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15— Dov'è la Libertà? (1952–54)
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Dov'è la Libertà?

Immediately after finishing Europa '51 , Rossellini began work on Dov' è la libertà? (Where Is Freedom?), conceived, uncharacteristically, as a vehicle for the popular Italian comic Totò. Filming proceeded fitfully, with serious interruptions: the trial scene, for example, which serves as the framing "present moment" from which the story proper is told in flashback, was shot a year after the rest of the film, during the summer of 1953. (Jose Guarner mentions in passing that this frame scene was filmed by another director, without naming him, but I have been unable to find any corroboration for this claim.) Further interruptions caused the editing to be put off until 1954, when the film was finally released. It has managed to go almost totally unnoticed in the intervening years, and even Rossellini, in all his many interviews, seems to have mentioned it only once. Critics as well, for various reasons, have either passed over the film with a single descriptive line or omitted it altogether.

This is a shame, for Dov' è la libertà? has its own unique place in Rossellini's oeuvre. Like Europa '51 , it articulates an attack on modern society and offers a dark vision of the perfidy of the human race, but now the key has shifted to humor. The humor is bitterly won, however, and the film's vision, for all its "comedy," is even bleaker than that of Europa '51 . Dov' è la libertà? also shares the loneliness and alienation of its predecessor at the level of decor, lighting and mise-en-scène, but at least here the coralità offered by a subgroup ultimately allows its protagonist, as in Francesco and unlike Irene in Europa '51 , to escape the isolation of the self.

The story begins with the release from prison of a warm and decent Roman barber named Salvatore (played by Totò) who has served a sentence of more


Rossellini on the set of  Dov'è la libertà?  (1952–54) with Totò and Nyta Dover.

than twenty years for having cut the throat of his best friend, after discovering that he was having an affair with his wife. The world has changed a great deal since Salvatore was last in it, and he has difficulty coping with the constant stream of trickery and viciousness that he encounters. In fact, the entire tale is told in first-person flashback at his trial for "breach of a public building": he has been caught trying to sneak back into prison when his inhumane treatment by society convinces him that he was better off in jail. Salvatore recounts his adventures with a nonstop ballroom dancing contest in which his kind heart costs him all his money; an old prison "friend" who tricks him into passing a counterfeit bill; the shady landlady who puts him out in the street when he begins to notice her daughter; and his wife's family, scheming and vicious behind their Felliniesque exuberance. When he discovers that his new girlfriend has become pregnant by another man, he finally gives up and tries to reenter the prison. He is caught, put on trial, and, when the judge decides to fine him rather than incarcerate him, he is crushed. At the end of the film, he calculatingly bites his lawyer's ear—the lawyer who has tried his best to get him off, despite Salvatore's wishes—and we last see him convicted of assault, but happily reinserted into prison life.

The film is Totò's from the start, as the cute little cartoon of him peering out from behind bars makes clear in the credits. For the critic Massimo Mida, the


encounter of the comic and the director was a disaster, for it did not give Totò a chance to find a newer and less schematic character, nor did it succeed as slick entertainment.[1] Pierre Kast, on the other hand, in an improbable access of enthusiasm, exclaimed in Cahiers du cinèma in 1956, when French support for the mistreated Rossellini was at its peak, that the film "stupified me with its cruelty and bitterness. It's a parable of the purest Swiftian type, unpitying and almost intolerable. For my taste, Rossellini's best film, and one of the few that I completely love."[2] A more balanced view might be that, while the film is ultimately rather unsuccessful, it nonetheless contains hints of the explosive mixture of Rossellinian textures and motifs that we saw in La macchina ammazzacattivi , a film with which it is closely related. While its comedy may "spoil" its serious side (and vice versa), it is also this uneasy mélange that makes it an interesting, if modest, moment in the Rossellini canon.

The director's single extant comment on this film makes its connection with his previous work explicit:

Q: [La macchina ammazzacattivi ] and Dov'è la libertà? both have a tone of fantasy which is unusual in your films. Do they represent a tendency or are they just isolated cases?

