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

7— Paisan (1946)


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 .


7— Paisan (1946)

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