Tag Archives: Italian cinema

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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Rossellini’s “Vanina Vanini”

Roberto Rossellin seized and to some degree made the neor-realist zeitgeist at the end of the Second World War with “Roma città aperta” (Rome, the Open City, 1945), though it was completely scripted, shot mostly in a studio, and starring major Italian movie stars of the day (Aldo Fabrizi and Anna Magnani). The neorealist use of nonactors in real locations burst out in “Paisa” (1946), which was to some degree a historical movie, but with the history being very recent. Similarly, “Germany, Year Zero,” shot in the rubble of Berlin was very recent history, if history at all. Between the latter two movies of what is now seen as “the war trilogy,” Rossellini shot Magnani in a version of Jean Cocteau’s one-character (on a phone) play. “La voix humaine” (The Human Voice), which was not neorealist by any stretch of the term.

Then Ingrid Bergman (who would make another version of “The Human Voice,” in English in 1966) came into his life. Rossellini impregnated the actress, who was married to another man (one of the twins she bore was Isabella Rossellini, future movie star if not of the wattage of her mother), and there was a huge international scandal with Bergman being denounced on the floor of the US Senate. The movies they made together (Stromboli, Europa ’51, Journey to Italy, Fear, 1950-54) were neither commercial nor critical successes at the time though they have come to be regarded much more highly (despite a certain sadism directed at the character of the international star who had come to him).

I have not seen the three immediately post-Bergman Rossellini movies, but hold “Il Generale della Rovere” (1959, with a great performance by fellow neorealist director Vittorio De Sica) in high regard. It and Rossellini’s next film, “Era notte a Roma” (“Escape by Night” in English-language release) returned to the end-of-WWII era of Rossellini’s first masterpieces.

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They were followed by a turn to 19th-century Italy with two 1961 films, the tableaux of “Viva l’Italia!” (Garibaldi in English) and adaptation of Stendahl’s 1829 novella “Vanina Vanini,” which I would say is a bad movie and not one with much claim to being interesting cinema (except for the scenes of forging and flinging chains). Like “Garibaldi,” it t has some scenes with many extras, but, unlike “Garibaldi, thesescenes that are superfluous to the story, a story that is very badly told, dropping its most interesting characters. It is also devoid of the wit and charm of Stendahl’s voice.

At the outset Contessa Vitelleschi (Martine Carol) [Ophuls’s Lola Montès) vouches to the (Papal States) police for a fellow passenger in a stagecoach into Rome, Pietro Missirilli (the tall, slender, never-smiling Lauret Terzieff), who turns out to have come to Rome to kill an informer from the Masonic organization seeking Italian independence (from domination by the Roman Catholic Church and the Catholic majesties of Austria north of the Papal Sates and of Spain south of them).

The killing is very awkwardly shot. Pietro takes refuge in the palace of the countess, and to ensure she is not implicated in a scandal, the prince whose mistress she is, Asdrubale Vanini (Paolo Stoppa) whisks the wounded Mason (in drag) to the attic of his own Roman palace, where his overripe daughter Vanina (the 28-year-old, talentless Sandro Milo, who was the mistress of the film’s producer, Moris Ergas; Stendahl’s title character was 19) is smitten by him.

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Milo and Terzieff have zero chemistry, and their passion is completely unbelievable. She certainly does not know him at all, and to monopolize him (back in Forli, in Romagna where there is a Vanina palace and where Pietro is part of the Masonic conspiracy, though he seems more a late-19th-century Russian nihilist than a champion of independence before the Risorgimento) ensures that he will be permanently separated from her. (The heroine telling all to the enemy recurred from “Era notte.”)

In addition to the countess who disappears (reportedly she had scenes that were shot and excised by the producer in favor of Milo; Ergas reputedly destroyed the negatives of the first three reels of Rossellini’s rough cut and Rossellini was completely absent from the editing of the movie), the other interesting character who simply disappears (after being kidnapped by the revolutionaries) is Vanina’s new confessor (Leonardo Botta, who manages to look like he his smoldering for her more than Terzieff managed to do).

For differing reasons, both Rossellini and the screenwriters disavowed the movie, which also did not have a US release for more than a decade. The screenwriters were appalled by the currying favor with the Church in general (they must have missed the very positive portrayal of churchmen in “Era Notte”!) and the ending Rossellini tacked on in particular; Rossellini with the cuts made by the producer.

In his book on Rossellini, José Luis Guarner claims that Rossellini did “not set out only to record a love story but to disclose the precise social and political factors that dominated the characters, whose destiny is connected with that of Italy”— to which I Say “Pshaw!)

Most of the movie was shot in studio sets that look very fake, and the genial behavior of the cardinals (other than the verbosity of the family’s man in the College of Cardinals, Savelli [Nerio Bernardi]) seems false to me.

