Italy

Rossellini Reality

Yes… more neorealism.

Roberto Rossellini Paisà Movie Poster

But unlike Brief Encounter, Rossellini’s Paisan seems to benefit from his adoption of the neorealist aesthetic, to the point where I was about to write that, while the British film was fiction, Paisan is actually a documentary.  It’s not, of course.  It’s just as fictional as other films in the genre, it somehow feels real.

Perhaps this is just a reflection of the great Italian’s filmmaking genius, or maybe the subject matter–Italy during WWII–lends itself to neorealism unlike any other time and place in history.

That second argument certainly made itself very present in Rossellini’s earlier neorealist movie on the same subject, Rome, Open City.  But unlike Open City, Paisan does away with both politics and melodrama.  It is a film composed of a series of vignettes that are extremely sad, but never falls into the typical trap of trying to drive the point of the character’s suffering into the audience with a sledgehammer.  The situations are simply presented as they are, and the sadness often comes from the audience knowing more about the situation than the characters do.

The sparse approach to the material works perfectly, and though it doesn’t escape from the bane of realist art (namely, the sense that it just presents situations and answers no questions and offers no fulfillment), at least it isn’t maudlin realism, where you are invited to dwell upon the futility of existence and the fact that only suffering can break the monotony.

So, while this isn’t a film you’d watch to get your spirits up after a breakup, it’s still the apogee of neorealism and probably the only one you need to see to get a sense for the aesthetics and sensibilities of that particular postwar phenomenon.  It will not uplift you, but it will edify.

Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini

The nicely weird thing we can report is that Rossellini’s three realist films were the ones that inspired Ingrid Bergman to write to him offering he services.  While initially wanting to act for him, they eventually became the cover of the scandal sheets… in the fifties, two people who had a high-profile affair while married to others caused a lot of comment.

Of course, eventually, Rossellini left Ingrid for another married woman, and caused an even bigger scandal (and got himself thrown out of India)… but that’s a story for another day.

 

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Eventually, the War Ended

rome-open-city-1945-700x987

Even in Italy, a country that was, to a degree ravaged by both sides in WWII, the conflict eventually came to an end, and things went back to normal, even to the point where politically charged films could be made.

Of course, the open wound that directors could stick their cameras into was the memory of the war itself and the deep divisions in Italian society.  So for our next film from the 1001 films to see before you die, we give you Roma, Città Aperta (Rome, Open City), the first of Roberto Rossellini‘s Neorrealist films, and probably the most raw.

It’s a film about fear and loyalty–both extreme loyalty and the confused, divided kind–as well as about betrayal, and the cost of not being true.

It’s also a film about strange bedfellows in which we see a Catholic Priest share the fate of a Communist revolutionary, and women dying alongside their men.

All of these effects are heightened by how it looks.  The lack of availability of adequate processing facilities as well as the difficulty in obtaining film stock means that the imagery isn’t of the quality one expected from the era; at times, it looks more like a war documentary filmed at the front than the output of a studio.

romeopencity3-1600x900-c-default

The one criticism that has been leveled against it is valid: this is more of a melodramatic piece than an unflinching slice of realism.  But even that works in the film’s favor, making it more powerful than a pure expression of realist ideas could have achieved.

But powerful as what?  This isn’t so much an anti-war film as one that decries the hypocrisy of humanity.  I feel that, melodrama aside, it shrugs its shoulders at the way we are… and therein lies its ultimate success, and its capacity to be classified as neorrealist.

It’s impossible to analyze it further without spoilers, but this truly is a film that everyone should see.  People haven’t changed since it was made, after all.

 

The Etruscans – and Their Chariots

Etruscan Chariot Race

The most ironic thing about the Etruscans of central and northern Italy is the fact that their very success doomed them to present-day obscurity and mystery. The reason for this is that the twelve great Etruscan city-states were probably the greatest single influence on Rome before its expansion. In fact, many in the ancient world considered Rome, despite its Latin language and origins, to be an Etruscan city. Etruscan territory was also among the first to be annexed into the growing Roman domain, and the descendants of the Rasna (or Rasenna), as they called themselves, were made into Roman citizens along with the rest of the Italians, at a very early date.

The upshot is that it becomes very difficult in the present day to separate pre-Roman pure Etruscan civilization from what occurred in the region after the Romans swept everything away. The fact that their language has never been adequately deciphered (it is one of those stand-alone oddities like Basque) has not helped much either.

