Preferred Citation: Brunette, Peter. Roberto Rossellini. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996.




Open City

Roma, città aperta (Open City) is widely regarded as the most important film in Italian cinema history. Hence, a great deal of commentary has arisen concerning it, including a whole mythology of originality and difference. It seems an inherent human need to look continually for the truly new that will challenge and break through the rigid determinism of the forms of expression available to us. At the time it was first shown, the film must have seemed utterly different from anything that had gone before. When it is looked at more closely, however, what is most striking is its overwhelming similarity to previous cinema.

It is well known, of course, that the making of the film was carried out in the worst possible conditions, when the occupying German troops had barely left Rome; the producers were all gone, the studios at Cinecittà had been bombed to smithereens, and in a country that was on the verge of social and economic collapse, there was little money available for something as frivolous and nonessential as a film. It is also known that the very hardships borne by Rossellini and his colleagues are precisely what gave the film its unique look and what made it appear, at first, to be so startlingly new. Thus, for example, the fact that Rosselini had to buy his raw film stock from street photographers, splicing together unmatched bits and pieces of thirty-five-millimeter film, also gave to the film its documentary, newsreel "feel" that has been so remarked on over the years. Similarly, Rossellini was forced to film in the streets because the large studios were all gone. Ambient sound and the actors' voices were dubbed in later, after the film was edited, simply because it was cheaper; most of the filming was done blindly, in fact, because daily rushes would have been a luxury. The problem with most accounts of these creative hardships, how-


ever, is that they can easily lead one to believe that the bracing felicities of Open City all came about by accident, as it were, and that Rossellini and the others were only bricoleurs who didn't have the slightest idea what they were doing. In later years Rossellini sought to counter this impression by insisting that, while the exigencies of the wartime situation posed certain problems that had to be dealt with creatively, they knew exactly what they were after and knew that they were getting it, rushes or no rushes.

The difficulties encountered making Open City , of course, were nothing compared with those of the German occupation itself, to which many attribute the film's power. Rossellini has many times indicated how profoundly upset he was during this period. The police wore armbands that proclaimed Rome an open city—and thus not to be considered a military target, according to the international rules of war. The film's title is bitterly ironic, however, for the city was, according to "Jane Scrivener," the pseudonym of an American woman who later published her diary chronicling those days in Rome, totally controlled by German martial law. The penalty for harboring Allied escapees, for example, or for desertion of work, or even for owning a radio transmitter was death. Taking photographs outside was punishable by life imprisonment. At one point it was even forbidden to ride a bicycle because so many Nazi soldiers were being killed from them.

Details in the accounts of the various screenwriters, actors, and others associated with Open City differ widely, but the basic outlines of the story of how the film came to be made are fairly clear. It seems that the original intention was to make a brief documentary on the life of Don Morosini, the partisan priest who had been executed by the Nazis only a short time earlier. A certain countess had become interested in the project, and, according to Fellini, had herself written a short treatment, though the principal treatment had been done by Alberto Consiglio. In order to make the documentary a success, Aldo Fabrizi, a popular Roman dialect comedian with relatively little film experience, was wanted to play the part of the priest. Since Fellini and Fabrizi were friends, Rossellini came around to meet Fellini so that he, in turn, could be introduced to Fabrizi. The countess was willing to offer Fabrizi 200,000 lire ($350) to play the part, but when Fellini approached him, he shouted, "Eh! What do I give a damn about Don Morosini; they'll have to give me a million (about $1,750)."[1]

The other actors came by diverse, largely unconventional paths to the film. Anna Magnani, who was to achieve worldwide fame in the part of Pina, actually was the director's second choice. He had originally wanted Clara Calamai—the steamy protagonist of Ossessione , a role Visconti had first offered to Magnani—but Calamai was under contract and in the middle of working on another film. Magnani wanted to be paid as much as Fabrizi, however, and she later admitted that it was only a matter of 100,000 lire, a point of principle, that almost caused her to lose "the most important film of my career. I realize now that I was wrong."[2] Magnani was hardly a newcomer to the screen—she had already some sixteen films to her credit since her first role in 1935—but while she was well known to Italian audiences, it was mostly in the guise of broad comedy and revues. The third principal was Marcello Pagliero, in the role of the partisan Manfredi, who was later to finish Rossellini's aborted Desiderio; he had never


before acted in a film. Harry Feist, who plays the Nazi, Bergmann, was a dancer, and Maria Michi, Manfredi's debauched girlfriend Marina, had been a theater usherette who seems largely to have been chosen on the strength of her amorous ties to scriptwriter Sergio Amidei.

Meanwhile, Rossellini had had the idea of making another short film on the subject of the partisan children who had been active against the Germans, and in a brilliant stroke, apparently the idea of Fellini and Amidei, it was decided to put the two films together, making a full-length fictional film. "And so," according to Fellini, "in one week, working at my house, in the kitchen because there wasn't any heat, we wrote the script which became Roma, città aperta , but frankly, without much conviction."[3] Considering that it was now a matter of a full-length film, a million lire for Fabrizi seemed less outrageous.[4]

The plot that the team of screenwriters came up with is relatively simple in outline, but at the same time delicately interwoven with many diverse strands. Giorgio Manfredi (Pagliero), one of the heads of the Italian Resistance, enlists the aid of the anti-Fascist priest Don Pietro (Fabrizi) and a partisan printer named Francesco (Francesco Grandjacquet) in keeping him hidden from the Germans. The next morning, Francesco's wedding day, he is captured by the Nazis and his pregnant fiancée, Pina (Magnani), is shot down by the Germans when she attempts to interfere. Manfredi is betrayed by his girlfriend Marina (Michi), a dancer and prostitute who has been corrupted by drugs by the Nazi lesbian, Ingrid, and he, Don Pietro, and an Australian deserter the priest has been sheltering, are arrested. The deserter hangs himself, and when Manfredi refuses to talk, he is tortured to death in the presence of Don Pietro; the next morning the priest himself is executed while the young boys of his parish, who have been waging their own war against the Germans, look on.[5]

Open City is not easy to write about. While probably Rossellini's best-known film, and the film that brought him international fame, it is in many ways his least typical. This film that was quickly to be seen as a direct challenge to the conventional cinema of the time—read, Hollywood cinema—is, in fact, one of Rossellini's most conventional films, at least in terms of its narrative and dramatic structures. Thus, the many documentary moments of the earlier trilogy that work against the main narrative flow are no longer to be found in Open City . Here, unlike in his previous films, all elements of the mise-en-scène, lighting, dialogue, and everything else, however "realistic," are rigorously enlisted in the service of the linear narrative. It is difficult to find a reason behind this shift, but it is important to realize that it is Open City , rather than Paisan as most critics have thought, that is the enigma. In other words, if Rossellini's other films are kept in mind, it becomes clear that the supposedly radical change his filmmaking undergoes between Open City and Paisan is in many ways actually a return to something more characteristic, if more radical vis-à-vis the conventional Hollywood film. True, the antinarrative devices of La nave bianca, Un pilota ritorna , and L'uomo dalla croce are barely more than nods in that direction. Yet, the presence of such devices is unmistakable, as is their absolute absence from Open City . It is this absence that demands explanation, rather than the dedramatization and "deviant" narrative devices of Paisan and later films.


The most probable explanation for the change represented by Open City is that, for the first time, Rossellini's story was so powerful, and so demanded to be told that a driving narrative impulse pushed aside his subtler, perhaps more typical, concerns. Reality itself had become conventionally "dramatic," in a sense, by means of a specific series of events —in other words, narratively—and a strong story line may have seemed the best way to capture it. Similarly, he must have realized that simply showing wartime Rome—its visual presence before us continuously—would have an enormous impact. In other words, Rossellini's characteristic antinarrative interest in documenting a given reality manifests itself here in the ongoing, unspoken statement of the devastated background—Rome itself.

Thus, conventional narrative elements abound, such as the rather obvious slapstick involved when the Austrian deserter frightens us and Don Pietro by pulling out his gun, when he means only to deliver a message rolled up in an ammunition cartridge. Or when Romoletto's bomb is nearly knocked over in a masterfully choreographed vaudeville gesture. The partisan attack on the truck full of prisoners is clearly in the action-film category, though it is accomplished with a paucity of means that paradoxically causes it to be more convincing than a well-bankrolled Hollywood version would have been. Sergio Amidei, who is generally credited with (or cursed for) these elements of popular narrative, has himself clearly pointed out their utter conventionality:

Open City was made, unfortunately, in an old-fashioned way. From real-life, sure, but old-fashioned, both in its techniques and its script. Certain effects, like Fabrizi's hitting the old man with the skillet, and the characters played by Michi and Galletti, are the most traditional. Also the technique: we filmed using classic lighting. . . . Open City , which seems the founding film in the renewal of filmmaking is, at base, the continuation of previous films.[6]

Similarly, the script also manages to stay on the easy level of heroism and cowardice, and these simple notions, the staple of Hollwood Westerns, are never for a moment seriously interrogated. Thus, near the end of the film, when Manfredi the partisan, Don Pietro the priest, and the Austrian deserter find themselves in the same cell, the deserter acts cowardly, later even killing himself, and his cowardice is seen as a moral failure on his part. Manfredi claims that "we're not heroes," but every other element of this film conspires to contradict his assertion. (Though Rossellini does perhaps display a bit of self-awareness when he has the Nazi Bergmann say a bit later, "You Italians, whatever party you belong to, are all addicted to rhetoric."[7]

But however we might want to chastise Rossellini for his embrace of conventional narrative in this film—if we do—it is clear that he does it very well indeed. There is no slack, no narrative fat. All of the characters are tightly intertwined for maximum efficiency, and the result is a complex and thickly populated fresco. Exposition is accomplished instantly, in bold, swift strokes, and we are plunged into the narrative at a gallop from the first minute of the film. As many critics have noticed, comic and tragic moods alternate throughout the film in an invigorating and emotionally involving way, each providing a counterpoint to the other. Individual scenes are also exquisitely accomplished. Thus,


the sequence in which Pina is shot down as she runs after the truck carrying her fiancé Francesco is one of the most brilliantly affecting moments in all film. Pushed up against the wall with the other women, she seems out of harm's way, so her suicidal outburst is even more shocking when it comes. On one hand, the power of this moment seems to come from the placement of the camera inside the truck as it moves away. Pina runs after it, and when she is cut down, her movement forward in tandem with the camera's movement forward is abruptly halted and the distance between the camera in the truck and her dead body, lying in the middle of the street in a lump, multiplies at a dizzying rate. But the effect of this sequence is also achieved by an awareness of dramatic balance, for it immediately follows one of the most humorous moments in the film, mentioned earlier by Amidei, when the priest has to knock the grandfather over the head with a frying pan in order to keep him from attracting the attention of the Fascists. We instantly move, then, to Pina's death sequence, all of which lasts no more than a few seconds, and the emotional and dramatic buildup of which is astounding to watch.[8] Leo Braudy, in the introduction to his anthology Focus on Shoot the Piano Player , insightfully links this purposeful alternation of tone with later examples in Truffaut's film and Joseph Heller's tragicomic novel Catch 22 . An early French reviewer, Jean Desternes, likened the use of comic counterpoint to enhance the film's horror to earlier uses in Shakespeare.[9]

Matching this turn toward a more conventional narrative stance is a kind of "relapse" in the technical area as well. Thus, the two ends of the stylistic spectrum that Rossellini had previously used—the long take and the quick cutting of Eisensteinian montage—are both absent here. The editing is, instead, "classic," that is, illusionist, meant to be as invisible as the traditional Hollywood variety because primarily in the service of the narrative line and increased emotional involvement. Hence, the editing is rarely elliptical, as it was in earlier films. Close-ups, likewise, though not numerous, are almost always uncharacteristically used to increase the emotional charge of a scene. On the other hand, the long take we had begun to see in the earlier films is also missing, except for a few tracking shots that follow characters who are walking while they talk. Rossellini has maintained in the Baldelli interview that the long take is absent in this film because he couldn't obtain long enough pieces of film. This argument is less than convincing, however, since the normal-length shots in fact mesh very well with each other and with the other elements of the film's style.[10]

But let us now turn to a consideration of the ideas and themes of the film. Most important, of course, is the exploration—thoroughly metaphorized in various ways throughout the film—of nazism as corruption. The evil Major Bergmann tortures and murders in the name of the destiny of the Third Reich. His cohort, Ingrid, is a lesbian; for Rossellini, sexual inversion is the signifier par excellence for decadence, as we shall see again in the homosexual Nazi teacher of Germany, Year Zero . (In a similar vein, later in Open City a Nazi corporal leeringly asks Pina if the priest has been making eyes at her.) Likewise, Rossellini obviously worries that all the young women are being corrupted by the overturning of normal life; this is usually represented as the perversion of the



Nazism as corruption: Ingrid (Giovanna Galletti) "comforts" the drugged
informer Marina (Maria Michi) in  Open City  (1945).

normal (for Rossellini) goal of marrying and having a family. Rossellini attributes this problem to the war in general, however, and is not content to assign it only to the Germans: the young women are corrupted by the Germans in this film, by the Americans in Paisan (Maria Michi plays a somewhat similar role in both films, further enhancing the connection), and by the French and English occupying troops in the Berlin of Germany, Year Zero . Marina's corruption by promiscuity and drugs in Open City leads her into a kind of lascivious exhaustion, an exhaustion that will become generalized onto the whole German people in Germany, Year Zero; here, however, the impetus of the corrupters' forward movement keeps the disease projected outward onto the Italians they cynically use.

The vehemence of Rossellini's outrage against the Nazis in this film is genuine, and it causes him to portray the struggle between good and evil in clear, uncomplicated black-and-white terms—for the last time. But this vehemence also serves to underline the fact that he is taking it very easy indeed on the Italian Fascists. One of the difficulties for a non-Italian audience in watching this film is visually distinguishing the Fascists from the Nazis, and thus Rossellini's subtle exculpation may be missed. Throughout the film, in fact, the Nazis are seen as the evil ones, the actively malevolent force; the Fascists and other


Italian collaborators are portrayed in the humiliating, but decidedly less culpable, role of lackey. The Nazis' obvious hatred of the Italians is itself thematized, and conveniently serves as one more example of Nazi evil. The occupation of Rome by the Germans has given Rossellini, the quintessential outraged Roman, a clear-cut, one-to-one replacement for the Communist villains of L'uomo dalla croce , and Italian guilt never has to be addressed. At the end of Open City , when Don Pietro is to be executed, the Italian firing squad, respecting the cloth—unlike the barbarian Nazis—wavers and ends up shooting harmlessly into the ground. By a curious reversal, cowardice and bumbling inefficiency become moral values, and it is the Nazi officer who finally has to kill the priest. Throughout the film the Italian collaborators, portrayed as having managed to retain their deepest human values in spite of everything, themselves come to be seen as much the Nazis' victims as any other group, and therefore have our sympathy. (Even the camera underlines this point, usually shooting down on the humiliated Italian police commissioner and up on the dominant Bergmann in their scenes together.)

Clearly, the most important—and most complicated—theme of Open City concerns the nature of the partnership formed (if not in historical actuality, at least in Rossellini's mind) to combat Nazi corruption, that between the communists and the Catholic church. This was no mean trick for Rossellini, considering that his previous picture had posed them as natural, bitter enemies. But he does manage, in a remarkable balancing act, to portray them both favorably, primarily because of the handy presence of a common enemy whose horribleness everyone could agree on. For one thing, the director is acknowledging the historical fact that no matter what one personally felt concerning its politics, in effect, the Communist party was the Resistance. The flavor of Rossellini's accommodation can be gathered in the initial meeting between atheist Manfredi and believer Pina:

MANFREDI: So you're having a church wedding. . . .

PINA: Yes. Actually, Francesco didn't want to, but I told him: better for Don Pietro to marry us, at least he's on the right side, rather than go to City Hall and be married by a Fascist. Don't you think so?

MANFREDI: In a way, you're right.

PINA: Yes; the truth is that I . . . really believe in God (p. 32).

Bergmann's obsessive questioning of the priest at the end of the film provides the chance to offer a new rationale for accepting the Communists. Bergmann shouts that Manfredi is "a subversive, an atheist, an enemy of yours!" and Don Pietro calmly, if rather vaguely, replies: "I am a Catholic priest and I believe that a man who fights for justice and liberty walks in the pathways of the Lord—and the pathways of the Lord are infinite" (p. 130). Hardly a ringing endorsement, as not a few Marxist critics have pointed out, but in terms of the emotion projected at that moment on the screen, certainly convincing. Later, Bergmann plays his trump card in his psychological game with Manfredi when he points out that, while various political and social groups are now allied against the Germans, surely the Communist party will be forsaken when the common enemy is gone. This, of course, is a clear articulation of precisely the



The Christlike Communist Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero)
being tortured by the Nazis in  Open City .

fear felt by many progressives at the time that the coalition of Resistance groups was really only a matter of convenience, opposed to any lasting change in Italian political or social life. Further connections between the Communists and Catholics are given a visual palpability. For example, many of the shots of Manfredi while he is being tortured strongly suggest the bruised and battered Savior of Christian iconography. In one shot his arms are even pinned up to the wall. At the end of the torture sequence, an apparatus of some sort subtly casts a crosslike shadow.

Nevertheless, while the Catholic and Communist are, ostensibly, on the same footing, at least in terms of their moral rectitude, the entire film is seen in Catholic, or Christian, terms. Don Pietro is the moral lens through which we are meant to regard the various forms of iniquity on display. Manfredi, in other words, is not really given any thematically important dialogue, and the heavily dramatic form of the story insists that his encounter with the Nazi, Bergmann, take place not on the level of ideas, but rather on the level of action-film machismo—not is he right, but can he withstand torture? The only character who does get to express the presumably Communist version of things is Francesco, in his wistful and captivating talk about the future as he sits with Pina on the


stairs in front of his apartment. Here again, however, his desire for freedom and hope in the future are expressed in lovely, but vague and utterly unrealizable terms.

Early Marxist views, like that of the important film theoretician Umberto Barbaro, held that the film had "such a wise and balanced political evaluation that it undoubtedly merits the applause of all honest men."[11] Most early critics, both leftists and nonleftists, agreed primarily in seeing the film as above all "historical" in a way that no other Italian film had ever been. But more recent Marxist critics like Pio Baldelli have complained, with some justice, that Rossellini's film actually forgets history. For one thing, the blame for Nazi occupation is seen clearly in Christian—that is, ahistorical—terms. This is evident in the scene between Pina and Don Pietro, when, overloaded by misery, she plaintively asks him, "Doesn't Christ see us?" The priest replies:

A lot of people ask me that, Pina. . . . Doesn't Christ see us? But are we sure we didn't deserve this plague? Are we sure we've always lived according to the Lord's laws? And nobody thinks of changing their lives, of examining their lives. Then, when the piper has to be paid . . . everybody despairs, everybody asks: Doesn't the Lord see us? Doesn't the Lord pity us? . . . Yes, the Lord will take pity on us. But we have so much to be forgiven, and so we must pray, and forgive much (p. 53).

