Tag Archives: Roberto Rossellini

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.


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.


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


Roberto Rossellini in late-1950s India

I think that Roberto Rossellini made some great films early (Open City, Paisa, Germany Year Zero), some interesting expressionist ones with Ingrid Bergman, and, later in life, some horrendously boring historical biopics (Socrates, Blaise Pascal, and Cartesius, for instance). I was underwhelmed by the four stories and documentary footage he shot in India in 1956, released in 1959 as “India: Matri Bhumi [Mother India].” Though the film has been restored, the colors are quite dull. The dialogue in South Asian languages is not translated. I don’t see the need to read subtitles for Italian voiceovers rather than dubbing them in English.


What I liked best was watching the elephants in the first story, shot in Karapur (after footage of Mumbai, then Bombay, with sententious narration about how tolerant Indians are—less than a decade after the very bloody partition and ethnic cleansing. The narration also rushes over the caste system and ignores altogether starvation.)


In the second part, Nakul, a portly Hindu engineer relocated from what is not Bangladesh (and was then East Pakistan) to work on the construction of the Hirakud dam is about to move on to some other location/project, to the dismay of his wife. First, though he takes a ritual bath in the small and sacred lake that was already there before the reservoir started to fill, and passes a cremation pyre.

Modernization recurs in disruptive form in the preposterous third part in which an old man (who has turned over rice-farming to his two sons) and his two cows coexist with a tiger, whose prey flee trucks and incipient iron mining. The tiger takes on (offscreen) a porcupine and wounded tigers are notorious man-eaters.

The final story stars a monkey trained to entertain (and collect money) whose master seemingly dies of a heatstroke walking between towns. The vultures close in, but do not start pecking the man. The monkey is imperiled by wild monkeys and ends up in a circus. After the very leisurely pace of the monkey episode, and, indeed, the whole movie, it suddenly ends, following a return to the swarming city (Mumbai).

The young woman who catches the eye of the elephant driver (mahoud) in the first episode is a musician in a puppet troupe, the productions of which are pretty awful. There is footage without a story of Benares and the Ganges in the middle. The movie is neorealist in not employing any professional actors, otherwise crypto-documentary (staged vignettes)…. And mostly dull when not focusing on animals (and even then, very stock footage of tigers).

Rossellini credited himself for the screenplay. It was one of his favorites, but perhaps that owes more to the production assistant in India who became his paramour whom he took back with him to Italy, igniting another scandal (not as big a one as the one involving Ingrid Bergman to whom he was still nominally married).

Pros: elephants and monkey

Cons: Italian voiceover narration, slow pace

©2019, Stephen O. Murray

Neorealist commedia d’arte?

I didn’t think that Roberto Rossellini’s one comedy “La macchina ammazzacattivi” (The machine [camera] that kills bad people), shot in 1948, i.e., between “Germany, Year Zero” and the arrival of Ingrid Bergman and “Stromboli,” but not released until 1952, was very funny. The Americans looking for a place to stay that has reliable indoor plumbing becomes tiresome quickly, as does the ogling of Marilyn Buferd (the 1946 Miss America, used here as a sort of proto-Anita Ekberg of Fellini’s later “La Dolce Vita,” a busty alien to excite the men and not called upon to act).


As the photographer Celestino Esposito who is provided by the local patron saint, Sant’Andrea, a method (photographing a photograph) to freeze (fatally) people in the position they were in in a photograph, Gennaro Pisano is reasonably ambivalent as he attempts to right wrongs in an Amalfi coast village. (He was the local coffin-maker, and Sant’Andrea an octogenarian local drunkard, Giovanni Amato.)

Those who offend the empowered photographer invariably overact. Greed is rampant, though the village and villagers have been poor until new blessings accompany mysterious sudden deaths. There’s also a very stupid Romeo and Juliet of a certain age.


Apparently, Rossellini was distracted (and strung out on cocaine) during the spasmodic shooting. He did not complete the black comedy that was released in a cut made by others. It has an artificial end to match the artificial opening and Rossellini probably wanted to say something about film-makers playing God, but couldn’t decide what he wanted to say, or realized that the comic low-tech magic was not adequate to the task.

The explicit moral is announced: “Don’t be too quick to judge and think about it three times before punishing [someone].”

Pros: look at late-1940s Italian coastal village

Cons: not very funny a comedy

(There is no region-1 DVD currently available. Indeed, the movie was thought to be lost for decades.)

©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).


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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