Consequently, much of the history of the Etruscans has been pieced together through the years, using burial sites and art. From carvings found in burial sites and elsewhere we know that the Etruscans did indeed have chariot races: two and three horse teams pulling one-person baskets. By the prominence of chariot racing in Etruscan visual art, it is clear that the sport held a significant spot in Rasna hearts during the first half of the 5th century BCE, with some differences from the way it was practiced in Greece, including the use of a helmet.

Other sports practiced by the Etruscans include discus and javelin throwing, wrestling and horse-racing, end there is even speculation that they introduced the Romans to gladiatorial games.

Experts believe that the most important sporting events in ancient Etruria took place during religious ceremonies such as burials, which makes the situation in the story extremely probable, apart from the fantasy element, especially considering the proliferation of deities within the Etruscan pantheon.

Etruscan women were considered equal to the men, much to the consternation of Greek visitors to the region often exercised. This has led to a series of defamatory articles written by certain Greek historians which are suspected to be at least partly apocryphal.

Erotic Etruscan Threesome Tomb Art

While tomb artwork does indicate that Etruscan society was sexually liberal, there is little to indicate that no one was quite certain as to who their father was, something that Greek travelers hinted at! Etruscan women were certainly interested in their bodies, and often exercised, but were not allowed to participate in the sporting events themselves.

Ethiopia in WWII – Part 2

haile selassie

Today we bring you the second part of Stacy Danielle Stephens’ story of Ethiopia in WWII from her monumental historical novel.  We’re certain you’ll enjoy it as much as we did!

On November 14th, 1935, Stanley Baldwin’s Tories won what would be the last general election to be held in the UK for nearly ten years. Baldwin again sent his foreign minister, Sir Samuel Hoare, to Paris, where he met with Laval on December 7th. By the following day, the two of them had devised what would be known as the Hoare-Laval Plan[1]. It was a potential compromise affording both Mussolini and Ethiopian Emperor Haile Sellasie a way out of a war which was not especially promising for either of them. More importantly, it would have precluded Hitler’s wooing a disgraced Mussolini away from the allies who had allowed his misstep to become an embarrassment.

Put simply, the plan would have given Mussolini a portion of Ethiopia, with which he could declare victory and promote Italy’s King Victor Emmanuel to the rank of Emperor. In exchange for this territorial concession, the remainder of Ethiopia would be left intact and independent, and spared the further ravages of a continued war. Unfortunately, a French official gave copies of the plan to a pair of reporters. Details of it were published in the Daily Telegraph in London, and by two papers in Paris.

As a work of statesmanship, the plan was unparalleled, and, since everybody got something, it typified what Laval had always sought in every dispute he’d had to arbitrate. But in Britain and France, as well as in the US, the public perceived it as what it was: a compromise. In strictly moral terms, it was utterly wrong.

On December 17th, Laval’s government narrowly survived a vote of confidence in the Chamber of Deputies. By December 27th, Paul Reynaud, leading the conservative Democratic Alliance, and Léon Blum, leading the Socialists, had joined the opposition against him, and the vote of confidence they called for was even closer than it had been ten days earlier.

On January 22nd, 1936, while Laval himself was in Geneva, the Radical-Socialist Party withdrew its support, and his government fell. On January 24th, Albert Sarraut was named Prime Minister of France.

* * *

In Geneva, Switzerland, on Tuesday, June 30th, 1936, Edvard Beneš, President of the Assembly, called the meeting to order, and then resigned. Belgian Prime Minister, Paul van Zeeland, came forward to take his place and continued with the next order of business, an appeal to the League from Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie. Although Italy had withdrawn its delegation from the League on May 12th, 1936, there were still journalists from Italy in the audience. They began jeering the moment Selassie was introduced. Nicolae Titulescu, the permanent representative of Romania to the League, immediately stood and shouted, “A la Porte, les Sauvages![2]” When the offending parties had been removed, Selassie began speaking[3].

“I, Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, am here today to claim that justice which is due to my people, and the assistance promised to us,” he began. “There is no precedent for a Head of State himself speaking in this assembly. But there is also no precedent for a people being victim of such injustice and being at present threatened by abandonment to its aggressor.”

