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7— Paisan (1946)

1. In Geiger, Rossellini seems to have found a somewhat coarser brand of himself, a talk-it-up salesman full of the grandest schemes, but lacking the director's genuine charm and culture. Fellini's account is worth quoting in full:

"Who do you want?" Geiger said. "What do you mean, Gregory Peck? I'll bring them all here for nothing, they'll come with me." So a list of names was made—Gregory Peck, Lana Turner. He then goes off to America, and one day sends us a telegram: "Am arriving in Naples." So we went to Naples. A boat moors, and this character gets off. It was Geiger, who got off with six people and said: "These are the new American stars. Who cares about Gregory Peck and Lana Turner, these are the ones popular in America." We believed everything because we knew nothing. "This one here is better than Paul Robeson," and he presents a Negro to us. "This one here . . . who cares about Lana Turner?" Later, talking to these people who were rather intimidated and modest, we found out that one was a cafe waiter, another was a secretary, the black was a singer. . . . In other words, they were people he had just picked up and given a couple of bucks. (Faldini and Fofi, L'avventurosa storia , p. 108.)

Ian Johnson, in a short article in Films and Filming (12, no. 5 [February 1966], 40) reports that Gar Moore (Rome sequence), Dale Edwards (Po), Dots Johnson (Naples), and Harriet White (Florence) were those brought over by Geiger. [BACK]

2. Massimo Mida, who served as an assistant director on the film, has reported that plans for the entire first sequence, which concerns the encounter of the newly arrived American forces with a Sicilian village and the young girl with whom one of them becomes involved, were seriously affected by the strong presence of the young Sicilian woman found near Naples and the American soldier chosen from among the American soldiers then stationed in the same city. In fact, Rossellini's efforts to "direct" Carmela, the Sicilian girl, proved difficult, as she had grown up in acute poverty in primitive conditions, and could barely read and write. According to Mida, she had a great deal of trouble mastering the lines and the movements, but the choice had been made, and Rossellini plunged ahead. Her astonishing presence on the screen obviously makes up for whatever difficulties she may have caused. After spending time with this "civilized" troupe, unfortunately, she was unable to go back to her former life, and it is with some embarrassment that Mida calls her "the first victim, therefore, of neorealism." ( Roberto Rossellini , p. 36; see also Faldini and Fofi, L'avventurosa storia , p. 109).

Similarly, the Naples episode, which concerns the meeting of the black G.I. and the poverty-stricken shoeshine boy living by his wits, was developed only after the characters had been chosen. For the Florentine episode, former partisans were asked for "technical assistance," while the episode that takes place in the monastery was completely rewritten after Rossellini had come in contact with the real monks he was about to film. (Mida takes some pains to convince us that the fact that monks actually from the Amalfi coast were passed off in the film as being from the area around Bologna makes no difference. He is absolutely right. It is only the mythic aura and rhetoric of "realism" that makes him feel he has to argue the point in the first place.) [BACK]

3. Quoted in Suzanne Budgen, Fellini (London: British Film Institute, 1966), p. 88. [BACK]

4. Roy Armes suggests that the source for this episode is Curzio Malaparte's novel The Skin , which also concerns the "buying" of a black soldier long enough to get him drunk and steal his things (Armes, Patterns of Realism , p. 77). [BACK]

5. Armes complains that this is the most contrived episode in the film because the flashback is a "remove from true neo-realist practice." (Ibid.) This is a good example of the kind of gratuitous rule making that afflicts many critics of Italian neorealism, more intent on establishing prescriptive categories and defending them than on describing what they see. It is even more useless when this "rule" is applied retroactively to one of the very films most often thought as establishing neorealism. [BACK]

6. It should be remembered, however, that the thematic connections among these episodes are always more suggestive than specific. Thus, I think that Ian Johnson, in the article in Films and Filming , is moving in an unprofitable direction when he says that the six episodes of the film correspond to the "Six Great Evils of War": "injustice, human misery, degradation, the universality of war's suffering, insensitivity through familiarity, and futility" (p. 42). Rossellini simply does not work in this overly programmatic way. [BACK]

