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2— La Nave Bianca (1941)
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La Nave Bianca

In early 1941 Rossellini was approached by Francesco De Robertis, head of the film section of the Italian Naval Ministry, to direct a film, under De Robertis' supervision, about the efficiency and modernity of the Italian navy. De Robertis had had an enormous impact on Italian film earlier that year with his innovative Uomini sul fondo (Men on the Bottom), a fictionalized documentary of the lives of men on a submarine. His aim had been to make a didactic film on the Italian navy's superiority in rescue work, and since the film was meant to give information, yet was cast in a fictional form, it was something of a novelty. Obviously, it made a great impression on Rossellini and would prove to be a significant influence on his work. Yet Mario Bava, who worked with Rossellini as cameraman on some of the earliest nature shorts, is clearly exaggerating when he says that "Commander De Robertis, who for me was a real genius, was the inventor of neo-realism, not Rossellini, who stole everything from him. De Robertis was a genius, a strange man, who felt sympathy for Rossellini and had him do La nave bianca , and then did everything over but allowed Rossellini to get credit for it."[1]

Polemic and score settling run high in the always politically charged arena of Italian cinema, and one despairs of ever attaining the truth. Certain matters are clear, however. For one thing, while Uomini sul fondo is usually praised, De Robertis was unable to repeat its success, and his later films like Alfa Tau and Uomini sul cielo (Men in the Sky) are distinctly inferior. Nevertheless, De Robertis must be given credit for the innovations of Uomini sul fondo , which, while hardly new to Italian film, he managed to put together in a fresh way. The film uses nonprofessional actors and real locations; furthermore, it is generally antispectacular and antiliterary, and even contains some narrative ellipses


that allow the action to be conveyed with maximum efficiency. In addition, the film uses no voice-over and little dialogue, preferring to let the visuals carry most of the meaning. Soon enough, in fact, we realize that the real stars of the film are not the men but the gadgets and gauges we see in profusion before us.

Though it is often said that this film, as opposed to La nave bianca , is solely documentary, purely factual, De Robertis was not above using the conventional techniques of sentimental melodrama. So, for example, shots of the men working in the submarines are often intercut, especially after one of the submarines crashes, with shots of girlfriends waiting for their brave men. The return of one submarine is greeted with joyous shouts from the women, but another melodramatic shot singles out two young women, disappointed in their wait for the submarine that has crashed, as the gates are closed on them. At one point De Robertis even irises out on a cute little dog who also awaits the men's return and irises back in on a matched shot of a dog aboard the submarine. Later one of the two submarines thought lost returns, and the two waiting women—one smiling and the other frowning—are contrasted in an obvious, overstated shot. Even more insistent is the crosscutting that occurs near the end of the film, when all of Italy, through the radio, is involved in the rescue attempt. Cute children pop their heads into familial tableaux around the radio sets, and during one sequence the camera comes to rest on a sleeping baby, perhaps implying his or her unconscious involvement as well. By the end of this sequence, the listeners are shown only as shadows, presumably to heighten the sense of grim foreboding.

Most important is the fact that in spite of the hyperbolic editing that assails us throughout the film, Uomini sul fondo is finally rather uninteresting. The problem is that the shots themselves are often exasperatingly similar, and the final effect is an artificially induced, unconvincing excitement imposed on the editing table rather than arising from the images themselves. The exterior shots, which contain little visual tension and less movement, are especially dull (and sometimes even overexposed and out of focus, giving the impression of incompetence rather than newsreel veracity) and relate poorly to the rest of the film. Thus, if Rossellini did in fact borrow his style and approach directly from De Robertis (and this is debatable), he made great improvements in the process.

What De Robertis originally wanted from Rossellini on La nave bianca , as the title shows, was a short, reassuring film on the efficient and humane care received by wounded sailors on hospital ships before they were sent home. It is unclear why Rossellini was asked to do this, though perhaps De Robertis knew his short nature films or Vittorio Mussolini had put in a good word for him. Apparently, Rossellini had bigger ideas, however, as he related years later: "I began with the idea of making a ten-minute documentary on a hospital ship, but ended up doing something completely different. . . . The film that I tried to make was simply a didactic film on a naval battle. There was no heroism involved because the men were closed up in so many sardine cans and had absolutely no idea what was going on around them."[2] After completing the initial shooting, Rossellini returned with some 50,000 feet of exposed footage, and it was decided, not without some bitterness in various quarters, to pad the film out to feature length by adding a love story, which would also make it more ap-