This particular passage is only one among many, but it is emphasized both visually and narratively, and nothing else in the film ever really says anything to the contrary. The victim, conveniently, is being blamed for being victimized.

Similarly, Armando Borrelli complains that in this film Rossellini is only interested in stressing the tragic destiny of his characters, and makes no attempt to see the Resistance as a critique of the past. Nor do we ever learn what they are fighting for , beyond getting rid of the Nazis.[12] Yet, as Mario Cannella has pointed out in an important essay translated some years ago in Screen , it is now clear that the Italian Communist party had itself given up all class analysis during this period in favor of a Stalin-inspired anti-fascist "unity" that was thoroughly uncritical and un-Marxist. Interest, in other words, had shifted imperceptibly from protecting the workers to protecting the "fatherland," and any party member who disagreed was disciplined. In Cannella's view, it was this that led to the reestablishment of bourgeois democracy and the defeat of the party.[13] Thus it seems beside the point to blame Rossellini for not portraying the revolutionary potential of the Resistance. But the Marxists are right when they say that despite appearances, Rossellini is not really interested in history in Open City . As the non-Marxist Mino Argentieri has pointed out, the "historic conjunction" of the Church and the Communist party leads, in Rossellini, to an "ahistorical meaning, a spiritual propensity, the nth degree of the tragedy of existence and life together."[14] Rossellini is not, strictly speaking, historical precisely because he is looking for what, in human beings, transcends history.

Another of Baldelli's complaints, related to the forgetting of history, is that the common people are only shown, even in terms of the Resistance, as pawns, as sufferers, as executors of the will of others: "The masses . . . belong to the important moments, they even die; but always impulsively, following their


instincts and 'nature.'"[15] (But Baldelli is forgetting the admittedly brief but anonymous and successful partisan attack on the Nazi convoy.) The chief sufferers, of course, are the women. Rossellini's men are often larger-than-life figures who fight for causes that are vaguely defined but nevertheless transcend their own meager individual selves. They are the initiators of all the action; the women, on the other hand, both good and bad, are seen as acted upon, rather than as actors in their own right. Pina is killed when she takes action, to be sure, but, again, her action is motivated by natural "womanly instinct" in the defense of her man. The only woman who is depicted as an active force is Ingrid, and she is seen significantly as a lesbian, and thus thoroughly masculinized. The short colloquy between the young boy Marcello and a young girl about his age, Andreina, who sleeps in the same room with him, is symptomatic in this instance, and hints at the greater complexities of sexual role that are to come in Fear and other films made during the Bergman era:

MARCELLO: We sure fixed them good, eh?

ANDREINA: You never take me with you!

MARCELLO: You? You're a woman!

ANDREINA: So what? Women can't be heroes?

MARCELLO: Sure they can, but Romoletto says that women always mean trouble (p. 65).

The sexist implications of this colloquy are perhaps "innocent," but clear.[16]

The positive side of the film's depiction of the masses concerns Rossellini's much-praised (by Marxist and non-Marxist alike) sense of coralità , that concern for the group above the individual, which we saw in operation in the earlier films. Thus, the warm-hearted working-class jokes and the good-natured kidding begin almost immediately. Pina gives some of the bread she has obtained by staging a riot on the baker's to the policeman whose family is just as hungry as everyone else's. A delightful Renoirean forgiveness pervades the film; human error and petty wrongdoing, seen in the context of the massive brutality of the Nazis, is treated indulgently and largely regarded as an unavoidable product of the times. Thus, the sexton crosses himself before he, too, plunges into the crowd assaulting the bakery, and the embarrassing fact of Pina's prewedding pregnancy is tacitly forgiven by all, including the priest. Again, however, despite Marxist approval, it is clear that this coralità is not motivated in Rossellini's mind by any class solidarity; instead, he sees it in terms of Christian love for one's neighbor.

Most conflicting interpretations of the film's basic theme center visually around its final images. As Don Pietro is about to be executed, he hears the young boys whistling as a signal of their support. He is shot, and the last image of the film shows the boys, weary, but supporting each other, trudging down a hill back toward the center of town. The Roman skyline, dominated by the dome of Saint Peter's, forms the background of the shot as the film ends. The sequence is clearly symbolic, but of what? Some have chosen to emphasize the dome, insisting that only in the Church is there hope for the future of Italy. But the dome is seen firmly in its context of the entire city of Rome, just as the Church is an important part of Italian society, but hardly everything. Some have


chosen to see the ending as utterly pessimistic, full of death and destruction,[17] while others have emphasized the fact that the boys, symbols of Italy's future even though crippled and depressed, are at least supporting one another down the hill.

In any case, the film appropriately ends with this evocative long shot of Rome, for in many ways, Rome is its chief protagonist, standing synecdochically for the rest of Italy. It is the first word of the film's Italian title, and is before us at all times throughout the film, either directly, as visual background, or indirectly suggested through its particular social relations reenacted in the interiors. The film opens, as well, with vibrant location shots that set us firmly in the midst of the ancient city, and we recognize the antlike Germans we see running about from our bird's-eye perspective as the interlopers they are. We first meet the German officer Bergmann after the camera pulls back from a map of Rome in his office, suggesting that his contact with the city, and by extension that of the other Germans as well, can only be of an abstract, second-order level. The point is further underlined when we learn that all of Bergmann's dealings with the city are through photographs of its inhabitants. When the Italian police commissioner asks how Manfredi was tracked down, Bergmann replies: "I met him right here, on this desk. Every afternoon I take a long walk through the streets of Rome, but without stepping out of my office" (p. 13). Again, the Germans are associated with all that is artificial, second-hand, cut off from the organic life of the people. Rome is eternal, the Nazis are temporary.

When the film was first screened for prospective distributors and other film people about town, the reception was intensely disappointing. They were appalled at how "badly" the film was made and were shocked by the rawness of many of its scenes. Rossellini and his coworkers were crushed. Yet out of their disappointment arose a legend of utter rejection that is simply not borne out by the facts. In many interviews Rossellini complained that the condemnation was universal, and his brother, Renzo, speaks bitterly in his autobiography of carrying negative press clippings around in his wallet for years. According to the legend, all of Rossellini's friends hated the film and every distributor refused to take it, but for lack of anything better it was presented as the Italian selection at Cannes in 1946, where it enjoyed a similar lack of success. The big breakthrough occurred when the film opened two months later in Paris to rave reviews and an equally strong response at the box office. Soon after, the same thing happened in the United States; Italian critics and distributors finally saw the error of their ways, the film was rereleased in Italy, and thus the film's makers were vindicated when it became successful in its birthplace as well.

But as with most legends of total failure or total success, the truth lies somewhere in between. Obviously, Rossellini's friends and potential distributors were put off by a film that so thoroughly repudiated the canons of accepted good taste, in terms of both its content and its "unprofessional" form. When Open City came along, it represented the first full-fledged look at those unpalatable aspects of life that had been kept off the screen for so long—the reality of torture, sexuality, and dirty streets. Visconti's Ossessione had explored similar territory, but had been suppressed a mere week after its release in 1942 and thus had little effect on the public's (and the critics') cinematic expectations. The


condemnation of Open City was far from universal, however. For example, Carlo Lizzani, writing in Film d'oggi in November 1945, shortly after the film's first appearance, exclaimed in the opening line of his review: "Finally I've seen an Italian film! By this I mean a film which tells a story about us, about the experiences of our country, about facts that concern us." Lizzani also grasped the immense historical importance of the film as well:

An Italian director can offer our cinema those gifts of communication and a wide and popular persuasiveness which it has been lacking up to this time, even in the works of the best directors, and which alone can guarantee it a national and especially international success. The people today don't want an empty and sloppy cinema, but neither do they want a cinema for aesthetes. Rossellini's essential merit is to have found the rhythm and the movement best suited to make accessible to the vast public the new contents of which the film is messenger, to relate them to the most diverse sensibilities. . . . I would say that this film could be just the thing to start off our new rebirth.[18]

The novelist Alberto Moravia, writing his film column in the September 30, 1945, issue of the anti-Fascist journal La nuova Europa , praised the film's intense realism.[19] Alessandro Blasetti, by that time a kind of elder statesman of Italian cinema and one of its most respected practitioners, says that after the first press screening of Open City , "I felt the need to go meet Rossellini who was waiting outside with 'indifferent' trepidation and I hugged him for all of us; the gesture was really emotional and grateful."[20] Rossellini later complained that the film was barely noticed when it came out, but Mario Gromo, the veteran reviewer for the powerful Turin newspaper La Stampa , wrote of it very favorably and suggested later that it was little mentioned (and thus little seen) because of a simple lack of space in the newspapers, pointing out that in 1945, newspapers came out in only two pages. In the introduction to his collected reviews written some years later, Gromo remembers with frustration "the breath I had to spend one evening in November 1945 to be able to devote thirty-six lines to Open City instead of just twenty."[21]

The film was an even greater success with the public, earning over 61 million lire in its first four months and going on to become the largest-grossing film of the year. (Ironically, no other neorealist film, nor any other film of Rossellini's, was ever to be as successful at the box office again.) Reactions in France and America were even more favorable. One reason was that Open City and Paisan were released in these countries within a few months of each other, and thus the effect of witnessing something new was reinforced. Jean Desternes spoke of them as "overwhelming," and offered a sophisticated analysis of the films that placed them firmly in European literary, philosophical, and cinematic traditions of realism. He also sounded the first stirrings of a theme that was later to be taken up and amplified by the French phenomenologists, when Rossellini's countrymen had thoroughly given up on him. According to Desternes, Pina and Marcello "really are that woman and that child, giving proof to their existence: they are there and that's how it is."[22] An even more important review was that by the widely known film historian Georges Sadoul, who discussed Open City and Paisan in Les Lettres françaises , mistakenly referring through-


out to the director as Alberto Rossellini. He compared them to two French films of the Resistance, Lindtberg's La Dernière Chance and Clement's La Bataille du rail (both now largely forgotten), especially in terms of their similar use of real locations and nonprofessional acting.[23] Sadoul also struck a note that was especially to preoccupy American reviewers when he said that Open City was clearly more important to cinema history than the last two hundred films made in Hollywood. Thus, John McCarten, in the New Yorker , called it "the best that has ever come from Italy," and wondered why the characters were all so fresh, especially the children, compared with the "saccharine and inept" children offered us by Hollywood.[24]Life magazine, in a picture spread, approvingly pointed to the film's "earthy verisimilitude" and noted that its violence and "plain sexiness" went far beyond anything Hollywood could do in projecting "a feeling of desperate and dangerous struggle."[25]

The most dramatic American reaction to the film was surely that of James Agee, at that time the film critic for the Nation . His March 23, 1946, review opened with this remarkable statement: "Recently I saw a moving picture so much worth talking about that I am still unable to review it. . . . I will probably be unable to report on the film in detail for the next three or four weeks."[26] When Agee did finally feel up to writing about the film for the April 13 issue, he praised its immediacy and its avoidance of the phony populist sentimentality of Works Progress Administration murals. But what struck Agee above all, and critics of all nationalities ever since, was the film's startling realism. This is a notoriously difficult concept to deal with, of course, but our thinking about Rossellini, especially during this period, is so tied up with it that we must now consider it more abstractly and in some depth.

Because most of the filming was done in the midst of actual exteriors, and not those recreated in a studio or on the back lot, the film quite naturally has a look that makes it utterly different from the conventional film of the time; in this sense, then, "realistic" means "different from Hollywood." The anti-Hollywood bias is also evident in the choice of individual actors for their similarity to the mix of people one finds on the street, rather than for their good looks. Thus, makeup, favorable lighting and soft focus are eschewed in favor of something closer to the way we encounter people in real life. But something happens to "real life" when it is translated to the screen, and what we call realism actually consists of a set of expectations that is related to reality, of course, but in conventional rather than natural ways. Thus, for example, it would obviously be more "real," more like real life, for people being photographed to look at the camera, but then, paradoxically, the film would no longer seem realistic to us at all.

Furthermore, as the Soviet semiotician Jurij Lotman has pointed out, the "poetics of 'refusals'" associated with Italian neorealism "can only be effective against a remembered background of cinema art of the opposite type."[27] The meaning and emotional effect of neorealism, in other words, resides not in itself, but precisely in how it differs from what preceded it. Neorealism's vaunted window on reality thus depends at the most basic level, paradoxically, on practices of artifice to be understood. As Lotman says concerning Visconti's La terra


trema , "The art of naked truth, trying to rid itself of all existing kinds of artistic conventionality, requires an immense culture in order to be perceived as such."[28]

Naturally, Rossellini and the other directors associated with neorealism did not consider their practice in these analytic terms, nor did their earliest supporters such as the French critic André Bazin. They did not think of themselves as operating within the confines of preexistent codes, but rather—and this is what makes them almost unique in cinematic history—as moving ever closer to reality itself . In Rossellini's most limpid and direct formulation of this tendency, "Things are there. Why manipulate them?"[29] The underlying assumption, of course, is that when these "things" have been transferred to the screen, they will somehow still be "there." At one point, Bazin even makes the translation process almost quantifiable: "We shall call realist any system of expression, any narrative procedure which tends to make more reality appear on the screen."[30] His most gnomic statement specifically concerning Rossellini is that he "directs facts"[31] —not, of course, cinematic facts, but the facts that are seen as inhering in external reality (and available to us), rather than as constituted in a system of signification. For Bazin, reality signifies, at its deepest level, directly: "The world of Rossellini is a world of pure acts, unimportant in themselves but preparing the way (as if unbeknownst to God himself) for the sudden dazzling revelation of their meaning."[32] By logical extension, then, the greatest film will, paradoxically, do away with itself (as representation) in its direct minfestation of being. Thus, Bazin is led to speak of De Sica's Bicycle Thieves as "one of the first examples of pure cinema. There are no more actors, no more story, no more mise-en-scène, that is to say finally in the aesthetic illusion of reality—no more cinema."[33]

Bazin was, of course, always aware that screen reality was only an "aesthetic illusion." What else could it be? Furthermore, the most epistemologically sophisticated of these directors and critics knew and freely admitted that this raw reality must be "filtered" through the consciousness of the director, because otherwise what one ended up with was an arbitrary surface depiction that barely pierced the skin of the real. But the purpose and result of this authorial intervention, this mediation, in effect, was always to get to a cinematic representation of reality that was somehow more "real" than reality itself. The appeal is made to a truth that exists beyond, though not so far beyond as to be uncapturable, of course. Associated with this cinematic pursuit of truth is a concomitant theory of essences, of a "truer," "higher" reality, that has always been linked with the notion of aesthetic realism since the advent of the mimetic theory of art. Thus we find Hegel, for example, maintaining, "Far from being simple appearances and illustrations of ordinary reality, the manifestations of art possess a higher reality and a truer existence."[34] The long shadow of Plato is everywhere here.

In order to question and perhaps begin to account for the fierce energy invested in this neorealist, phenomenological compulsion toward the essence of reality, we will first have to consider more closely the nature of the film's relation to that preexistent reality that may be called its "raw material." To do this, we will have to take yet another step backwards and examine what we mean by reality itself. My basic assumption is that there is a given reality that preex-


ists our intentions and desires and that forms a ceaseless copresence for all our activity, whether we are aware of it or not. I am thinking of the entity, "the world," that Maurice Merleau-Ponty speaks of in "What Is Phenomenology?" as "not what I think, but what I live through. I am open to the world, I have no doubt that I am in communication with it, but I do not possess it; it is inexhaustible."[35] In contrast to Merleau-Ponty, however, I would hold that, whenever we regard this preexistent reality as in any way meaningful, these meanings are being imposed by our own consciousness (collectively speaking, of course). Reality, in other words, is not constituted by an uncomplicated "out there" to which we can have direct, unmediated access. We cannot help but process everything through our own particular culture, which exists beyond our individual control and not only filters what we experience, but actually produces it. Harold Brown, a philosopher of science, has argued in his book Perception, Theory, and Commitment that, far from perception providing us with pure facts, "the knowledge, beliefs and theories we already hold play a fundamental role in determining what we perceive." In his felicitous, and disarmingly simple phrase, we actually "perceive meanings."[36] We continuously make representations to ourselves, mostly as metaphors, as Nietzsche saw, that mediate reality for us. Prior artistic practice is also implicated here, for, as Roman Jakobson has maintained, the traditions and conventions of visual representation largely determine the very act of visual perception itself. In other words, before we can talk about how a film represents reality, we must be aware that we already represent and thus construct this reality, continually, in our normal daily mental activity.

Film, in its turn, then, represents what is in fact an already "represented" reality. Compared with other systems of representation, of course, film seems to enjoy a privileged status in terms of its relations to its referent. Jean-Paul Fargier has suggested some of the ideological implications of this fact:

People used to say about statues and portraits, "He looks as though he might open his mouth any minute and say something." or "He looks as though he might burst into movement." But the "as though" gives the game away; despite the appearance, something was lacking , and everybody knew it. Whereas in the cinema, there is no "as though." People say "The leaves are moving." But there are no leaves. The first thing people do is deny the existence of the screen: it opens like a window , it is "transparent." This illusion is the very substance of the specific ideology secreted by the cinema.[37]

What we must remember, in other words, is that this privileged link to reality does not in any way lessen the fact that cinema is as dependent upon preexistent, "nonnatural" codes and systems to be understood as any other medium. The point is that the inherently greater superficial proximity to reality of film can lead easily into essentialist assumptions about the cinema as a place of direct, unmediated experience that avoids the problems that beset other, more obviously artificial, systems of representation.

In cinema we are lulled by the fact that aspects of film can seem to be "like" aspects of reality. But, according to Lotman, "The very concept of 'likeness' which seems so immediate and axiomatic to the audience is, in actuality, a fact of culture derived from previous artistic experience and from certain types of ar-


tistic codes employed at a particular time in history."[38] Lotman's example is that of the black-and-white film that, until very recently at any rate, has always been taken as somehow inherently more "realistic" even though we know, of course, that reality is in color.

Seeing a film, then, presupposes first an ongoing, unconscious daily operation that consists of systematizing an inchoate reality and "reading" it in terms of the codes that we both put and find there. This already represented reality is then represented again in film by means of a certain labor on the part of the filmmaker. It does not simply happen "naturally." Much avant-garde cinema in fact deliberately foregrounds the notion of production, thus helping us to see that the reality depicted, as well as the film, is a made, constructed, and thus historical reality. Most classic cinema, however, is interested in depicting an emotionally and psychologically complicated world, perhaps, but not one that is ontologically complicated or open to question. The very power of the image to show "real" objects, "real" people, and "real" behavior thus seems to grant it a privileged point of view. Even the correspondence between the seen and the heard, between the images on the screen and the sound track, reinforces the comforting notion of wholeness and coherence, the idea that the world is a place where things make sense. This very obviousness of film's depiction of reality has its political aspect as well, and can be seen as implicated, despite its apparent "innocence," in the maintenance of the political and social status quo. As the Marxist paradigm has it, the dominant ideology of the ruling class always poses itself as natural, as not constructed, precisely because if the working classes could ever realize that the social reality in which they lived less well than others was made —in other words, the product of historical forces and not "the way things were meant to be"—they might begin to take steps to unmake that reality.

