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17— Three Sketches: "L'Invidia," "Ingrid Bergman," and "Napoli '43" (1951–54)
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Three Sketches:
"L'Invidia," "Ingrid Bergman," and "Napoli '43"

Along with feature-length films, Rossellini was also making sketches in the early fifties—fifteen- or twenty-minute "short stories" that formed parts of longer films. At the time, the episode film made by four, five, or six different directors was enjoying a great vogue (Rossellini was also involved in one called Rogopag as late as 1962), but, mercifully perhaps, no longer seems to be very popular. Presumably, the idea was that with more stars and more big-name directors, box-office appeal would be heightened, but few directors took the genre very seriously.

Nor, unfortunately, did the public. Consequently, all three of the sketch films that Rossellini participated in during the early fifties are either difficult to locate or have disappeared altogether. I have only been able to see the "Ingrid Bergman" sketch, from Siamo donne (We, the Women, 1952). This sketch, regarded by everybody (including its star and its director) "more or less as a joke," actually contains, for all its brevity and lack of seriousness, important thematic resonances that make it worth discussing. First, however, an attempt should be made, via the few critics who have seen the other two sketches, to outline their subjects and their place in Rossellini's overall canon.

Exact chronology differs in the major Rossellini filmographies, but most seem to agree that all three shorts were made between Francesco (1950) and Giovanna d'Arco al rogo (1954), in the following order: "L'invidia" ("Envy," part of I sette peccati capitali or Les Sept Péchés capitaux [The Seven Deadly Sins] filmed in October 1951); "Ingrid Bergman," which, according to her autobiography, was shot in the summer of 1952, and therefore between Dov'è la libertà? and Voyage to Italy; and finally, "Napoli '43," filmed in late 1953 after


Voyage to Italy and before Giovanna , as part of the film Amori di mezzo secolo (Mid-Century Loves).

The first, "L'invidia," was loosely based on Colette's short novel "La Chatte" (The Cat), which perhaps explains Rossellini's subsequent interest in doing a film with Bergman and Sanders based on her novel Duo . In "La Chatte," a young woman, jealous of the affection her artist husband lavishes on his cat, kills it by throwing it out the window. An early reviewer for Cahiers du cinéma found the entire film banal and clichéd, complained about the poor dubbing of the two Italian sketches into French, and otherwise said nothing about Rossellini's piece.[1] (This film appeared just prior to Cahiers' "rediscovery" of Rossellini.) Massimo Mida continued to express his disgust with the Rossellini of the "crisis" years, calling "L'invidia" "nothing more than an intellectual game without purpose, a piece of useless tinsel which clashes with his masterpieces."[2] In Verdone's somewhat more favorable view, the episode is a "subtle psychological conflict, though somewhat stretched," but he also felt that its "psychological mechanism" was not "perfectly regulated."[3]

Looking back a few years after their rediscovery of the director, however, the French came to think very highly of the sketch. Godard, for one, put it at the same level as "Ingrid Bergman," claiming that both sketches are the best things in their respective films: "Because Rossellini didn't try to provoke an artificial suspense by following the threads of an equally artificial plot; he contented himself with merely 'showing' a feeling without trying to analyze it, because if he would have done that, he would have filmed Europa '51 or Fear ."[4] The ebullient Patrice Hovald went so far as to proclaim it an "absolute masterpiece" and a "modern classic of art." For him, it clearly takes its place with "the other five 'mediocre films' of Rossellini's which are going to change the face of cinema." Hovald found it especially interesting because, like the Bergman films, it takes as its subject "woman, one member of the couple; femininity and its behavior; her fundamental opposition to man; the beginning of misunderstanding; her guilt—and carries to its peak the genius of style. We are on that infallible track which leads, from masterpiece to masterpiece, to India ."[5] In the absence of the film itself, we can only guess whether this negative essentializing of woman is Hovald's or Rossellini's.

The third of these three sketches, "Napoli '43"—most conveniently considered at this point—is one that no critic, with the exception of Jose Guarner, has mentioned even in passing. According to the "Documentazione" of Aprà and Ponzi, all the episodes of Amori di mezzo secolo were scripted by the same four writers (Oreste Biancoli, Giuseppe Mangione, Vinicio Marinucci, and Rodolfo Sonego), which makes it different from most sketch films popular at the time, though not unique. Here Rossellini was teamed with successful, if second-level, directors like Glauco Pellegrini, Mario Chiari, and, especially, Pietro Germi and Antonio Pietrangelo, but again, the film failed. One contemporary review that appeared in Rassegna del film said that Rossellini's bittersweet treatment of a young soldier and a debutant actress falling in love at first sight in a Naples bomb shelter (only to be killed by a bomb at the end) was not all that bad. The reviewer had especially kind words for the "real-life" portrayal of the old men who sell


coffee and candy in the shelter, but felt that the main characters were not seen in any depth, the plot lacked dramatic development, and the ending was hurried and unconvincing.[6] These judgments can be taken at face value, of course, but, interestingly, the enumerated "faults" are exactly those that most contemporary reviewers found in Voyage to Italy and the other Bergman films.

Given the paucity of critical accounts of this sketch, then, we must turn to Guarner as our sole source of information. For him, its chief interest lies in the combination of the realistic portrayal of Naples under a bombing attack and the fantasy of the story itself, a combination that, though he does not say it, links it directly to earlier films like La macchina ammazzacattivi and Dov'è la libertà? in their unsteady, but fascinating, mixture of stylization and the real. Guarner sees the story as part of the tradition of courtly love, offering us "a quiet variation on several well-loved themes, a bitter-sweet, rather distant evocation—in a way, his Les Visiteurs du soir ."[7] The sketch is also Rossellini's first return to the heroic days of the war, the subject of his greatest successes, and anticipates his largely cynical "comeback," some five years later, with war films like Generale della Rovere and Era notte a Roma .