I also see the movie as well along the path to the deadly boring and talky later tv movies about major thinkers (Pascal, Socrates, Augustine, Descartes) that are politely described as “anti-narratives.” (Once upon a time, I was more positive about the 1966 “Rise to Power of Louis XIV,” which was made for French television, but have not seen it in decades.)

©2014, 2019, Stephen O. Murray

 

The first Rossellini-Bergman vehicle: “Stromboli”

The first Roberto Rosselini film with Ingrid Bergman is primal drama, though the film was overshadowed by the huge international scandal of their offscreen romance. It is hard to comprehend that the liaison between an actress and a director, each married to others, could lead to the feverish denunciations in the US Congressional Record and American press that were aimed at Bergman. I wasn’t alive at the time, but have read about it.

I come here to praise the actress and the film, and will get around to doing so, and not wallow in the scandal swirling around it during the late 1940s indefinitely, but something of the context in which the film came into existence is important for understanding a film in which veneer of civilization is stripped down to primal forces (the ones here are fire, water, woman, and God).

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In 1948 Bergman was one of the most famous and honored film actresses in the world (after Casablanca, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Gaslight, Notorious, The Bells of St. Mary, and Saint Joan) saw Rossellini’s “Paisan.” Having admired his earlier “The Open City,” she saw what she regarded as “another great movie” in a nearly empty house. In a letter expressing her admiration, she wrote Rossellini that “if you need a Swedish actress who speaks English very well…and who in Italian knows only ‘ti amo,’ I am ready to come and make a film with you.”

Italy had been cut off from American movies during the war, and Rossellini had no interest in Hollywood products. He did not know who Bergman was. When her fame was explained to him, he realized that her name could raise the money for any film project he could imagine. Howard Hughes — wanting to woo Bergman himself – -agreed to finance the film.

Rossellini and Bergman began an affair, and she was soon pregnant. In the film Bergman places Karin, a stateless woman who says she is from Lithuania but whose papers are not sufficient to gain entry to Argentine. To get out of the refugee camp, she agrees to marry Antonio (Mario Vitale), a demobilized soldier who kisses her through barbed wire and tells her that he lives on a beautiful island.

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She badly wants to get out of the refugee camp and looks on Antonio as her only available ticket. What’s love got to do with it? For her, nothing. For him, well, she’s very beautiful, and he does not think much further about their compatibility. Not to mention that they hardly know each other.

Off they go. The island is beautiful—for those who like volcanoes jutting out of the ocean. There is practically no soil on the island and the volcano is very active. Before the war Antonio had his own fishing boat, but now he must work on someone else’s. His rewards are few and do not include a wife fitting into wearing black, covering her hair, taking orders, and doing things they way generations of Sicilian women have.

The few villagers who have not fled to the Italian mainland or to America treat her as an object — an object of desire for the men, an object of scorn for the women as immodest. Constantly watched, rarely spoken to, Karin is desperate to leave. Husband-wife conflicts are shown perfunctorily. The attitudes of the village women and of the village men are also registered economically.

There is also a rain of boulders from the volcano. There is some fascinating footage of the long rowboats fishing, and hitting the jackpot of a run of tuna (half a century ago, the Mediterranean was not fished out, as it now is). And there is the night in which the whole village is crammed onto boats as part of the town is destroyed by a volcanic eruption. There’s much that looks like a documentary. (Rossellini made films about Socrates and the young Louis XIV that seem like documentaries, so showing the life of a fishing village on a volcanic Italian island could be considered a minor feat for him.) Along with Visconti’s “La terra tremenda,” “Stromboli” is where one looks to see what the rugged life of Sicilian fisherman was like.

A paragraph ago, I left Karin desperate to get out. I failed to mention that she’s three-months pregnant. She tries to seduce the priest (Renzo Cesana in a subtle performance) into giving her the money to finance her escape. She flirts with the lighthouse keeper, and with money from him sets off for the other side of the island. The route goes practically to the rim of the crater. As I’ve said, this is a very <b>active</b> volcano. The trek is horrible, even for someone as robust as Bergman. Trying to walk up ash dunes is bad enough, but clouds of ash are even worse. It is vivid! She suffers. She abandons her possessions. She despairs. She chokes. She collapses.

Before she set out on this suicidal escape route, I was amused by her brushing her hair. To make a good impression on the volcano? But it pays off! When the morning sun wakens her, the only possible word to describe her is “radiant.” I must have been watching too many movies with “stars” like Nicole Kidman, Gwynneth Paltrow, Laura Linney, and other mere mortals. Though these contemporary actresses do many admirable things, Ms. Bergman was a force of nature, a worthy opponent for a volcano. Indeed, it is obvious that all Rossellini needed was Bergman and the volcano. Both Bergman and the volcano show many different faces during the film’s last fifteen minutes. The music during the ash storm is overwrought, and some of what Bergman does could be described as “hysterical,” but she also does resignation, determination, and transcendence.