This very sense of wholeness I have been outlining above, which seems to be produced by most films, is seen by Bazin as the distinguishing characteristic of neorealism. In his remarkable essay entitled "In Defense of Rossellini," he approvingly maintains that neorealism's main feature is "its claim that there is a certain 'wholeness' to reality. . . . To put it still another way, neorealism by definition rejects analysis, whether political, moral, psychological, logical, or social, of the characters and their actions. It looks on reality as a whole, not incomprehensible, certainly, but inseparably one."[39] Bazin praises Rossellini's Europa '51 because in it he "strips the appearances of all that is not essential, in order to get at the totality in its simplicity."[40]

One immediate effect of this privileging of the essence of reality over mere appearance and the accompanying insistence on film's ability to re-present this essence on the screen is to place the practice of neorealist filmmaking firmly within the Western metaphysical tradition of presence , most recently and powerfully critiqued by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. In this ubiquitous, inescapable system, being is defined as that which is present, or is capable of being present, in time or space, or self-present to the mind. No provision is made for the enabling absent, which, if meaning is always constituted differentially (as day, for example, "creates" night, and vice-versa), must also be paradoxically "present" in the form of a "trace" that is both there and not there. It is thus necessary for neorealism and its theorists to employ what Derrida calls the "logic


of the supplement" (the completion of the supposedly already "full" term through its "incomplete" opposite), for this essence of reality can, of course, only be made manifest through the specific and the particular, which are, by definition, nonessential. As Derrida points out in Of Grammatology , imitation (mimesis), it is believed, adds nothing; it is, in other words, merely a kind of "supplement." But if mimesis really adds nothing, why bother? In terms of our inquiry, what arises in cinema is the paradoxical situation in which the neorealist representation of reality somehow adds , as a supplement, the essence of that reality it represents. Hence, the essence comes from the outside, from elsewhere. But, as Derrida rhetorically asks, "Is that imitative supplement not dangerous to the integrity of what is represented and to the original purity of nature?"[41] In fact, this very danger shows up in Bazin's complaint that the "necessary illusion of film . . . quickly induces a loss of awareness of the reality itself, which becomes identified in the mind of the spectator with its cinematographic representation.[42]

For Bazin and the other phenomenological critics, the project is at base a religious one, and the finding of fullness in a cinema that embodies the fullness of reality itself is a way to find (or to constitute) what Derrida has called the transcendental signified, or, in a more familiar formulation, God. This is not a project to be taken lightly, of course, for with this end point firmly in place all of the difference, discontinuity, and incompleteness that characterize the world can be made meaningful or at least disguised, and the yawning abyss of absence covered over by this ground of last resort. If reality is whole, and if the cinema can convey this wholeness, then everything that we experience in life that is contingent or in some way compromised (in other words, everything) can be naturalized and made to seem ultimately explicable and thus less threatening. The fixity of the end point (God, the totality, or the essence of reality) can then be seen as grounding the play of difference and the endlessly receding chain of signification.

This neorealist and phenomenological goal of reproducing the seamless web of reality directly on the screen, however, is foredoomed by the difference that makes it always dependent for its meaning on something outside itself. Even what is called neorealism, as we saw earlier, is constituted at least as much by differences both external and internal as by its own identity. This is why endless polemical pages have been wasted in trying to fix its defining characteristics (in other words, its essence), its beginning and end, and so on. Similarly, each filmmaker's body of work—and each individual film—will be marked by gaps and discontinuities, rough edges, details that do not fit, all of which must be forgotten or repressed if we are to make general statements about the "essence" of a filmmaker's career or even the meaning of a specific film. But because these films, like all works of art, are in fact the site of an endless, finally irrepressible, play of difference, if allowed to speak freely, they will tell a jumbled, but perhaps exciting, tale that points to their own internal discrepancies and in so doing will then deconstruct themselves.

This play of difference can be seen clearly at work in Rossellini's films in a problematic area where the represented real (that is, what we think of as part of ordinary experience) and the realistic come into conflict. Conventional cinema demands a basic level of plausibility, enough to allow us to put ourselves emotionally into the created world of the film. It accomplishes this through the use


of real surface detail (this is why most films are shot on location nowadays, and is closely related to Roland Barthes' description of l'effet de réel in literature), but even more importantly through "realistic" acting, which is actually only tangentially, though complexly, related to our sense of the way people act in real life. Another way of achieving this believability is through the overt naturalizing devices of narrative technique and structure, with their well-defined beginnings, middles, and ends, clear plot lines, and well-constructed dramatic and emotional building, none of which, of course, could be further from our daily experience of life. We perceive something as realistic, in short, when it corresponds to a set of conventionalized expectations (largely derived from previous film or novelistic practice) about what people in movies do, not when it corresponds to actual empirical experience. All of this provides the comforting envelope of believability of the conventional film that enables us to be inserted into the complex dual process of what we loosely call audience identification. We are not actually meant to take what we see as reality , of course, or we would try to jump into the screen to help out of their predicaments the characters to whom we have become emotionally tied.[43] But when we experience, with excitement, a film as more realistic than usual—that is, more like "real life" than previous films we have seen—I would argue it is because it is pushing against the currently accepted boundaries of the realistic, closer toward the dangerous unpredictability of the (represented) real .

This "reality effect" seems to stem from the ironic fact that we think an event or image is more real precisely because we have not seen it before on the screen. In the theater we assume unconsciously that we are in the midst of coded behavior and rule-governed spectacle whose purpose is to represent that which it is not, and that if we see merely what we have already seen in other movies it will only be comfortably believable rather than truly real. I would say, therefore, that the very thing we quite properly bewail—movies are getting ever more gruesome and violent—may be part of their inexorable logic. The thrill of a "more realistic" film always comes when we sense, at some level, that an already accepted (and thus tamed) realism is being pushed beyond, toward the real itself , and thus, as in life, screen events are "out of control" and we cannot predict what will happen. What is especially interesting is that when the event or image does push through this barrier of the realistic, we can experience it as more "real" (in other words, closer to our perceptions of life outside the theater) and at the same time as somehow fake because the illusion of an independently existing, uncontingent world, laboriously created on the screen, has been broken. It is this partially controlled infusion of the real that keeps us on the edge of our seats; when it overcomes the fiction, however, it can rudely threaten to reveal that it is all only make-believe.

Thus, Open City was seen as more realistic because it was, in effect, expanding the boundaries of the prevailing code of realism by incorporating the real in the form of location shooting, authentic languages, unglamorous actors, and so on. Forty years later we can easily see how many of its novelties have become standard filmmaking practice, in the process losing much of their power. What is more interesting is that, in the films following Open City , Rossellini will use this tension between the realistic and the real, along with other elements we



Marcello (Vito Annichiarico) tries to revive his murdered
mother Pina (Anna Magnani) in  Open City .

might provisionally call expressionist, to question his own filmmaking practice and the easy assumptions of the neorealist aesthetic. In Open City , however, Rossellini contents himself with a few stylized touches that have upset critics bent on seeing him as the quintessential realist. Their complaints usually take the form of finding fault with certain elements of the film that are "unrealistic," and thus said to clash with its prevailing texture. Some, for example, have objected that the layout of the gestapo headquarters—an office flanked on one side by a torture chamber and on the other by an officers' lounge where Beethoven is heard and champagne is drunk—is utterly impossible. These critics object that the inauthenticity of the Nazi interiors clashes continually with the realism of the exteriors, without ever realizing that this is surely the point, for it is in perfect keeping with the association, insisted upon throughout the film, between the Germans and a decadent, sterile artificiality.[44] (It also allows for some brilliant sound editing when, at various points, Manfredi's screams merge with the light strains of classical music coming from the other room.) Defenders of Rossellini like Giuseppe Ferrara take the wrong tack, I think, when they offer elaborate arguments that these are not really violations of realism because that is the way it really was.

It seems far more productive to posit an expressionist side to Rossellini—barely visible here, of course—even if it destroys the comforting, symmetrical certainty of the director's standard realist label. The arrangement of the gestapo


headquarters then becomes clearly symbolic, a stylized landscape and almost mathematical demonstration of the corruption of Nazi culture. The lack of a total commitment to realism, in other words, enables the director to get at things that lie beyond realism. Looking at Rossellini provisionally as an expressionist, as we shall see, also helps us to recover many of his films that have been written off as failures because they are not realistic enough. It is tempting to say that this very tension between realism, expressionism, and the real is "at the heart" of the Resistance trilogy, but this would only serve to ground my reading of Rossellini in my own, no less culpable, version of essentialism.

In Open City the stylized, self-reflexive touches that point to the film as artifice are light. The gestapo Bergmann can operate in Rome only through the second-level order of representation found in his photographs, as we saw earlier, and the partisan Francesco reminds Pina, his wife-to-be, of their long-gone innocence when they imagined an early end to the war: "And everybody thought it'd be over soon, and that we'd only get to see it in the movies. But . . . " (p. 69). It is over now, and we are seeing it in the movies, and what we see in the movies is not what happened, exactly, nor can it ever be. What Francesco is hinting at, perhaps, is that film reality and lived experience are, truly, worlds apart.



With the artistic, if not the financial, success of Open City guaranteed, Rossellini, Amidei, Fellini, and the others began to think of bigger things. Rod Geiger, the fast-talking, self-styled American entrepreneur, had returned from the United States with money he had received from a distributor for the rights to Open City; soon an Italian coproducer, Mario Conti, was found, and according to Fellini, it was he who provided the bulk of the money to begin work on the film already known as Paisà(Paisan) .[1] The idea in 1946 was to make a film that would somehow encompass the whole of Italy and reflect honestly, in the vein of Open City , on what the filmmakers found in their travels. They had a general idea of what the film would be about before shooting began, but the script was never really fixed, in accordance with an already emerging neorealist aesthetic orthodoxy. Likewise, characters, plots, and locations were continuously and sometimes drastically changed—a procedure soon to become standard neorealist practice—to correspond more closely with the people and the places they found in the course of their six months spent traveling from one end of the country to the other.[2]

For the filmmakers, it was as though they were seeing the world for the first time, at least that part of the world that was Italy. Fellini relates with obvious joy:

We were surrounded by a whole new race of people, who seemed to be drawing hope from the very hopelessness of their situation. There were ruins, trees, scenes of disaster and loss, and everywhere a wild spirit of reconstruction. In the midst of which, we did our tour. The troupe of people working on Paisà travelled through an Italy they scarcely knew, because for twenty years, we'd been in the grip of a political regime which had literally blindfolded us.[3]


Allied troops were everywhere, complicating the Italians' efforts to learn how to live with one another again after the mortal divisiveness of the war years. Italy's always intense regionalism exacerbated the problem, and the struggle for geographical and cultural unity is itself thematized, in a minor way, in the film. On the one hand, the constant linking presence of the map of the Italian peninsula, which appears between the film's six separate episodes, and the relentless chronological movement forward (there is only one flashback in this obsessively present tense movie), a temporal movement that meshes with the equally relentless linear, spatial movement upward on the map, insist upon a sameness, a unity to the Italian experience. The film wants to be, in other words, a history of Italy during this period. Yet the chronological movement, which seems to describe merely different temporal points in a homogeneous space (Italy), or different "aspects" of a homogeneous, single national experience, cannot disguise the fact that the spaces, the regions of Italy, insist on their heterogeneity in each episode just as strongly as ever. The clearly proclaimed regionality of the map thus defeats in advance its simultaneous proclamation of unity.

This regionality is more sharply depicted in some parts of the film than in others, primarily because of the contribution of landscape—the last episode, shot in the Po region, is the prime example—and the visual "thereness" of the built environment, seem most clearly in the Florence episode. In that segment, the Duomo, the Uffizi Gallery, and the entire tourist panopoly of "sights" that the British officers so intensely discuss from their vantage point in the Boboli gardens of the Pitti Palace cause the city to become an active "character" every bit as present as any human. In Naples, it is the very fact of "cityness" and slum life—but meant to be taken in a generalized, abstract way, unlike the specificity of Florence—that marks the episode; Sicily, on the contrary, is the atavistic place of brute rock, stodgy towers, and primitive emotions. The Roman episode is one of the least specially marked—the ironic story of missed opportunity that unfolds there, it might be argued, could have taken place anywhere—a fact that could easily be attributed to the exhaustion of Rome's signifying capability in Open City . To dwell on the city's visual specificity, in other words, as in the Florence episode, would have constituted an unwelcome and static repetition. Nevertheless, this episode's story is linked explicitly to the history of Rome, albeit the most recent installment of it, the liberation; it is this historical event, seen by those who participated in it as profound as any other previous event in the city's history, that marks this particular story, finally, as possible only in that city.

Curiously enough, the only episode that seems relatively abstracted from its location is the one that takes place in the monastery, and it was in filming this sequence, and this sequence alone, that Rossellini "cheated," by fictionally placing southern monks in the north-central part of Italy. This episode is principally concerned with an abstract idea of serenity and innocence made flesh in the monks' faces. One point elaborately developed in the episode is that outside reality has had no effect on their lives, and thus we quite properly see nothing that is exterior to their own interrelationships and their relationship with God. Rossellini deliberately draws a frame, the outer walls of their monastery, around them, thus highlighting what goes on inside the frame and at the same time


pointing to the absolute artificiality (and impossibility), however desirable it may seem to a war-weary world, of this exile from the rest of reality outside.

Perhaps it would be useful at this point to rehearse the plot details of the six episodes. The first episode, as I have mentioned, takes place in Sicily just after the Allies have landed. The sense of the confusion of war is nicely captured by showing the local residents initially convinced that the American soldiers are Germans, and then, realizing their mistake, welcoming them, though somewhat ambivalently. As the local Fascist bewails the loss of "freedom" for his country that their presence represents, the soldiers take along a young woman of the village to lead them through a minefield. Finding an ancient, abandoned tower, they leave "Joe from Jersey" there with Carmela while they search the area. Most of the episode centers on the efforts of these two in the tower to communicate with one another, since each is innocent of the other's language. Things progress so well on this preverbal, gestural level, however, that Carmela is already displaying signs of jealousy when Joe shows her a wallet-sized photo of his sister and her child, who she mistakenly takes for his wife and his own child. To demonstrate the facial resemblance between him and the woman in the picture, he holds a lighter up to his face. Suddenly, the film cuts to a German outpost—in a truly startling intrusion of otherness that destroys the fragile unity the couple seem to have achieved—and the Nazi soldier who, because he has seen a light, fires a single shot that instantly kills Joe. Carmela hides, and the Germans take over the tower; deeply upset by Joe's death, Carmela kills one of them with his rifle. The Americans return, find Joe dead, and assume that Carmela, "the dirty Eye-Tie," was responsible. The next shot shows the Germans looking down from the cliff off of which they have thrown Carmela, and the last thing we see, as the irony rushes over us like the sea, is Carmela's body lying smashed on the rocks.

The next episode takes place amid the rubble of bombed-out Naples, as children and adults display an endlessly fertile imagination, usually in illegal ways, in order to survive. Here a shoeshine boy (less saccharine than the boys of De Sica's Sciuscià ), in an incredible scene, "buys" a black American soldier who is drunk.[4] The boy hides his prize from the police by taking him into a puppet show, where a white Crusader puppet is beating up a black Moor; the black soldier drunkenly enters the fray on the side of his race and gets thrown out of the theater. Sitting on a pile of rubble, the soldier and the boy try to make themselves understood through the confusion of language and alcohol. When the soldier seems about to fall asleep, the boy warns him that he will have to rob him if he does. A few days later, the soldier, who turns out to be an M.P., finds the boy again and demands that he return his boots. Intent on taking the boy home to his parents for a scolding, he discovers that the boy's parents have been killed in the bombing and that he has no home at all.

The film next moves to Rome, where another drunken G.I. encounters a prostitute who takes him to her room. Through a mixture of Italian and English, Fred bitterly tells her, in flashback, the story of his first entry into the city, on the day of Liberation, and the lovely, innocent girl Francesca he met but has been unable to find ever since.[5] The prostitute realizes that she is the one he has been looking for, but since she is ashamed to reveal herself, she asks the landlady



Harriet, the English nurse (Harriet White), drags a dying partisan to
shelter in the Florence episode of  Paisan  (1946).

to give Fred her old address when he awakes the next morning. The last shots in the episode are again in an ironic vein: Francesca desperately waits for Fred in front of the building in which they had first met, once again looking like the girl next door, while he is seen at the very end throwing away a slip of paper, because, as he tells his friend, it is only "the address of a whore."

The fourth tale takes place in Florence, a city dangerously divided between the Nazis and the partisans, who are fighting street by street while the British wait outside for reinforcements. Harriet, an American nurse, and her Italian friend Massimo desperately want to get over to the other, still-occupied side of the Arno, she to find her lover Lupo, a capo in the Resistance, and he to rejoin his wife and child. The story consists solely of their dangerous journey across the city. When they finally arrive, Harriet learns accidentally, even casually, from a partisan who is dying in her arms that Lupo was killed earlier that morning.

A monastery, ostensibly in the Emilia-Romagna area, is the setting for the fifth story. There, monks who have spent the entire war in an otherworldly peace, take in three American chaplains for the night. When they discover that one of the chaplains is a Protestant and the other, even worse, a Jew, they decide to fast to try to save these "lost souls." The American priest is deeply touched by the serenity of the monks' religious feeling, a quality he has lost in the horror of war.


The last episode, and the one most consistently touted ever since, takes place in the marshland of the Po River. The opening shots show a dead partisan floating down the river on a white lifesaver to which the Germans have attached a sign labeled "partisan." Dale, an American O.S.S. man there to give technical assistance to the underground, and his friend Cigolani bury the dead man; they stick the accusing sign into the freshly dug earth and it instantly takes on dignity and worth. The Germans have completely cut off the small group of partisans, but, nevertheless, British orders are to cease all activity. They all know that this means that, while the Americans will only be made prisoners, the partisans will be executed as common criminals. When the partisans are inevitably caught, the Germans tie them up and push them one by one off a boat to drown; Dale and another American rush to protest, and are shot down. As the last two bodies splash into the water, the voice-over matter-of-factly tells us, "This happened in the winter of 1944. At the beginning of spring, the war was over." On this ambivalent note, the film ends.

