaum reports in his Fascism in Italy that even the Istituto LUCE, which had been established by the government precisely to make propaganda films, restrained itself in this area.[15] For instance, he gives this account of Il cammino degli eroi (The Heroes' Road), an hourlong view of the war with Ethiopia, which he considers the most effective documentary LUCE ever produced:


At no point are Ethiopians ever shown, even in the few war scenes. The whole tone is that of a well-planned civilizing expedition. Technically, the film is excellent and, for this type of documentary, very convincing. There are happy, busy soldiers, to be sure, but the film is not sentimental or moralizing. The predominating images are of efficiency and modernity, rather than heroism.[16]

It could also be argued, however, that in many ways this sort of sanitized view of war and imperial conquest is even more harmful because it substitutes a fascination with technology and process for the human reality of pain and suffering, but at least the enemies' absence guarantees that they will not be portrayed as subhuman.

Clearly, this and other war "documentaries," and especially Luciano Serra, pilota and Rossellini's three fictional war films made prior to Open City , are important forerunners of neorealism, primarily for their accent on the sheer facticity of men and machines. As Adriano Aprà and Patrizia Pistagnesi say in an overview of Rossellini's pre—Open City films: "It is not surprising that he relied on the cinema of propaganda, in the 'soft' version (as compared with Nazi cinema) propounded by Luigi Freddi and realized through Vittorio Mussolini, since this is the most explicit manner in which the Fascist cinema dealt with contemporary life."[17] This is simply true: the only other possibilities for making films at this time would be the highly formalized "calligraphic" literary adaptations of Castellani and Soldati, historical costume dramas, melodramas, or the infamous "white telephone" pieces of fluff, those popular bedroom farces (named after one of their ubiquitous props) that crowded Italian screens. One clear purpose of all these films, like so much Italian popular culture during the Fascist era, was to cover over reality, to hide any unpleasantness, to propagate the simple message that under fascism everything was getting better. Stories about crime, for example, were much more heavily censored than critiques of the regime in the daily newspaper, all to protect the great lie. Thus, it could be argued that the war films—both documentary and fictional—provided at least some access to the "real" that filmmakers and writers were hungering for, and which is usually given as the reason behind the tremendous push toward realism that was to make postwar Italian film famous throughout the world.[18]

Nevertheless, it is also clear that these war films served the same function as the other genre films, finally, and did so even more convincingly because of the appearance and trappings of reality that they displayed. Thus, by concentrating on the efficiency and modernity of the troops, the message was being sent that in yet one more area of life the Duce had been good for Italy; at the same time, the absence of any actual fighting kept the audience anesthetized to its real costs. For one thing, this portrayal of the Italian armed forces was far from the truth. Italy's armies were woefully unprepared for war and were in fact overcome on all fronts only a short time after entering the conflict on Germany's side in June 1940. But even more important than this factual, technical lie is the message that war is simply a neutral, technological area—like clearing the Pontine marshes or making the trains run on time—a message that offered more fantasy, disguised this time in clean and pressed uniforms, shining guns, and impressive tanks. As Georges Sadoul has concluded in his Le Cinéma pendant la guerre: "The for-


mula real locations, real details, real characters arrived at infinitely graver lies than the obvious mistakes of crazy sets in the studio."[19]

This much can be said of all these films, including Rossellini's trilogy. But perhaps the indictment should be even stronger in the case of Luciano Serra, pilota , especially if the film is read symbolically, beyond the specificity of its factual and object-laden "reality." Vittorio Mussolini himself considered it a parable of Italy's defiance of the League of Nations: "The film vividly symbolizes today's Italian, who was beaten and then won out over fifty-two nations."[20] Director Alessandrini has spoken of Luciano Serra as a product of the discontent that flourished after World War I, that feeling of being lost, of never finding again what one had experienced as a man at the front. But now, "Italy had found its road, right or wrong," and Luciano returns from exile to find his son in Ethiopia.[21] Tannenbaum neatly sums up the film's thematic implications:

A good case can be made for the argument that Luciano Serra, pilota had a more specifically Fascist message than conventional patriotism. As one critic has put it: "The confusion, the perplexity of the character who is transformed from a negative to a positive being is really the confusion and perplexity of the country, which Fascism [allegedly] banished, salvaging all the national energies—including those that had deviated or gone astray—for a destiny of greatness achieved by a heroic act in which the objective and the subjective are reunited." It was all very well for the ideal Fascist hero to have a bronzed skin, a body of granite, a will of iron, but most Italians could not identify themselves with such an ideal. A much more insidious and effective technique of propaganda was to encourage them to identify themselves with an ordinary and even confused man who finally does the right thing. Luciano Serra, pilota was the best made and most popular film of this type.[22]

This film, therefore, while perhaps not blatantly pro-Fascist, was clearly inscribed in a certain Fascist discourse, marked by an "official," if unstated, view of Italian history and fascism's beneficial role in that history. Nevertheless, as we have seen, it is finally impossible to fix the extent of Rossellini's participation in the film. In order to determine just how politically compromised Rossellini's early career actually was, we will now have to turn to those films in which he played a more overtly active part: La nave bianca (The White Ship, 1941), Un pilota ritorna (A Pilot Returns, 1942), and L'uomo dalla croce (The Man of the Cross, 1943).


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1— Early Film Projects
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