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4— L'Uomo dalla Croce (1943)
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L'Uomo dalla Croce

Rossellini's next film, L'uomo dalla croce (The Man of the Cross, 1943), completes his trilogy on the armed forces. The integrity of this film has not been tarnished, for once, by an association with Vittorio Mussolini; unfortunately, however, his place as screenwriter has been taken by the Fascist ideologue Asvero Gravelli, a journalist well known for his nightly radio commentaries supporting the government and for his work as editorial chief of Fascist Youth and Antieuropa . It is also true that this film is even more overtly ideological than the two earlier films of the trilogy, but again, its ideology is more complicated than some have made it out to be. Not coincidentally, it is also more heavily weighted toward the fictional and away from the documentary, and actually is the most melodramatic of all the pre–Open City films.

The man of the cross referred to in the title was based on a real army chaplain, Father Reginaldo Giuliani, who had been recently killed on the Russian front. In this, the film resembles Open City , whose main character was also to be based on a real-life priest. The plot, which centers around a small Russian village, is surprisingly simple. In the beginning Rossellini presents his Italian soldiers with all the "reality" he can muster as they wait for their friends to return from a tank attack. When they do return, one of the men is found to be so seriously wounded that he cannot be moved; the chaplain, who is also a doctor, resolves to stay with the man even though the Russian troops are advancing. (The chaplain, despite the heavily "acted," rhetorical nature of his role, is played by a nonprofessional who was an architect friend of Rossellini's.) The next day the village is captured by the Communist forces, the priest is interrogated, and a young Italian soldier is executed because a Fascist party


membership card has been found on his person. The Italians counterattack, and the village finds itself caught between the opposing armies. During the course of the night, a motley assortment of Italian soldiers, Russian peasants, children and dogs, committed Communist commissars, and the priest ends up seeking shelter in the same small farm building, or izba . The priest teaches the children to make the sign of the cross, delivers and baptizes a baby, and brings the word of God to a young Communist woman whose lover, Sergei the commisar, is killed during the night by another Russian. The next morning the priest himself is mortally wounded while attempting to save the life of the man who killed Sergei, having first taught this man to say the Our Father. Just as the chaplain dies, the Italian forces recapture the village.

Like the two previous films, L'uomo dalla croce is divided between a real documentary interest in the daily activities of the Italian soldier and a thoroughly conventional melodramatic intensification of danger, suffering, and psychological drama. Even the hoary stage device of having all sorts of different characters seek refuge in the same location was, at least in American films, a cliché by 1943. The music, by Renzo Rossellini, is equally melodramatic and is in fact strikingly similar to that of Open City , Rossellini's next completed film. In spite of all this, however, as a war picture, L'uomo dalla croce is impressive. It was singled out by critics at the time for its realistic battle scenes, which of course are altogether different from the documentary realism of the soldiers' everyday lives, the subject perhaps most interesting to Rossellini. The battle scenes are "realistic" mostly because they are what an audience raised on American films would expect and demand, but this is not the same kind of reality Rossellini is after when he lovingly and lengthily concentrates on the details of the tanks in close-ups, or later, on the horrifying, but visually magnificent, flamethrowers to which we are treated to relieve the boredom of the plodding tanks. This distinction between realism and reality is in fact a crucial one, and will be examined in greater detail in a later chapter.

The same kind of critical misunderstanding that we saw earlier in regard to Un pilota ritorna reappears, and again it centers on a review by Giuseppe De Santis in Cinema . De Santis speaks glowingly of the battle scenes, whose "authenticity is worthy of the best shots of LUCE [the government agency responsible for informational films]," but he complains that the rest of the drama is conducted slowly and "inflated with empty places and unfillable pauses." He is right, of course, to critique the film's clichéd content and most of the dramatic scenes in the izba for their employment of "terminology already used by cheap novels." But he is less sensitive to Rossellini's hesitant steps to go beyond what might be considered clichéd narrative form. De Santis' key word, which stands in for "conventional narrative and dramatic form," is rhythm . Thus, Rossellini's attempt to reflect the minor events of a given reality is regarded as an error because it is not rhythmic, that is, it does not contribute to the onward rush of the narrative. Hence, De Santis is in favor of the "drama of waiting" not for the sake of the waiting itself, and the creative temps mort that Rossellini is just beginning to explore in these films, but for the suspense of the drama, the end point, the product rather than the process: will our comrades return or not? He is clearly bothered by Rossellini's dilatoriness ("The