Superficially, the various episodes seem to have little to do with one another, as some critics initially objected, but in fact the connections are many and subtle. On the most mechanical level, as we have seen, they are linked by the chronological and spatial chain created by the map. More important, however, is the link of emotion, or rather the lack of emotion caused by so much deprivation and exhaustion (a theme that will be brought to its zenith in Rossellini's next film, Germany, Year Zero ), a relation formed by mood and tone—mostly negative—that serves, on one level at least, to unite the film. The principal linkage, of course, is in terms of subject and theme, in that all the episodes in one way or another depict the aftermath of war and "victory," and most importantly, the impossibility of communication.[6] We see people struggling to understand one another in nearly every episode, through the false but troublesome divisions of language, and not always being very successful at it.[7] War creates obvious horror everywhere it goes, but its subtler and more insidious manifestation is, for Rossellini, the way it prevents or distorts the normal, everyday sources of pleasure, like simple communication, which are no less important for being mundane. What emerges in the first episode in Sicily, in which Carmela and Joe from Jersey try so hard to make themselves understood to one another, is a Renoirean theme that through the attempt to communicate, at any rate, one can work one's way back to the basic, primitive level of cooperation that both Renoir and Rossellini obviously feel underlies the surface chaos and distrust of human relationships. This can, I think, be seen most clearly in Renoir's case in the episode near the end of La Grande Illusion when the escaped prisoner of war played by Jean Gabin has his own private rapproachement with the German woman, as they stumble through pidgin French and German to some kind of human community and warmth. In Paisan , the elementary nature of the struggle to communicate is further underlined by the fact that most of the Sicilian episode is shot in an unobtrusive long take, at night and in an ancient tower, whose rough texture is strongly suggestive of a cave. It is almost as though some primitive ritual of connection were here being rehearsed, as though human history were beginning all over again. (The image of the primitive cave will reappear at the


final climactic moments of the next episode, where it seems to stand for a symbolic descent into hell.)[8]

Closely connected with this preoccupation with communication is what might be called the humanity theme, for the horrors of war, Rossellini shows, also lead people to treat each other as objects. That is clearly the case in the first two episodes of this film. Carmela is little more than a detection device, employed for the purpose of avoiding German land mines, and as far as she is concerned Joe and his friends are no better than the Germans, as she clearly says at one point. Yet once they have communicated, their humanity is revealed to one another and they can no longer treat each other as objects. By shooting at him, the German effectively turns Joe back into an object—literally so, of course, when he dies. It is this that Carmela is reacting against when she later shoots the German soldier in order to revenge, suicidally, this American soldier she hardly knows. In the Naples episode, the shoeshine boy is thoroughly taken in by the black soldier's singing and his incomprehensible stories; responding to his humanity, the boy can no longer consider him an object to sell. This is why he warns him that if he falls asleep, he will rob him. Once sleep cuts off the flow of humanizing language, the soldier returns to object status, and the boy, with little choice given the exigencies of war, does what he must.

Rossellini wants to find a latent humanity, and thus a basic sameness or essence, deep down in all of his characters, but one division that seems irreconcilable is that of gender. As in Open City , the women of Paisan are seen as passive creatures, those upon whom history acts, and those, therefore, who history makes to suffer. Francesca, in the Roman episode, can only be sexually used by men or wait for a man who will never come. Those women who do act have no political opinions and act solely from whatever their "nature" calls them to do. Thus, in the Sicilian episode, Carmela tells Joe, "You're all alike, you, the Germans, the Fascists! All you people with guns! You're all the same!" But a short while later, she shoots a German soldier because "her" Joe has been killed, even though she knows it will mean her own death. Her act is totally selfless, almost primevally ritualistic. Similarly, Harriet of the Florence episode will brave the most dangerous fighting in order to reach her man. Thus, when she and Massimo are told that they cannot use the Galleria passage (which runs above the Ponte Vecchio, from the Pitti Palace to the Palazzo Vecchio), for fear that the Germans might discover it and thus endanger them all, Massimo hesitates. He is just as desperate to get to his family as Harriet is to get to Lupo, but he seems on the point of giving up because of the possible danger to the others. In spite of his aroused emotions, in other words, as a man he will listen to reason. Precisely at this point, however, Harriet impetuously plunges headlong into the Galleria, and Massimo has no choice but to join her. Rossellini clearly admires these gestures, which he sees as manifestations of a kind of direct, intuitive naturalness, in spite of the fact that Carmela's causes her death and Harriet's should actually be condemned. It must also be said in his defense that Rossellini sees women, for all their political ignorance, or perhaps because of it, as the inveterate enemies of war. Again, they seem to have a natural inclination against war that most men stupidly repress. In any case, the nurse figure Harriet enacts is quite a step beyond an earlier Rossellini nurse in La nave bianca , a


passive, pure little charmer spouting nationalist slogans about duty and honor. When Rossellini begins making films with Ingrid Bergman in 1949 (and when, due partially to the exigencies of the star system, the female figure moves to center stage), she becomes a richly complex, full human being, motivated by more than the intuitively "feminine."

Another aspect of this question raised by Rossellini's women resides on the symbolic level. Armes believes that Harriet is meant symbolically to stand for the Allies who are powerless to help the Italians sort out their internal differences,[9] but this is rather too mechanically literal a view and seems unwarranted. Carmela, on the other hand, clearly seems to stand for Italy. At the end of the Sicilian sequence we realize that she has been the victim of both the Americans and the Germans, for neither understands what she has done or why. The irony is especially bitter, of course, in terms of the Americans' lack of comprehension. In representing the fate of her country, Carmela continues, in effect, Rossellini's exculpation of Italy and Italian guilt that he began in Open City . Like the women in these two films, Italy is the powerless, dependent victim who, despite occasional outbursts of primordial passion, is acted upon and brutalized by others—the men of Germany, the United States, and England. Not a very flattering role, perhaps, but certainly better than that assigned to Italy's ally, Germany. Thus, most Italians depicted in the film seem more than anything else to be bystanders, perhaps with the exception of the partisans in Florence and on the Po (though the latter, significantly, are led by an American); for the most part they are seen favorably or at worst neutrally. We do see some bad Italians—the Fascist sympathizer in Sicily and the Fascists killed in Florence—but they are marginal figures, either buffoons or empty faces, who disappear from the screen in a matter of moments. The Germans, on the other hand, largely absent through most of the film (though decidedly present in terms of the havoc and misery they have wreaked), are portrayed in the final episode on the Po in the same brutally negative way that they were in Open City .

There are those who have accused Rossellini of overtly playing up to the new regime, the Americans. Robert Warshow, in particular, has mounted a distorted but provocative list:

The six episodes can be plausibly interpreted as representing the fantasies of the eternally defeated as he tries anxiously to read his fate in the countenance of a new master. In Sicily, the Italian girl is rejected: the American does not know that she was really his friend, and the one who could testify for her is dead. In Naples, the American finds his heart overflowing with pity: he understands; he, too, has suffered. In Rome, the Italian girl is rejected again: she is a whore; she has not waited. But in Florence the American nurse presses the dying partisan's head to her breast; and in the monastery, the arrogant victor is humbled before the simple goodness and wisdom of those who have chosen to exempt themselves from history. . . . Finally, on the Po, the American is at last both loved and loving, directing the Italians in their struggle and then losing his life in a protest against their murder.[10]

The British critic M. T. McGregor, however, felt at the time that the film was actually anti -American: "These strange new barbarians are taken apart gently,


like a mechanical toy, to see how they tick. And here they are: indifferent, obtuse, kindly savages."[11]

More important to the great majority of European critics has been Rossellini's overall depiction of history and human possibility. The terms of the debate, as might be expected, are similar to those of Open City , with Armando Borrelli, for example, bewailing Rossellini's apparent "need to express the fundamental tragicness of things, their lack of logical order, the impossibility of understanding the why of events." He even reads the ending of the Po episode as a mockery of the ideals of the Resistance when the voice-over, announcing the final victory, clashes ironically with the shot of the partisans being pushed into the water by the Germans.[12] Similarly, Freddy Buache complains that, in spite of the film's brilliance, the facts of the case are not presented in their political, social, and economic contexts; nor does Rossellini choose to depict the class struggle. Echoing a common theme, Buache accuses Rossellini of forgetting that the Resistance was also a social revolt that was braked by the bourgeoisie.[13] But since Rossellini was rather unabashedly bourgeois, Buache is obviously asking for the impossible. There would have been no reason for the filmmaker to choose to highlight the class struggle, since he never considered it, as would Marxist orthodoxy, the primary motive force of history. In some ways Rossellini is the archetype of the man depicted by Roland Barthes in "Myth Today," the brilliant essay that serves as coda to his Mythologies . This bourgeois has so thoroughly naturalized his contingent status that he speaks in essences; he takes himself, his opinions, and his worldview as natural, and thus not particularly susceptible to being individuated. He is involved in an "ex-nomination" process that serves to cloak history and arbitrary conventionality in the guise of the natural.[14] In all this, of course, Rossellini was merely acting like everyone else he knew.

Thus, these critics are right when they accuse Rossellini of forgetting history. As in Open City , it is the very specificity of event in Paisan that can mislead the casual spectator into thinking this film is historical in any analytic sense. For, though Rossellini always deeply enmeshes his characters in a precise environment, both temporally and spatially, what he wants to portray, for better or worse, is that which transcends this specificity, what is eternal, what is essential in man. It must also be pointed out, however, that Rossellini's Marxist detractors—in spite of their own (correct, to my mind) view of man as conditioned by history—are not attacking essentialism per se, but rather Rossellini's view of what man's essence is. Many of them would simply put another essence in its place. Robert Warshow provides a better way into the film, I think, when he frankly describes its fascination with defeat and death, contrasting it favorably with American films rather than wishing that Rossellini had been more optimistic:

American culture demands victory; every situation must somehow be made an occasion for constructive activity. The characters and events in serious American films are given a specifically "universal" or "representative" meaning in order to conceal the fact that there are situations in which victory is not possible. The idea survives—that is a victory; the man dies—that is a defeat; the "GI" is created to conceal the man's death.

Rossellini neither requires nor dreams of victory; indeed, it is only defeat


that has meaning for him—defeat is his "universal." . . . From this hopelessness—too inactive to be called despair—Rossellini gains his greatest virtue as an artist: the feeling for particularity. In the best parts of Paisan , it is always the man who dies, and no idea survives him unless it is the idea of death itself.[15]

Another way of describing this feeling for particularity is to see it as part of the ongoing dialectic between Rossellini's avowed search for unity and the necessarily discontinuous particulars through which this unity must always finally manifest itself, and which thus always negate it at the same time. The film's famous realism might also be considered in these terms. The paradoxical dynamic of the Hollywood movie is that we are meant to believe it and take it as "real" while watching it, at least on one level, but that when we consider it abstractly as part of a generic whole, it becomes, due to its basis in conventions of representation, the very definition of unreality and artificiality. "That only happens in the movies," we tell ourselves (except in the theater). On the other hand, any film that is perceived as being unconventional in its narrative, as violating accepted codes of realism, is often seen, again paradoxically, to be more "real." Because its disjunctures continually reveal its constructed, fictional status to us, thus preventing the Coleridgean "willing suspension of disbelief" or an easy identification with the characters, sophisticated spectators, at least, can come to see the unconventional representation as somehow more like "real life,"


Partisans bury a dead comrade in the Po episode of  Paisan .


that is, disjointed, confused, unable to penetrate the exterior of the other, undirected, multiple, and incomplete. As I indicated briefly in the previous chapter, the realism of Paisan is startling precisely because it pushes outward from commonly accepted notions of realism (which in fact are constituted by highly stylized conventions) toward the inclusion of what I called the "represented real." The self-reflexivity that is an important by-product of this operation also points inevitably toward a critique of the conventions of realism (and, thus, a critique of neorealism itself) that Rossellini will fully develop in subsequent films.

In Paisan this tension between the codes of realism and the real is present everywhere. Perhaps its most obvious manifestation is the fact that the film is composed of six episodes that are linked in various ways, as we have seen, primarily in their presentation of themselves as a unity under the guise of a revealed essence of humanity, but that also stubbornly retain their status as diverse fragments. Similarly, as Bazin pointed out, the film resembles a collection of modern short stories, and was indeed the first film to do so. (A short story collection is by definition a unity of differences.) What Bazin neglects to add, however, is that precisely what makes the episodes so narratively unconventional—their quick, unexpected climaxes that come at the end of each story, thus omitting the traditional denouement of both conventional film and fiction—is what links them most closely to the specifically modern form of the short story, with its accent on the sudden, climactic end, with or without the character (or the reader) coming to any moral realization or Joycean epiphany. Adding to this connection is Rossellini's strong use of irony, that staple of twentieth-century fiction. This is the pattern:

FIRST EPISODE: Climax comes at very end, but epiphany is denied to characters; irony reigns.

SECOND EPISODE: Climax at end, epiphany achieved through irony at level of character.

THIRD EPISODE: Repeats the first.

FOURTH EPISODE: Realization of fact of death is climax, but no real epiphany, because the knowledge is empty.

FIFTH EPISODE: Climax and epiphany (in lighter key) at end.

SIXTH EPISODE: Climax at end; unclear whether characters experience epiphany, or only the audience, as in first and third; closure comes from outside the story, through overview and voice of history.

The effect of this narrative schema is once again to dedramatize the episodes and thus to cause them to be perceived as more real and less conventionally realistic at the same time, primarily by holding off the "drama"—or at least the more blatant moments of emotion—until the very end. The audience barely has time to experience an emotion even momentarily before the map of Italy and the officious newsreel voice are thrust back at them. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to think of this film as totally dedramatized and unemotional, for the endings, brief as they may sometimes be, are often quite moving. A key factor at work here is music, though its effects are, as usual, relatively unnoticed. On several occasions, in fact, the music indicates to us precisely what we are sup-


posed to feel (in other words, just like any other film). In the Naples episode, for example, everything looks so completely miserable and ruined throughout the entire episode that an American audience, at any rate, would not initially know that the cavelike dwellings that the soldier enters at the end are to be taken as any more deprived than anything else that has been seen. But when he does enter, the tragic musical theme prepares us to read and react properly to the visual images we will soon be shown. There are, of course, many long passages in which all music has been suspended and where we must make our own way, emotionally and intellectually. But to hold, as Gian Luigi Rondi does in Cinema italiano oggi , that this film is a "dry documentary," "without tears," in which Rossellini trusts the emotion of pure facts, is to miss how subtly—and conventionally—music and other elements work to produce and guide emotion.[16]

The film's primary mode, however, especially compared with the standard Hollywood product, is certainly dedramatized—even if "impurely" so—and its workings are complex. On one level, the brevity of each episode effectively prevents a traditional viewer identification with the characters. Yet, at the same time, a paradoxical increase in what might be called empathy or, better, sympathy, arises. As in Hitchcock's The Wrong Man , the avoidance of "normal" emotional moments (in other words, moments normally heightened in the classic Hollywood film) actually allows the spectator a greater sense of sympathetic involvement, but in a way that is somehow more liberating than the usual emotional identification that is fostered. Thus, while the spectator is not subjected to the roller-coaster ride of predictable emotion because the narrative material has been distanced, at the same time the realization of the character's plight (seen as other, not as self) is all the more powerful. In the Hitchcock film, for example, the low-key style of the acting, the apparently simple mise-en-scène, and the editing somehow combine to make the spectator feel even more strongly what it must be like to be wrongfully locked up; in Paisan , these same factors add up, say, in the Florence episode, to the overwhelming realization of how a war can turn even the simplest of tasks, like getting across town, into a monumental effort. This may have something to do with the lowering of each episode's emotional pitch to the point that the spectator sees (rather than gets "inside the skin of") a common man or woman—like him or her—in a difficulty that is not emphasized in a movielike fashion, nor put into the kind of emotional shorthand that eliminates everyday, lifelike, even distracting details in favor of nonlifelike realistic drama.

Another site of the confrontation between the represented real and the realistic in this film is in the documentary footage that Rossellini has incorporated into the fictional text, especially at the beginning of episodes. The contrast between the two is not as great as in American war films of the period, and sometimes only a sharp eye can tell where one leaves off and the other begins. Though the intention seems to have been to enhance the believability of the ensuing fiction, as in the Hollywood film, the documentary footage also continues to present itself as such , partly at least because it is so directly presenting itself as past: it is accompanied by an explanatory map and a businesslike voice-over that explains everything in past historical rather than present, individually dramatic terms. This tension reaches its zenith at the very end of the film when


the voice-over says "This happened in the winter of 1944. A few weeks later, spring came to Italy and the war in Europe was declared over," thus further insisting, retrospectively, on the fictionality and "constructedness" of all that has just been offered to us in the present tense.[17]

The "acting" and speech of the American soldiers, which often seem to bother American audiences especially, are also relevant here. It is obviously true that the soldiers do not sound right; but in my view this is because they sound like real soldiers (or as we might imagine real soldiers sound). Their voices and their barely functional "acting," in fact, stand starkly opposed to the slickness of the code of what is thought of as realistic in the conventional cinema. The paradigmatic case is the voice of "Joe from Jersey" in the first episode. His voice is thin, reedy, and thoroughly "unconvincing," precisely, I would argue, because it is real. It does not sound like the voice of an actor—smooth, deep, and above all, clear—in other words, that which we ironically take to be realistic once we have put ourselves under the operation of the code. Nor does his awkward dialogue sound "believable." In real life, of course, words and sentences are unheard or misunderstood, people mumble and repeat themselves, and communication turns out to be a surprisingly inefficient process. What we take to be realistic on the screen, however, shows few of these imperfections.[18]

Another version of this dynamic is manifested in the sexual tension generated by Carmela. As Robert Warshow has noticed, Carmela's body is "to an American eye almost repellent in its lack of physical charm, and at the same time disturbing in its persistent suggestion that charm is irrelevant."[19] When we are involved in a conventional Hollywood-style picture, we unconsciously know (at least we did in 1946) that no matter how sexy its star might seem, there is a limit beyond which she will not go. We know, in other words, that her sexuality will necessarily be something faked. However, when the spectator (I am necessarily going to have to limit myself to what I take to be a male perspective here) is confronted with what seems to be a real woman on the screen, an unglamorous nonprofessional, a subliminal sense of risk is at some level reestablished. Though one knows, of course, that the director, the distributors, the theater owners, and a hundred others have all intervened to insure, finally, that the rough edges of experience that may have been captured in the film are mostly rubbed smooth, nevertheless it seems to me that the very presence of the girl—slovenly and directly sensual in a way no real actress would ever chance—gives an edge to her encounter with Joe that makes the film seem bracingly out of control.