7. Interestingly, all of the English that American audiences hear—and it is a great deal—is also retained in the Italian version of the film; thus bereft of subtitles, since they are rare in Italy, Italian audiences are forced to reenact the struggles of their fellow Italians to understand their American "friends." [BACK]

8. In his brilliant, if eccentric, essay on Paisan , Robert Warshow complains that the existential truth of this sequence is ruined by the failed communication between Joe and Carmela, which attempts "to draw vague populist sentiment out of a purely accidental limitation, as if there were some great truth still to be discovered in the fact that one person speaks English and another Italian, and yet both are human beings" ( The Immediate Experience , 2d ed. [New York: Atheneum, 1971], p. 252). In this formulation, at least, his characterization of Rossellini's theme seems reductive, fashioned primarily to score rhetorical points. [BACK]

9. Armes, Patterns of Realism , p. 78. [BACK]

10. Warshow, The Immediate Experience , p. 259. Callisto Cosulich relates the interesting anecdote that in order to pass the American censorship then in effect, the film treatment that Rossellini and the others prepared for Admiral Stone showed each episode ending with a white cross in a military cemetery; they explained to him that "this means that the film is meant as a respectful and affectionate homage to the memory of those Americans who lost their lives for the liberation of Italy, and is meant to be a message to their country" ( "Cosi nacquero 'Paisa' e 'Roma, città aperta,'" Antologia di Cinema Nuovo 1952-58 , ed. Guido Aristarco [Rimini: Guaraldi Editore, 1975], p. 674). This anecdote suggests that the Italians were a little less servile to the Americans than other circumstances might indicate.

Baldelli reports that Amidei's original version of the last episode was meant to stoke Italian patriotic feelings by having the American officer parachute into the mountainous Val d'Aosta rather than the plains of the Po, where he was to meet big, strong partisans all taller than he. Apparently, there was difficulty finding snow, and when the company stopped in the Po delta, the story of Dale and Cigolani was invented on the spot and filmed (Baldelli, Roberto Rossellini , p. 60). [BACK]

11. Roger Manvell, "Paisa, Rossellini, e la critica inglese," Cinema [Rome], no. 28 (December 15, 1949), p. 322. The quotation from McGregor is from the original English, in Time and Tide , rather than a retranslation of Manvell's Italian version.

Others have at the same time seen the film as anti-British, especially, as might be expected, the British. Manvell said in the above-cited article that, while British opinion of the aesthetic quality of the film was mostly favorable (with a handful of naysayers), the dismay about the film's anti-Britishness was general. The principal points of contention concern, first, the two British officers sightseeing from the hills of Florence with their binoculars while partisans are dying in the streets below, and second, the sarcastic remark by an American in the last episode, "These people aren't fighting for the British Empire. They're fighting for their lives." [BACK]

12. Armando Borrelli, Neorealismo e marxismo , pp. 81, 85. Henri Agel has argued persuasively, from a phenomenological point of view, against an overly tragic and depressed reading of the final sequence, especially in terms of the last images that come before us. Disagreeing with the common critical view of the ending as thoroughly down-beat, Agel instead makes the point that the ending must be read in the fuller context of Rossellini's other films. In support of his view, he quotes Gaston Bachelard's L'Eau et les rêves , in which the philosopher says that water is "the essential ontological metamorphosis between fire and earth." Water can also be seen as the source of fecundity—in other words, as the location of a possible physical and spiritual rebirth—and Rossellini in fact uses this association, according to Agel, in the opening sequence of the film he made four years later on the life of Saint Francis of Assisi in which the monks are bathed in a wonderfully insistent and life-giving rain. Thus, when the partisans are pushed into the water at the very end of Paisan , it can be seen as a birth and death at the same time. The voice-over announcing the Allied victory in the spring, in this reading, would not be the bitter and ironic counterpoint that most critics have seen in it, but rather a kind of cause-and-effect analysis. It is, in fact, the men's sacrifice, says Agel, that causes the liberation of Italy that the voice-over is announcing as about to take place in the future. ( Poétique du cinéma: Manifeste essentialiste [Paris: Éditions du Signe, 1973], p. 81). [BACK]

