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

23— Viva l'Italia! (1960)

Viva l'Italia!

Successful among the public and the widest range of Italian opinion-molders for the first time since Paisan , Rossellini was next commissioned by the Italian government to make a film on Giuseppe Garibaldi. The film—Viva l'Italia! —was to be part of the celebration of the centenary of the Italian hero's exploits with "the Thousand" in liberating the south of Italy from the Bourbons, the first step in unifying all of Italy. Rossellini was now back in the good graces of those who mattered, and the film premiered at the Teatro dell'Opera, with the president of the republic in attendance. Once released, the film was moderately successful at the box office, earning over 43 million lire in its initial run and, by the time Aprà and Berengo-Gardin gathered their data in April 1961, it had earned a total of nearly 165 million lire.[1]

This cinematic complicity with the ruling elite has seemed suspect to many, both at the time and since. The editors of the British Film Institute dossier on the director, echoing anti-Rossellini criticism in Italy, have described it as "in many ways a remake of the fascist propaganda film 1860 made by [Alessandro] Blasetti in 1933."[2] It is true that Rossellini's film is unarguably "patriotic" in the most blatant ways, even beginning and ending with the Italian tricolor waving proudly to the militant strains of the national anthem. Nor is it critical in any serious sense, aside from rehearsing the standard revisionist view of the risorgimento as the "betrayed revolution." Yet Rossellini's version is of a vastly lower key than Blasetti's. Guarner has recognized this as well and offers an exemplary contrast between the two. The earlier film, he says, shows Garibaldi

walking among his men declaiming his famous speech "Qui si fa l'Italia o si muore!" [Here we make Italy or we die!] Transformed into a mythical figure,



Humanizing a hero: Garibaldi (Renzo Ricci) directs his officers in  Viva l'Italia!  (1960).

he remains invisible, as his progress is suggested by subjective camera-movements. It is entirely faithful to a heroic tradition in the cinema and is not lacking in strength. The aim is obviously to dramatise historical fact and to add the desired emphasis to the events shown. . . . [In Rossellini's film the] scene is treated quite differently. Giuseppe Garibaldi eats bread and cheese, asks for salt and then in a lengthy, static shot, explains that the slope of the land offers tactical advantages against General Landi's army, calmly concluding "Qui si fa l'Italia o si muore!" as a quiet acceptance of fact.[3]

This dedramatization of historical events is clearly related to the fictional dedramatization of Rossellini's earlier films, and is directly linked to his simultaneous attempt to demystify the Garibaldi legend.

Rossellini made a great deal out of this "humanizing" of Garibaldi, and, in the interview with Pio Baldelli and his students ten years after the film was released, was still complaining about the insults he had received because he had dared to present Garibaldi as less than utterly heroic. It is true that the demystification of national heroes, which paralleled the rise in world literature of the fictional antihero, was rather novel for 1960, and it is also true that conservatives were scandalized by this "desecration." Yet Rossellini is avoiding the real issue, for his insistence on showing Garibaldi warts and all finally ends up erecting, as we shall see, a different, but equally heroic, monolith in its place. Nevertheless, this "new" myth is hardly one that would have been pleasing to Fascist


propaganda, and thus the comparison with Blasetti's Garibaldi is misleading at best.

Viva l'Italia! occupies a peculiar and obviously transitional place within Rossellini's oeuvre. Many critics have unproblematically placed in among the director's history films, but while this placement is correct according to a certain classic Hollywood idea of history, the film differs significantly from those of Rossellini's final creative period. In fact, it shares a great deal with the "commercialism" of his two previous films and the two films that follow. Despite the dedramatization of historical events, dramatic emotion is often, though not consistently, played up, and a love interest is provided (in a brief and frivolous scene when the Thousand cross the Strait of Messina from Sicily) by the beautiful and totally implausible Rosa, played by Giovanna Ralli (Esperia of Era notte a Roma ). Furthermore, battle scenes, hand-to-hand combat, and intense moments replete with firing squads occupy the screen almost from the very start. In fact, the battle scenes are enormously well done, the long shots of clashing armies reminiscent of the best of Griffith's Birth of a Nation , and among the most powerful ever filmed. (These sequences make it clear, once again, that if Rossellini had chosen to, he could have been quite successful as a conventional filmmaker.) Despite its insistence on a "plain" Garibaldi, the film luxuriates in spectacle instead of thematizing and problematizing it, as La Prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV would six years later. Perhaps the most basic difference from the later films is that Rossellini is here playing to popular tastes, retelling an already thoroughly known story rather than trying to inform his audience about something new.