camera carries out its movements lingering slowly, describing: a bird perched on the branches of a tree, a shirtless soldier stretched on the ground, others who tell each other their life stories, remembering their studies or their homes") because nothing seems to be happening. He also finds the little scenes with the peasants, which do not clearly advance the narrative, banal and extraneous because they offer "psychological reactions which don't fit with the drama of waiting."[1]

A more modern and more appreciative view of Rossellini's particular gifts (which benefits, of course, from a hindsight unavailable to De Santis in 1943) is offered instead by Gianni Rondolino. He feels that, in spite of the banality of the story, "once again, Rossellini reveals himself in the little things, not in the cut of the narrative or in the psychological penetration of the characters or in spectacular high points, but in the moments of quiet, of waiting, of simple observation of men's behavior in a given situation."[2]

Similarly, Pio Baldelli, one of the director's harshest but most intelligent critics, points out that, in spite of all its faults,

within this opaque material twists a nonrhetorical vein which is a prelude to Rossellini's expressive growth. An antiheroic, antimonumental manner of cutting across certain facts emerges (the reverse of a bourgeois populism), which is uninvolved in military glory and pomp: in other words, the inclination of the camera for the little guy, for the fate of the humble, the victims, the wounded and dead of war. It's the documentary immediacy, when the frame gathers up real objects, discovering the men amid the factual reality; here the long take discovers the surroundings, without emphasis.[3]

Despite the above, however, it must not be forgotten that what might be called the antinarrative elements of L'uomo dalla croce remain thoroughly dominated by the conventional story, filled as it is with clichés of the action genre: the wounded man who cannot be moved, faced with the advance of the enemy; the selfless hero who decides to stay with him; the children and dogs who are nearly killed when they wander out of the izba; the pregnant woman who gives birth just then , in the middle of the night, stuck between rival armies; the grieving woman who draws renewed hope from the birth of another's child; the wounded soldier who asks to be propped up to look at the stars; the hero who gives up his life, ironically, at the very moment of his countrymen's victory. And so on.[4]

In terms of its visual style, the film is somewhat more complex than its predecessors. In general the camera is fluidly mobile, and, appropriately perhaps for a war movie, its intense activity matches the film's frenetic editing. Nor does Rossellini avoid the self-conscious, artfully composed shot now and then, though such shots are much less evident than in La nave bianca .[5] Under the prodding of a student interviewer, Rossellini much later spoke cryptically of the "rhetoric of the long take" of this film,[6] but his memory of past practice seems to have been colored by what he was doing at the time of the interview. L'uomo dalla croce does contain some relatively long takes—especially, of course, in the "documentary" sequences of the passing tanks and the flamethrowers—but not more than in any American action film of the time, and they are a great


The group, in the protected inner space: the man of the cross (Alberto Tavazzi)
ministers to the wounded in  L'uomo dalla croce  (1943).

deal shorter than those of Rossellini's later films (for example, the eleven-minute shot in Blaise Pascal ).