Formal elements such as camera movement, lighting, and the mise-en-scène also work here in the direction of reality and away from Hollywood realism. In the last episode, for example, the faces of the partisans are often so thoroughly obscured that we become consciously aware that we cannot see them, and thus we momentarily escape the grip of the film's narrative. In a shot near the end of this episode, Rossellini breaks the rules of conventional cinematography when he "shows" us the captured partisans virtually in the dark; the entire sense of the sequence comes about through the anguished conjunction of their mumbled despair and the utter blackness that surrounds and engulfs them. Even more important in this regard is the editing. In the first episode, for example, as soon as Joe shows his face by his lighter, the film cuts abruptly to a group of German



The sensuality of the real: Carmela (Carmela Sazio),
the Sicilian girl of the first episode of  Paisan .

soldiers; the effect is startling, for this is the first time we have seen them in the film. Without the least hesitation or dramatic buildup, the German shoots, and the film cuts back with equal abruptness to a shot of Joe being hit by the bullet. (The effect of this very brief shot of Joe is heightened by being in slow motion.) In the Florence episode, the famous sequence of the killing of the Fascists seems so powerfully real precisely because it happens so fast: they are dragged into and out of the frame and summarily shot without the slightest fanfare, all in a matter of a few seconds. The same thing happens when Harriet is suddenly told of Lupo's death. Not a moment is spent on preparations for or reactions to either event, and we take this as somehow more lifelike because it is not what we see in conventionally "realistic films," where the maximum emotional effect is usually wrung from each image and event.[20]

On one level, then, the film seems to be striving for a unity of theme and effect, as we saw earlier, while at the same time recalcitrant elements push toward the "real" and toward fragmentation and dispersal, ineluctably revealing unreconcilable differences that obviate any kind of final, univocal reading of the film. The most problematic episode, which might serve as a paradigm of how difference works here, is in fact, the one that seems the tamest—the episode in the monastery. Critics have had great difficulty reconciling this segment with the overall structure and themes that seem to be operating in the film, and have tried


in vain to naturalize its perplexing sentiment. The problem is that its themes clash in "impermissible" ways, for the reading that the episode seems to demand does not correspond with traditional views of brotherhood, kindness, or even good sense. The innocent, unworldly fraticelli , stunned by the presence of two lost souls in their midst—a Protestant minister and a Jewish rabbi—offer up their painful fast to God for the conversion of the heathens' souls. On the one hand, this gesture of concern for one's fellow man, to the point of denying oneself, is obviously praiseworthy, and Rossellini has his American Catholic priest spokesman end the sequence by praising it. But is he not also thereby praising intolerance? Some critics have thought that, in spite of the American's kind words for the selfless idealism of the "innocent" brothers at the end of the episode, the moral is precisely what the other American chaplains marvel at earlier, in the briefest of comments, lightly passed over: how can these monks judge real men and worldly right and wrong if they are so utterly isolated from it all? If this reading is to be accepted, however, we would have to see the episode in quite radical narrative terms. For the thematically privileged position we normally assign to the main character's speech at the end of a narrative sequence, when all attention is solemnly focused on him or her and the rhetoric of language, image, and music continues to underline the moment's importance, would have to be completely overturned. A casual remark dropped halfway through the sequence would have to be privileged over the highly foregrounded, final dramatic scene toward which everything has been moving, and I do not think that what is hermeneutically at stake here has been truly understood. Pio Baldelli and other critics, on the other hand, have struggled to decide exactly what the director "means" in this episode, but in so doing, they have revealed that any approach that grounds itself on a presumably self-present and consistent artistic intentionality will ultimately prove fruitless. When the attempt finally breaks down, as it inevitably must, these critics find the whole episode absurd or confused because, in effect, it is not unified. A better reading might be to admit that the irreconcilable interpretations cannot, in fact, be reconciled, despite the uncomfortable lack of closure that results.[21]

Final editing chores unfortunately had to be left to Renzo, according to his later account, because of the sudden tragic death of Rossellini's firstborn, eight-year-old son while on a visit to his grandmother, who was living in Spain. The crew rushed to finish the film in time for the Venice film festival, where, again according to Renzo, it went virtually unnoticed. In his version of the story, the reception of the film in Italy was subdued until its great success in France and the United States made local critics sit up and take notice. As we saw with Open City , however, one wonders if the neglect of the film could not also have come about through various material reasons unconnected with the proverbial inability of whatever locals to perceive the genius residing in their midst until that genius is certified by an outside world.

The phenomenal effect of the film on a subsequent generation of film directors is much easier to determine. Fellini, who became quite close to Rossellini during the filming (and who, with the help of cameraman Otello Martelli, shot some scenes himself, such as the one of the Germans walking near the Baptistery


in Florence, as well as the passage of the carboy of water under gunfire in the same episode—two very strong images, in fact) said later that in Paisan "Rossellini taught me humility in living. . . . By looking at things with the love and communion that are established from one moment to another between a person and myself, between an object and myself, I understood that the cinema could fill my life, helping me to find a meaning in existence."[22]

The Taviani brothers, Paolo and Vittorio, whose Padre padrone Rossellini would vociferously champion at Cannes in the last few days of his life, had this reaction when they wandered into a theater one day after school:

They were showing Paisan . Everybody in the half-empty room was protesting the film. The public was rejecting what for us two was a shock: to find on the screen that which we had just left on the street. We finally ended up getting in a fight with some of the spectators. Our decision was made: we had understood what we wanted to do with our lives. The cinema.[23]

Ermanno Olmi speaks of having a similar reaction, and when Gillo Pontecorvo saw Paisan in Paris, he was so excited that he gave up everything else, went out and bought a sixteen-millimeter Paillard camera, and began shooting his own documentaries. But perhaps the most fateful reaction was that of a beautiful young actress, then at the pinnacle of success in Hollywood. Ingrid Bergman had already been overwhelmed by Open City when she first saw it in 1948, but imagined that the film had been merely a flash in the pan. Then, later that year, while in New York to do a radio show, she watched Paisan , all alone:

So he had made another great movie! And nobody had ever heard of him! I looked down the theater. It was almost empty. What was going on? This man had made two great films and he was playing to empty houses. I think it was at that moment the idea came to me. Maybe if this man had somebody who was a name playing for him, then maybe people would come and see his pictures. . . . And this immense feeling grew inside me that movies like this simply must be seen by millions, not only by the Italians but by millions all over the world. So, I thought, I am going to write him a letter.[24]

This letter, to which Rossellini responded instantly, was to change both their lives drastically. But before we can consider the brilliant, if troubled, "Bergmanera" of Rossellini's career, we must first attend to the complex films that immediately followed Paisan .


Germany, Year Zero

Buoyed by the delayed, but substantial, acclaim accorded to Open City and Paisan , Rossellini next decided to internationalize his subject by shifting its focus from Italy to Germany. As with his previous films, an urge to document a particular reality and to bear witness to a given state of affairs is evident in Germania, anno zero (Germany, Year Zero ), but now Rossellini also wants to pose a particular question: "The Germans were human beings like everybody else. What could have led them to this disaster?"[1] The answer, as in L'uomo dalla croce , is a corrupt idea —though now the idea is of the Right rather than the Left—an idea that, exactly like the communism of L'uomo dalla croce , encourages "the abandoning of humility for the cult of heroism, the exaltation of strength rather than weakness, pride against simplicity."[2] In the earlier film, Christianity was explicitly offered as an antidote to the poisonous idea of communism, but in Germany, Year Zero , there seems to be no counterforce available to match the despair caused by nazism, the war it made necessary, and, on a personal level, the death of Rossellini's son. The hope of the earlier films, as well as their benevolent priests and monks, through whom this hope was articulated, is now completely missing. In the films to come, like The Miracle, Stromboli , and Francesco , Christianity will be reinstated, but only partially, and certainly not in its institutional forms.

After getting clearance in Paris from the French occupying authorities to film in Berlin, Rossellini drove alone to the city, without any particular story in mind, some time in March 1947 to join Carlo Lizzani, one of the screenwriters on the project. He spoke of his initial impressions of the city in "Dix ans de cinéma," written in 1955 for Cahiers du cinéma:


The city was deserted, the gray of the sky seemed to run in the streets and, from the height of a man, you could look out over all the roofs; in order to find the streets under the ruins, they had cleared away and piled up the debris; in the cracks of the asphalt, grass had started to grow. Silence reigned, and each noise, in counterpoint to it, underlined it even more; the bittersweet odor of rotting organic material constituted a solid wall through which one had to pass; you floated over Berlin. I went up a wide avenue; at the horizon, there was a single sign of life, a large yellow sign. Slowly I got closer to this immense sign placed on a stone cube in front of a store with a minuscule facade, and I read "Bazaar Israel." The first Jews had returned to Germany, and that was really the symbol of the end of Nazism.[3]

In the meantime, Lizzani had been gathering information from the Communist party in Berlin on the condition of German youth, since the idea of having a young boy as protagonist had already been settled on.[4] Rossellini was already a celebrity by that time, according to Lizzani, and so their work was undertaken in an atmosphere of constant receptions given them by the Americans, the French, and the Russians.

Finally, we ended up with about fifteen pages in hand which, however, were fifteen very precise pages. Each sheet contained one sequence, and each sequence was extremely clear. For example: "A horse falls, people gather around the dead horse, quarter it, each one takes a piece of meat, the child sees the scene, passes by and goes away." So, this great scene was actually written in three lines, but they were three very precise lines. Rossellini had this ability to concentrate and to synthesize his story in a few lines and in very clear scenes.[5]

During their stay in Germany, all of the exteriors were shot, but to save money the company was soon moved to Rome, where the Berlin interiors were recreated in the studio. The result was a clash of realism and artificiality, much more obvious than in Open City , that has bothered many critics over the years but also provides for a resonant self-reflexivity. In any case, the fifteen principal members of the cast were moved to Rome, despite enormous bureaucratic difficulties. But a two-month delay in shooting because of financial problems and, according to Lizzani, "an emotional storm with Magnani," who had become Rossellini's mistress, led to unforeseen problems. During the month that they were in Rome, the starving German cast had begun to eat so much pasta that they grew immense: "The pieces didn't go together on the editing table, because the tall and thin gentleman walking the streets in Berlin, and approaching a door, when the door was opened, was another person, well fed, and with the face of well-being." Filming was suspended for two weeks while the Germans went on a diet.[6]

The opening montagelike sequences of the film, when we first meet Edmund, its twelve-year-old protagonist, make very clear, with a minimum of dialogue, just how deep the city's misery really was. At home, the situation is equally grim: Edmund's father is sickly and unable to work; his older brother Karlheinz, a Nazi who fought the Allied troops until the very end, is afraid of being sent to a concentration camp if he turns himself in, and thus is ineligible for a ration card; and Eva, Edmund's older sister, a "nice" girl who tries to keep the family


together, is perilously close to losing her honor in her nightly encounters with the Allied troops, like the young romana of Paisan . They manage to stay alive only because the father has an attack and is taken to a hospital to recover, thus becoming one less mouth to feed, and for the first time getting some proper food for himself. Edmund goes to his former schoolteacher, an unreconstructed Nazi and homosexual, for advice on how to keep his father in the hospital; in a moment of impatience the teacher tells Edmund that he must accept his father's condition because the strong are meant to survive and the weak to perish. This remnant of a corrupt Nazi philosophy, coupled with the father's complaints that it would have been better for the family if he had died, lead Edmund to poison him, thinking that he is doing the right thing. When the enormity of his deed sinks in, after a superb and justly famous final sequence of his long, nearly wordless wanderings around Berlin, he throws himself out of a window and dies.

At a certain level the film obviously revolves around the archetypal theme of its young protagonist's passage from childhood to adulthood. But in the Berlin of 1947, the familiar rites de passage have become speeded up and horribly distorted, and Edmund is simply too young to shoulder the adult burdens, both physical and psychological, that are placed upon him. Though this twelve-year-old finds himself the sole support of a family of adults, his natural inclinations toward hopscotch and other aimless play continue to pull him back to a childlike state that is irrevocably disappearing. His sister at one point calls him her "baby,"[7] and his father insists that "he's still a child" and that his brief stint as a gravedigger (which we learn of in a lugubrious early scene) "wasn't any kind of work for a boy your age" (pp. 362–63). At the end of the picture, when its sad work is nearly accomplished, Karlheinz, finally assuming his proper authority, says, "Who do you think you are anyway? You're still a child." By this point, considering all that Edmund has been through, the statement strikes us as ridiculous, and the youth bitterly replies on his way permanently out the door, "How come you didn't think of that before, when I had to go out and get food for everybody here?" (p. 448)

Besides bearing the responsibility for feeding his family, Edmund is exposed to multiple corruptions that Rossellini clearly finds upsetting. He overhears his landlord's hints that his sister is whoring for the Allied soldiers she meets in a dance hall each night. She is not, in fact, but finds it necessary to be friendly at least, in order to cadge the scarce cigarettes that have become Berlin's new currency. The somewhat older teenagers with whom Edmund increasingly becomes involved—little better than rootless thieves—are cynically casual about sex and jeeringly force their young "moll" on him in a powerful, degrading scene.

The most grievous assailant against Edmund's innocence, of course, is the homosexual former schoolteacher, Herr Enning, who openly paws Edmund in a sequence whose effect may vary according to the spectator's own sexual attitudes, but which Rossellini obviously means to horrify. Enning has become a procurer of young boys for the former Nazi general with whom he lives, and his apartment reeks of moral corruption. For Rossellini this individual sexual depravity is emblematic of the wider philosophical and moral depravity known as nazism, and thus looks forward to the ugly sexual allegory of Pasolini's Salò . Ingrid, the lesbian Nazi of Open City functions in the same way, as we have seen, and even


Enning's apartment recalls the Nazi headquarters of that earlier film. Again, it is the idea of nazism that so obsesses Rossellini, for it is this corrupt idea that has led to all the specific individual corruption that fills this film from beginning to end. Here, the situation is even worse because Enning is a teacher , and as such is in a privileged, and for the later Rossellini, nearly sacred, position, from which he is able to inflict his poisonous notions on the most vulnerable.[8] He never actually tells Edmund to kill his father, of course, but this result is the logical conclusion of Enning's "philosophy," that same philosophy of the strong over the weak that Rossellini attacked in the Communists of L'uomo dalla croce:

ENNING: That's how life is. We were molded in other times. You're afraid Papa'll die? Learn from Nature: the weak are always eliminated by the strong. We must have the courage to sacrifice the weak. This is a law that not even Man can escape. What counts in a defeat like ours is to survive. (He distractedly fondles Edmund's neck .) Come, Edmund, don't be a goose! You must recognize your responsibilities. Goodbye (p. 428).

Enning seems to be a man caught up, like Shakespeare's Brutus, with his own metaphors and does not really mean, in a specific sense, what Edmund thinks he means. As Edmund is still only a child, however, he is unable to distinguish rhetorical from literal language, and later, when his father moans that he is a burden on the family, Edmund takes him at his word.

Nor is the teacher the only Nazi influence on Edmund, for these pernicious ideas have penetrated the entire society. Thus, the landlord Rademaker early in the film calls Edmund's father a "useless old man" and an "old mummy," who he threatens to "put . . . away if he doesn't kick the bucket soon" (pp. 361, 360). Later he asks Edmund "When's [your father] going to drop dead and give us a little peace?" (p. 415). Similarly Edmund's cowardly brother Karlheinz keeps insisting that life is hopeless and that he should commit suicide. Nazi philosophy has also been responsible for the corruption of the natural bonds found within the family as we learn in a passing comment of Enning's: "Remember, Edmund, your father once handed in a forged certificate so you wouldn't have to join the Hitler Jugend, but you told me right away it was forged, because you knew what your duty was. (He touches Edmund's cheek .) And I ought to have reported him to the Party . . . and the reason I didn't was because I'm fond of you" (p. 386). This contrast between natural affection and artificial Nazi values, already supercharged in the context of sexual perversion, is reinforced gesturally when Edmund visits his father in the hospital after seeing Enning. There, the father caresses Edmund's arms in the same way that Enning has, and kisses him, as if to stress that the greatest evil is the warping of that which is most natural and innocent. We are also meant to see Edmund's situation universalized. Thus, at one point while they are waiting in line, one woman tells another of a boy who is "only ten, and he makes more money on the black market than the whole family put together" (p. 377).

In the deprivation caused by the war, Rossellini implies, humankind's natural inclination toward coralità is threatened. When the situation is further complicated by the infection of nazism, it becomes even less likely, and in this



Nazism as corruption, again: Edmund (Edmund Moeschke) watches as his father
(Ernst Pittschau) drinks the poisoned milk he has prepared
for him in Germany, Year Zero  (1947).

film any possibility of group solidarity is utterly destroyed. Eva at one point tries to convince her depressed brother Karlheinz to have hope—as we have seen, a key commodity for Rossellini—but later, and more convincingly, she asserts, "I don't believe in being helped by other people. Everybody has to help themselves these days" (p. 370). Edmund is continually rebuffed, for no apparent reason, by the other children he comes in contact with, and when he turns for community to a roving band of young thieves, their leader tricks him by selling him a fake bar of soap made from a block of wood. What surfaces is an existentialist vision of individual alienation, an emphasis Rossellini will maintain through the desolate period of the Bergman films, with the exception of the luminous coralità of the microcosmic society of Francesco .

Rossellini's attack on the Nazi idea continues in the fantasmagoric scene that follows Edmund's first visit to Herr Enning. Afraid of being caught himself, Enning gives Edmund a phonographic recording of one of Hitler's speeches to sell to the occupying Allied troops who now have the leisure to sightsee. The scene is especially striking because it takes place amid the rubble of the Reichs Chancellory and when Edmund plays the record on a portable phonograph for the benefit of two British soldiers, the effect of Hitler's voice is uncanny. Through-


out the whole of the untranslated speech, the camera swings widely over the ruins, giving the lie to the puffed-up militancy of the Führer's words. His voice resounds through the debris-filled hallways as we cut to an old man walking hand-in-hand with a young boy (clearly symbolizing Germany's past and future). They marvel, though quietly, at the sudden reappearance of the familiar voice, and because it is both disembodied and incomprehensible to us, we understand it more abstractly as representing, again, a pernicious idea. The scene is especially effective because Rossellini foregoes any conventional attempt to explain to these two characters where the voice is coming from. They are just as baffled concerning its specific provenance when we last see them, and thus a symbolic point about the invisible pervasiveness of this corrupt philosophy (and its causal relationship to the ubiquitous ruins) is clearly made.

Despite the insistence by some phenomenologists that the film's themes are absolutely "unpremeditated," and by Marxist critics that the film contains no analysis, it is obvious, in other words, that Germany, Year Zero is a film-à-thèse . This can even be seen in its opening legend, which for some reason does not exist in the American release print, but which is reprinted in the English translation of the script. The legend further solidifies the link with Rossellini's earlier films and his partiality for the Christian idea:

When an ideology strays from the eternal laws of morality and of Christian charity, which form the basis of men's lives, it must end as criminal madness.

It contaminates even the natural prudence of a child, who is swept along from one horrendous crime to another, equally grave, in which, with the ingenuousness of innocence, he thinks to find release from guilt (p. 353).

Since the camera has been panning the ruins of Berlin from the opening moment, even before the appearance of the legend, as well as after, an obvious cause-and-effect relationship is again visually implied. In a sense, then, Rossellini's original question concerning German motivation has already been answered, and the rest of the film is simply its illustration. Just after the legend comes a voice-over, which is contained in the American version of the film:

This film was shot in Berlin in the summer of 1947. It is intended to be simply an objective, true-to-life picture of this enormous, half-destroyed city, in which three and a half million people are carrying on a frightful, desperate existence almost without realizing it. They live in tragedy as if it were their natural element, but out of exhaustion, not through strength of mind or faith. This film is not an act of accusation against the German people, nor yet a defense of them. It is simply a presentation of the facts. But if anyone who has seen the story of Edmund Koeler comes to realize that something must be done, that German children must be taught to love life again, then the efforts of those who made this film will have been amply rewarded (pp. 353–54).

The first thing we notice in this voice-over editorial is the concern with fixing an exactly specific time and an exactly specific place, common Rossellinian interests. Also, the naive insistence on the objectivity of the film—"simply a presentation of the facts," as though it is ever possible not to have some point of view on these "facts," which helps create them—manifests a particular blindness with which, as we shall see, Rossellini was to have recurring bouts all his life. Even


here, however, Rossellini blatantly contradicts himself with the obvious partisanship of the last sentence.