For the first several minutes, he summarized the atrocities which had occurred in the aggression against his nation, reminding the League that they themselves had defined Italy’s actions as aggression, and condemned them, but taken no real action to end them. And he assured the League that the atrocities which had been reported to them were factual; that he had witnessed them himself.

In the concluding minutes of his address, he explained that the League’s concern was really no longer the survival of Ethiopia, but of the League itself, and that international morality was at stake. “Placed by the aggressor face to face with the accomplished fact, are States going to set the terrible precedent of bowing before force?” he asked. “And the great Powers who have promised the guarantee of collective security to small States on whom weighs the threat that they may one day suffer the fate of Ethiopia, I ask what measures do you intend to take?

“I have come to Geneva to discharge in your midst the most painful of the duties of a head of State,” he concluded. “What reply shall I have to take back to my people?”

The League of Nation’s only response was a decision by the League Council, on July 4th, to suspend economic sanctions against Italy. Fighting in Ethiopia had ended sixty days earlier.

* * *

italian troops in ethipioa with mussolini flag

Ethiopia was the final African nation to be subdued by a European power. Italy had last attempted this subduction forty years earlier, but on March 1, 1896, the Ethiopians had defeated and humiliated the Italians at the battle of Adwa. At that time, there were public disturbances in every Italian city, and full-scale riots in both Naples and Rome. Police were unable to disperse the crowd that continuously threw rocks at Prime Minister Crispi’s office, and when the army was sent to quell the riot, civilians barricaded the rail lines, preventing the army from intervening. Crispi resigned on March 14th, 1896, and King Umberto declared a national day of mourning.

* * *

In 1936, Italy was again humiliated, even though Ethiopia had been defeated. Italy’s mismanagement of the war in the first several months allowed the Ethiopians to inflict heavy casualties and impede Italian advances, in spite of being poorly equipped and inadequately supplied. When Mussolini resorted to the widespread use of poison gas against civilians and non-military targets, the profound American goodwill Air Marshal Balbo had established at Chicago in 1933 was irretrievably lost, and throughout 1936, at every theater in the US, if Haile Selassie appeared in a newsreel, the audience applauded and cheered.

And while most Italians were pleased and proud to be citizens of what was now an empire, even such a limited war was beyond Italy’s capacities. Mussolini had blamed economic hardships on the League of Nations embargo, but it had been largely ineffective, and once it was lifted, it became increasingly clear that Italy would not soon recover from building its empire, and could never recover the costs incurred by Mussolini’s disastrous victory.

* * *

That Edvard Beneš resigned as President of the Assembly on June 30th, 1936, was not coincidence. He was also President of Czechoslovakia, a country whose independence and sovereignty were guaranteed, as Ethiopia’s had been, by Britain and France.

[1] Except for the specific portion of Ethiopia ceded to Italy, Breckinridge Long, US ambassador to Italy, had drawn up an identical plan immediately prior to the Italian invasion.

[2] Show those hooligans the door. Literally, To the door, these savages. King Carol of Romania removed Titulescu from all official assignments shortly afterward.

[3] He spoke in Amharic. The quotations are from a translated text.

The Postman Sometimes Rings in Italian

Ossessione film still

Our quest to watch (and comment upon) the 1001 movies we’re supposed to see before we die continues apace, and this time we are presenting an Italian film from 1943, entitled Ossessione.  This film, directed by Luchino Visconti is one of those hugely influential films that was seen by nearly no one when it was released.

The Postman Always Rings Twice First Edition

The reasons for this lack of exposure lie mainly with the fact that the film was based on James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice.  Within the context of Italy’s fascist regime, the adulterous relationship portrayed in the film was simply unacceptable to some sectors, causing it to be banned within Italy.  It then subsequently encountered legal problems in international distribution: due to the ongoing World War, no one had thought to negotiate the rights to the novel, which meant that when the war ended, the film couldn’t be distributed outside of italy.

Despite these setbacks, the movie managed to earn itself a spot on the list, and a deserved one, at that.  The film is brilliantly conceived and filmed, with the plot moving forward swiftly except in those cases where Visconti allows it to slow down in order to heighten an emotion or – even more telling – a philosophical point about society.  The emotional breaks are jagged and raw, without falling into melodrama, which is something that could so easily have happened to this particular story.

