roberto rossellini

Viaggio in Italia – Or How an Italian Trip can be the Opposite of Romantic

I normally ignore what critics have said about the films in the 1001 movies list unless I’ve already formed my own opinion and would like to give my readers a little more context. In the case of Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (A Voyage to Italy), this wasn’t possible because… well, because I had little opinion, one way or another. I found it to be pretty much a blah film, without much to say either way, good or bad.

Apparently, I was perfectly right to feel that way… and also utterly wrong.

On the blah side, critics and moviegoers of the era didn’t like this one. The film was a box office flop and a critical non-darling. It’s not hard to see why: it isn’t fun, it isn’t tragic, it isn’t shocking, and it isn’t romantic. It’s neorealism without the weight of high human drama thrown in… as the stakes here are, apparently, the end of a marriage that isn’t that inspiring to begin with. And all despite Ingrid Bergman.

But then you read what the film historians say and come to understand that the film is supremely influential in the genesis of the modern drama and is now considered a great film.

While I can’t disagree with the historians about its influence, I would stop short of calling it great. In my opinion, a film should stand on its own, with any influences being a secondary consideration. If it can’t then it shouldn’t be on this list.

This one can’t. Worse, it influenced decades of other boring films, so it should be struck forthwith. One to watch only if you’re a film historian, in my opinion.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer. His own forays into real life include the collection of linked short stories entitled Love and Death. Unlike Rossellini, Bondoni concentrates mainly on the important parts. You can check it out here.

Ingrid Bergman was Taller than Everyone Else

Read the title of this post and remember that the review it entitles is supposed to be about a great, unforgettable film. The title tells you exactly the thing I found most interesting about this movie.

I’ve watched a certain amount of Roberto Rossellini’s filmography, which you can read about here and here, but Europa ’51 was a particularly interesting film to me because it was the first of his that moved away from war-related neorealism to look at a slightly more melodramatic subject.

I expected this to be a crazy celebration of life… or something. But it seemed like a film that wan’t entirely certain as to what it was trying to say and for that reason, lost its capacity to be memorable. It isn’t as dense as other melodramatic films. It isn’t as annoying as other films with political content. Even though it kills a child almost at the very beginning, it is neither particularly sad nor uplifting.

Apparently, Rossellini wanted to create a deep religious allegory, but if you want to know whether that was successful, you’ll likely need to ask someone who is much more religious than I am.

Yes, there are elements of this film which should make it great. There’s a scene with a cheerful woman who has too many kids and is still happy. There’s some interesting discussion about how work and jobs are glorified by the political movements of the time… but none of that is looked at in depth.

And the ending, which is framed as being one of those colossal injustices of which man, in his eternal blindness, is capable of, just seems like the right way for this particular character to end up… for her own good.

If Rossellini’s intent was to be cooler than everyone else and make audiences shrug, he was a genius. If, instead, he aimed at depth and memorability, he went wide of the mark.

But at least it’s easy to see how tall Bergman is. Maybe not shooting to make her co-stars seem taller is what Rossellini meant by realism.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer who generally writes things that are very much non-realistic. For his realist work, check out Love and Death, a series of linked stories that intertwine the lives of a brilliant cast of characters are they go though pivotal moments in their lives. You can check it out here.

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

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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.

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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.