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Karin attains grace through the vehicle of Ingrid Bergman (more convincingly, than Bergman’s Joan of Arc did—this is like Falconetti’s Joan in the flames at the end of Dreyer’s masterpiece). I don’t know what she is going to do with it, or whether she will keep it, or whether it is fleeting, but I have no doubt that what the viewer sees is the attainment of grace. That is more than enough for any movie to do. The fish out of water Bergman-Sicilian fishermen movie is good, but the Bergman and the volcano movie is great. And, eventually, the volcano, too is superfluous. Bergman’s face is, finally, all that is necessary!

I once saw the 81-minute American release with incredibly fatuous narration. It is no wonder that it was a failure. The original Italian version is 108 minutes and is a great and beautiful film though it is certainly not a pleasant film.

 

©2001, Stephen O. Murray

Desperation in bombed-out Berlin

“Germania, anno zero” (Germay, Year Zero”) was the third film of Roberto Rossellini’s ending of World War II trilogy. “Roma, città aperta,” filmed as the Nazis were retreating from Rome and released as “The Open City” was an international sensation. If Rossellini did not invent Italian neo-realism with that legendary film, he was the first Italian director noticed in the English-speaking world. “Paisà,” the second film of the trilogy, is episodic, like “The Open City,” with segments from six Italian locales, moving north with the Allied invaders/liberators. Rossellini shot the third film in Berlin within a year of Hitler’s death using non-actors. Rossellini found Edmund Moeschke, the twelve-year old who is in almost every scene, in a traveling circus in which his parents performed.

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The film opens with a prolonged tracking shot of bombed buildings. Except for short reaction shot, the camera continues to move through the 75 minutes of this grim masterpiece. From surveying the rubble, the camera moves in to watch workers, almost all of them women with headscarves, digging graves. A supervisor chastises them for not digging regulation-sized holes and then notices a blond boy and asks to see his papers. The boy, who could have been a poster child for a Hitler Youth poster, claims to have left his work permit at home. One of the women informs the supervisor that Edmund was a classmate of her son and is only twelve.

She also berates him for taking food from the mouths of the families of the legitimate workers. The viewer soon realizes how bitterly ironic this is, because Edmund’s scavenging work, coal, etc. is the sole support of his family of four, which includes an invalid father, an adult brother who is afraid to register for work because he fought for the Reich until the end, and a sister who goes to night clubs to scrounge cigarettes from soldiers of the occupying armies. (I thought the brother must have been in the S. S., but was in the Wermacht; I am not sure whether “taxi-hall dancer” was supposed to be understood as “prostitute,” as for instance in Donna Reed’s character in “From Here to Eternity” made six years later.)

Of the four or five families crammed into an apartment that survived the bombing, the Koeler’s are the most vulnerable and the one most despised by the apartment’s owner. Out on the street, Edmund has a tough time. He is cheated by strangers and by ostensible friends.

He runs into an extremely creepy former teacher, Herr Enning, who behaves inappropriately with Edmund and is, I think, supposed to be understood as a pedophile. (This is less than clear both because of the censorship of the time and because there was no opportunity for Edmund to be a child in the desperate straits his family was sinking in. When he tries to join some children playing soccer in the street, they reject him.)

Herr Enning, who is a unreconstructed Nazi, wants Edmund to sell a phonograph recording of Hitler as a souvenir to conquering troops. To do this, Edmund plays the record in the ruins of the chancellery (Hitler was first elected chancellor). The familiar voice echoing through the ruins gives a German man walking by quite a start before the transaction is concluded.

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Major Plot Spoilers

Edmund confides in his former teacher some of his anguish about his father. Herr Enning repeats the Social Darwinist position that only the strong deserve to survive and the weak must be eliminated. After Edmund’s father moans that it would be better for everyone including himself if he died, but that he does not have the courage to kill himself, Edmund undertakes eugenic correction and poisons his father’s tea. When he tells Herr Enning that he has applied eugenic policy, Herr Enning denies having recommended such action and calls Edmund a monster.

The camera continues to follow Edmund through the rubble-lined streets, past a bombed-out church in which a priest is playing Bach on the organ, and up to where he can see his father’s corpse being removed. He removes his coat and jumps to his own death. Cinematographer Robert Julliard films Edmund as another piece of rubble.

