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Roberto Rossellini's War Trilogy

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday Jul 11, 2017
Roberto Rossellini's War Trilogy

The remarkable trio of films that comprise "Roberto Rossellini's War Trilogy" have been given remarkable treatment by the Criterion Collection for this Blu-ray re-release.

The three discs contain the original movies, with sharp-looking digital restorations made from the original camera negatives. The films, made over a four-year period, work best as a set: The first installment, "Rome Open City" (1945) focuses on Rome during the nine-month Nazi occupation of the city; the movie, written even as Rossellini and his collaborators (including Fellini, who worked on the movies as screenwriter and assistant director) were themselves in hiding from the authorities and then shot on location, with a sometimes jumpy populace looking on, is a raw portrait of lives bound up and tangled together in a dangerous time. Manfredi, an engineer and communist - and also a resistance leader -- flees the Nazis over rooftops as "Rome Open City " begins; his girlfriend Marina, a cocaine addict, puts him in danger with her reckless behavior; Marina's drug dealer Ingrid (Giovanna Galletti), who has allied herself with Major Bergmann (Harry Feist), a sinister Nazi officer, undermines the efforts of her fellow countrymen, including a priest, Don Pietro Pellegrini (Aldo Farizi). Meantime, another member of the resistance, Pina (Anna Magnani), who is pregnant, plans a wedding to her fiancé, Francesco (Francesco Grandjacquet). Unbeknownst to Pina, her son Marcello (Vito Annicchiarico) is in his own underage resistance group, a pack of boys who commit acts of sabotage.

The middle chapter, "Paisan" (1946), follows the progress of the Allies as they traverse Italy South to North, from Sicily, through Naples, Rome, and Florence, chasing after the Germans and making occasional alliances with street urchins, working women, monks, and partisans. The film's six independent episodes all take place in the wake of this progress and show how the Allies get on with Italians, who don't always know whether they can trust the American and British soldiers who have liberated them. Meantime, another battle is still running hot in places, as the fascists continue a brutal conflict against the partisans. There are many moments of sweetness, kindness, and light in these six short films - but just as many moments of horror and sadness, as when Germans murder Allied officers and their partisan friends in cold blood or hurl a village woman off a cliff after she tries to help a squad of American soldiers. In another segment, a British nurse braves fascist snipers and German occupiers to try to find her lover, Guido, a resistance leader. The calmest segments find three Army chaplains paying a visit to a rural monastery (where the presence of a pair of non-Catholics proves to be cause for great spiritual alarm), and an African-American GI striking up a brief friendship with an orphan before getting a good look at the boy's desperate circumstances and dashing away in horror. There's even a poignant, bitter romance, as a GI meets a woman he briefly knew months before but fails to recognize her - she's now become a prostitute in order to survive.

The third film, "Germany Year Zero" (1948) caps the triptych by traveling to Berlin just after the war's end, where a boy named Edmund (Edmund Moeschke) does his best to secure his family's survival from the city's rubble, but his world has become such a morally and material impoverished place that he finds himself taking in unsavory life lessons even as his needs are being overlooked by his infirm father (Ernst Pittschau) and his two older siblings (Ingetraud Hinze and Franz-Otto Krüger).

In a way, the three films represent a journey from one hard-pressed city to another across a no man's land of brutality and ruin. The films do feature some dated elements, particularly in the way both "Rome Open City" and "Germany Year Zero" feature gay (or at least gay-coded) villains, one of whom is implicitly a pedophile into the bargain - it's enough to prompt an irritated sigh. But the mastery of filmmaking we see here, and the almost documentary feel of the films (which do, in fact, incorporate documentary footage), give us two simultaneous gifts: Visionary craft and a you-are-there sensation for the historical context in which the films were made.

The set's extras are everything you hope to have from a Criterion Collection release. The three films include introductions by Rossellini, filmed years later when his movies were presented on French television. Film historian and documentary filmmaker Adriano Aprà offers his insights into each of the movies in a series of video interviews created in 2009. An accompanying booklet contains photos and four essays, the latter authored by James Quandt, Irene Bignardi, Colin MacCabe, and Jonathan Rosenbaum.

"Rome Open City" also offers "Once Upon A Time...," an hour-long documentary about the film's production and how it has become synonymous, for good or ill, with Italian neorealism. The doc features no less an authority on that genre than Vittorio Taviani, one-half of the filmmaking Taviani Brothers, for whom Rosellini was a major influence. Isabella Rossellini, Ingrid Bergman, Federico Fellini, François Truffaut and others offer their comments (some in archival footage). "Rossellini and the City" is a video essay by Mark Shiel that looks at how Rossellini uses locations - urban and rural - in all three films. "Father Virgilio Fantuzzi," a video interview with one of Rossellini's friends, rounds out the extras here. An audio commentary track is also included, featuring film scholar Peter Bondanella.

The "Paisan" extras include videotaped excerpts from a Rossellini appearance at Rice University in 1970, and "Into the Future," a video essay on the three films by Rossellini biographer Tag Gallagher.

"Extras for "Germany Year Zero" include an alternate Italian-language opening credits sequence and an alternate introduction in which a preface about ideology leading youth astray appears in Italian text. "Roberto Rossellini," a 2001 documentary by "Germany Year Zero" assistant director Carlo Rizzani, uses original and archival material to create an overview of Rossellini's entire career, from his early beginnings (who knew that the great director could impart suspense to a drama in which an octopus throws down with an eel and a lobster?) to his later-career television and film work. There's a little bit of overlap with "Once Upon A Time...," but while this doc does look at Rossellini's private and family life, the focus here remains primarily on his body of work. Lizzani also appears in "Letters from the Front," a discussion from 1987. Film scholar Thomas Meder provides a text essay, illustrated with photos, about Rossellini and Italian actress Roswitha Schmidt, whom he directed in "The Man with the Cross" (1943) and "Desire" (1946), and with whom he had an affair for several years. Best of all is a video interview with the Taviani brothers - both Vittorio and Paolo, this time - on how a viewing of "Paisan" (and, later on, the "evil light" of "Germany Year Zero") propelled them into a filmmaking career and helped define their vision.

Rossellini fans, students of Italian cinema in general or Italian neorealism specifically, '40s film buffs, cineastes of all stripes: This is an unmissable offering. Don't pass it up.

"Roberto Rossellini's War Trilogy"

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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