pealing to a mass audience. (Both Rossellini and De Robertis have denounced this addition, but ironically, it is the love story, though seriously flawed, mawkish, and clearly supportive of Fascist values, that humanizes the film and makes it more appealing.) De Robertis has admitted, "I, not without having asked for forgiveness from my conscience, inflated the short film by cramming into the primitive linearity of the narrative an utterly banal love story between the sailor and the Red Cross girl." Nevertheless, he went on to hint darkly that Rossellini did not really deserve the credit for the film: "The authorship [of this film] conceals a question so delicate as to force on me the duty of leaving the clarification of the case to the correctness and professional loyalty of Signor Roberto Rossellini."[3] Rossellini told interviewers, "Half of the copy of La nave Bianca now in circulation isn't mine. . . . The whole of the naval battle is mine, but the sentimental part was done by De Robertis."[4] What is unclear, yet important, here is whether De Robertis merely wrote the sentimental part of the film or actually filmed it himself. In yet another interview given near the end of his life, Rossellini said, "I was supposed to do a ten-minute documentary on rescue operations in the navy. Once they saw what I had done, a whole operation began: they took the film out of my hands, redubbed it, recut it, changed it, and then took my name off. They then put it back when I became known, after the war. They even had others shoot some of the scenes."[5] The only conclusion to draw out of this welter of claims and counterclaims is that one is on very shaky grounds approaching this film from a purely auteurist point of view. We will probably never know exactly what Rossellini was responsible for, and what was contributed by De Robertis and others, still unnamed.

La nave bianca opens with bold titles that explicitly ratify the realist aesthetic of Uomini sul fondo , while at the same time going beyond it in certainty of purpose, if not clarity of rhetoric:





From the very beginning the urge is to specify, to name, to assure that all this is real —in other words, not what one is used to seeing on the screen. The first shots are focused on the large guns of the battleship, appropriately enough in a film that, like Uomini sul fondo , will be obsessed with the weight and presence of objects. We see the guns from many different angles, all of them dramatic, and all of them reminiscent of the guns in Battleship Potemkin; in fact, Eisenstein, against whom Rossellini has usually been ranged by Bazinian realist theory, is clearly the predominant influence in this film. The effect of this beautifully composed initial sequence is cold and machinelike, but it also signals an interest in formal composition and mise-en-scène that is enhanced by superb


The influence of Eisenstein: Potemkin -like guns fire from the
battleship in La nave bianca  (1941).

lighting and rich blacks and whites. The shots seem spontaneous and carefully chosen at the same time. Rossellini, of course, claimed that he never strove to make a shot beautiful but only "true." (In 1947 he even went so far as to say, "I don't like and I have never liked 'beautiful shots.' If I mistakenly make a beautiful shot, I cut it."[6] ) Happily, this false and naive dichotomy, considering the illusionistic basis of all realism, was seldom adhered to by Rossellini in his actual practice. In the first scene, when the individual sailors are presented to us in all their regional and idiosyncratic specificity, Rossellini organizes space by putting the men behind a table, a technique he will employ for the next thirty-five years. The effect of the tables here and elsewhere is to give spatial coherence and visual density to a specific scene. In the opening few minutes, we also see a very Eisenstein-like shot of sailors sleeping in their rhythmically swaying hammocks and an excellent group shot in which the closest men, in shadow, have their backs turned toward the camera, which thus ends up shooting through dark to light, giving a dramatic impression of depth. Other borrowings from Eisenstein's mise-en-scène are the sailors sweeping the deck in rhythmic unison, and perhaps the decision to intercut shots of the cat and dog playing, rather than bringing them into the frame with the men. In spite of such attention to


the composition of the frame, however, this film's shots seem infinitely more spontaneous—and certainly more interesting—than the rigidly planned shots of Uomini sul fondo , whose director expressly avoided any form of improvisation.

Rossellini is obviously fascinated by the sheer presence and authenticity of the many gauges, pieces of equipment, and even doctor's instruments that his camera lingers over. We feel a sharp sense that no studio ever could have invented these things that we are seeing, that we have been transported back to the early days of the cinema, when the Lumières were astounding audiences simply by showing them the real. An excellent sequence occurs in the boiler room, in the bowels of the ship, where the restless camera finally slows down a bit and plays over the multitude of dials and knobs and buttons, and on the real sweat of these convincingly real ethnic faces. What comes to the fore is Rossellini's lifelong interest in capturing a specific time and place—think of all the titles that are so utterly localized in both dimensions, like Europa '51, India '58 , and Germany, Year Zero . Here, Rossellini's formidable powers of observation are especially focused on place: the battleship becomes the star of the film, the center of the universe. The white ship of the title, in fact, is actually a misnomer, since it does not even appear until part 2, when the film has lost most of its energy and much of its interest.