The film's visual images also have a clear, if subtle, thematic resonance. For example, the men in the opening sequences are striking in their very ordinariness and their evident, if unspoken, sense of helplessness. They are all so incredibly small and unimpressive—some without shirts, some in shorts—a far cry from both the Nazi superman and the Fascist bringer of civilization to the expanding Italian empire. Rather, they seem frail and worried, and no Sergeant John Wayne arrives to buck up their spirits and make men of them. In fact, the priest's heroism in this film is clearly not meant to inspire the others to feats of courage; it is, finally, a lonely act, simply an accomplishment of what he sees as his duty. Despite the priest's solitary act of courage, the thematic center of the film seems to reside in the collective, communal spirit of coralità . Hence the importance of the idea of return in all these early efforts: the wounded sailors of La nave bianca anxiously await the return of their battleship from its dangerous mission; the pilot's struggle in the next film is aimed at the fulfillment of its title, his return to Italy; and finally, in L'uomo dalla croce , whose entire first part is devoted to the common soldiers' longing for the return of the tanks, and thus their friends, to the group. Though the film's intense cutting, as in La nave bianca , forces us to see the men as separate indi-


viduals, each one caught in his own frame, the men are anonymous, and thus blend more easily; the additive or cumulative nature of montage also results ultimately in a collective effect. Additionally, in at least one sequence the cutting from soldier to soldier is the same as the Eisensteinian progressive sequence we saw at the end of La nave bianca . Because each soldier the film cuts to is matched with all the other shots in this sequence, the effect is paradoxically one of togetherness arising from separateness, collective identity transcending individual identity. Totally absent is the Hollywood technique of humanizing war movies by following the course of a battle in the specific terms of a small group we have come to know, in order to allow for the maximum psychologization of the characters. In L'uomo dalla croce , when we do follow troop movements or witness battle scenes, we see men acting together, unheroically and anonymously.

Coralità is even more evident during the agonizing night spent in the izba . There, a Renoirean theme of the artificiality of national boundaries develops, and in this coveted inner space of protective warmth, in spite of occasional conflicts, a structural opposition to the war outside is established. Thus, at one point, a baby wanders out into the night and immediately machine guns begin to chatter; the line between the outside and the inside is exceedingly thin and in fact will break, if not then, the morning after. The inner space is also sacred for Rossellini because it is here that one's personal salvation must be worked out—in the context of the group, certainly, for it is there that we realize our common humanity and find the aid and comfort that we seek, but in the final account, one is alone, face-to-face with God. This theme is embodied most directly in the encounter between the chaplain and the disillusioned Communist woman he comforts. She is utterly bereft in the wake of her lover's death, and the priest tells her that she cannot be reborn because she has no hope. God is waiting to save us all, and instead of thinking about the dead Sergei, she should think of Jesus Christ, who gave his life so that everyone, including she and Sergei, might live. The priest finally asks the woman to consider the baby who has been born during the same night her lover was killed (and whose crying we hear on the sound track). As the woman thinks of this new life, a smile comes over her face, and, having become hopeful once again, she presumably is saved.

The point here is heavy-handed, to be sure, and even rather embarrassing to a secular audience, but it is significant in terms of Rossellini's later development. Most critics, who have begun to study Rossellini's career with Open City , rarely considering the earlier trilogy, have lavishly praised the dominant "choral" elements of that film and Paisan , films in which the individual's search for salvation is lost amid the epic sweep of history at its most eventful. Then, with Germany, Year Zero, The Miracle , and especially the Bergman-era films, Rossellini was accused of betraying neorealism and coralità in favor of the petty concerns of the individual. The truth, seen clearly in L'uomo dalla croce , is that for Rossellini there has always been something more important than politics and mere physical survival, and that without the spiritual, a human being is nothing. Furthermore, this spiritual salvation cannot be reached by the group, for it is achievable only in the private realm of the self. Thus, the character who


outraged so many critics in 1950—Karin, the seeker of God and spiritual awakening in Stromboli —finds her precursor in the lonely and desperate Russian woman of L'uomo dalla croce . For Rossellini, both women are lost souls because they have been following either the false god of communism or the materialist, confused ethos of the postwar world that has made Karin so cynical and manipulative. Both turn to a priest for aid, and the Communist woman, obviously a less sophisticated artistic creation, is easily solaced (after all, Rossellini still has an action war story to tell—even if "badly"), while Karin cynically tries to manipulate her priest, even sexually, for she has not yet understood what she is looking for. Both obtain their salvation by first achieving hope through the intermediary of a baby (the sexist nature of this male vision of what fulfills a woman is clear)—the Russian when she contemplates the newborn of another, and Karin when she finally realizes the meaning of the new life within her. As Rossellini told Eric Rohmer and François Truffaut in 1954, L'uomo dalla croce "poses the same problem [as La nave bianca ]: men with hope, men without hope. It's pretty naive, but that was the problem."[7]