Evaluations

Though short, this is a very intense film. Before the Nazi defeat, Edmund was a Hitler Youth and to a considerable degree continued to be one as an increasingly feral child. Not even Bach and the Holy Mother Church can save him. A message at the beginning implores compassion for children like Edmund, but the script (by a group of writers including Rossellini, but, unlike the preceding two films, not Federico Fellini) and the way it is filmed provide none.

Julliard frequently shot from above the characters in what I think was intended to be “eye of God” documentary perspective. Although 1940s audiences may have accepted Rossellini’s trilogy as near documentary, much in them seems very operatic to me. The music (by Renzo Rossellini) is all instrumental, but is often overwrought. Taking Hitler’s voice back to the chancellery is about as staged as anything I can imagine, and the finale is the same as that in the most famous verismo opera.

There is practically no dialogue in the last 10-15 minutes of the film, and in various shots of Edmund walking around, but the indoor scenes have torrents of dialogue. It must have been dubbed into rapid-fire Italian, because the cast members all have German names, and because all Italian film of the time were dubbed rather than being filmed with sound, but I was too occupied trying to keep up with the subtitles to try to check matches of sounds and lip movements.

At the time, Rossellini was criticized for portraying Nazi survivors in ways that provoked sympathy or pity for them and neglecting to point out that they brought destruction on themselves. Edmund is simultaneously a monster and a victim of disasters brought down on him by adults. I can’t imagine anyone arguing that he or his father (whom we learn tried to keep him from being enrolled by his school as a Hitler Youth) got off easily. (I would be ready to argue that Herr Ebbing did, however.) Like the slum child (decades later) “Pixote,” Edmund Koeler seems to succeed at doing whatever it takes to survive, so it is hard to judge him by standards of more humane civilizations, and seeing children denied childhood continues to be a very troubling phenomenon today. Although Berlin has been rebuilt, there are many places in which children are scrambling to survive the aftermath of political/military disasters, so that Edmund’s dilemmas continue to face others.

©2002, Stephen O. Murray

Rossellini’s St. Francis (& Co.)

“Francesco, Giullare di Dio,” which means Francis, the fool or the jester of God, has been known in English by the title of the collection of utterances of St. Francis of Assisi, “The Little Flowers (I fioretti) of Saint Francis.” The episodic (one might say “anti-dramatic”) 1950 movie—directed by Roberto Rossellini, written by Federico Fellini and Rossellini—is actually more based on The Life of Father Ginapro than on The Little Flowers. There are only three (of the total of ten) episodes that are drawn from The Little Flowers.

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Brother Ginapro, played by Brother Severino Pisacane, was a simple (verging on “simple-minded”) follower of Francis within the original band (on the plain below the Umbrian hill-town of Assisi). Brother Ginapro is the focus of the three of the most memorable sequences from the film (explaining how he was returning again without his tunic, cooking all the food at once, and going off to preach to invaders), plus the wince-inducing “How Brother Ginapro Cut Off the Leg of a Pig for a Sick Brother”).

Rather than the story of the life of St. Francis (as in Franco Zeffirelli’s gorgeous, big-budget color-film reconstruction of the era in the 1972 “Brother Sun, Sister Moon”), Rossellini et al. made the film about the collective. There is a wordless scene of Francis overcoming his antipathy to embrace a leper and one of him talking to (more than preaching at) birds, but most often he is shown subordinating his wit and will (and ego) to the lowest common denominator, level of the masses—not just his band of followers, but those they encounter outside their cramped living quarters and more imposing chapel.

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Francis (a charismatic Brother Nazario Gerardi) and his followers were played by actual Franciscan monks (novices) of the Nocera Inferiore Monastery near Maiori. Fellini had found them immediately after World War II. He and Rossellini persuaded them to play on-screen monks in a quietest interlude of Rossellini’s episodic (but very dramatic in its other segments) 1946 film Paisá. The one professional actor involved, Aldo Fabrizi, hammed it up as the oversize tyrant Nicolaio, first in ludicrous armor hiding his face, then making faces in heavy makeup at Brother Ginapro. (The grotesque humor of this and the other Ginapro sequences is very unlike anything else in the body of Rossellini’s work, though his daughter Isabella claims he was very funny in real life. Genaro’s (mis)adventures foreshadows sequences of surrealistic humor in several Fellini movies, and these scenes must have been written primarily by Fellini.)

Although made during the tumult of European rebuilding after the Second World War, shorn of the opening historical contextualization that originally opened the movie (some of the footage is included as an extra on the Criterion DVD), there is a timeless quality to the movie. The fervent band of brothers have cassocks (and tonsures) and are shown out in the countryside. Since the movie only covers a few years of the life of Francis and his disciples, there is no need for the costumes and decor of his earlier life as the son of a rich merchant or of his visit to the pope (phases that Zeffirelli shot in San Gimignano and Monreale, respectively). The brothers are out in the rain or out in the country or in the two modest edifices they build. When Brother Ginapro goes to preach to the barbarian invaders, they look like Vikings. The tyrant has a tent, but that and the stairway of one medieval house are the only interiors other than the two huts and chapel of the proto-order of Franciscans on the plain below Assisi. The town of Assisi is never shown. (Obviously, the great basilica in which Francis is entombed was not built until after the stories that are illustrated in the movie, an Little Flowers was written after his death.)