In his later remarks Rossellini has, not surprisingly, stressed what might be called the humanistic themes he sees in the work. He told François Truffaut and Eric Rohmer in 1954 that the same moral position evident in Open City was already present in La nave bianca:

Do you know what it's like on a battleship? It's horrible: the ship must be saved at all costs. There are these little guys there who don't know anything, guys recruited out in the country, trained to run machines they don't understand: they only know that a red light means to press a button and a green light means to push a lever. That's all. They're locked up this way, nailed into their sections . . . sometimes even the ventilation is cut off so that the gas from explosions won't spread through the ship. . . . They don't know anything; they just have to watch the red and green lights. From time to time a loudspeaker says something about the Fatherland and then everything falls back into silence.[7]

One cannot doubt Rossellini's sincerity here, but it must also be admitted that the film itself only partially supports his view of its theme. Rather, the overriding impression is not of the brutish oppression of these men—no matter what was intended—but of Rossellini's terrific fascination with the workings of things. One is in fact more likely to be struck by the appositeness of one of the Duce's slogans that happens to be caught by the camera eye: "Men and machines: a single heartbeat." What emerges in the film is the Hawksian thrill of men working together, supremely competent, in a dangerous collective enterprise; their frenzied activity ultimately becomes that of a machine, an effect heightened by the crisp precision of the editing and camera movement.

The coralità theme of Rossellini's early career also emerges in the men's collective activity. As he told Mario Verdone in 1952, "La nave bianca is an example of a 'choral' film: from the first scene, in which the sailors write to their


pen pals, to the battle and the wounded who attend Mass or who sing and play music."[8] There are no stars in this film other than the ship itself, no individuals whose fate seems to be privileged. The needs of the collectivity are favored over the individual ego, yet the men are not reduced to heroic automatons, empty symbols for the masses, as they sometimes are in Soviet films, nor faceless cogs, as they are in Uomini sul fondo . Instead, Rossellini humanizes them with small details that give us a glimpse of their individual personalities, without, of course, actually making them fully rounded characters. For example, in perhaps the most powerful sequence of the film—the loading and firing of the big guns—we see how frightened the sailors are, though, characteristically, Rossellini understates. The greatest humanization of the film's material by far, however, is effected later through the much-maligned love story, in which one sailor's pen pal turns up as a nurse on the hospital ship. The lovers have earlier exchanged halves of a heart locket, and when she sees his half hanging from a chain around his neck, she recognizes the sailor but he does not recognize her. Duty, however, forbids her from favoring him over the others, or from even revealing her identity. Though mired in the mindless sentimentality that the rest of the film tries to transcend, the love story at least serves to make the men flesh and blood, and acts as a saving, if somewhat labored, counterpoint to the cold efficiency of the machines.

By the end of part 1, the sharp blacks and whites have been replaced by mist and smoke, as the ship, like the men, has been gravely wounded; disorder and human vulnerability have spread to the lifeless world of the machine. A peaceful calm reigns over all, as though, the battle over, some primal order has been reestablished, as at the end of Fantasia sottomarina . The overall rhythm of part 1—stasis, chaos, stasis (another nod to Eisenstein)—is marked and satisfying; the images themselves finally resolve into a complex, circular whole with the reappearance of the guns with which the film began.

It is true, as most critics have felt, that part 2 of the film is much less vibrant than part 1. Whereas in part 1 the love story lightened the material and humanized the characters, here its ubiquity is a serious drag on the film's innovative energy.[9] But it is also true that the slowness of the second part of the film is a function of the attempt to document life aboard the hospital ship this time, where the action will, naturally, be radically slowed down. The aim is to build carefully, to create a mood and a fuller sense of a specific reality through the accretion of small details, purposefully avoiding high drama and fast cutting. Here we can see the first inconsistent glimmerings of what will soon become Rossellini's celebrated—and, to many, alienating—techniques of dedramatization and an undirected narrative that allows for the inclusion of the aleatory and the irrelevant.

The ending of the film is cinematically interesting and thematically problematic. In the final scene Rossellini treats us to a complex montage taken directly from Eisenstein: the camera cuts quickly from one wounded sailor to another as they hear a passing ship (they are anxiously awaiting news of their mother ship), and the effect is repetitive and yet cumulative at the same time. In other words, the cuts are matched (each sailor is seen from the same angle and distance, making the same head-turning gesture), but since the action is slightly


advanced with each shot, the result is to stress their camaraderie and coralità and to lengthen the moment artifically, in Eisenstein's manner, in order to underline the event and its attendant emotion.

