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

25— Anima Nera (1962)

Anima Nera

Quite active during this frustrating period, Rossellini valiantly tried everything to free himself from commercial cinema. In 1961 he produced a compilation documentary known simply as Benito Mussolini in Italy (and in the English-speaking world as Blood on the Balcony ). Its director is listed as Pasquale Prunas, but its accent on raw information over analysis reveals Rossellini's presence; in any case, the film is straightforward and unexceptional. At the same time, he put his name to another documentary for television entitled "Torino nei cent'anni," which through the use of stills and newsreel footage documents Turin's place in the history of the last one hundred years. (Despite the fact that Aprà and Berengo-Gardin list this film in their "Documentazione," I have been unable to locate it. The director's son Renzo suggested to me that his father would sometimes allow the use of his name as a favor, and he doubted whether anybody had ever seen this film.)[1] Rossellini also directed the original stage version of Beniamino Joppolo's I carabinieri at this time, and, most important, is listed as a coscreenwriter of Godard's film version of the play. It is unclear just how much Rossellini actually had to do with this film, however, and it will not be discussed here.

His principal occupation during this period was a rather unfortunate feature film called Anima nera (Black Soul). In a career full of low points, it is nevertheless possible to mark this, Rossellini's last full-length commercial film, as the absolute nadir of his creative life. Ten years after it was made, Rossellini himself called it an "awful film," and claimed that it was one of only two films he was actually ashamed of having made. Based rather closely on an indifferent play of the same name by Giuseppe Patroni Griffi, it stars Vittorio Gassman (an-



Rossellini's nadir: Adriano (Vittorio Gassman) pays off a friend in  Anima nera  (1962).

other sign of its atypicality) as Adriano, a used-car dealer and small-time hustler approaching middle age, who marries Marcella (Annette Stroyberg), the twenty-year-old offspring of a proper bourgeois family. After their marriage, Marcella is visited by the aristocratic sister of one of Adriano's friends. The friend has recently been killed in a car accident and has left the family villa to Adriano; his sister strongly implies to Marcella that Adriano accomplished this by manipulating and tricking the brother, a homosexual. Outraged and hurt, Marcella leaves home, and in revenge, Adriano looks up his old girlfriend Mimosa, who is now a prostitute. We later learn that the homosexual brother left the villa to Adriano precisely in order to incense his despised sister. A final dramatic encounter takes place between Mimosa, who has spent the night with Adriano, and Marcella, who has not gone back to her parents as Adriano had thought. Adriano's wife finally "rescues" him from the clutches of his dissolute past, and the film ends with her insistence that he give up the villa for moral reasons and the outline of her plans for their "normal, banal" life together.

To say that Rossellini's heart was not in this picture would be a vast understatement. Anxious to move on to the grand didactic project he had been dreaming of since India , he marked time by taking on projects that he could make with the "normal ingredients," as he said later, "which is very easy to do." Unfortunately, this formula led to boredom and, thus, "Some small stuff was being pro-


duced, but really small stuff. It was the position that was dishonest, the way that I was approaching things that was dishonest."[2] The result was a film, made in twenty-seven days, that is awkwardly marked by a uncharacteristic desire to be "up-to-date." At its worst moments it becomes an unconscious parody of the alienated jazziness of the slightly earlier films of Antonioni's trilogy and Fellini's La dolce vita . For once the master imitates, and badly, his students.

Even Rossellini's most enthusiastic admirers have disliked this film, which has, unsurprisingly, never been released in the United States. Giuseppe Ferrara has called it "an almost complete surrender to commercialism."[3] Guarner says that it is "stuck at the level of a weepie" and that

it is real torture to see the director of Paisà and Viaggio in Italia resorting to supposedly modern movie components right down to strip-tease and sports cars. After the extreme economy and the almost miraculous spontaneity of his previous work, this is just a film. For the first time in his career, Rossellini is visibly working at Cinema. . . . Anima nera is a film of extraordinary sadness, because it shows Rossellini no longer believing in the cinema.[4]