Formally, short, sketchlike scenes—a longtime Rossellini technical staple usually in the service of narrative unconventionality—function perfectly in tandem with the uncharacteristically quick cutting, in places, to keep the level of dramatic excitement high. For example, early in the film conventional cutting on the various moving parts of a printing press expresses the hurly-burly of the moment and also allows Rossellini to indulge his penchant for showing how mechanical objects, especially from an earlier period, work. (In addition, the very presence of the antique press itself, as we have seen in the other protohistory films, helps to bridge the gap between past reality and present representation, because it is part of both.) Immediately after, the details of the historical moment are conveyed to us in the most classic narrative fashion, with a montage of newspaper headlines outlining Garibaldi's progress. The sound track contains many songs from the period (during one especially effective scene, the opposing forces even compete against each other's singing), as well as a full complement of Hollywood-style historical epic music. The acting is relaxed, appropriate to the desire to depict a "real-life" Garibaldi, yet traditional at the same time: gestures, expression, timing, and delivery are much more conventional than in the later history films. In other words, what have somewhat sloppily been called the Brechtian elements of Rossellini's later aesthetic are severely understated or even absent in Viva l'Italia!

The film is thus clearly à mi-chemin between the conventional techniques of the fiction film and the more rigorous demands of the didactic films to come. Sometimes the two impulses even seem at war with one another. For example,


in the scene that shows the Bourbon general staff planning its next encounter with Garibaldi, the officers are "acting" for all they are worth, something that Rossellini never would have allowed in the Bergman-era films. Yet the camera itself, in a kind of understated, emotionally neutral counterpoint, remains stationary, merely records, and refuses to participate in the elaboration of spectator involvement. The camera, in fact, seems to become the locus of the elements of the film that resist total capitulation to the conventional and the commercial. In addition to preferring the stasis of the plan-séquence , for example, the camera almost always opts for the static two-shot, never giving in to emotion-heightening close-ups or standard shots of action and reaction.

The zoom, though by now a fixed part of Rossellini's technique, is used quite sparingly in Viva l'Italia! , compared with both Vanina Vanini , Rossellini's next film, and Era notte a Roma , and the constant use of the zoom in those films to reframe and tighten is missing here. When the zoom is used, it seems disguised; thus, standard Rossellini camera movements back through a crowd listening to a speech or watching some spectacle are here so subtle that it is even difficult to tell definitively, especially in interiors, whether they are zooms or simple dollies. The zoom is sometimes used thematically, as well—for example, to suggest the oneness of men and their landscape. Even in scenes of the troops resting, the perspectival flattening of the long zoom lens seems to inscribe the men ever more totally into the surrounding hills and valleys. Before one important battle, the camera lyrically plays over various "domestic" scenes in Garibaldi's camp. Then, in the same shot, it picks up the enemy on a distant ridge, and, in an extremely subtle zoom that is almost completely masked by an accompanying pan, moves in closer, thus suggesting the coming physical encounter by first enacting it visually and spatially. Similarly, Garibaldi's deep connection with the people is demonstrated by the zoom lens. When Naples has fallen, for example, the camera shows us a huge, celebrating crowd from behind; then, as Garibaldi's words are heard, the camera seems to seek him out, the zoom finally finding him in the midst of giving a speech from a balcony. Since the long shot of the crowd and the final tight shot on Garibaldi are both part of the same plan-séquence , the equation between him and the people is forcefully made.

The extremely lengthy long shots of the battle scenes also serve a distancing or objectifying function. One marvelous shot, for example, shows Garibaldi's men charging up the hill against the king's troops, accompanied by a slight zoom for clarification, all in one continuous take as the battle rages. In spite of the distance, the effect is more dramatic than ever, as though we were witnessing the drama of history itself, the drama of men's collective struggles—a resurgence, perhaps, of coralità —rather than the merely individual. A Hollywood war movie would want to "humanize" the battle by seeing it in terms of a few soldiers. Here, all we can identify is the flag moving up and down the hill, according to the fortunes of the battle: it comes to stand metonymically for the men, and is somehow more emotionally affecting than a closer shot would have been.[4]

In spite of this distancing, however, Viva l'Italia! is still far from the rigor of the later history films, and its historical approach is actually more closely aligned with a film of ten years earlier, Francesco , in which a similar intention to get to the "real man" was paramount. The primary difference between the two films is


that Rossellini is now more interested in event and situation, and their interaction with character, than in spiritual truth. Thus, the most famous battles of the Sicilian and southern penisular campaign are reenacted in excruciatingly exact (and fascinating) historical detail, as Rossellini insisted he had gotten everything from contemporary historical sources.[5] But if Rossellini's attempts was to portray Garibaldi, like Saint Francis, in all his raw humanity, and thereby to demystify him, the force of a century of hagiography consistently elevates the man above all other men. Thus, Garibaldi shows his nobility by pointing out to his staff that the wounded enemy troops are Italians, too, "just like us." He visits the enemy and tells them how well they have fought. When they try to kiss him, he insists that he is only a man, and then kisses them . He says, "Siamo uomini uguali" (we are all equal men), clearly speaking for the director, but the adoring response of the wounded soldiers in fact denies his statement. Earlier in the film, he has been shown single-handedly stopping a panicky retreat of his inexperienced men. They see him as godlike and, thus, despite all the homely and affecting business about peeling oranges, rheumatism, and pince-nez reading glasses, made so much of in the film, we must see him the same way, divinely transformed through the intensity of his troops' devotion.