The poignancy of the intertitle also indicates how depressed Rossellini had become at this point in his life, his sensibilities rubbed raw by personal and public tragedy. The effect, unsurprisingly, is to accentuate the film's dark expressionism, the evidence for which has been repressed by most realist critics (who also begin to speak at this time of Rossellini's "crisis"). Expressionism is a notoriously problematical term, of course; here it means something like stylization of acting, lighting, or narrative, overt symbolization—in short, anything that calls attention to the film as artifice and tends to work against the easy illusionism of the traditional codes of realism discussed in earlier chapters. In the larger scheme of Rossellini's work, the term is related to his continual insistence on the importance of fantasy and the imagination, especially evident in films like La macchina ammazzacattivi , despite all efforts to make him out as a realist tout court .

The expressionist elements of Germany, Year Zero —which will also predominate in Rossellini's next film, Una voce umana , and will reappear even more strongly in Fear —can first of all be seen in the obvious clash between the exteriors and the interiors that was spoken of earlier. In addition, there is the film's often overt symbolism. The emblematic old man and young child, as we have seen, are thematically functional, being placed before us without any special concern for what would be most believable. The film is also populated with baroquely decorated yet dried-up fountains that obviously stand for the sterility of nazism and the present state of German culture. Trams operate the same way: the film opens and closes with the noise of their passing, and Edmund is forever jumping on and off them—well beyond the needs of the narrative—suggesting the absolute aimlessness of his life, in constant motion but never getting anywhere. Furthermore, the first place we see Edmund is at work in a cemetery digging graves, which suggests his personal end, and even the ubiquitous ruined cityscape carries a consistent symbolic charge that goes well beyond l'effet de réel . At many points in his long walks in the city, Edmund is overwhelmed by barely standing buildings that emphasize his vulnerability and isolation and strongly foreshadow Antonioni's equally masterful symbolic use of a threatening urban environment.

The film's sound track often functions expressionistically as well. The bizarre music (composed by Renzo Rossellini) continuously calls attention to itself, rather than blending in unnoticed, especially the loudly pounding bass drums that force themselves into the spectator's consciousness at key moments of tension. The sterility of the ruined landscapes seems almost to become audible through the resulting noise. Just before Edmund jumps to his death, in fact, in a kind of final insult to his mind and body (and ours), a tram roars by with an obviously heightened, physically painful clatter. Even more important is the film's enormously stylized lighting; throughout, light and dark areas are overtly used both symbolically and for their expressive, emotional potential. We often see Edmund pacing between light and dark areas of an interior, for example, when he is feeling psychological pressure. The dark subway where he is initiated into crime, and the forlorn rocks where the gang leader, Joe, abandons


him at one point, both suggest the sinister and the unnatural. When the gang strips the train in the railroad yard of its cargo of potatoes, the scene's finale is accomplished around a fire whose violent patterns of light and dark suggest a Walpurgisnacht or some hellish interior of the soul. When Edmund's former schoolteacher first takes him to his apartment, the two characters move from intensely bright light to the dark shadows in front of his building; the camera lingers, but we see nothing, suggesting perhaps the moral darkness that is about to engulf the boy. When the electricity in Edmund's apartment building is cut off because the landlord has been tampering with the meter, most of the interiors of the second half of the film, including the scene of Edmund murdering his father, are shot in a fantastic candlelight. Near the end, when the boy returns to his old apartment house after he has poisoned his father, and broodingly plants himself on the outer steps, the light of the hallway timer suddenly goes out, plunging him into darkness. The symbolic overtones are obvious—to Edmund as well, it seems—and he quickly leaves to begin the famous walk that will end in his death.

The expressiveness of the already highly artificial interiors is further heightened by camera placement and movement. Thus, while many of the interior scenes are in medium shot, they are somewhat tighter than conventional interiors—certainly tighter than in Open City —and the effect is claustrophobic. This is especially true because characters are often seen in normal two-shots that are drastically altered when first one, then the other, walks into a close-up directly in front of the camera, one head suddenly looming over the other, provoking a heightened tension in the spectator. In these interiors, and even more obviously in the exteriors, the camera relentlessly, suffocatingly stalks the vulnerable Edmund. Most critics have understandably focused on the obvious lateral tracking and dollying involved here, but even from the very beginning (in the cemetery scene when Edmund is being roughed up by the adults afraid of losing work to him), this tracking movement is often accompanied by an unique circular gesture that tightly pens him in. In the graveyard the camera becomes one more antagonist in the threatening circle that encloses him. As Enzo Ungari has pointed out: "Rossellini has no shame in Germany, Year Zero . . . . This is his profound lesson for modern film: the implacable camera."[9] As mentioned earlier, the director himself told the novelist DeAngelis at this time that he preferred making films to writing fiction because "I can adapt the camera to my talents and the character will be pursued and haunted: contemporary anxiety derives precisely from this inability to escape the implacable eye of the lens."[10]

The editing figures here as well. During one interior scene in the kitchen near the end of the film, for example, the camera disconcertingly reverses itself three times. Elsewhere, the editing is awkward, causing scenes to begin and end abruptly, further contributing to the viewer's disorientation and thus making palpable the forces that buffet Edmund. Many early reviewers in fact complained about the film's rough editing, but, intentional or not, it contributes to the overall expressionistic effect. The framing and composition are also important in this regard. Early in the film, for example, Edmund moves, in an out-of-focus extreme close-up, into the frame that had been occupied solely by his father in medium shot. The effect, again, is threatening and foreshadows the more lit-


erally physical displacement that is to come. At another point, when Edmund has been cheated out of the scales he was supposed to sell, he escapes the scene—but not really—by running further and further into the center of the image, trying unsuccessfully to make himself disappear into the shot's vanishing lines. The most suggestive use of framing occurs during the scene in which Herr Enning belittles the weakness of Edmund's father. At this moment, meant to represent the height of Nazi corruption, the framing is completely off, the composition is unbalanced and asymmetrical (but not in a way that would suggest reality caught sur le vif ), the heads are partially cut out of the frame, a threatening black spike fence holds them in from behind, and Enning continually distracts the viewer by looking out of the frame, to the latest young boy found for the general.

The heightened expressionism of Germany, Year Zero is accompanied by the continuing tension between elements of the "real" and the prevailing code of realism, which was discussed in the previous chapter. For example, the British soldiers we see as tourists and to whom Edmund tries to sell the Hitler record are real British soldiers. In other words, they "play" themselves, they are what they play, and because of their inexperience as actors, they, like "Joe from Jersey" in the first episode of Paisan , have not cultivated the mannerisms and the delivery associated with realistic acting. Because they sound so false (precisely because they are so utterly "true"), they tend to disturb and even challenge the very illusionism and dynamics of identification that the film, at another level, is at pains to establish. We suddenly become aware, yet once more, that all is artifice before us.

The general strategy of the film, similarly, is toward an emotional distancing between Rossellini and the characters, which counters the "warmth" of his relationship with the characters of Open City but continues the bold experiments of Paisan . One is emotionally involved in this film, but the relation seems to occur not so much between the spectator and the characters as between the spectator and the film's formal elements, thus enhancing the sense of stylization. Edmund, who in a more conventional film would be the focus of audience identification, here seems rather a kind of null set, an empty integer, a focal point of effects. Rossellini's increasingly typical dedramatization is also at work in several scenes, and the lack of conventional emotional underlining makes us aware, again, of the film's status as constructed representation. The hospital scene of Edmund's initial theft of the bottle of poison, for example, is, like the killings in Paisan , thoroughly unstressed. After an intercut close-up on the bottle for identification purposes (and what could be less conventionally believable than a bottle of poison left on a patient's hospital tray?), the theft is carried out quickly, without benefit of cuts, camera movement, or emotional buildup. The scene of the poisoning itself is equally underplayed, but even more thematically suggestive: while Edmund prepares the poison in a workmanlike fashion, we hear his father's voice offscreen droning on about the history of Germany. His words fill the space created by Edmund's silence, dedramatizing Edmund's activities (by distracting us) and yet suggesting at the same time a causal link between the history of nazism that he recounts and what Edmund is about to do.[11]

The film's climax—emotional, thematic, and formal—comes during the stun-


ning final sequence, which traces Edmund's aimless wandering through the Berlin ruins and culminates in his suicide. Even Rossellini's detractors have found this sequence brilliant; in a way, it has been overvalued, especially by the phenomenologists,[12] for too many critics have taken too seriously Rossellini's own words belittling the rest of the film in favor of its ending:

Every film I make interests me for a particular scene, perhaps for a finale I already have in mind. In every film I see on the one hand the narrative episodes—such as the first part of Germania, anno zero  . . . —and on the other the event . My sole concern is to reach that event . In the other narrative episodes I feel myself hesitating, alienated, absent.

I don't deny that this is a weakness on my part, but I must confess that scenes which are not of key importance weary me, and make me feel quite helpless. I only feel sure of myself at the decisive moment. Germania, anno zero , to tell the truth, was conceived specifically for the scene with the child wandering on his own through the ruins. The whole of the preceding part held no interest at all for me.[13]

This is, of course, one way to account for the film's hesitations and rough spots, and many critics have been all too ready to agree with Rossellini that he was not really interested in what he was doing. It must be remembered, however, that the last sequence, no matter how striking, is mute, and that the development of the film's themes (as well as the power of the last scene), depends completely on everything that comes before.

Yet it is clearly the ending that makes the film unique. Here the "artificial" verbosity of the other scenes (exacerbated by having Germans improbably speak Italian—a complete, if practical, departure from Rossellini's standard practice) is reduced to nothing, and the plethora of words and theories and posturing is replaced by a deep, brooding silence of remarkable resonance. As at the end of Bresson's Mouchette (1967), the camera shadows Edmund even more relentlessly than before. At one point he passes a bombed-out church, and the sound of its organ fills the empty sound track; people stand about on the street in stylized, spiritually empty groups, reminiscent of a De Chirico cityscape. After pausing a moment or two, Edmund strides away from the ineffectual solace of institutional religion—ineffectual, at least, at this point in his life and in the life of an exhausted Europe. Other children inexplicably, but somehow appropriately, refuse to let him join their game; he is the pariah, cut off from all human community. He awkwardly plays hopscotch for a few moments in a last attempt to regress to a vanished childhood. Entering a building under construction, located just across the street from his own half-destroyed apartment building, he climbs the slippery, stairless ramps (repeatedly and suggestively disappearing from the frame), plays with a hammerhead that he puts to his temple like a gun, and watches absently as a coffin-laden truck comes to pick up the one containing his father.

The new, unfinished building is the only future-oriented thing in the whole film, and perhaps can be seen as standing metaleptically for the prosperous Germany we know is to come. But Edmund cannot participate in this future and must cast himself down from it. His sister, Eva, calls to him, offering the con-


solation of language and its promise of human community in the midst of this overwhelming cosmic silence, but having sinned too grievously, he cannot accept her solace. He hides from her instead. A few moments later he closes his eyes, and simply and suddenly jumps. One of the women who has been sharing the crowded apartment, known only in the film and the script as "the expatriate," runs to his side, but in this film marked by entropy and exhaustion—both physical and spiritual—she is not even able to cry out. She sits in a heap, next to Edmund's crushed body; where a Pietà might be expected in this thoroughly symbolic film, there is no contact between the bodies, and Rossellini's symbolic point is further underlined by the refusal to symbolize, the refusal to refer to an extratextual religious and artistic iconographic tradition that could signal some semblance of human love and possibility, as it does in Bergman's Cries and Whispers and later in Rossellini's own Messiah . The camera tilts up, and our last image is of the ruined apartment house that has been the site of so much physical and psychological destruction.

A great deal of diversity has marked interpretations of Edmund's suicide. The egregious Marcel Oms condemns the scene (and the entire film) because it proclaims "the necessity of the great pardon. In 1948–49, it was necessary to stick all the dead in a common grave, all of them: hangmen and victims."[14] Borde and Bouissy, who in general think that Germany, Year Zero is Rossellini's best film because of its "documentary quality," reject the suicide as "a concession to the traditional rules of punishing the guilty," and fear the possibility of interpreting the film as "condemnation of the Allied victory," with Edmund symbolizing a Germany brought down by coalitions. "Across this Christian sympathy for the victims/hangmen [note the similarity to Oms' language], you can see the profile of a pardon of fascism."[15] To find a pardon for fascism in this rabidly anti-Fascist film requires, it seems to me, a very determined effort. Rossellini's own view is idiosyncratic, but revealing in its insistence, once again, on a moral idea and its corruption:

The finale of Germany, Year Zero seemed clear: it was a true light of hope. . . . And the gesture of the child in killing himself is a gesture of abandonment, a gesture of exhaustion with which he puts behind him all the horror he has lived and believed because he acted exactly according to a precise set of morals. He feels the vanity of all this and the light goes on inside him and he has this moment of abandonment. . . . But it's the kind of abandonment to rest that has to come before any new action; and he abandons himself to the great sleep of death, and from there is born a new way of living and of seeing, the accent of hope and faith in the future and in men.[16]

Given Edmund's death, one might ask in whom this vision and new mode of life is born, and in whom this new hope for the future arises. Apparently, Rossellini is positing a kind of symbolic reality to the humane, Christian ideas that have been raised, even if only implicitly, by their absence, and that have a real, if abstract, life of their own beyond that of any single individual like Edmund. In any case, it is clear how crucial the transcendental and, in stylistic terms, the expressionistic are to this "realist" film that seems finally to revel in its own multivalence.


Una Voce Umana

Rossellini's next film, of an awkward thirty-five minute length that forced him later to pair it with The Miracle in order to make it commercially feasible—they were released together as L'amore in 1948—is based on La Voix humaine , a one-act play by Jean Cocteau. Disparaged or avoided by most critics, the film is actually thematically and philosophically complex, even if its subject—the rejected woman—may not be particularly palatable, especially thirty-five years later. The realist-expressionist tension of Germany, Year Zero continues, but now the focus is so obsessively on the individual that nothing else remains. As we have seen, in Germany, Year Zero Rossellini appears to have lost faith in the coralità that animated the first two films of the postwar trilogy, turning back instead to the lone individual, as in L'uomo dalla croce , who tries unsuccessfully to make his or her way through a hostile world to personal salvation. If the group had lost its moral force in Germany, Year Zero , however, the environment still reigned supreme, a clear determinant of behavior. In Una voce umana (A Human Voice), not only does the group disappear—for no one other than the main character (played by Anna Magnani) is even seen or heard, except by inference—but the environment disappears as well. (Curiously, the presence of a dog serves to heighten the woman's isolation even more, rather than relieve it.) In this film, transcendence is no longer even a theoretical possibility. We are locked in a woman's tiny apartment (actually, the bedroom and bathroom) while she has her last telephone conversation with the lover who is rejecting her for another woman. That is the whole of the plot.

Coralità is now reduced to a single other voice, the lover's, of which we can just faintly hear the hum. Also barely noticeable are the sound effects of starting


cars, a party, a crying baby (the last two clearly symbolic), which arise between calls. But the woman rejects all others, for they are just "people," who do not understand them and their love. The lovers have alienated themselves from human community because they have lost their reason, as Rossellini might have put it twenty years later, just like Edmund in the horrible act of murdering his father. In the earlier film, however, language is still a sign of human community, and when Edmund is ostracized (or ostracizes himself), language disappears. Here, however, we see language's other side: a means of falsifying feelings, the site of the struggle for mastery of one human over another, the place where narcissistic self-absorption can make the whole communal enterprise meaningless. We hear a slight buzzing at the other end of the line, signifying for us the presence of another human being, but that "presence" is actually constituted only differentially by Magnani, as a kind of sick projection of her own ego. (It is symbolically fitting that we hear only the lover's mumbles and murmurs, absent of human meaning.) In fact, we are only able to infer what he says through her responses. In the play version the audience hers nothing of the man, not even the murmurs, and in his preface Cocteau maintains that the actress is really playing two roles: one when she speaks, and the other when she listens and thus "delimits" the other.[1]

In Una voce umana the authenticity of words is no longer guaranteed: when Magnani is apparently asked what she is wearing at that moment, she constructs for her lover a portrait that is completely false. She also lies by saying that she has been taking the whole thing very well, when she is in fact on the verge of a breakdown. He, too, is lying, for though he is obviously calling from his new lover's apartment, he insists (we infer) that this is not the case. Lying is, in fact, directly thematized, or rather, the incommensurability between language and the external world. As such, the rhythm of the film proceeds in exactly the opposite direction of that of Germany, Year Zero , which moves from language toward its absence. Here the beginning is played out in almost dead silence: there is only isolation and the naked self, and we wait for this silence to be filled by the community of language. When it does come, in an annoying barrage, it is entirely rhetorical and overemotionalized—pure artifice, barely referential. In the largest sense, Rossellini is probing the nature of linguistic and, by extension, cinematic representation and its adequacy to the real world. He seems to have become more consciously aware that one cannot get to nature through culture (language, film) without that "nature" being profoundly altered. Una voce umana thus becomes a meditation on this very notion; if artifice cannot be avoided in one's pursuit of "reality," then perhaps one had best embrace it openly. Rossellini always spoke of this film as an "experiment," but he seems to have regarded the experiment as inconclusive or worse, and perhaps better forgotten. The Miracle , as we shall see, is precisely this forgetting, for in it both the environment and the group are reinstated and, in the best tradition of realism, the problems of representation are once again elided.

In his 1955 article in Cahiers du cinéma entitled "Dix ans de cinéma," Rossellini gives us a sense of the complexities of this film:

The cinema is also doubtless a microscope. The cinema can take us by the hand and lead us to discover things that the eye couldn't even perceive (for


example in close-ups and detail shots). . . . More than any other subject, La Voix humaine gave me the chance to use the camera as a microscope, especially since the phenomenon to examine was called Anna Magnani . Only the novel, poetry, and the cinema allow us to riffle around in the characters to discover their reactions and the motives which make them act [my emphasis].[2]

A dual perspective seems to be operating here. On the one hand, the film is an intensely emotional story portraying a woman's psychological state at being spurned by her lover, while on the other, it is a thoroughly self-aware, simultaneous dismantling of that story.

On the first level, Rossellini, following Cocteau, has tried to present a believable, but universalized, portrayal of a woman of "this sort." The film thus continues the grand project, begun in earnest in Germany, Year Zero but hinted at earlier, of the discovery of the individual self, and the claustrophobia and implacable camera of the previous film haunt Una voce umana as well. Here the portrait is not very flattering: the woman is seen as utterly emotional, unable to get her feelings under control, suicidal, totally dependent on the man's will. Clearly the product of an earlier day—Cocteau's play was first performed on February 17, 1930—it is, perhaps not surprisingly, still being revived, most recently by Liv Ullman. Ironically, when he made the film, Rossellini said he wanted to show the truth—that women were so often the victims of men—but the film also serves to reinforce the stereotype of woman as eternal victim.[3] Here he seems largely to have followed his source, for the misogyny of victimization is adopted directly from Cocteau's play, as is the tale of attempted suicide recounted by the woman. The image near the end of the film when the actress wraps the telephone cord around her neck in symbolic self-destruction, after making much of the fact that her lover's voice is in the wire, is also an explicit stage direction in the play. Cocteau's misogynistic violence is at times even more blatant than that, especially, for example, when the "author" suggests to the actress in the play's preface that "she give the impression of bleeding, of losing her blood, just like an animal which is limping, of finishing the act in a room full of blood." Earlier in the preface, Cocteau has spoken of the room as a scene of murder.