A: They are experiments. La macchina ammazzacattivi is an isolated experiment, but Dov'è la libertà? which is like it in some ways, is much more a side-product of Europa '51: it's related to it because it's an attempt to investigate the same situation. Then there's the extraordinary character of Totò. The film as it stands today is very much hacked about, it was much more cruel. The softening up was done by the producers and it makes it more lightweight. But they're not very important films, just experiments.[3]

The explicit connection with Europa '51 establishes an interesting filiation: Dov' è la libertà? is a "side product" of Europa '51 , which was a modernized "remake" of Francesco , which itself grew out of the monastery sequence of Paisan , whose subject had been conceived during the shooting of Open City . Perhaps more revealing is the link with La machina ammazzacattivi: it is misleading for the interviewers to suggest that both films "have a tone of fantasy," for the earlier film indulges in the supernatural as part of its plot, while nothing happens in the later film that is, strictly speaking, fantastic. The operative irony—that a man seeking freedom would want to return to jail—may be unrealistic in terms of everyday experience, but is not, for all that, otherworldly. The similarity of tone between these two films seems to stem rather from the stylization that they both self-consciously stage, which is further underlined by a provocative admixture of traditional neorealist realism, even if most critics have found them both disappointing mélanges that just do not work.

Dov' è la libertà? fairly shouts its "madeness," and instead of pretending to open a window on reality, it goes directly toward an essence, this time a moral one. Its narrative technique also works against naive realism, for the entire film is told in flashback, a technique that has not been seen since the Rome episode of Paisan and, with the exception of Giovanna d'Arco al rogo , will never be seen again in Rossellini's entire career. Since the flashback technique inherently foregrounds the manufactured, constructed nature of what we are seeing—it is very


self-consciously a story told by someone, who obviously has an interest in the telling—we can perhaps understand why it was condemned by Roy Armes as being "untrue" to neorealism. Once the myth of natural vision is given up, however, the flashback, given its subjective base, can be seen as problematizing and tugging against the insistent "reality" and apparent objectivity of the cinematic image. The audience's sense of a subjectively motivated story can lead, in turn, to an awareness of a more inclusive subjectivity at work—that of the director himself.

But the film's self-consciousness does not end with its narrative technique. From beginning to end, for one thing, it is particularly talky and quite theatrical in its staging. The sets are artificial—properly, if not purposely, so, I would argue—and the lighting is intensely expressionistic, in several outdoor scenes (clearly filmed on a set) exceeding even the even the most stylized Hollywood films noirs in this respect. The music, by Renzo Rossellini, is jarringly jazzy, much like the music of that equally nervous urban film of alienation made ten years later, Anima nera . It seems not to "fit" at all and, thus, is one more element serving to break the placid surface of verisimilitude. The cinematography follows the practice of that earlier comedian, Chaplin: extremely long-held shots by an utterly immobile camera, planted in what often seems to be the fifth row, are completely subservient to the gestures and play of the comedian. Early in the film, for example, we are treated to an exceptionally long scene in the prison barbershop, which is run by Salvatore. One of the prisoners is singing passionately of his desire to return home in a song called "Casa mia" (an idealized equation of freedom and the outside that will shortly be turned on its head). Salvatore has stopped shaving his client in order to listen to the singing, and the camera—as well as the singer and the other actors—remains absolutely motionless for what seems an enormously long time, certainly long enough that the viewer becomes aware that he or she is watching a performance. (Just as editing in a conventional film must remain "invisible" to give an effect of total illusion, the complete absence of editing for an extended period works in exactly the opposite way.) The scene remains a frozen tableau until the moment Salvatore puts his arm around the young man in a gesture of solidarity that is both humorous and emotionally convincing at the same time.

Furthermore, the film contains no dollies, and the backgrounds are only minimally sketched in so as not to distract attention from the protagonist's comic routine. Though a very few close-ups are used to excellent effect, the basic cinematographic unit here is the medium shot, which always favors performance. The wipe, the antithesis of invisible editing, is used frequently to make the transition from one scene to another, as it was in La macchina ammazzacattivi , and as it will be in one of Rossellini's most "artificial" films, the short he made on Ingrid Bergman in Siamo donne . A laugh track operates similarly to punctuate Totò's jokes in the courtroom, but, contrary to conventional practice, Rossellini never cuts to the laughing courtroom faces to "naturalize" and explain the laugh track. The effect of all these formal devices, once again, is to highlight the whole scene's theatricality and deny any possible claim to be directly representing reality. What is interesting about this film, however, as with La macchina ammazzacattivi , is that in the midst of all this artificiality, a


jarring note of reality is introduced in the person of the dancing contestants that Salvatore meets just a short time after leaving prison. As the director proudly states in the opening credits, the people playing these dancers are the real dancing marathon champions themselves—Ines Targas, and Fred and Aronne. The knowledge we have that these people are not actors performing according to naturalistic conventions, but real people trying to "be" rather than to "act" (or rather, more complexly, being and acting at the same time) sets up a dynamic with the stylized elements that, instead of working against them, emphasizes them all the more.