I think it is now possible to see, however, that Anima nera has perhaps been treated a little too harshly. It has its moments. (And the final shot, which I want to discuss more fully below, is one of the most powerful of Rossellini's career.) For one thing, the film's visual style is not without interest: the strong blacks and whites of the exteriors are enhanced by the vibrant white backgrounds of the interiors, against which the characters become more sharply etched. The resultant visual harshness destroys any soft lines and thus accords well with the film's theme of alienation. In addition, while Rossellini has gone through the motions of "opening up" the play with the mandatory exterior scenes (as opposed to his wise refusal to dilute the claustrophobia of Cocteau's La Voix humaine ), the majority of shots are boringly static. Unlike the brooding long takes that deepen the vision of so many of his other films, here the camera simply shoots straight ahead, for the most part, in standard two-shots that suggest little more than a play being recorded on film. Yet even the very flatness of the camera work seems appropriate, and if the actual experience of sitting through the film is visually unexciting, in retrospect one can understand that, perversely, it all fits. There is also a scene with Adriano and Mimosa that takes place on a deserted beach at night in which the completely unconvincing set takes on a ghostly suggestivity. Interestingly, the set was not a studio reconstruction, but was done entirely with mirrors. The director confessed to Baldelli and his students that he was pleased in a way that they thought it had been done in a studio: "Well, that consoles me. It was all done with mirrors, becaused I was obsessed with them at the time, trying to free myself. I was trying to use anything I could, even this form of prostitution."[5]

Another noteworthy feature of Anima nera is that, while Fellini's and Antonioni's films are clearly being recycled—especially in the frenetic, jazzy score that scrapes the nerves, the blank walls of alienating urban architecture, and the tired striptease of the nightclub scene (which the stripper plays directly to the camera, thus implicating the male viewer the way he is implicated by the young girl's direct gaze at the end of La dolce vita )—Rossellini's film is in some


ways even closer, in its cultural critique, to Godard's work during this period. For example, it opens with a collage of still photographs of traffic scenes in Rome, displaying the cacophonic juxtaposition of the old and the new, over which the credits are superimposed while the jazz score blares. The first thing we hear in the story itself is the visceral, ripping sound of cars and trucks screaming through the night at high speed, a kind of perverse mirror image of the opening of Voyage to Italy . High beams flick off and on in a disturbing, surreal vision that suggests giant, atavistic beasts prowling an ancient earth. Trapped in their car and in their banal conversation, Adriano and Marcella are completely unaware of the historically rich monuments of Pisa, now transformed to tourist "sights," passing over them unnoticed, reflected on the windshield (a motif that is clearly related to Rossellini's, and Godard's, ironic use of classical sculpture in several earlier films). When they stop along the way to eat at a restaurant, a long take pins them in the lower right-hand corner of the frame, and we see as much of the annoying, alienating bustle of the restaurant as we do of them.

As in Godard's work of the early sixties, traffic is everywhere in this movie, from beginning to end. Televisions announce musical themes from the state-controlled news programs. Jackhammers rip up streets, and new apartment buildings, one uglier than the next, sprout up almost before our eyes. In this way, Rossellini mounts a full-scale assault on the spectators' nerves that goes beyond the harsh visuals of Antonioni, whose relatively empty sound track generally works in counterpoint, encouraging contemplation. The similiarity with Godard continues when Adriano's former girlfriend Mimosa is seen on the balcony in a very long take doing "nothing," thus anticipating the protagonists of Une femme mariée and Deux ou trois choses que je sais d'elle . What they all see is the wasteland of the bourgeois dream of the good life. Similarly, appliances reign supreme over people, and Marcella can think only of the latest domestic conveniences that will fill their apartment. Visual artifacts in the frame comment as well, as they do in Godard, and as the characters leave the thoroughly depressing nightclub scene, they pass a De Chirico reproduction that underlines the emptiness of what the characters take to be modern life.

Money is the film's obsessive topic of conversation, and it pervades every relationship. Again, Rossellini is examining the couple—but now both the man and the woman are so thoroughly drenched in the false values of modern civilization that the director seems barely able to stand either one of them. Marcella is seen as a pretty-faced, but empty-headed, product of a sterile bourgeois culture. Adriano, it is true, has more animal vitality than anyone else in the film and occupies a strategic emotional position as the central point of view, but he is finally no more sympathetic than the superficial Marcella. He has had to claw his way up from the poorest classes, he tells Mimosa, through deeds that would scandalize his middle-class wife. In spite of his problems, however, we are unable to feel sorry for him.

Nevertheless, in some small ways the film does favor the compromised, but full-blooded, figures of Adriano and Mimosa, especially in its haunting final scene, which is not part of the original play. Having successfully gotten rid of Mimosa, her only rival for Adriano's affections, Marcella undertakes to reform


him. She wants him to give up his claim to the villa, in the name of morality, even though we have since found out that he did not trick his homosexual friend into giving it to him. It will be "good" for him, she says. But Adriano, exhausted from the continuous effort merely to survive, can barely understand what she is talking about. It is here, in this final scene, that the film begins to take on some weight. The final shot begins tight on Marcella's face as she goes on and on about living more "simple," more "normal" lives, being just two "banal persons." The camera zooms or dollies back (probably zooms; it is difficult to tell in the interiors), to reveal a large empty space to Marcella's right (screen left) that isolates her and suggests spatially the emptiness of her bourgeois aspirations. The ever-widening shot finally includes Adriano, barely listening, as he peers out through the window, away from her, his face pushed up against the glass. He looks utterly devastated at his realization of the price he will have to pay for respectability. The two characters are divided compositionally by the frame of the French window that intrudes between them. Construction noises from outside combine with the resurging harsh jazz score to drown out her words, further underlining their total superfluity. The camera then begins moving back in, closer on Adriano's horror-stricken face, as Marcella, still talking, is gradually cut out of the frame. The sound track becomes rich with symbolic sound: a baby cries throughout this final movement of the camera, and the ripping noise of truck traffic that occupied the very beginning of the film now nastily reasserts itself. At the end of the shot, the camera is tight on Adriano's face. His hand is stretched out on the glass in front of him, almost as if in protection, as he moves his eyes desperately to and fro, shaking his head yes to words we can no longer hear. At this point, the film ends.

In spite of the power of this last sequence, however, nothing in the rest of the film attempts to build any sustained sympathy for Adriano. Furthermore, his treatment of all the women in the film (his wife, Mimosa, and a business associate he has strung along for her interest-free financial support of his used-car dealership), as in Patroni Griffi's play, is brutish. Rossellini has also added a particularly unpleasant scene in which Adriano physically forces Mimosa to leave her female dinner partner at a restaurant to go and commiserate with him over his problems. If in Stromboli we are continuously prevented from identifying moral or emotional right exclusively with either the man or the woman, here we are unable to identify with either because we cannot decide which one is less dislikable.

Part of the problem comes from the source material, Patroni Griffi's play, for the playwright seems to have even less sympathy for his characters than Rossellini does. He gives each of them annoying, petty tics (Adriano always stops to comb his hair, for example, every time he passes a shiny surface), which make their words seem even more selfish and reprehensible. These tics are wisely omitted in Rossellini's version. More important, almost all the unconvincing, sleazy sexual innuendo comes from the play. Adriano, we learn, was a deserter during the war who was rescued from execution by the Nazis by an S.S. officer with "a pair of gold glasses." He says: "Oh, I'm the kind who always knows what he's doing, but everything happens to me as if I were some kind of lost


soul. . . . You know I don't like to talk about myself, or else I'd have to admit that if I'm alive I owe it to the love of a German. . . . They killed him on the Via Rasella with the others: the night before he had let me escape."[6]

In the film, unsurprisingly, the word love is omitted from this speech, and the line goes: "If I'm alive, I owe it to a German." The homosexual implication is still present, of course, but less overtly. Alessandra, the sister of Adriano's more recent homosexual friend, we also discover, is a lesbian who was attracted in the past to Mimosa. The motif of homosexuality is used in both the play and the film in a manner unfortunately little advanced from Open City and Germany, Year Zero: it is the marker or sign of corruption, a locus of evil. Then it signified Nazi corruption, now the corruption of a materialistic society.

Aside from some minor scene additions and a somewhat different chronology of events, there are other intriguing differences between the play and the film version. Patroni Griffi's play is somewhat stylized, for one thing, in that action on two different sets sometimes occurs at the same time. In the film, Rossellini must necessarily make the action more linear and logical, befitting the exigencies of the commercial cinema. Other changes, probably originally motivated by the necessity of more exterior shots for the film adaptation, also attempt to add an extra "metaphysical" resonance decidedly alien to the play. Thus, during the scene on the beach, Adriano helps some people whose car has become stuck in the mud. Later, as he and Mimosa are returning from the beach, they pass the wreckage of an automobile in which everybody has clearly been killed. It is the car of the people he had helped earlier. We watch, horrified, as a policeman vainly tries to cover a body with sheets of newspaper that keep blowing away; the very futility of his gesture adds to the poignancy of the moment. We recognize again, as in the climax of Voyage to Italy , the brevity and uncertainty of life. If the sentiment in Anima nera is only a weak reflection of the film of ten years earlier, it does have the distinction of being subtly underplayed, offered in a few seconds, and casually tossed away.

Anima nera is far from worthless. It seems more a case of opportunities missed through laziness and lack of interest. This is what has bothered most critics of this film, I think: Rossellini is no longer taking the trouble to hide his disgust with the whole process of commercial filmmaking. He is only going through the motions.


25— Anima Nera (1962)

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