Again, as in part 1, the newly returned ship occupies our attention: the men who can walk hobble out onto the deck to see the ship passing. They stand at attention, though with none of the Fascist salutes seen earlier in the film, and the general feeling is strongly patriotic. Basso, the closest the film has to a protagonist, watches with his Red Cross girlfriend through the porthole, and though she has yet to reveal her true identity, we sense that she will do so soon. At the very end, the love story is revealed for the vehicle it is, for the emphasis is clearly on the ship and the feeling the men have toward it, a relationship perhaps more emotionally complex, one senses, than they could ever have with a woman.

Critics have disagreed about the Fascist elements of the film. The ending is certainly patriotic, but it is difficult to put a more specifically "Fascist" interpretation on it (Mussolini's government was hardly the first to extol the virtue of duty to one's country and the comradeship of men at war). At one point during the middle of the film, we are shown a meeting room adorned with portraits of the king and Mussolini, but again, this seems to serve a documentary, rather than rhetorical, purpose. Some anti-Rossellini critics have even spoken of a nonexistent shot near the end that focuses approvingly on the Fascist insignia, but this is clearly a mistake, or worse.[10] On the other hand, critics like Massimo Mida, who has said that this film and Un pilota ritorna represent "the first break at the very heart of official Fascist cinema," are surely exaggerating.

More interesting are the charges brought by the Italian feminist Maria-Antonietta Macciocchi who, in her important study Les Femmes et leurs maîtres , refers in passing to La nave bianca as a "film-text of pure-mystical-repressive fascism, which confirms that mysticism favors sexual repression, and consumes sexual energy."[11] Actually, her critique here applies rather more forcefully to the films Rossellini made ten years later with Ingrid Bergman, as we shall see, which often do end in a kind of mystical haze not unrelated to sexuality. Macciocchi more closely describes the particular sexual dynamics of La nave bianca in her excellent little book on the role of women during the Fascist period entitled La donna "nera." Though I think she oversimplifies Rossellini's relation to technology in this film, and his reasons for not showing the enemy, she is right that the film manifests the quintessential Fascist view of woman as producer of heroes, or failing that, a nurse or a schoolteacher. (The woman in La nave bianca is a nurse and formerly was a schoolteacher.) Women are only meant to take care of men and, as Macciocchi points out, the madrina (godmother) of the film, as she is called, gives constant encouragement to her sailor boy and, in her last letter, writes: "In war, there is only one feeling: duty." Further, says Macciocchi, "The man-woman relationship is presented in a light that is purely protective and maternal." When the madrina helps the wounded sailor sign a letter, she has a flashback (the only one in the film) to the students' hands she held while teaching them to write. Since she never played favorites among her students, she cannot now give special treatment to one of the


wounded, even if she is in love with him. "Here we find the equation man = son, and woman = mother = teacher, key to the Fascist ideology of the woman." It is particularly appropriate, Macciocchi believes, that the madrina does not reveal herself to the sailor even after he has seen her half of the heart locket, nor does she respond when he calls her name. At the very end they lean toward each other, but do not kiss: "Chaste love, purity, the abnegation of the woman for the wounded, exhortation to patriotism, all these clichés of Fascist ideology find their consecration in the film's ending."[12] Macciocchi's analysis is provocative, but it remains unclear whether the depiction she accurately describes is really Fascist or merely an extension of already prevailing attitudes toward women in Italian culture.

When the film first appeared, critics were sensitive to the fact that something a bit different, at least in its mode if not in its ideology, was going on here; in many cases, in fact, they seemed more aware of the film's possibilities than did its makers. Pietro Bianchi, for example, writing under the nom de plume Volpone, in Bertoldo , a leading intellectual journal of the time, complained, "It seems they were afraid of the masterpiece that was about to be born, far from the sentimental equivocations of the petty bourgeois mentality, and unfortunately, they stopped just in time." (He concludes, however, with the more typical Fascist notion that "recently, we have rarely been treated to such a high vision of military duty and of the manly confrontation of the combatants of the sea with dark destiny and unlovely death".)[13] More palatable is the view of Adolfo Franci, writing in October 1941, the first to speak of Rossellini's characteristic search for the "essence" of reality, rather than simply presenting what happened to be in front of his camera. This notion, as we shall see, will reappear in many different contexts through the ensuing forty years of Rossellini criticism. Here, Franci does not belabor the point, but merely mentions the battle scene in which the director "shows an extraordinary capacity for getting to the essence of such a description, which he conveys successfully with an urgent and precise rhythm, to a very beautiful cinematic effect."[14]


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