Cast in these terms, of course, Rossellini's project can seem utterly innocent. Yet an enormous charge of ideology is apparent in the film as well, for while the priest's message appears to be solely religious and spiritual, in no way promoting fascism, this message occurs in the context of a rabid anticommunism. There is simply no way around it: in this film, Rossellini treats communism in exactly the same terms he will treat nazism in Open City , and in both cases, his more usual insistence on fairness disappears. Since, despite his characteristic emphasis on facticity, what really interests him as much as anything else in his films is the clash of ideas, communism, like the nazism of Open City and Germany, Year Zero , is presented as a bad idea —poisonous, viciously destructive of human values and human freedom. Thus, when the young woman finally gives in to the priest's religious blandishments and tells him the story of her life, we learn that communism has taught her that her mother, the timid, impressionable daughter of a businessman, was unable to bear the enormous physical hardship of the postrevolutionary period because, as a member of the middle class, she was too weak. The priest, however, insists that her mother was not weak, but humble, and had the strength of the truth. The philosophy not very covertly attributed to communism here—that the weak must give way to the strong—is the same warped worldview under whose baleful influence the young Edmund of Germany, Year Zero will poison his sick, "useless" father. Against both of these options Rossellini poses the promise of Christianity, which for him is simply a better idea, the greatest idea humanity has ever found, and the only one through which freedom can be realized.[8] What is interesting in all this is that Rossellini himself was a lifelong nonbeliever, a partisan of no church; he seems rather to have been taken with the Christian idea, apart from its actual institutional manifestations. For Rossellini, being Christian is simply the best way to be human; this is its true value, far beyond the narrowly sectarian. Hence, for much of the time in the izba , the priest is seen without his uniform, ostensibly to disguise him from rabid Communist anticlerics, but also perhaps making the point that one's humanity is prior to both one's country and one's specific religious affiliation.


The problem comes in relating a third term, fascism, to this duality of communism and Christianity. Probably the most important scene in this regard is the interrogation of the chaplain and some other Italian soldiers after the Russians have regained the village. The interrogator, an Italian, is portrayed as a vicious turncoat, similar in morality and physical unpleasantness to the spoiled priest informer of Era notte a Roma (1961). The Communist cynically accuses the priest of necromancy because he wears the image of a dead man around his neck. The point here seems to be that the fault of communism is its overliteralization, its abusively restrictive dependence on reason and matter at the expense of the spiritual and the symbolic. (Interestingly, Rossellini's filmmaking trajectory can be described, grosso modo , as moving in the opposite direction, from a preoccupation with the spiritual toward the rational.) The interrogator mocks the priest's refusal to give information concerning the Italian troops and his appeal to international law, which Rossellini has the corrupt Communist scoff at. In another display of perverted reasoning, the Communist accuses the priest of propagandizing—not permitted, according to him, by international law—and threatens to shoot him. When the priest replies that he does not propagandize, but, as a man of the cloth, speaks the truth, his interrogator spits back that in war the only truth lies with the strongest.

