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Roberto Rossellini is perhaps the greatest unknown director who ever lived. Andrew Sarris has stated flatly that Rossellini "must be accorded the top position in the Italian cinema."[1] Vincent Canby has claimed that "when the history of cinema's first hundred years is recollected in tranquillity—say in about 150 years—Rossellini's films will be seen as among the seminal works of what, for lack of any more definite term, can be called the New Movie."[2] But as Robin Wood has rightly pointed out, though Rossellini "belongs, with Eisenstein, Murnau, Welles, Godard, among the key figures of film history," curiously "with no other director is there such a discrepancy between the estimate of his achievement by a handful of experts and the apathy or scorn of non-specialist critics and the public at large."[3]

Certainly, the sheer variety of Rossellini's achievement is astounding. Such films as Open City and Paisan make him a central, founding figure of neorealism, the startling return to reality in postwar Italian filmmaking that has drastically influenced all subsequent cinema practice. In his imaginative, purposeful use of what might be called "antinarrative" devices such as dead time and dedramatization, he is also an obvious forerunner of Antonioni and other filmmakers who began to be noticed in the early sixties. Unfortunately for Rossellini, the intellectual world was unable to accept these techniques in 1950. Thus, while many have thought Antonioni demanding, he has always been considered "artistic"; Rossellini was simply thought to be amateurish and incapable of making a competent film. His grand television project—to provide information to a mass audience about its collective history—was a courageous feat that, if theoretically inconsistent, will never be equaled in scope and audacity. Despite these formidable


accomplishments, however, Rossellini is primarily known to the average educated filmgoer over forty as the man who seduced Ingrid Bergman. To those under forty, he seems hardly to be known at all.

In most cases this lack of familiarity is simply a logistical matter, as, for example, in the United States, where the great bulk of Rossellini's work is still unavailable. His brilliant innovations in narrative technique have always challenged the viewer's attention and patience in ways that usually spell disaster at the box office; thus, few of his films since Open City have been successes in any country. And it must be said that he somehow rubs audiences the wrong way; even his greatest films contain intellectual, emotional, or technical rough (but exciting) edges that put us off at first. Other films, such as The Miracle , have so upset conventional religious views that they have been banned and picketed. The result is that many of his more or less minor films have never been shown in the United States, or have been unavailable since their original release. Even several of his major films—such truly great works as Viva l'Italia!, India , and The Messiah —have yet to be released in this country. This lack has not, however, prevented a great number of American critics from making vast generalizations about Rossellini's career based on the handful of films currently in circulation. It is for this reason that I have devoted much of this book to films that, for the moment at any rate, cannot be seen.

But the problem goes beyond one of mere availability. All his life Rossellini affected a complete indifference to the fate of his films, claiming, with only one or two exceptions, never to have seen them once they were finished. Some films, like most of the early shorts and Giovanna d'Arco al rogo (Joan of Arc at the Stake), made with Ingrid Bergman in 1954, have not been seen for decades. Another film, Un pilota ritorna (A Pilot Returns, 1942), recently surfaced in Italy after having been thought lost for thirty-five years. There is also the problem of sheer numbers: the television series La lotta dell'uomo per la sua sopravvivenza (Man's Struggle for Survival) runs for twelve hours, Acts of the Apostles for six, L'età del ferro (The Age of Iron) for five. Merely seeing Rossellini's films is an immense task, and there are one or two films that I, too, in the course of eight years of research, have been unable to locate; they are duly noted in the text. Still another problem is the familiar one of versions. Thus, for example, a great deal of negative criticism has been directed at Rossellini's first film with Bergman, Stromboli (1949), but most critics do not realize that the version seen in the United States has been disowned by Rossellini and that the Italian version is some twenty minutes longer and lacks the offensive voice-over at the end that has rightly bothered so many viewers.

Another gap in our knowledge of Rossellini arises from the unfortunate Anglo-American tendency to avoid Continental criticism, except when it is theoretical. Unsurprisingly, an enormous body of first-rate writing, in French and Italian especially, already exists on Rossellini. In attempting to take it into account, this book has also become a minisurvey of the history of European postwar film criticism, its ebb and flow, its violent attacks on Rossellini, as well as its equally intense espousal of him. He has provided a battleground for phenomenologists and Marxists (the former always approving, the latter generally opposed); others have stressed his modernist, Brechtian, formal side to the exclusion of his spiritual


themes; and liberal Catholic critics have applauded Rossellini's religious subjects, conveniently forgetting that he considered himself an atheist. American critics in general need to understand better that the making of European film has historically taken place within an intellectual, as well as a social, environment, within the terms of specific ideological debates. We forget that many European filmmakers, for example, actually read and even write for what would be dismissed as esoteric academic film journals in the United States. I have tried to incorporate this grand debate, without letting it overwhelm my readings of the films themselves, because the history of the reception of a work of art, of course, is always part of its meaning.

If I have sought to pay attention to film and intellectual history, however, my Marxist friends will surely feel that I have unduly neglected Italian political and social history itself, and that I am therefore committing the same kind of essentialist "error" I often describe in Rossellini. The problem is that, while I believe film is always deeply marked by the dominant ideology of the culture in which it is produced, this particular fact is true of all mainstream commercial cinema and thus does not need to be repeated in a specific discussion of Rossellini. On the other hand, what generally passes for historically oriented film criticism is the vulgar and reductive matching of specific historical events with contemporaneous films (for example, Rossellini made Paisan to flatter the newly arrived Americans), and this I want to avoid as well. As will be seen, however, the question of history itself, and the possibility of representing it, are very much at the heart of my book.