13. Freddy Buache, Le Cinéma italien d'Antonioni à Rosi (Yverdon, Switzerland: Le Thiele, 1969), pp. 24-25. [BACK]

14. Roland Barthes, Mythologies (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972), pp. 138ff. [BACK]

15. Warshow, p. 256. [BACK]

16. Gian Luigi Rondi, Cinema italiano oggi (Rome: Carlo Bestetti, 1966), p. 39. [BACK]

17. We should also distinguish here, perhaps, between "past documentary" and "present documentary." Something about the absolute raggedness of all the elements of the documentary footage (for example, of the Allies entering Rome) tells us this is a filmed record of something that actually happened and that it preexisted the filming itself. On the other hand, at least the Naples episode further complicates matters by inserting the fiction into the documentary, in a process that seems to be the opposite of the use of the past documentary. I am thinking specifically of one of the exterior shots of this episode in which the boy drags the drunken soldier across a piazza toward the puppet show. The sequence is filmed in a real location, with hundreds of obviously genuine Neapolitans peopling the shot who clearly have no idea what is going on, many of whom, in fact, are looking directly at the camera. In some sense that remains to be specified, this, too, is documentary footage. [BACK]

18. A good example of what I mean here might be the elaborate overlapping of sounds that has become the trademark of Robert Altman's films. When this technique first appeared in his film M*A*S*H , audiences were bewildered by the fact that everybody was talking at once. We know of course that this is in fact the way groups of people talk in real life, but, with the exception of limited use by Orson Welles and a few others, it was new to the screen. Nevertheless audiences quickly became used to this expansion of the "realistic" toward the "real," or, better, the incorporation of this aspect of the latter into the former, and now it has become a staple of television shows that vaunt their realism, like "Hill Street Blues." Needless to say, the almost complete inscription of this "aspect of reality" into the code of the realistic has made it much less exciting and vibrant, and seeing it repeated, week after week, makes its conventionality totally transparent (along with the hand-held camera in front of which characters continually walk, "realistically" blocking our view.) [BACK]

19. Warshow, pp. 252-53. [BACK]

20. Warshow attributes the power of sequences like these to their lack of ideas:

The speed of the action combined with the neutrality of the camera tends to exclude the possibility of reflection and thus to divorce the events from all questions of opinion. The political and moral distinctions between the snipers and their captors do not appear (even the visual distinction is never very sharp), and the spec- soft

tator is given no opportunity to assent to the killing. Thus the scene derives its power precisely from the fact that it is not cushioned in ideas: events seem to develop according to their own laws and to take no account of how one might—or "should"—feel about them (pp. 253-54).

21. Similar to the unresolvability of the monastery sequence is a point of undecidability that Ben Lawton has noticed concerning the Naples episode. In his view, the puppet-show battle between the Moor and the Saracen (into which the drunken G.I. wades feetfirst to "help out" his fellow black man) offers us a key to how to read the whole film:

The distinction between oppressor and oppressed is tenuous at best. Although present throughout the film, this concept is perhaps most perfectly synthesized in the G.I. in the second episode: Joe is Black (and as such oppressed), a member of the American occupation forces (and, as such, an oppressor), drunk (and, as such, oppressed), and an M.P. (and, as such, an oppressor). Which is he ultimately? (Lawton, "Italian Neorealism," p. 16)

22. Solmi, Federico Fellini , p. 80. [BACK]

23. Faldini and Fofi, L'avventurosa storia , p. 110. [BACK]

24. Ingrid Bergman, My Story (New York: Delacorte Press, 1980), pp. 3-4. [BACK]

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