There is another level to Rossellini's film, however, and what redeems it, at least on an aesthetic plane, is its brilliant self-awareness. The director's insistence, quoted above, that "the phenomenon to examine was called Anna Magnani," is manifested everywhere in the film and virtually ensures that it will be intensely aware of its own artifice. So, for example, the film is expressly dedicated in its opening credits to Magnani and her "great artistry," immediately underlining her own presence and her function as representation, and thus helping to delay the spectator's belief in the fiction of her screen character. Once the film begins, intensely long takes from a seemingly immobile camera predominate, foregrounding Magnani's tour-de-force performance with the help of dialogue that calls attention to itself because it is so obviously overheated. Some of her lines are even repeated six or seven times in a row, calling upon the actress's utmost skill to sustain the high level of emotion and to offer sufficient variation in expression and intonation to keep the audience interested. (In the film version, in fact, the emotion has been purposely heightened beyond Cocteau's original, which lacks the final breakdown scene.) At other times, the



Self-reflexive tour de force: Anna Magnani and telephone in  Una voce umana  (1948).

scene is even played with Magnani's back to the camera, so that her voice and sheer presence must carry the whole. In this latter instance, it seems as though a technically "bad" shot is deliberately retained to raise the stakes and the level of challenge for the actress. The stolid immobility of the furniture serves further to push her to the fore.

Thus, while the worst proclivities of "rhetoric" (as Italian critics call it) are being yielded to, the paradoxical effect is that the film betrays and reveals its artifice by keeping us always aware of the real woman's presence. On one level, in other words, it attempts to create an illusionism that would make us psycholocigally substitute the person of the actress for her character, while on another level it blocks this attempt. Una voce umana thus sets up an ontological identity between the actress and the character she is playing, intermittently collapsing the two categories while it deconstructs its own surface realism by means of the preexisting reality of Magnani herself. (Appropriately, the dog in the film was Magnani's dog and is called by its real name). Like the British soldiers of Germany, Year Zero , whose very reality as British soldiers created a "stylized" element that could not be successfully assimilated into the film's coded realism, Magnani's acting in Una voce umana stands the process of realistic representation on its head.

Nor is this project peculiar to Rossellini's version, for it is obvious from Cocteau's preface that he also conceived of his play as a kind of challenge or experiment, of theater stripped to its essentials (and thus inevitably self-aware).


He makes it very clear that he is not interested in psychological problems, but wants to "resolve problems of a theatrical order." He would have called it "pure theater," he says, if that phrase were not a pleonasm. Even more important, he says he wrote the play as "a pretext for an actress," since he had been previously reproached for always putting himself over his actors.

Other elements in the film increase its self-awareness as well. For one thing, we are regularly subjected to jump cuts that are almost as jarring—and as purposeful—as those of Godard's Breathless . The director also often leaves his signature within a shot as, for example, when we see a microphone dangling into the frame. This is an amateur's mistake, of course, the mistake of a director who was, according to Adriano Aprà, shooting with live sound for the first time in his career. Yet it is tempting to see this exposed microphone as one more sign of the director's presence, unconsciously signaling the artifice that he is creating. Mirrors also constantly function in this film in a self-reflexive way: in fact, the very first shot is a close-up of Magnani's mirror image, from which the camera then pulls back to reveal it for what it is, a reflection of a reflection (which it can only do differentially, by showing something external, that is, what it is not ). At other points, there are three or four mirrors in evidence in a single shot, all reflecting one another, further heightening the claustrophobic, abyssal mise-en-scène and further underlining the presence of the artist and the refusal of realistic illusionism.

What results from this strange mixture of misogynism and self-reflexivity is a complex sexual dynamic. For if "the phenomenon to examine was called Anna Magnani," the rather ruthless examiner is Roberto Rossellini. He is the lover at the other end of the line, of course, just as he is, in some ways, the various complex husbands that Ingrid Bergman will do battle with in Stromboli, Voyage to Italy, Europa '51 , and Fear . What complicates things is that he is also their creator.


The Miracle

When Rossellini realized that Una voce umana was too short to be released separately, he immediately began casting about for another subject to accompany it that might be treated at roughly the same length. One night, Fellini, a close collaborator at the time, came up with an idea about a confused and somewhat disturbed goatherd, Nanni, who imagines that a passing wanderer she meets one day is Saint Joseph. The wanderer plies her with wine in order to take advantage of her, and some months later Nanni realizes she is pregnant. Rather than becoming remorseful, she takes her pregnancy to mean that she is "in God's grace" and because this baby will be no ordinary one, she refuses to work out of respect for her divine mission, or to put anything aside, because she knows the Lord will take care of his own. A nun, one of the few representatives of organized religion who appear in the finished film, tells her that she should confess her sin, but Nanni rejects this advice because she is favored by God. The townspeople begin to make fun of what they take to be her spiritual pretensions and cruelly mock her. When her time finally comes, she turns her back on the village and climbs high up the mountain toward a desolate church where she gives birth alone.[1]

Convinced that Rossellini would find the story ridiculous, Fellini at first tried to pass it off as the work of a Russian short story writer. But when the director, who had become completely enamored with the idea, was becoming more and more frustrated at not being able to find the story so that he could buy the rights to it, Fellini finally admitted that he had made the whole thing up, basing it loosely on a story he had heard many times during his childhood.[2] According to Angelo Solmi, Fellini's biographer, the story's particular combination of mys-


ticism and hallucination comes from Tullio Pinelli, who is credited in the film as coscreenwriter and who was a powerful emotional influence on Fellini at the time.

The Miracle continues the questioning of the prevailing neorealist aesthetic that we have noted at work in the films made subsequent to Open City , though in somewhat different terms. Unlike the claustrophobic interior of Una voce umana , the primary locus of the action is now outdoors, and hence this film is reinscribed in the kind of gritty surface realism of real locations and nonprofessional acting (in the secondary roles) that brought the director such fame in his earlier films. Nevertheless, these are not the exteriors of Open City , and the documentary element (which will reappear in La macchina ammazzacattivi ) is once again minimized in favor of an intense concentration on Magnani's performance, which in fact remains as highly foregrounded as it was in Una voce umana . In the seduction scene, for example, "Saint Joseph" (played by Fellini), has not a single word of dialogue, thus further emphasizing Magnani's bravura performance. Quentin Reynolds, who visited Rossellini during the filming, reports being "overwhelmed" by Magnani's acting even before her voice and the rest of the sound track had been dubbed in, and he quotes Rossellini to the effect that "she is a genius, the greatest since Duse."[3] In The Miracle , therefore, the ground against which the figure is seen has been expanded over Una voce umana , but the figure has for all that been scarcely reduced. Thus Giuseppe Ferrara complains with some justice (at least if one insists on seeing the earlier films as normative) that here southern Italy and the Amalfi coast become merely "a scenic background (never before had the landscape been simply a backdrop) utilized aesthetically."[4]

This foregrounding of Magnani's performance also accords well with Rossellini's increasing insistence on individual salvation, and camera angles and cutting consistently reinforce this movement away from the group toward the self. Nanni is held, or rather pinned, in the tight grip of Rossellini's close-ups, which track backward but never give her any breathing space. In fact, in one interesting shot the camera stays on her even though she is being called by someone outside the shot, contrary to normal practice, which would identify the source of the voice. Only when Nanni has moved close enough to the woman calling her is the woman included in the shot.

The coralità absent from Una voce umana is partially reintroduced in The Miracle , however, as befits its centrifugal movement. But Nanni's community fails her utterly, yet in a complex way that Rossellini means to study. Thus, though the continual close-ups stress the individual, the film also has its share of deep-focus medium and long shots that attempt to situate her in relation to her physical and social environment. In one particularly effective shot, we see Nanni huddled in a corner made by the fence on the church porch, while part of the village becomes a kind of backdrop behind her. (What can also be seen in this same shot is the enormous presence of the mountain—stolid, yet transcendent—that will function in a similar iconographic way in Stromboli and Voyage to Italy .) At other moments, extreme long shots, with the camera shooting straight down on her, complement the tracking tight shots mentioned earlier by implying that the cause of the claustrophobic pressure being applied to her lies in the un-


charitable attitude of the villagers. Her difference from them is continually stressed both verbally and visually, as will be Karin's in Stromboli .

The film's most memorable scenes are the most vicious, as for example when Nanni comes down into the village, leaving the protection offered her by the church porch only to be cruelly made fun of (in a mock religious procession whose Open City iconography—particularly the bowl on her head that first suggests a halo, then, in close-up, a crown of thorns—is clearly meant to recall the sufferings of Christ). Yet other details point in a kinder direction. The woman who called out to Nanni in the shot mentioned earlier, for example, tries to convince the students not to make fun of Nanni. Earlier, when Nanni steals an apple from a woman's basket while at mass, it is significant that the woman moves the basket out of further harm's way, but makes no attempt to recover the lost apple that in some way seems to be Nanni's due. Also, she and the other indigents are fed by the nuns, and the church porch seems to be universally respected as their legitimate home.

One of the more interesting aspects of the film concerns its complex visual and narrative structuring of the dynamic between Nanni's spiritual faith and the cynicism of the majority of the villagers. The opposition between the spiritual and everyday, ordinary life is cast throughout the film in remarkably consistent, if predictable, spatial terms (just as it will be in Stromboli ), the transcendent always being associated with what is higher, and the everyday and terrestrial, naturally, with what is lower. It is thus fitting that the village is at the bottom and the monastery, which symbolizes for us and for Nanni (at least until she finds it is locked) the summit of spirituality, at the top. In the very first scene, we see Nanni completely alone, far above the village, and it is here that she has her "spiritual" encounter with "Saint Joseph." When she comes back down from the mountain with her firewood and goats, precisely halfway down she appropriately meets two monks, one whimsical, who believes completely in her miraculous vision, and the other, characterized by the first as a "materialist," who says he has never seen a vision in his life. Occupying a similar halfway position between the two realms is the church whose porch is her home, toward which she runs when she finds out she is pregnant. When she does come down into the village later on, she says that she had not come down from God's house any sooner because she was afraid. After a brutal encounter with the villagers, who throw vegetables at her and otherwise violently mistreat her, she seeks refuge further up, away from their dangerous unbelief. When it is time for her to deliver, she at first begins making her way back down the mountain, in a natural movement toward human community, but when she spots a religious procession from afar, she remembers her cruel treatment and abruptly turns around to begin her ascent. Her physical climb heavenward thus becomes a literalization of her spiritual struggle, as earthly words melt away into the complete silence of the otherworldly.

There is another dynamic at work here, beyond the spatialization of spirituality, and that is the one between the "realistic" and the "real" that we have seen in operation in previous films. It is in fullest operation in the scene—which, like the sequence of Edmund's final peregrinations around Berlin in Germany, Year Zero , Rossellini misleadingly claimed to be the only sequence he was really


interested in—where Cosimino, Nanni's erstwhile suitor and companion "village idiot," kicks all her worldly possessions off the church porch. By sending her tattered blankets and empty cans flying, he, too, like the rest of the village, is rejecting her for putting on spiritual airs. To play this role, Rossellini found a local character who apparently had few inhibitions. His retarded-looking physiognomy itself is more "real" than anything normally seen on the screen at that time, even the neorealist screen, thus stretching the bounds of realism, but during the filming of this particular scene, he went slightly berserk and could not be calmed down. Rossellini wisely kept shooting, and the exciting result makes us feel that we have been treated to a glimpse of "real life," again, something out of control. The hand-held camera follows the decidedly upset (and perhaps inspired) Nanni around in a tight 360-degree movement, which is visually different from anything else in the film and clearly disturbs its "realistic" texture. The effect is all the greater because it contrasts so strongly with the prevailing sense of this film, which, even more than Open City , is one of a thoroughly worked-out scenario in which the aleatory is kept to a minimum. The very "reality" of the scene, again, as well as the unorthodox hand-held camera movement, breaks the film's illusionistic spell, at least momentarily.

In addition, neorealism's unspoken claim to represent reality fully is also problematized from a new direction, a direction that will be followed through the next five years of Rossellini's career. What happens, in effect, is that the director now begins to redefine "realism"—or, perhaps better, to go beyond it—to include a new, more insistent awareness of something beyond the merely material, a feeling that was always present by implication in the earlier films but that now becomes overt. As Rossellini told Mario Verdone in 1952:

I constantly come back, even in the strictest documentary forms, to imagination , because one part of man tends towards the concrete, and the other to the use of the imagination, and the first must not be allowed to suffocate the second. This is why you find fantasy at work in Il Miracolo, La Macchina ammazzacattivi , and Paisà as well as in [Francesco ].[5]

Rossellini seems to be positing fantasy and the imagination as values in their own right in these remarks, but most Italian critics of the period (and since)—both his detractors and his defenders—could think of fantasy only in terms of realist rhetoric. The critics who defend these films do so by claiming that Rossellini is still just as much a realist as ever, but that now he is enlarging the scope of his realism to include interior spiritual states as well. This claim has some merit, of course, but it also serves to dilute further the already nearly useless term realism. For socially minded critics, on the other hand, especially the Marxists, the films of this period were utter failures because in them Rossellini began indulging in an unforgivable mysticism and other equally unprogressive attitudes. Talk of a "crisis" became widespread. For Borde and Bouissy, writing somewhat later, The Miracle is the beginning of all of Rossellini's future problems. For them the film is a "naive Golgotha" that "marks a great turning point for him: he has just tasted the drug of Christian lyricism."[6] Those who know the earlier films, like L'uomo dalla croce , however, will recognize these spiritual concerns as nothing new.


Rossellini told another interviewer that, immediately after the war, it was proper to try to help man see the world, but

Today I have other things on my mind. Today I believe that we must find a new and solid base on which to construct and represent man as he is, in the union which exists inside him between poetry and reality, between desire and action, between dream and life. For this reason, I made L'amore and La macchina ammazzacattivi .[7]

But what is this world of poetry, desire, and dream? For the purposes of this film, at any rate, it is the world of religious faith, but a religious faith unattached to any specific religion. What obviously interests Rossellini much more than dogma is accounting for man's spiritual longing, that "oceanic feeling" that Freud belittled in Civilization and Its Discontents . Rossellini said in a 1954 Cahiers du cinéma interview that Nanni "has a kind of religious mania, but, in addition to this mania, a deep and true faith. She is able to believe whatever she wants."[8] It is this same expression of faith that will precipitate the sudden, transcendent ending of Stromboli . In both cases, of course, the object of faith is God, but for Rossellini the mere existence of faith is finally more important than its object. In Rossellini's view, postwar Europe was rapidly losing the spiritual values that had brought it through the terrors of the war, and it is his urge to resuscitate this lost faith that accounts for the strong religious strain of the films of this period. And, as Adriano Aprà has mentioned, The Miracle is the first postwar film of Rossellini's to end with a birth, a hopeful note that inevitably looks outward, beyond itself, beyond tragedy, beyond the suicides, executions, and murders that occupy the earlier films.

Yet the religious faith of The Miracle is hardly an endorsement of conventional religion. In fact, the film continues and develops the implied critique of organized religion that began in the final sequence of Germany, Year Zero when Edmund stares blankly at the ruined church that no longer has any meaning for him nor promises any hope of salvation. When the nun in The Miracle suggests to Nanni that she go to confession, she rejects her advice. Nanni's long struggle to climb to the top of the mountain, intercut with promising long shots of the monastery as a haven toward which she is moving, ends in her discovery that the church is empty and locked. She pulls on the bars in a frustrating, futile effort to gain entry. (A subtle hint of this failure has come in an earlier sequence in the village church when she first discovers she is pregnant. She prostrates herself before the altar, as if offering her obeisance to the Lord, but of course nothing happens: the overwhelming impression is one of cold, sterile emptiness.) At the top of the mountain, the religion of men fails her, as it has in the villagers' mockery, and she must go back to the primal source of Christianity itself. Entering the church by an open side door, she moves down into a rocky, rough cellar, which is reminiscent of the primitiveness of the caves in the Sicilian episode of Paisan , and even more importantly, recalls the standard iconography of Christ's Nativity.

Many of those who first saw the film readily recognized this latter reference, but unfortunately they were able to see the possibilities of such a representation only in a reductive, binary way as either "properly" respectful, or, failing that,


a blasphemous parody. The latter view predominated, of course, and as soon as the film was released, it was violently attacked in Europe, Latin America, and the United States, and instantly banned in Argentina and Australia. In the United States, Joseph Burstyn had packaged The Miracle with two other films of inconvenient length (Jean Renoir's A Day in the Country and Marcel Pagnol's Joffroi ), into a triptych called Ways of Love . It opened, to mixed reviews, on December 12, 1950, at the Paris theater in Manhattan. The next day Edward T. McCaffrey, the comissioner of licenses in New York City and a former commander of the New York State branch of the Catholic War Veterans, found The Miracle "personally and officially blasphemous," and took it upon himself to overrule the censorship board of the New York State Regents, which had already passed it. This government official, whose previous activity had mostly concerned the granting of liquor and restaurant licenses, ordered the theater to stop showing the film or risk losing its license. When Burstyn and the Paris decided to fight back, fire inspectors began appearing to check for safety infractions in the nearly new theater.

Since McCaffrey had no legal grounds to support his censorship, the ban was immediately lifted by the courts. This was the signal for the Catholic church to enter the fray through its Legion of Decency, which had been pressuring Hollywood for some time with its film rating system. While Burstyn was holding press conferences insisting that Rossellini was a good Catholic, the national head of the Catholic War Veterans was saying that the script "reflected the writings of Moscow, even though the picture was reputed to be a piece of art from Italy."[9] A statement, signed by 167 American Legion posts across the country, maintained that the film "ridicules the American principles for which we fought in both wars,"[10] and over one thousand pickets showed up at the Paris to protest the film's "Communist blasphemy." Several bomb threats were received, conveniently allowing the authorities to disrupt the screenings. The New York Film Critics had chosen Ways of Love as best foreign film of 1950, but intense lobbying forced them to move the award ceremonies from Radio City Music Hall. Pressure was also applied to the New York Board of Regents, which had never before reversed a decision by its censorship committee to pass a film, and the film's license was revoked on February 16, 1951. Catholics like Allen Tate fought hard against the boycott, with the New York Times' Bosley Crowther emerging as the film's principal spokesman, defending it in an article in the April 1951 issue of the Atlantic Monthly . He suggested that Catholic fury directed against The Miracle was part of a larger strategy to extend the Church's control over the content of foreign films as well as those produced in Hollywood. Burstyn decided to push the issue as far as he could, and the Supreme Court ultimately decided in favor of the film on May 26, 1952. In what became a landmark decision for the film industry, the Court held, for the first time, that films were not merely a business, and that they should therefore enjoy the same First Amendment rights of freedom of expression applied to other media. In addition, it ruled that it was not the business of the state to protect specific religions from attacks on their views, and therefore sacrilege could no longer serve as a basis for censorship.