The final sequence is a particular marvel. Francis disbands the monastery, sending the brothers out into the world to preach. They ask him where they should go. He has them spin until they are dizzy and then to go in the direction they face when they fall. There is a lengthy medium shot of Franciscan whirling dervishes. All but the old man, Giovanni, fall. He cannot turn fast enough to get dizzy. There are closeups of Francis patiently watching, and Giovanni slowly spinning. The real-life beggar who played the part did not remember what he was supposed to say (the name of a town, like what the others had said) and said he would “go in the directions those birds are flying.” Rossellini realized that this was a far better (more Franciscan) answer than the one Giovanni was supposed to provide. The men disperse, singing. As they disappear off the edge of the frame or become smaller and smaller on the screen as they move off, the chorus (singing a “Te Deum Laudamus”) swells on the soundtrack.

Rossellini (et al.) never mocks the simple(-minded) children of God who gather around Francis nor condescends to the joys of self-mortification of Francis and his merry men. There is no psychology, no political, economic, or psychological analysis. Rossellini had real Franciscans show something of the origins of their order and documented it without fancy camerawork. Though the camera is not static, it mostly stays at eye level. The cinematography of Otello Martelli is unobtrusive, but generally beautiful. Insofar as it is possible to show hope in a shattered world (an earlier one than the bombed-out one shown in Paisá and, even more so, in Germany, Year Zero (1947)), Martelli and the Franciscans did so.

The movie was released for the Christmas season of the Jubilee Year of 1950 and was a resounding commercial failure (grossing $13,000 in its Italian release). Even more than Umberto D, which also lost money for producer/publisher Angelo Rizzoli, its recognition came from outside Italy and more slowly. (It was championed by André Bazin, whose essay is included in the Criterion DVD booklet. Truffaut and Pasolini were outspoken in their admiration of the movie—and Pasolini’s own “The Testament According to St. Matthew” was clearly influenced by the look of the band of Franciscan brothers in Rossellini’s movie. American advocate of auteur theory, Andrew Sarris, placed “Little Flowers” in the #8 slot in his listing of the best movies of all times. On its initial release—at a time that Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman were being denounced in the US Senate—the leftist critics were appalled at the lack of social realism (mandated by Stalinist culture policy) and collusion with Catholic mystification, while some Catholic critics were upset that the saint was shown as human (shorn of his halo) and leading a band of half-wits and suspected that Rossellini was trying to ingratiate himself with the Church after the condemnation of many of his earlier movies, “The Miracle” in particular, by cardinals and by the US Catholic Legion of Decency.)

The restored print and sound are clear (this is a Criterion release, and they do things right there! The images are even sharper than on the Eureka PAL edition available in Europe). There are two very insightful analyses of the movie and its place in Rossellini’s body of work. The first (in English) comes from his daughter, Isabella Rossellini, who also adds some personal memories of her father and discusses her father’s relationship with Fellini and how their very different sensibilities worked perfectly together for this project. The second analysis (in Italian) comes from film historian Adriano Apra, who has interesting things to say about the movie’s place in Rossellini’s life and work. The extra drawing most heavily on “what Rossellini told me and what I think were his real feelings about religion” comes not form his daughter but from a Jesuit priest and film critic, Father Virgilio Fantuzzi. The disc also includes some of the preface to the movie, which laid out the 13th-century context in voice-over of paintings by Giotto and his followers. A longer preface was part of the film’s première at the Venice Film Festival, but was lost. (Apra reports that an eleventh vignette, involving Francis and a prostitute, was shot and edited, but excised before the Venice Film Festival showing. All that seems to remain of it is a still.) There is also a 32-page booklet that I have not seen.

The two movies starring Ingrid Bergman that Rossellini shot before and after “Little Flowers,” Stromboli (1949) and “Europa ’51” (1951, obviously) show modern women attempting to simplify their life. Bergman’s character in “Stromboli” has a spiritual epiphany on the slope of an active volcano (on an island west of Sicily). Her character in “Europa ’51” attempts to devote herself to those in need, but her family has her committed to a mental institution for her efforts, which must be Rossellini’s view of what would happen to a 20th-century St. Francis. The failure of grace in the ruins of Europe after World War II was also the subject of Rossellini’s “Germany, Year Zero”. Rossellini’s later movies were, like “Little Flowers,” focused on figures in history contributing to changes in consciousness (Francis was central to a revival of “primitive Christianity” that was accepted by Pope Innocent III).