Throughout the film Rossellini walks a formal tightrope. Thus, with the famous, obligatory words (naturally much less of a problem for a non-Italian audience) "Qui si fa l'Italia o si muore": the actor Ricci utters them dramatically enough, but to an audience of one. In this way the director achieves the antirhetorical mode he wants, yet still slightly underlines the significance of the moment by means of the second or two of hesitation by Garibaldi's companion, who has been clearly impressed by the words. (As with so many other elements of the film, Rossellini is in a transitional phase here; most of the famous phrases of the later history films, especially Christ's words of The Messiah , arguably the best-known words of all, will be uttered with such a lack of emphasis and drama that they are almost lost.) Similarly, the legendary meetings between Garibaldi and Mazzini, for example, or between Garibaldi and King Emanuel II manage to be both low-key and yet subtly dramatic at the same time. The best example comes at the end, when, for political reasons, the king has come to put Garibaldi's troops in reserve. The people are shouting for the hero of the revolution as much as for this "foreign" king, but Garibaldi submits to his fate. One lovely, severely understated long shot of him standing in front of a peasant's shack, victorious in battle but defeated in peace, quietly and efficiently shows the extent of his disappointment.

Another effect of Rossellini's attempt to desanctify Garibaldi, again as in Francesco , is an occasional welcome decentering of the hero. Thus, in one scene in which the director seems to move toward a wider perspective on the historical events themselves, we are treated to a magnificent moment of the abdication of the Bourbon king Francis II and his departure from his residence in Naples. There is obviously no need to treat the king and queen as villains (and to turn us against them), at least not one hundred years later, and their nobility and gentle grace are allowed to speak well for them. The camera shoots through the long, magnificent halls in extreme long shot and in long take as the characters move diagonally, in exquisite compositions, down the monumental staircase and


across the screen. The maids sob, and we realize again the historical truth that every victory is a defeat for someone who is innocent (in this case, the maids) and that history is always more complicated than simple narratives of good triumphing over evil.

But if Rossellini avoids painting Garibaldi's Bourbon adversaries in a negative light, the same cannot be said for his political adversaries, most especially Count Cavour. Popular myth has it that this Machiavellian prime minister of the house of Savoy blatantly manipulated Garibaldi for his own ends. In some ways, this is quite literally true; more recent views, however, tend to see Garibaldi and Cavour as necessary, complementary opposites, the two poles of the dialectic that enabled the final unification of Italy to occur. Cavour is nowhere, and yet everywhere, in Rossellini's film. He is the clear villain of the piece, and some have felt, not without justice, that the director would have done better to treat the situation more dialectically himself, as a struggle between the wish and the reality of politics, rather than between conniving villains and innocent heroes. Mario Verdone has not implausibly suggested that Rossellini gave in to the anti-Cavour view of Italian history because he saw him, in quite personal terms, as the enemy of all that the director stood for: "generosity, enthusiasm, adventure, and most of all, improvisation."[6] (It is clear, in any case, that Rossellini identified strongly with Garibaldi, as he would later identify with Socrates, Leon Battista Alberti, and Jesus Christ.)

One of the more interesting views concerning Cavour's absence in the film has come from Colin MacCabe, writing in Screen . Working from a Lacanian-Althusserian model that describes how films "construct" the viewers who watch them, MacCabe accuses Rossellini of allowing the viewing subject to be constituted in terms of the dominant discourse of the screen itself. Assuming that the best film is the one that reveals its constructed nature, MacCabe chides the director for not presenting the camera directly. Eliding the camera, in effect, makes what is offered in the film "in some sense beyond argument." MacCabe is right here, of course, but surely he is expecting too much of Rossellini, who, in spite of his technical innovations was, ideologically speaking, always thoroughly unself-conscious. He also forgets Rossellini's lifelong, if inconsistent, placement in the economics of mainstream cinema. Besides, such a blatant self-reflexivity surely would not have been possible in a film commissioned by the Italian government. Yet MacCabe's remarks are valuable nonetheless, since they help us understand the film's epistemological strategies, and deserve to be quoted at length.