The most theoretically interesting of these sketches is the one the director did of his wife for Siamo donne in 1952. Like most of the other Rossellini films of this period, it has had an especially negative critical reception, when it has been considered at all. Borde and Bouissy complained, not without reason, that in it Bergman "makes a fool of herself,"[8] and Mida called it "a rather insignificant fragment of no interest or importance."[9] John Minchinton, writing in Films and Filming at the time the film appeared, was equally critical, specifically branding Bergman's "an embarrassing performance." A few sentences further on, however, we realize that something has caught his attention, for he notes that the final effect is rather interesting because "in showing the actress as a person, [it] reveals the actress as an actress."[10] In other words, though the film is virtually worthless if looked at in conventional terms, it is redeemed by the continuing problematization of the relation between realism and reality that we have seen at work in so many other Rossellini films.

Bergman has said, "The whole thing was made more or less as a joke. It was considered to be made for charity."[11] Rossellini has seconded her opinion, calling it "just a piece of fun. It was almost all improvised. It's not something that really happened, but it's true to life."[12] The other segments of Siamo donne , directed by Alfredo Guarini (who seems to have been responsible for the overall project), Gianni Franciolini, Luigi Zampa, and Luchino Visconti, are, in fact, much more narratively conventional than Rossellini's. These segments, which feature Alida Valli, Isa Miranda, and, interestingly for the film's inner emotional dynamics, Anna Magnani, are rather lighthearted (with the exception of Zampa's), but nevertheless "well made," tightly scripted and relatively clear-cut and unproblematic in execution. Rossellini's, on the other hand, is the only segment in which the illusion is broken, and the actress/person speaks directly to the audience, through the camera, as "herself" (a construct more complicated than it looks). Not only does Bergman's direct address to us destroy any possibility of our giving ourselves innocently to the fiction, but the actress also


comments directly upon the story "within," which concerns a neighbor's chicken who eats Bergman's roses and against whom Bergman sets her dog. In effect, then, the film provides its own narrator, who comments directly upon the tale she is about to tell, calling it a "ridiculous story" and putting herself in a complex position both in and out of the narrative. (But which narrative?) The first-person form has commonly been accommodated in the cinema, of course, but principally as disembodied sound in voice-over (as with Magnani in Visconti's segment); here the voice becomes visualized, as it were, the direct presence of the actress. And while the inner story is played straight (that is without illusion-breaking asides to the camera), it is a fictional story ("It's not something that really happened") about the real person named Ingrid Bergman, played, naturally, by Bergman herself. It also attempts, in its own small way, to name an essence: "But it's true to life." The inner story also contains another woman, an actress, who, unlike Bergman, plays the neighbor according to the conventionalized system of character representation, rather than as herself. The illusion of the inner story, however, is itself broken by a wipe back to the narrator's "present" situation, the Rossellinis' summer home, the same location of the inner tale, and from which that inner tale is being created or repeated. In the outer tale, then, the home is real, while in the inner tale, the same home is a fictional set.

So the "joke" is a bit more complicated than it seems. Its complexity relates clearly to Rossellini's earlier film Una voce umana , which, as we saw, the director described as a "documentary about Anna Magnani." Both films manage to problematize the difference between actress and role, inevitably raising questions concerning the boundaries between such dualities. Can either term exist alone? Again, too, reality and realism clash and merge, merge and clash, both ending up hopelessly confused. All of the actresses in the different episodes of Siamo donne , in fact, are reenacting supposedly "true-life" happenings from their own lives. The stories are populated by actors, both professional ones playing specific characters not themselves and nonprofessional ones playing themselves rather than the real people of the original incident in the actress's real life. The situation grows more complex when one realizes that, though the stories present themselves as being invented by the actresses, the real inventors are the directors working at some metalevel above them. What Rossellini has done in his own sketch is to up the stakes further by foregrounding the story's narration as well, thus creating still another level that, even in as slight a tale as this, can suddenly reveal the abyss of representation. It may also be significant that the subject and "script" of Rossellini's sketch are credited to the foremost theoretician of neorealism, Cesare Zavattini, the man responsible for the famous lived-time sequence of the maid in De Sica's Umberto D .

The almost palpable sense of sadism in this sketch must also be mentioned, at least in passing. Bergman is so dreadfully uncomfortable throughout, especially in the narrating frame tale and when she gives chase to the chicken, that the unconscious point of the story seems precisely to make her look silly. Where is Rossellini here? The one large gap that is felt throughout is, in fact, Rossellini (as real person): we see their real villa, we see the real Bergman as herself, we see their real son Robertino as himself, but no Roberto. But just as he


was "present," though unseen, in Una voce umana , he is here as well inscribed in the mode of the film rather than the visual or aural track per se: all, both inner and outer tales, is presumably evolving from his point of view, and his physical absence from the family underlines this fact even more. He is "creating" Ingrid Bergman in the same way that he has created Karin and Irene and Katherine. It is an act of creation with implications, both personal and theoretical, that extend far beyond this little "joke" of a sketch.


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17— Three Sketches: "L'Invidia," "Ingrid Bergman," and "Napoli '43" (1951–54)
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