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