Luchino Visconti

More than that, Ossessione foreshadows the Italian Neorealist movement which gave us such great films as Roma Citta Aperta, and characterized directors such as Federico Fellini and Roberto Rossellini.  You can see the seeds of the movement everywhere, but most especially in small pauses where Visconti lets us catch a glimpse of how things really are – even when they have no bearing on the plot.  Of course, the movement’s working class ethic is represented by the character of Gino the tramp – even though he is an outsider to the true life of the worker.

Worth watching, even if you already know the plot – and we believe the comparison to the newer US version of the film will be interesting, once we reach that point in the list.

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The Greek Campaign

Italian Fiat Tank Captured By Greek Forces

Today we have another amazing excerpt from Stacy Danielle Stephens’ Historical novel about WWII.  If you like what you see here please remember that Stacy’s Bismarck series is also available here, as are many other parts of her novel!

To a great extent, Poland is a vast flat expanse, an immense village square set between the Carpathian Mountains to the south and the Baltic Sea to the north. Something like an enormous marketplace separating Germany from the Ukraine and Western Russia. In the event of a German attack, which had been unimaginable in the summer of 1929, and seemed unavoidable by the summer of 1939, the only terrain features that might have leant any assistance to the Polish Army were two rivers, the Bug, flowing westward south of East Prussia, and the Vistula, flowing east from southern Poland, then north through central Poland to Danzig and the Baltic Sea. It has been argued that had the Polish Army made a stand behind these two rivers, the German Blitzkrieg may well have failed.

That the war began promptly on September First was not serendipity. The autumn rains begin in mid-October, and as the end of summer approaches, rivers throughout Europe are low in their beds and running slow. It is not until the end of August that a large mechanized army can be sure of crossing Polish rivers rapidly enough to strike quickly, and by the third week of October, Germany’s armoured and motorized infantry units would be immobilized by the mud, and helpless against Poland’s elite cavalry units.[1] There was, therefore, a six week time frame within which an invasion of Poland had its greatest chance of success.

* * *

Invariably, Benito Mussolini and his career are summed up in two pairs of words. Castor oil and train schedules. He established his reputation as a forceful leader by compelling incompetent government bureaucrats (as well as his political opponents) to drink castor oil. And he secured his popularity in Italy when he got railroad passenger service throughout the country consistently running on time. This he accomplished with nothing more than pencils and notebooks. Officials rode the trains, noting how long it took to go from one city to another, how long it took the passengers to get on and off the train, how long it took to load and unload their baggage, how much time was necessary for proper maintenance. New schedules were written by simple clerks armed with nothing more than this pertinent information, and then the trains ran on time. There was no overhaul of the existing rail network, and no new trains were designed or built. There was almost no money spent, and not one engineer, conductor or ticket agent drank castor oil.

Sadly, Mussolini himself learned nothing from this, his most successful undertaking during more than twenty years as Prime Minister, and which was also almost certainly his only effort grounded in reality.

The Italian invasion of Greece began on October 28th, when the mountains and valleys were awash with the autumn rains, and the rivers brimming with rapid flows. Because of the weather, Italy’s air force could not fly tactical combat support, and neither artillery nor trucks could move. At five-thirty in the morning[2], eight divisions of the Italian army went forward in three columns, with Metsovon, Ioannina and Arta as their operational objectives. This would place Epirus (the westernmost province of the Greek mainland) under Italian control.

The war plans, as drawn up by the Italian General Staff, called for reinforcements arriving from Italy, once Epirus was secure, to subsequently drive east to the Aegean Coast, splitting Greece and thus allowing it to be conquered gradually. However, General Prasca, assuming that a spectacular show of force, in conjunction with the virtually unopposed arial bombardment of Greek cities, would demoralize the population and prompt their government to surrender, had no specific plans to carry out the later phases of the invasion.[3]

No other army in Europe had greater bravery or cheaper rifles than the Italians, and no other army in history ever fought so well so often while being led so badly and equipped so poorly.

* * *

Italians fighting in Greece received their first Operational Directive two weeks after the invasion began. It had been written by General Soddu, who had been put in charge of the Greek campaign when General Prasca was relieved of command.

Greek Soldier WW2

The Greek plan of defense was as pragmatic as it was brilliant, and as effective as it was simple. They launched a large number of small counterattacks as the Italians advanced through narrow valleys between steep mountains. A handful of Greeks, with a few well-concealed artillery pieces and a limited number of shells, would inflict heavy casualties on the lumbering mass of surprised Italians. Greek infantry would descend upon them, inflicting more casualties and inciting panic. The Greeks then commandeered such materiel as they could carry and destroyed much of what they could not carry. Those Italians who counter-attacked in the treacherous fog and hazardous terrain took heavy losses.[4] In terms of equipment and resources, in numbers devoid of emotion, the Greek tactics were effective enough, but the impact on Italian morale dwarfed the more concrete effects.