This study in no way purports to be a biography. I have included biographical information where I thought it illuminated Rossellini's films or his thinking, but I have sought primarily to develop critical readings of the films themselves. I should say right away, however, that I have no desire to provide untainted, original, formalist readings that pretend to spring from an unmediated encounter between text and critic. It just does not work like that, and along the way I try to show why. The readings I offer seek to explore Rossellini's films rather than provide organic, unified interpretations of them. To my mind, traditional criticism all too often achieves consistency by repressing textual evidence that does not fit preformed interpretive paradigms. I want to open up these texts in order to hear their multiple voices, and thus I apply poststructuralist techniques when they seem to "work," when they seem to "illuminate" the specific characteristics of a film. I can provide no final justification for such terms, of course; it is simply where I must construct my imaginary ground, posit my assumptions, in order to proceed. I sometimes also use what has come to be known as deconstruction to approach Rossellini's inveterate humanism and his accompanying need to essentialize. What he wanted, finally, was a formless content, an essential image, and it is this ancient urge, as we shall see, that can be more easily understood from a deconstructive point of view.

A related problem concerns the status of the auteur. Critics increasingly have come to doubt the proposition that directors stand in the same relation to their films as novelists do to their novels. However, if any body of films can be said to be marked principally by the consciousness of their director, it is Rossellini's. But, given what semiotics has taught us about the "death of the author" in favor


of a "birth of reading," should one be speaking about Roberto Rossellini at all? This is a difficult question, for a book "about" Rossellini inevitably seems to assume that he possessed a unified consciousness that worked in more or less consistent, linear, and clearly chartable ways through a nearly forty-year career. There is no room in this schema for the discontinuous work of the unconscious, nor for a theory of the subject as constituted by discourse.

The crux of the auteur problem is the thorny, probably unresolvable question of intentionality. Traditional notions of works of art as more or less transparent containers in which artists have enclosed their fully present, self-identical thought, their intentions, to be pulled out by audience or reader no longer seem workable. Nevertheless, I do depend heavily in this book on Rossellini's many interviews in several languages—this garrulous and articulate man, who loved to talk about his films and his ideas, surely holds the record for interviews given by a film director—because I think we need to consider his sophisticated ideas to better understand his films. At the same time, I try to avoid any special privileging of his stated intentions over the evidence of the films themselves. I also realize, however, that at some level intentionality (even if we impute it to the text itself) is what we all must surreptitiously employ to anchor textual meaning. "Freeing" oneself completely from this interpretive anchor would lead quickly to meaninglessness, to triviality.

Thus, centering one's discussion around the films made by a given director seems to me equally distorting and equally true. The solution is perhaps not to seek the real Rossellini, the essence of Rossellini—for in this way one always represses whatever does not fit—but rather to content oneself with an exploration of themes, techniques, and concerns. Strictly speaking, it is impossible to get around essentializing, and this book is no exception, but at least if the critic is self-aware in this matter, the worst excesses can be avoided. For example, many critics spend time establishing an "essence" of neorealism, usually by means of repressing all internal differences. Then a figure like Rossellini, who is often considered one of the founders of neorealism, is castigated for not being, in this film or that, truly neorealistic. In fact, the reader will hear little of neorealism itself in this book, for the label often obfuscates more than it clarifies. When Rossellini's films are considered on their own terms, rather than as part of a putative movement, what immediately results is a reevaluation of his so-called failures, which are usually quite interesting films.

I have also chosen to treat the films chronologically, on an individual basis, though I am aware of the pitfalls of this sort of organization. Nevertheless, the benefits seem to outweigh the disadvantages. In practical terms, such an organization allows a reader to find, in one place, a specific discussion of a single film (which is, after all, still the way we experience films). Second, theoretically speaking, any other organizing principle (for example, by theme or period) invariably seems to find overriding themes and techniques, once again, at the expense of the often disparate particulars of each film. My use of chronology, however, is in no way meant to imply a linear, historical, or forward-moving progression in Rossellini's career, and I have tried to avoid falling into a narrative that provides unity and meaning at any cost. In fact, Rossellini sometimes seems to take one step forward and two steps back, and I draw comfort from the knowledge that


even a more traditional-minded critic would be hard pressed to find a unified development in these films.

Finally, I want to apologize in advance for what may seem to be significant shifts of tone and terminology at various points in the book. Since I have taken up very different questions, depending on the specific group of films under consideration, these shifts were to a large extent unavoidable. Thus, while the questions I raise in regard to the films made before Open City are primarily formal and historical (Out of what aesthetic context did Open City and Paisan come? What was the extent of Rossellini's allegiance to fascism?), in the great neorealist period I turn to theoretical questions and offer an extensive analysis of what we mean when we say that these films are more "realistic." Next, I try to show how Rossellini consciously or unconsciously subverted the prevailing neorealist aesthetics in what might be called the expressionist films that follow. In my consideration of the Bergman-era films, I concentrate again on describing just what is distinctive about these films in terms of theme and technique. Finally, in the section on Rossellini's grand didactic project, the history films made for television, I return to theoretical questions concerning the representation of history and Rossellini's claim to be objectively presenting the past.

In any case, critical reservations must now be put aside in order to consider the films themselves.

N.B.: Where a printed source is not given, all quoted dialogue is taken directly from the sound track. Except where an English translation is cited in the notes, all translations are my own. The English titles of Rossellini's films are generally used if they have been released in Great Britain or the United States; they appear in Italian if they have not.


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