In Viva l'Italia! the glaring omission of the film is the absence of Cavour. It is wrong to attack this omission on purely political grounds for it is an inevitable result of a certain lack of questioning of the camera itself. Garibaldi can be contrasted with Francisco II of Naples because their different conceptions of the world are so specifically tied to different historical eras that the camera can cope with their contradiction within an historical perspective. Here is the way the world is now—there is the way the world was then. But to introduce Cavour would involve a simultaneous contradiction—a class contradiction. At this point the camera itself, as a neutral agent, would become impossible. For it would have to offer two present contradictory articulations of the world and thus reveal its own presence. This cannot happen within a Rossel-


lini film where if we are continually aware of our presence in the cinema (particularly in his historical films)—that presence itself is not questioned in any way. We are not allowed any particular position to read the film but we are allowed the position of a reader—an unproblematic viewer—an eternally human nature working on the material provided by the camera.[7]

This is not the whole story, as we shall see when the history films proper are taken up, but it is clearly one important perspective on Rossellini's filmmaking practice.

Perhaps the most problematic aspect of this film lies in its attempt to depict historical truth or historical reality, however these terms might be defined. This is a crucial question, of course, and it became an important feature of the polemics surrounding the films made during the last period of Rossellini's career. Is this the way the events really happened? Can we ever reproduce historical reality? One of Baldelli's students insisted in the interview with the director that a recital of facts is not enough, that they must be motivated, must be interpreted. Rossellini replied, "I don't want to teach anything. I only want to look. I'm only a worker, a go-between, and that's it. Why do I have to interpret?" When pressed a few minutes later by another student he responded testily:

Look, you're always saying the same thing: that you have to be critical and that being critical, you have to accept a certain point of view, and accepting this point of view, you absolutely have to convey it to others. But why do I have to do this digestive work? Those who watch the film should do it. If we had a plate of pasta in front of us, everybody would want to eat it. They wouldn't wait for me to eat it and digest it so that, avoiding the exertion, they could then eat it. It would be disgusting, no?[8]

As these remarks indicate, Rossellini's view of the possibility of conveying historical reality is at odds with his clear awareness, in the earlier films, of the impossibility of depicting anything other than a subjectively based present reality. His reluctance to admit a subjective bias to the portrayal of history may, in fact, have a simple explanation: an audience might easily accept present-day Italy, Germany, or India as "seen by Rossellini," but since history is commonly considered as something more or less fixed, the overt relativization implied in "Rossellini's view" of Garibaldi, Socrates, Descartes, and so on, would be unacceptable. As we saw in Francesco , however, Rossellini is perhaps more sophisticated on this subject than his detractors have thought, for he is not really attempting to represent historical reality as such, but the historical artifacts that continue to exist in the films' present. Thus, one could make the claim that in Viva l'Italia! Rossellini is faithfully recreating and representing the historical documents of the period, which are already a representation, of course, but obviously more immediately available than the period itself. Similarly, Gianni Menon has pointed out an interesting feature of the film's dialogue that escaped the ear of this nonnative speaker of Italian. One of Garibaldi's officers, major Bandi (played by Franco Interlenghi), since he is the author of the memoirs on which the film is most directly based, speaks throughout in a nineteenth-century form of written Italian, while the others speak more or less modern


Italian.[9] The implications of this strategy are overwhelming to consider, and a larger discussion of this issue will have to be postponed until later.

No matter how one charts the complexities of historical representation, however, there is a certain sense in which the film fails as "education for the masses" because it never really goes beyond the level of popular myth. For Pio Baldelli, who has been most eloquent on this point, the film could have been useful had it provided a real analysis of poverty at the time (including why peasant participation in Garibaldi's expedition was discouraged by his staff) or had it depicted the clash of northerners and southerners, thus making it a Paisan 1860 , "the facts seen from the point of view of the people."[10] Alternatively the film could have explained the social and economic reasons for the expedition, the international circumstances surrounding it, and the various political forces represented by Garibaldi, Cavour, and Mazzini. In Baldelli's view, and it is clear that Rossellini would have agreed with him, especially in the later period, historical films should stop portraying history merely as encounters of specific famous individuals.[11] When the film was released, a related dispute developed in the left-wing newspaper Il Paese as Rossellini conducted a guerrilla war of letters with some of his screenwriters. They had wanted to draw the political parallels with contemporary life more firmly; in Rossellini's view, this would have violated the film's validity as history.[12]

In spite of its problematic relation to history and politics, however, the film is important in Rossellini's increasingly irregular "development." He is obviously trying to follow up on some of the lessons learned in the making of India , moving toward reliance on reason, on intellectual analysis, yet he is still trapped in the exigencies of conventional filmmaking, and will continue to be for at least two more films. But he is clearly on his way.


23— Viva l'Italia! (1960)

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