©2005, Stephen O. Murray

The late Bernardo Bertolucci’s best film: “The Conformist”

“Everybody wants to be different, and you want to be the same as everybody” — Italo

I think that “Il Conformista” (The Conformist, 1970) is Bernardo Bertolucci’s (1941-2018) masterpiece—not his multi-Oscar-winning “The Last Emperor” or his once-sensational “The Last Tango in Paris” or even his early and brilliant modern-dress version of The Charterhouse of Parma, “Before the Revolution.” “The Conformist,” Bertolucci’s fourth feature film,” is one of the most visually designed films every made—to the extent that the compositions, sets, and color schemes tend to overwhelm Alberto Moravia’s story of an authority-seeking personality, Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant (Red, Z, Amour) in a clenched/repressed portrayal that seems to have come out of the etiological model of Wilhelm Reich).

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Those not knowing the story from Moravia’s once famous (and recently reprinted novel) may lose their bearings in the unmarked flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks. Bertolucci (et al.) obey the admonition to show, not tell, though there is some exposition in several scenes (which lead to some of the flashbacks). The primary adolescent trauma/guilt is made visible, and the adult crime is made way too visible IMO. And there are two bravura portrayals of Clerici trapped in crowds whose emotions he does not share but whose density makes getting out impossible.

I could go on for pages just listing the eye-popping visual compositions, but will confine myself to mentioning two: the Paris-bound train with reflections and totally saturated colors (shifting from orange to blue) outside the window and the apartment of Clerici’s fiancee, Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli [Divorce Italian Style, Seduced and Abandoned, and Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty]), She is wearing a white dress with thick black v-lines and the room is illuminated by horizontal lights from the Venetian blinds.

Bertolucci’s usual cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (who also shot “Apocalypse Now” and “Reds”) is a genius uninhibited by realisms (neo- or any other kind), Ditto for set designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti. Was either of them even nominated for an Oscar for their astounding accomplishments? No. The art direction Oscar went to the unmemorable “Nicholas and Alexander,” the cinematography one went to a talented cinematography, Oswald Morris, for the inferior (to “The Conformist”) “Fiddler on the Roof.” The only Oscar nomination “The Conformist” garnishes was one to Bertolucci for adapted screenplay. The Italian entry for Best Foreign-Language Film that year was “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” (which shared Dominque Sanda with “The Conformist” and also had very striking set designs and looked back at the dark days of fascism in Italy…and won the award).

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Oh, yes, the plot. Putting it into chronological order, the 13-year-old Clerici felt great guilt (partly blaming himself for attempted abuse) and sought to be normal. Given what we see of his parents (twenty or so years later, in 1938) this was quite a challenge: the father was certified crazy and the mother became a morphine addict, supplied and otherwise serviced by her Japanese chauffeur. Clerici’s conformism included supporting the regime in power (Mussolini’s). We don’t know/see what the basis of Clerici’s friendship with a blind fascist (José Quaglio) is, but the friend recommends Clerici for a job with the secret police. Clerici is issued a pistol, with which he plays as he had when he was 13. He is sent off to Paris to assassinate a dissident, whose student Clerici had been before Professor Quadri (Enzo Tarascio) exiled himself to Paris.

Plot spoiler alert

Clerici combines his assassination mission with his honeymoon. Before the church wedding, he has to go to confession—for the first time since his first communion, and makes explicit that he is marrying the lively, conventional bourgeois Giulia to appear “normal.”

When he gets to Paris (after a very color-saturated train trip that I’ve already mentioned) he goes to meet Quadri and is besotted by Quadri’s wife, the stunning and more-than-a-little perverse Anna (Dominique Sanda [who also starred in Bertolucci’s “1900”]) who toys with seducing Giulia and (very rightly!) mistrusts Clerici.

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It seems to me that Clerici is following orders which were replaced, but this provides the ultra-bleu Paris sequences. It also seems to me that the assassination could have been accomplished much more easily. I don’t remember if Moravia made it so gruesome, but strongly suspect that the sadism is as much Bertolucci’s as the assassins’.

Even within a plot-spoiler alert, I won’t reveal the compounding ironies of the conclusion. Of course, they are visually striking, including a bust of Mussolini that has been pulled down and almost hits Clerici. There are subtle aspects of the film, but also some symbolism that makes me laugh at its uninhibited outrageousness. (There are also compositions so stylized that they make me laugh—in appreciation rather than in mockery, I want to stress: if you’re going to stylize, you might as well go all out, and Bertolucci et al. do!)