Of course much of the animus directed against this film was a result of the


Rossellini–Bergman scandal that had so recently been filling the newspapers. Rossellini attempted to mitigate in some way the adverse reaction to the film by sending Cardinal Spellman the following telegram:

Men are still without pity because they have not gone back to God. But God is already present in the faith, however confused, of that poor persecuted woman, and since God is wherever a human being suffers and is misunderstood, the miracle occurs when at the birth of the child the poor demented woman regains sanity in her maternal love."[11]

At first glance this seems, to anyone who has seen the film, to be little more than a kind of pitiful stab at public relations; Rossellini's view that the title refers to Nanni's sudden regaining of her sanity through the birth of the child is hardly convincing. In terms of his other films, however, the explanation makes more sense. For one thing, of course, it is characteristic for Rossellini to put the epiphanic moment of character realization and change at the very end of the film. As we saw earlier, this was the consistent pattern of the individual episodes of Paisan . But it is also the pattern of the films he was to make after The Miracle: Stromboli and Voyage to Italy in fact, have always bothered viewers with what seem to be unconvincing "miracles" that occur at the very end, changes of heart that appear unmotivated in the context of the films' narratives. Thus, the ending of The Miracle can also be seen to be miraculous; it simply does not insist on its status as such, as the other films do, and thus might ironically be more palatable to modern, secularized, audiences because it is, in effect, misunderstood. In a similar vein, Rossellini has said elsewhere that it is precisely Nanni's immense faith that leads this otherwise disturbed women to a "gesture which is absolutely human and normal: giving her breast to her baby."[12]

It is also useful in this context to concentrate more intensely on just what Nanni says at the end. This film, so full of talk at the beginning (and in this way replicating and extending Magnani's loquaciousness in Una voce umana ), becomes in its final third, like Germany, Year Zero , utterly speechless. Thus, when Nanni does speak to her child at the very end, her words are highlighted. During the labor itself, she cries "Dio" over and over, but the word is now articulated in a decidedly human context of pain, and is clearly not meant to be an appellation for the child. Once the baby is born, she covers him with words that insist upon his humanness rather than the divinity she had earlier been concerned with. She calls him "my son, my flesh, my blood"—and part of this, at least, is translated in the English subtitles. What is not translated at all, however (and this seems to be an instance of a completely innocent choice of the subtitler), are her final words, where she says "bambino mio" (my baby) three times before settling into maternal bliss. In other words, the ending can be read Rossellini's way, as the site of the miracle where Nanni regains her sanity through human childbirth, and not as a parody of Christ's Nativity.

One final area that must be examined, since it is crucial for the films to come, is the portrayal of women and sexuality in The Miracle . Cardinal Spellman, interestingly enough for a churchman of the early fifties, claimed to have been scandalized as much by the film's negative portrayal of Italian womanhood as



An aroused Magnani and the silent "Saint Joseph"
(Federico Fellini) in The Miracle  (1948).

by its putative sacrilege. He complained strenuously that "it presents the Italian woman as moronic and neurotic and in matters of religion fanatical. Only a perverted mind could so misrepresent so noble a race of women."[13] His stubborn insistence on seeing Nanni exclusively in universal terms makes his comment hardly worth considering, yet there is something about the portrayal of woman in this film that bears scrutiny. Like the woman in Una voce umana , Nanni is again related to a man, "Saint Joseph," as victim. In addition, both men are silent—strongly present, but paradoxically absent at the same time—while the women fill the sound track with the driven babbling that seems at least psychologically suicidal. Nanni is also surrounded by animals, as Ingrid Bergman's several characters will be as well. This is not because Rossellini necessarily sees women as "earth mothers" or somehow more closely related to nature,[14] but because they share with animals the role of victim in a man's world.

Yet what mitigates Nanni's status as victim is her own ripe sexuality. Despite one early English reviewer's complaint about Rossellini's "loathing of sex" in this film (a misreading that perhaps says more about the beholder than the beheld), the film's sexuality seems healthy and ebullient. This fact is somewhat obscured, unfortunately, by the English subtitles, which do not give an accurate picture of just how sexually motivated is Nanni's attraction to "Saint Joseph."


Her "quanto sei bello!" (you are so handsome) is translated once or twice, perhaps, but in fact she repeats it over and over, obsessively, during the course of her monologue. Thus, while it might be said that Nanni is the man's victim here, since she is presumably not intelligent enough to know what she is getting into, it is also clear that she consents because she has been sexually aroused herself. As she drinks more and more wine, she begins to perspire and says at one point, "I have a fire burning inside me!" Various bizarre camera angles—as well as her more obvious tearing at blouse and undershirt—also suggest her increasing sexual openness. Finally, she is writhing so continuously at one point that the viewer assumes momentarily that she is actually having sexual intercourse—which must have been an exciting moment in 1948—but a cut away from this shot of the upper half of her body reveals "Saint Joseph" standing over her. At the very end of the film, the camera again focuses on the upper half of Nanni's body, when she puts her arms up on the walls for support in a gesture that directly recalls both Christ on the cross and Manfredi in Open City's torture chamber. She begins writhing with the pain of labor, and the entire event is portrayed so "earthily" that its sexual suggestivity is obvious. (What is also problematic here—and worrisome—is the positioning of Rossellini's "male" camera, which possesses her no less than does "Saint Joseph.")

The end result of this ambivalence—Nanni as victim of males (including the director), Nanni as fully sexual being—is to suggest that she, like all women, like all human beings, is not one-dimensional. This complexity is also reflected on the religious level, as Nanni is recalled to her "senses" through—or in spite of—her intense spiritual faith. The film's final scene, in fact, looks forward to the reconciliation of body, mind, and spirit that will take place at the end of Voyage to Italy . In this light, in spite of her isolation from her society and her victimization by its men, we must imagine Nanni happy.


La Macchina Ammazzacattivi

La macchina ammazzacattivi (The Machine to Kill Bad People) was begun just after L'amore was completed in 1948, and thus manifests much of the same questioning found in the two parts of this earlier film. Due to various production problems, however, it was not completed and released until the beginning of 1952. In its wry probing of social relationships and its comic vision of man's fallen state, it most clearly resembles another "atypical" Rossellini film, Dov' è la libertà? , the bulk of which was filmed in 1952, but not released until 1954. The social investigation of the later film, however, occurs in the context of a conventional commercial product in which the mediation of the film itself is not foregrounded, as it is in La macchina ammazzacattivi .

Massimo Mida, who worked as Rossellini's assistant on La macchina ammazzacattivi , insists that the director was not really very interested in the film. While this may indeed have been the case, this denial, as we have seen, is a common gesture that allows critics bent on seeing Rossellini as a realist to dismiss films or parts of films that do not fit the realist paradigm. The film is spotty, according to Mida, because it was done in fits and starts, without inspiration or enthusiasm.[1] Jose Guarner adds the further details that shooting was finished by Mida and Renzo Cesana and taken over and edited by another company, Fincine, but does not cite any source for his information. In any case, it seems incorrect to claim, as Guarner does, that the film "occupies a similar position to Desiderio on the list of unfinished films, written off by their director,"[2] given the fact that all critics agree that Rossellini did the majority of the shooting, at the very least, and the fact that he never publicly disclaimed responsibility for this film, as he did with Desiderio .



Celestino the photographer (Gennaro Pisano) talks to the devil
in La macchina ammazzacattivi  (1948–52).

The plot, after the spareness of La voce umana and The Miracle , is quite complicated, but that, of course, is in the nature of comedies.[3] It concerns a small-town photographer, Celestino, who is visited by an old man who turns Celestino's camera into a killing device to mete out justice to "bad people." All that Celestino need do is take a picture of a previously taken picture, and its subject will freeze dead in whatever position he or she had assumed for the first picture. Along the way, comic subplots (concerning municipal fraud, young love, and American entrepreneurs with sexy nieces) bloom and wither, as Celestino is more and more outraged by the evil he finds everywhere. Celestino is convinced that the old man is actually Sant'Andrea, the town's patron saint, and soon enough "miracles"—like a gigantic catch of fish and an unexpected check for town improvements from the government in Rome—occur, which appear to benefit the village but succeed only in bringing out everyone's latent selfishness. Celestino's vengeance grows greater and greater and becomes utterly self-righteous, to the point that he even turns against the wise doctor who has tried to convince him that it is finally impossible to separate good and evil in such absolute terms. Desperate, he decides to take his own picture, thus killing himself, but first wants to take a picture of the old man's picture, the one who had originally started all the trouble. At the moment he snaps the shutter, the old man magically appears before him and is revealed to be a minor devil looking to


curry favor with the powers below. Celestino has him make the sign of the cross, and in so doing, all those Celestino thought he had photographically killed are brought back to life, and everything returns to normal. The film ends with the moral:

Coltiva il bene senza esaggerare
Rifiuti il male, se ti vuoi salvare,
Non affrettare troppo a giudicare
E pensaci tre volte prima di punire.

[Cultivate good without exaggerating
Reject evil if you want to be saved,
Don't be too quick to judge
And think about it three times before punishing.]

One of the most interesting things about the film is that it is cast in the form of the Italian commedia dell'arte (a form that was also to interest Renoir), and thus largely concerned with broad character types rather than sharply individual psychological portraits. Even more than Una voce umana , the film is thoroughly stylized, delightfully and purposely artificial. (The comic lovers are even called Romeo and Juliet!) Enormously self-aware, much to the dismay of realist critics, it continuously and exuberantly foregrounds its own status as artificial construct rather than real life. At the same time, however, Rossellini's typical documentary impulse is also greatly in evidence, and the disruptive combination of stylization and documentary, not unlike De Sica's Miracle in Milan (1950) has bothered many. From another point of view, however, it is precisely this unstable, contradictory blend of ingredients that, in posing the problem of realism, makes the film so interesting.

Though critics have been reluctant to come to grips with this side of Rossellini, preferring to see in him alternatively the great realist or the failed realist, the director himself has been very clear, as we saw in the previous chapter, about the importance of imagination and fantasy in his work. In a specific discussion of La macchina ammazzacattivi , he has said that it "shows . . . places where I'd been happy, places I love, where some poor devils are convinced they have seen Satan. One of them told me one day, 'I've met the werewolf, I ran over him on my bicycle last night.' They are mad, crazed by the sun. But they have a power few of us possess—the power of the imagination."[4] From this perspective, Rossellini's interest in fantasy can itself be seen as a form of documentation of the people of this area.

From the very beginning of the film, the fantasy elements are stressed, probably more intensely than in any film Rossellini ever made. The first thing we see is a large hand and arm, in choreographed, flowing movements, self-consciously placing all the elements of the story before us in the form of paper cutouts (a nice literalization of the phrase mise-en-scène). Like any good neorealist, even an expressionist one, the locale, or what the voice-over, stressing the commedia dell'arte features calls the "scena" (stage), is put in place first, followed by the "personaggi" (characters) who are not named but called by generic types, such as "rich men" and "thieves." The theatrical elements foreground the artificiality of the narrative, of course, and the status of La macchina ammazza-


cattivi as filmed artifact is appropriately underlined by carrying out this stylized presentation by means of continuous dissolves, a uniquely cinematic device. The hand also plays a game of alternating revelation and concealment with the variout elements. Most important of all, when the stage setting—complete with pictures of the characters as they will be later frozen by Celestino's camera—dissolves to the first "real" scene, a car going downhill around a bend, the hand and arm of the "creator" are seen to linger for some seconds as a superimposition, thus making overt the carryover of the artifice to the realistic part of the film itself.

After we are introduced to the bumbling American entrepreneurs in the car (the man is played by Bill Tubbs, the same American actor who played the Catholic chaplain in the monastery sequence of Paisan ), the film's self-aware elements continue. When the American's shapely, if mindless, niece sees "Viva Sant'Andrea!" written on a rock and asks who he is, the director provides a blatantly artificial partial wipe that moves from the middle simultaneously to the left and right (suggesting the parting of a stage curtain), revealing the old man we will later follow through town and who will make Celestino's camera the magical arbiter of justice. The curtain wipe then closes, and the scene on the winding road returns. In thus using montage to imply, visually, an equivalence that is in fact untrue, the film suggests that the medium cannot ever be fully trusted.

The major feature of the self-reflexive questioning, of course, is Celestino's role as photographer. (A more correctly literal, if more cumbersome, translation of the title would be "The Apparatus to Kill Bad People"; it is also important to know that macchina is the common Italian word for "camera"). Celestino's shop is called La Foto Chiara , but his photographs are less clear in sorting out good and evil than he would like. More and more obsessed with punishing evildoers—who turn out to be everybody in town, including himself—he exclaims that he is more powerful than the atomic bomb. It seems possible to read in this a specific warning to Rossellini's fellow neorealists, men for the most part more politically committed, as to the limits of their moral judgment, especially through the medium of film. In some ways, this pointed message and the insistence on fantasy can even be seen as an overt separation by Rossellini from what neorealism had become. The self-reflexivity of La macchina ammazzacattivi is further insisted upon by the very fact that the "deaths" caused by the camera are portrayed on the screen precisely by the use of uniquely cinematic devices such as stop motion, montage, and reverse action, tricks as old as Méliès. And, of course, they are just that, tricks , and thus to be shunned by all proper realists; what Rossellini seems to be coming to understand at some level, however, is that all cinema, including the realist variety, is, and can only be, trickery.

The precise nature of the self-reference is ambiguous. Interestingly, Celestino's camera can be effective only when it takes a picture of another previously existing picture. On a purely functional level, of course, this is understandable because it is much more visually humorous—the bullying policeman stiffens into the Fascist salute (Rossellini feels secure enough for parody by this point), the mayor assumes the pose of his baby picture, and so on. But it seems to go further


than this. The American Peter Bondanella, who has attempted what is certainly the most detailed examination of this motif, has this to say:

In good neorealist fashion and reminiscent of statements made by such important figures as Cesare Zavattini, Celestino views the camera as a means of separating reality from illusion, good from evil, substance from appearance. Photography is, for him, a metaphor for a way of knowing, for a means of apprehending essential moral and ethical facts; it enables him, so he believes, to penetrate the surface of events to the bedrock of reality and to fulfill a god-like role in his small village (not unlike that of a film director on the set).[5]

Elsewhere in his essay, Bondanella points out, "The camera, viewed as a means of acquiring knowledge of social reality by overly optimistic neorealist theorists, has been reduced to a fallible instrument which reflects not reality but human subjectivity and error."[6] The trouble is that Celestino's camera is never really considered by either him or Rossellini as a "way of knowing," as a device by which one might separate good from evil. Rather, the camera is merely a tool by which Celestino metes out punishment to those who have already been judged guilty by the independent moral consciousness, before the photographic or filmmaking process enters in. Rossellini's point thus seems to be that the photographic or cinematic "capturing" of reality is morally neutral (or impossible or irrelevant), and thus significant only as the actualization of a prior idea or moral stance that the filmmaker takes toward a particular reality. This idea or stance preexists any taking up of the camera, though the idea is, of course, only actualizable through it. This, in turn, helps to explain Rossellini's cryptic, if famous, 1954 definition of neorealism as "above all a moral position from which one looks at the world. It then becomes an aesthetic position, but it begins as a moral one."[7]

Thus far we have been stressing the film's fantasy elements. But it would be a mistake to focus upon them to the exclusion of all else, for the film's simultaneous insistence on a documentary realism is what constitutes its rough, unconventional appeal. Many of the scenes of the Amalfi coast seem to have been taken from stock documentary footage, or else Rossellini shot new footage himself; in any case, the particularization of locale is remarkable. The blessing of the boats and the procession for Sant'Andrea are also obviously real rather than staged, and, as the film opens Rossellini adds, in the self-congratulatory manner of La nave bianca , "and others taken from real life" to the list of screen credits. This continued concern for the "real," in the face of doubts about the possibility of achieving it, is what distinguishes La macchina ammazzacattivi from De Sica's better-known Miracle in Milan , made on a similar subject around the same time. As Jose Guarner has rightly pointed out, for De Sica the Duomo in Milan is little more than "an element in the decor."[8] In La macchina ammazzacattivi , on the other hand, the fantasy combines uneasily with the documentary footage to call into question what is after all the predominantly realistic mode of the individual dramatic scenes. A brilliantly staged religious procession, in other words, achieved at great expense of time and money, would insert itself seamlessly into the fabric of the film, and we would take it as happening before our


eyes, and thus give ourselves to it. Here, however, it is precisely the rough reality of the actual procession's documentary images (rather than a smooth realism) that makes us aware that we are watching a film, and that, in this film, nearly everything else we see is fake.

Many other motifs from Rossellini's earlier (and later) films make an appearance as well, though now transmuted into comic form. Thus, the theme of language is restated (we see how language is often little more than puffery and rhetoric, used to deceive rather than enlighten, as in Una voce umana , and how, as in Paisan , it keeps cultures, and therefore, people, apart) but here it is all played for laughs. Similarly, the motif of the miracle, so significant for Stromboli and Voyage to Italy and such an important, if ambivalent, part of The Miracle , is parodied. In addition, Celestino teaches the sign of the cross, as the priest did in L'uomo dalla croce , but now the pupil is a minor devil; the Americans "land" and corrupt the eager natives as they did in Paisan; God is present in the sky at the end, as at the end of Stromboli, Francesco , and, twenty-five years later, The Messiah; the deadly serious fishing and price haggling of Stromboli and Visconti's La terra trema , are here treated humorously. The steps and incessant climbing of The Miracle , struggling against all odds, is here comically cursed; the doctor says that he prefers the poor to the rich because he does not have to climb stairs to care for them, and the Americans, continually moving from one unsatisfactory guest house to another, complain about the ubiquitous steps. (The oppositional motif of high and low camera shots, as well, continues from The Miracle .) Even suicide has become funny. Most importantly, the failure of coralità , so bitterly remarked in Germany, Year Zero and the films immediately following, now seems attributable to the comic selfishness of all humanity.

It is on this last point that the film has been most seriously attacked. Rossellini refuses to assign blame solely to the rich, and his "condemnation" assumes the global, exculpatory dimensions of "that's the way people are." The director's thoroughly bourgeois attitude thus allows him to criticize the poor for being just as "selfish" about money as the rich are. The doctor, as the man of reason and science, and thus a typical Rossellini stand-in, as we shall see, gives the thematic summation that in real life good and evil exist side by side; he claims that he has never been able to tell them apart. A moral position, in other words, once again substitutes for a political one. It is this that annoys Pio Baldelli about the film, and though his rhetoric may be a bit harsh, it is hard to disagree, finally, with his position: "The photographer claims to be doing justice, to punish evildoers, but things gradually go from bad to worse, and the poor are even worse than the well-to-do: so let's just keep things as they are, and be patient: there's still the sun, happiness, and Sant'Andrea.[9]



Preferred Citation: Brunette, Peter. Roberto Rossellini. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996.