Centauro Division Insignia

On the morning of November 5th, the Italian Centauro Armoured Division spearheaded what would prove to be Italy’s final attack to take place on Greek soil[5]. The tanks leading the operation fell victim to concealed tank traps. Tanks attempting to maneuver around these obstacles discovered minefields, where many of them were destroyed. Artillery fire forced the remaining tanks to attempt a withdrawal through marshes, where most of them sank. The majority of armour crewman who had survived to that point were killed by machine gun and rifle fire. Cavalry units attempting to cover the retreat suffered equally horrendous losses, and that night, Greek infantry taking up the positions abandoned by the shattered Italians were unnerved by the sight of men, interspersed among dead horses and abandoned equipment along the roadsides, who appeared to be sleeping. Anticipating minimal resistance from the Greeks, Italian High Command had not made any arrangements for evacuation of the wounded. However severe their injuries, these soldiers had resigned themselves to their duty, composed themselves, then accepted death, alone and far from home, for the glory of Rome.[6]

On November 22nd, in what could be considered the first victorious Allied attack to take place on the European mainland during the Second World War, the Greeks captured Koritsa, which is now generally known as Korce.[7]

By December Fourth, the Greeks had captured Pogradec, in Albania, and the obvious finally became apparent even to General Soddu, who issued a directive instructing his men to withdraw meter by meter, even though the only Italian units that had not already withdrawn from Greece were those finally arriving from Italy, or those that had been routed too suddenly to retreat.

Not having expected so great a degree of success, the Greeks were not prepared to press it further. They were also reaching the limits of their own supply lines, which had been tenuous from the start. Without trucks or paved roads to drive them on, and hampered by a shortage of mules, whenever the Greeks were unable to capture what they needed from the Italians, they often depended upon a network of women and children.

* * *

One weeps when one imagines an army supplied by children, and one’s sobs become wrenching when one considers to what end these Greek children were supporting their brothers, uncles and fathers. It is always appropriate to give the fullest measure of devotion to protect one’s home, family, and community. However horrible the circumstances, it is always pleasant and proper to die in defense of one’s country, even if it is a de jure crime to speak another language in that country, or a de facto crime to practice another religion. It is holy to stand in the gap and fight for the freedom of another country, another nation, another people. But had the Greeks driven the Italians from Albania, it is inconceivable that Ioannis Metaxas would have done anything more than replace the Italian street signs with Greek ones.

[1] Although Poland’s cavalry did not perform as well against the Germans as it had against the Soviets twenty years earlier, Polish cavalry consistently avoided the encirclement which was an essential facet of the German scheme of warfare.

[2] Emanuele Grazzi, Italy’s ambassador to Greece, had been instructed to inform Greek Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas at 3:00 AM that unless his government immediately acceded to Italy’s demands–which, in effect, amounted to an annexation of Greece–a state of war would exist between the two nations as of 6:00 AM. Metaxas personally received this message from Grazzi at 4:00 AM.

[3] Reynolds Packard, UPI bureau chief in Rome at the time, later contended that the Italian Foriegn Mininster, Count Ciano, had paid bribes to a number of Greek officials in a failed attempt to secure the prompt surrender of Greece. While Packard’s contention is plausible in itself and fully consistent with events, there is neither concrete nor definitive evidence which validates it.

[4] Four years later, many of these same Italians, fighting as partisans against the German forces occupying Italy, would use the same technique.

[5] Italy’s advances into western Greece in 1941 were merely seizures of positions abandoned by the Greeks in response to German successes in Northern and Central Greece.

[6] After the war, General Charalambos Katsimitros, commander of the Greek Eighth Infantry Division, which was responsible for the majority of Italian casualties during the first few weeks of fighting, insisted that cowardice was virtually non-existent among the enlisted men of the Italian Army.

[7] In spite of the city’s population being more than ninety percent ethnic Albanian, the Greeks believed that they were liberating a Greek city. Most historians, wishing to avoid an obvious tinderbox, downplay the significance of this particular battle.