After hearing broadcast of Mussolini’s resignation, Clerici goes out into the street to “see how a dictatorship falls.” The mob differs little from the one(s) worshipped Il Duce. This is the second time Clerici is trapped (the first on the dancefloor in Paris). After the shock of finding out that he had not killed Lino (a now peroxided ruin of his former glamorous self, but still speaking of a kimono in luring sexual prey), it seems that Clerici is ready to walk on the homosexual side (on a night of carnivalesque celebration for the end of the fascist dictatorship Clerici has served). This final shot is ambiguous.

End plot-spoiler alert

I have no doubt that “The Conformist” is a great film, though not always a good movie. And I think that Bertolucci indulged in some sadism of his own, as well as encouraging and using the astonish art direction and bravura cinematography. From my vague memories of reading Moravia’s novel that is the film’s source decades ago, I think that Bertolucci had considerably less interest in showing the psychology of mass fascism than Moravia, too. (This makes its ongoing relevance to donning “the breastplate of righteousness” and reactionary politics to compensate for secret deviance—as in the recently publicized case of Idaho Senator Larry Craig—less imediately obvious.)

Any temptation to deduct a star from my rating is blocked by appreciation for the superb visual transfer of this incredibly visual a film. I’d have liked the original Italian trailer to have been included, but have to laud the three-part “making of” feature in which Bertolucci and Storaro are very articulate in English. Bertolucci talks a lot about himself and his career. Storaro talks as much about the storyline(s) as about the cinematography, which demonstrates that his brilliant work was in service for a vision of the story, not just showing off.

On the DVD, the film may be viewed in Italian, English, Spanish and Portuguese with the option for subtitles in the last three. I saw the dubbed-into-English version decades ago, and opted for subtitled Italian, fully aware that like all Italian films of the era, the Italian dialogue was dubbed in after shooting—and that Trintignant probably delivered his lines in French. (His lips are indeed out of synch with the Italian, except in saying the “Hail Mary” with his young son, and whoever did his character’s Italian also did the character’s French, rather than Trintignant, a native speaker of French).

I am confused about what was restored to the film. Bertolucci says that he cut it down to two hours at the behest of the distributor in 1970, but the “director’s recut” here still runs only 115 minutes. It is also unclear whether some of the wedding material was cut (if so, it should never have been) or the party of the blind people (which is quite perplexing where it is in the film; it is another dazzling piece of sincematography and direction, but there is no shortage of such pieces in the film and the characters who are squabbling don’t reappear (I’m pretty sure)).

 

©2007, Stephen O. Murray

 

“It is a shameful thing to win a war”

In one of the bonus features on the Cohen DVD of “La Pelle” (The Skin, 1981), writer-director Liliana Cavani (The Night Porter) contends that Curzio Malaparte (1898-1957, né Kurt Erich Suckert) was a reporter — indeed, a great reporter — rather than a novelist (though Kaput (1944) is somewhat fictionalized). She noted that even the most grotesque events in The Skin were accounts of things that occurred, indeed, recurred in Naples after the Nazis left and the Americans took over. In (1983) essay “The Tragedy of Central Europe” novelist Milan Kundera, focused on Kaputt, wrote: “It is strange, yes, but understandable: for this reportage is something other than reportage; it is a literary work whose aesthetic intention is so strong, so apparent, that the sensitive reader automatically excludes it from the context of accounts brought to bear by historians, journalists, political analysts, memoirists.”

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(Malparte in internal exile on Lipari, 1936)

The Skin (first published in 1949, quickly added to the Catholic Church’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum) has lots and lots of dialogue in French. The scenes go on and on and on and do not seem to cohere into even a baggy novel. The dialogue between liaison officer Malaparte and the naïve colonel, Jack Hanmilton, who is eager to be a good guy, include many lectures about human nature in general and that of a starving conquered people in particular. The welcome of “liberators” was short-lived, and without selling their flesh and that of their children (Cavani only shows boys being pawed over by Moroccan soldiers; Malaparte wrote about very young girls as well as boys being sold for food or a few liras.) I don’t think the boyish colonel from Cleveland ever grasps that the Neapolitans regard him and the soldiers expecting cheap thrills regard their new rulers as not very different than the Nazis who ruled Naples before the Americans arrived or the fascists who ruled before that. Each successive regime required resourcefulness from those wanting to survive—and acquiescence to the prostitution or rape of women and children. Lecturing the Johnnies-come-lately, Malaparte said “You’ve no idea what a man will do, what deeds of heroism and infamy he can accomplish, to save his skin . . . They think they are fighting and suffering to save their souls, but in reality they are fighting and suffering to save their skins, and their skins alone.”