The Communist then begins harassing a young Italian soldier on whom a Fascist party membership card has been found. He is told that because he is a Fascist, he is not considered a regular soldier, but a subversive or spy, and that "we can exterminate you as an enemy of the idea of communism unless you renounce your beliefs by signing this paper" [my emphasis]. The soldier, obviously a nonprofessional actor, says in an unpolished, absolutely convincing fashion, "I won't sign anything," and to the accompaniment of a quick crescendo in the musical score, is taken out and shot. The priest makes the sign of the cross. (Significantly, the same situation, in mirror image, of course, will occur at the end of Open City —the priest refusing to answer questions, being vilified by the decadent Nazi Bergmann, and witnessing the death by torture of the partisan Manfredi, who also dies for his beliefs, this time Communist ones. Here, as well, the priest makes the sign of the cross, and both films end with the heroic death of their priest protagonists.) Yet in spite of the image of the noble Fascist youth dying for his beliefs, this episode seems aimed more at demonstrating the inhumanity and intolerance of communism than the legitimacy of fascism. The boy is being lauded more for his adherence to principle than for any loyalty to the Duce.

A further complication, however, arises at the end of the film. As the priest is dying, after having taught the wounded Communist soldier the Lord's Prayer just prior to his death, we can hear the shouts of the victorious Italian troops growing in strength. The camera indulges in long pans on the troops and their horses, trying somehow to put the priest's impending death in a larger context—perhaps of ideology, perhaps simply attempting to locate it in a specific nonnarrative reality. As the priest dies, the camera pans down from his face to the cross he is wearing, neatly recalling the identity of the two parts of the title's equation (and the final shot of La nave bianca as well). But then a final intertitle is flashed on the screen, just before "The End": "This film is dedicated to the memory of the


military chaplains who fell in the crusade against the 'godless ones' in defense of the fatherland and to bring the light of truth and justice also to the land of the barbaric enemy."

It is difficult to know exactly how to take this, but linking barbarism and "the godless ones," on one side, and the fatherland, truth, and justice, on the other, is hardly neutral or benign. Clearly, the inclusion of this title at the very end is an attempt to bring into line and master any lingering political ambiguities the film has raised. In this context Mino Argentieri has usefully linked the conjunction of religion and politics in this film with the same operation in L'assedio dell'Alcazar (The Siege of the Alcazar, directed by Augusto Genina), an openly pro-Fascist work favoring Franco's side in the Spanish Civil War:

The prevalence of the Catholic accent . . . if it attested to a collusion which was simply in the nature of things, served also to spread with greater ease sermons which were useful to the Fascist cause. In the conquest of a vast consensus which would defeat every prejudice concerning fascism, [these two films], diluting the explicit references to Fascist political practice and ideology, were useful for a second-level recuperation which was quite successful since it was directed at social strata and feelings which were not instantly at home with the regime.

Films like these operated a mediation and their perniciousness was contained in the wish to mobilize also those who were not convinced Fascists in Fascism's crusades.[9]

Yet, as Argentieri has also insisted, "It is necessary to make distinctions. In L'uomo dalla croce [unlike L'assedio ], Rossellini did not put on the frock of the propagandist who disguises the sermon to subjugate the audience." It must also be said that, despite the open propagandizing of the final intertitle, the final images and sounds of the film speak as well, offering their own counterrhetoric. Thus we are struck by the complete absence of patriotic flourish when the Italian troops finally win the battle. Rather, the forlorn music and the sad, sweeping movement of the camera over the smoking remains of the village signal an obvious world-weariness at the horror and destruction of war and look forward to the desolate endings of Open City and Paisan .

Whatever its ultimate political implications, L'uomo dalla croce had the shortest possible life on Italian screens and has rarely been seen since, in Italy or elsewhere. Released in Rome in June 1943, the film was, according to Georges Sadoul, "taken off the screen a few days later because of the catastrophic situation of the Eastern front."[10] More likely, the film ran for a few weeks, but was doomed by the king's removal of Mussolini from power on July 25, 1943, and the subsequent declaration in September of the armistice with the Allies. It is not one of the great films of cinema history, so its loss has not been especially important—except to Rossellini studies, which, fashioning generalizations beginning with Open City and Paisan , will never understand how it all came about and that great works of art are never created ex nihilo.


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