In terms of its content, the film could not be more straightforward in its rather simple ironies. Contrasted with the ugliness of Salvatore's "family-in-law," the prisoners are seen to enjoy an intricate and mutually supportive social structure. If society as a whole is bad, the film tells us, the Italian myth of the family—especially if you are an outsider—is just as mistaken, and through their shabby treatment of Salvatore, despite their surface protestations of love, we learn that there is no coralità to be found here either. Rossellini's attack on the family is as vicious, and as funny, as anything in Fellini, but it is unrelieved by Fellini's tender indulgence. In fact, Salvatore is the film's only truly moral character, bent on righting wrongs and foolishly trying to protect all those who turn out to be more than capable of protecting themselves. One critic has condemned Salvatore for being just as petit bourgeois as the others in the film, but if so, it is clear that he has Rossellini's approval, and that Salvatore's values, if sometimes sexist and old-fashioned by modern standards, are clearly the best that the bourgeoisie has to offer.

When the perfidy of his pregnant girlfriend and the family (who, we discover, have stolen a Jewish friend's property while he and his family were interned in Auschwitz) become too great for Salvatore to bear, he realizes that "life outside is like being in a prison" and decides that he wants the freedom of jail. He conceives the idea of stealing the warden's hat and overcoat and, by disguising himself, sneaks back into prison. The longish "suspense" sequence of Salvatore's return is completely conventional and does not show Rossellini at his best, but the irony of the reversal provides some passing interest. Salvatore is discovered, and the penultimate scene puts us back into the present time in the frame tale of the trial. The prosecutor—that stalwart representative and protector of society, like the men who torment Irene in Europa '51 —gets it precisely all wrong in his closing speech when he attacks Salvatore for being an immoral criminal. But, irony of ironies, the judge decides to be lenient, only fining Salvatore instead of sending him to prison, and Salvatore sinks.

The very end of this scene provides a satisfying emotional joining of the audience to Salvatore. Throughout, dramatic irony has operated against him; time and time again, we see how he is being used or cheated long before he does. At the end, however, as Salvatore asks his lawyer a series of questions about the penalties concerning physical attack, his plan slowly dawns on us. When he does attack the lawyer so that he will be sent back to prison, his knowledge is for once ahead of ours, and the dramatic irony is finally at the expense of one of his exploiters. The last short scene, without voices, shows him happily reinserted into the social fabric of prison life. We also realize, however, that the only reason Sal-


vatore would want to return to prison is that Rossellini's idea of prison is precisely that, an idea , a site for a limp thematics of freedom, with absolutely no relation to real prison life as it has ever existed anywhere on earth. The film is thus also thoroughly stylized at its very broadest level.

As an exploration of an idea, however, it falls far short, even granting that its main purpose is comedy; the real problem of freedom is barely taken up, as Rossellini's pervasive bitterness of the moment short-circuits any sustained inquiry that might move beyond the two-dimensional irony that eventually wears thin. At this time, Rossellini's view of freedom is rather simplistic, as can be seen in this general remark made on the subject in the 1954 Cahiers du cinéma interview: "When people talk about freedom, the first thing they add is 'freedom, sure, but within certain limits.' No, they even refuse abstract freedom because it's a dream that is too beautiful. And that's why I find in Christianity such an immense power: there, I think, freedom is absolute, really absolute."[4]

The problem of freedom will be taken up again ten years later in Vanina Vanini , where in spite of the film's histrionic trappings, freedom is viewed in a complex relationship with sexuality and history. The real question that Dov' è la libertà? raises is political. Are people so malevolent that the only possible "freedom" is the regimentation of a prison? This does not seem to be an idea that could have brought comfort—or even laughter—to an Italy a bare ten years away from fascism.

The Italian critics Franca Faldini and Goffredo Fofi, in their book on Totò, put the film into what is perhaps its most revealing context. For them, it is true that the film does not "work" because it was too rigid a format for Rossellini, and too somber for Totò:

And yet this film has, in our view, its own curious place in the history of neorealism, as its precise opposite. Like that extraordinary and almost involuntary masterpiece, [Visconti's] Bellissima, Dov'è la libertà? is an almost cynical film, a glance thrown back on the conventions of populism in order to step back from it almost disgusted, with the difference however that in Bellissima neorealism debates with and attacks itself, redeeming in an almost Gramscian manner the most serious popular values from the vision that the film itself presents of them. While Dov'è la libertà? goes still further, and saves almost nothing. . . . It's a profoundly reactionary apology, but heavy with an interesting thematic exasperation which goes decidedly against the grain of the rosy panorama of the neorealism of that time.[5]


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15— Dov'è la Libertà? (1952–54)
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