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The movie replaces the colonel with 3-star general Mark Cork (a slight variant on Mark Clark), a publicity-eager commander of the 5th US Army annoyed by the arrival of the wife of a Massachusetts senator. Deborah Wyatt (Romanian-born Alexandra King in the only role in IMDB) is a pilot who flies her own plane in from Sicily. Malaparte plays Vergil to her Dante (though Malaparte is the one who writes about the post-apocalyptic reality).

Malaparte is urbane past the line of cynicism, but with compassion for the Americans as well as for the Neapolitans. Wyatt is another American unwilling to recognize the reality of either the locals’ desperation or the rapaciousness of the GIs. After she boards a truck filled with GIs and is manhandled she has had enough of occupation reality and goes home, much to the relief of Gen. Cork.

Malaparte shrugs in the Mastroianni manner. He has his villa on the coast of Capri and noble friends including the Principessa Consuelo Caracciolo, a mostly wasted Claudia Cardinale. (In none of the bonus features does Cavani comment on Cardinale’s reduced part. She enthuses about the graciousness and helpfulness of Mastroianni and Lancaster, however.)

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(Villa Malaparte, Capri)

Captain Jimmy Wren (Ken Marshall [Krull]) falls in love with the professional virgin (who displays her intact hymen to lines of soldiers for a price collected by her father) and retains some of his good cheer and eagerness to help Maria Concetta (Liliana Tari) and her light-fingered younger brother.

Malaparte does not call out hypocrisy, even while showing the deleterious effects of American naiveté mixed with self-righteousness: “No one on this earth save the Americans can move about with such easy, smiling grace among people who are filthy, starved and unhappy. It is not a sign of insensibility: it is a sign of optimism and at the same time of innocence,” he explains. “The Americans are not cynics, they are optimistic and optimism is itself a sign of innocence. He who is blameless in thought and deed is led not to deny that evil exists, but to refuse to admit that evil is inevitable and incurable. The Americans believe that misery, hunger, pain and everything else can be combatted, that men can recover from misery, hunger, and pain, that there is a remedy for all evil. They do not know that evil is incurable.”

Both book and movie show the American soldiers going all out to aid Neaoplitans after Mount Vesuvius erupts and a cloud of ashes fall on Naples. There is a great bit in the book in which American planes attack a could of molten particles before it can blow over the city. There is something crazy about machine-gunning a cloud so that it will drop what it is carrying, but the real folie de grandeur is plane that approaches too close, is sucked in, and explodes. The explosion results in the fall of the molten material over the sea. Before the advent of CGI, I assume that the scene was too expensive to try to film.

Concerned that American audiences would not accept a portrayal of “the greatest generation” as anything less than noble (well after “Catch-22” and “M*A*S*H”) led Warner Brothers to back out the contract to release “The Skin,” which never had a US theatrical release (though eventually receiving a splendid 2014 DVD with a commentary track and various bonus feature interviews of Cavani and set designer Dante Ferretti).

Not least for scaling back the portrayals of African American sex fiends and libertine homosexual communists (admittedly a switch from blaming fascism on homosexuals), but also in bringing out narrative lines, I think the movie is better than the book. I still think the greatest portrait of desperation in “liberated” Naples is the section of Roberto Rosselini’s “Paisa” in which an African American’s shoes are stolen and he follows the young thief to the cavern where hundreds of Neapolitans are living. Malaparte also reported the hunting of horny African Americans to rob, and with a greater taste for Grand Guignol, what Malaparte wrote fit with Norman Lewis’s more detached (and less probing) Naples 44: A World War II Diary of Occupied Italy (1978) and John Horne Burns’s more sentimental 1947 American best-seller The Gallery. (It seems to me that Malaparte was less harsh about the Americans than Burns, btw.)

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Aside from the universal practice of post-dubbing dialogue rather than shooting with sound (so that even the Italians’ lines are out of synch with lip movement; Mastroianni allegedly spoke English in scenes with Lancaster and Marshall), there is the oddity of lines in Italian being translated (by Malaparte) into Italian. I don’t see why an international release could not have had the Americans speak English and the Italians speak Italians (it’s not like “The Leopard” in which Lancaster was playing a Sicilian character…).

Malaparte, who had marched on Rome with Mussolini in 1922 and had official backing from various periodicals, was ejected from the Fascist Party in 1933, and jailed and/or sent into internal exile multiple times before landing a position as Italian Liberation Corps Liaison Officer to the American High Command in Italy from November 1943 to March 1946. Consistently sympathizing with authoritarians, he flirted with the Roman Catholic Church and the Italian Communist Party (though continuing to look askance at homosexual communists) and at the time of his death was enthusiastic about Mao, who was engaged in the famine-productng disaster of “the Great Leap Forward.” Malaparte’s will left his villa on Capri to the PRC, though his family succeeded in contesting the will.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray