Rossellini’s fifth end-of-WWII film

Roberto Rossellini (1906-77) jolted international audiences with three films — “Rome, the Open City” (1945), “Paisa[/n]” (1946) and “Germany, Year Zero” (1948) — that came to be called “neorealist” and at least according to the Criterion Collection as the “War Trilogy.” They focused, respectively, on the end of the Nazi occupation of Rome, the US fighting from Sicily north to the Po River, and hard-scrabble life in bombed-out Berlin for a young boy.

Rossellini returned to the last days (weeks?) of the Nazi occupation of Rome in “Era notte a Roma” (which means “It Was Night in Rome,” though the English-language release title was “Escape by Night,” 1960; the DVD reverts to the Italian title), following upon another great film set during the Nazi occupation, “Il generale Della Rovere” (1959), a Pirandellean drama about rolue engulfment in which fellow neorealist pioneer Vittorio de Sica delivered his greatest onscreen performance.

I’d estimate that half of “Era notte a Roma” was in English, with some of the rest in Russian. These were not subtitled for the Italian release, so that audiences were in the same situation as the Roman characters harboring a British army captain, an American Air Force lieutenant, and a Russian army sergeant who had escaped a prisoner-of-war camp when Italy surrendered (and before the northern two-thirds of the peninsula came under Nazi domination).

The opening narration (in what sounds like American rather than British English, though the point-of-view of the movie is that of the British captain, played by Leo Genn) attributes the sheltering of enemies of the Reich to “Christian charity” more than any political feelings — thus not directly participating in the erasure of fascism in revising history to make Italy a victim of the Nazis rather than a co-aggressor when things were going well for the Wermacht. I think that the movie whitewashes the complicity of the Holy Mother Church in particular, and of fair-weather fascists in general, but there is at least one still-ardent fascist in the movie, albeit a limping failed priest, Tarcisio (George Petrarca).

At the start, after the invocation of “Christian charity,” nuns are scrounging food somewhere north of Rome. A farmer gives them foodstuffs for practically nothing so long as they take the escaped prisoners, who have been hiding in an Etruscan tomb, with them. Back in the Eternal City (Roma, perpetual), Esperia Belli (the vivacious Giovanna Ralli) removes her habit and lets down her luxuriant long hair, and it becomes clear to the viewers (including the three prisoners) that she has been masquerading as a nun.

Esperia is an active participant in the black market and reluctant to add harboring enemy (of Germany) prisoners to her already risky existence. But she does, and her fiancé, Renato Balducci (Renato Salvatori in the same year as his scoundrel performance in Visconti’s “Rocco and His Brothers) is very enthusiastic about a Soviet comrade (how many Soviet prisoners were there in Italy? Not to get into how these three bonded with only two sharing any common language…)

I think Leo Genn (born in 1905 and a real-life WWII officer two decades earlier than when the movie was shot) was too old for the part of Major Pemberton. Also, throughout the movie, he speaks very, very slowly (perhaps helpful for those with marginal English comprehension in the Italian audience?).

I doubted that the actor playing the wounded American bomber pilot was really American, but Peter Bradley (the name of the actor and of his character) was born in Winnetka, Illinois, and eventually said something that convinced me (I don’t recall what it was, though).

The original American release was trimmed down to 82 minutes from the Italian 151. The DVD I saw ran 138 minutes. It seemed overly long with some shots held unnecessarily long. I later learned that Rossellini was enamored with a new zooming capability and delighted not to have to cut as often as previous technology had made necessary.

Despite the protracted length of some shots, the movie is not bad as a thriller, and despite the sentimentality of a Christmas dinner in the attic of Esperia’s apartment, the dangers are not sugarcoated. I find Major Pemberton a bit wimpy, not least in comparison to his alien mates.

The DVD subtitles everything in all three languages, which is just fine with me. It contains no bonus features, but I have three books on Rossellini, and am going to look at the bonus features on the Criterion “War Trilogy” release. Though I consider “Era notte a Roma” (also released in the UK as “Blackout in Rome”) the least of the five Rossellini WWII movies I have seen, not as close to the time of the events portrayed as in the “War Trilogy,” and not among the best of the thousands and thousands of WWII movies, it was fairly absorbing and suspenseful.

©2014, Stephen O. Murray

 

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