Criterion // 1959 // 132 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // March 31st, 2009
When you don't know which path to take, choose the hardest one.
After a scandalous affair with Ingrid Bergman (that led to their seven-year marriage) and a nearly decade-long string of artistic and commercial failures, Roberto Rossellini was basically cajoled by critics into making Il Generale Della Rovere, a half-hearted return to his neorealist roots. The movie is a fictionalized adaptation of journalist Indo Montanelli's controversial historical novel about Nazi collaborator and spy Giovanni Bertoni. Though not a true piece of neorealism, and nowhere near the quality of Rossellini's key works of the 1940s -- Rome, Open City, Paisan, and Germany Year Zero -- Il Generale Della Rovere was a huge success for the director. Not only was it a money-maker, it won the Golden Lion at the 1959 Venice International Film Festival.
Rossellini's work has been woefully ignored on DVD in North America. Over the past few years, the Criterion Collection has been slowly righting that wrong with releases of The Flowers of St. Francis, The Taking of Power by Louis XIV, and now Il Generale Della Rovere.
In Nazi-occupied Italy in 1943, gambler, con-man, and crook Emanuele Bardone (Vittorio De Sica, Roma Citta Libera) scratches out a living by taking on the identity of Colonel Grimaldi and bilking people desperate for information about family members imprisoned by the Nazis. Eventually, Bardone is outed as a grifter and tossed into a Milanese prison camp where Nazi officer Colonel Müller (Hannes Messemer, The Odessa File)coerces him into posing as Generale Della Rovere in order to root out the identity of a Resistance leader hidden among the prisoners. As Bardone's guilt over the scam grows, he must decide between collaborating with the enemy and embracing death.
Italian anti-fascist critics in the 1950s (especially those of the communist variety) were prone to fits when filmmakers strayed from neorealist style and ideology. Art be damned if it meant straying from leftwing dogma. They famously had a conniption when former Rossellini screenwriter and budding director Federico Fellini abandoned politics for the territory of his own subconscious with La Strada, the first of his films that can be described as Felliniesque. These same critics were none-too-pleased when Rossellini himself, the man who practically invented neorealism, moved into television work, more conventional dramas with his actress wife Ingrid Bergman, and the documentary feature India. At the close of the decade, almost as a sop to these critics, Rossellini made Il Generale Della Rovere, a faux-neorealist drama that culminates in exactly the sort of treacly political soapboxing for which his critics hungered.
Il Generale Della Rovere is built of two distinct acts. The first, involving Bardone's political, social, and economic machinations in order to survive in Nazi-occupied Italy, is a directorial tour de force by Rossellini. It has all of the texture, drama, and attention to detail as Jean-Pierre Melville's tale of the French Resistance, Army of Shadows. Tall and handsome with a shock of gray hair, Emanuele Bardone moves smoothly among all classes in war-torn Italy, carousing with underworld gamblers, charming (and manipulating) wealthy middle-aged women isolated from their husbands, and rubbing elbows with Gestapo officers. He is thoroughly amoral and apolitical, calculating every action and turn of phrase to ensure his own survival. Vittorio De Sica (now more famous as the director of movies like Bicycle Thieves and The Garden of the Finzi-Continis than as an actor, though he was a major star in Italy) is magnificent during this first half of the picture, playing Bardone with a debonair yet distinctly sleazy charm. The use of De Sica (and Hannes Messemer as his Nazi opponent) represents a stark break from Rossellini's insistence on non-professional actors in his early neorealist films. De Sica's studied skill results in a movie that is slightly more conventional in its rhythms, but that also delivers a complex interplay between drama and comedy. When Bardone meets Müller early in the picture, he first claims to be from Naples but later asserts he's Roman when Müller observes that Neapolitans hate the Gestapo; then he hems and haws about his supposed Roman origins when the Nazi makes a similar observation about the citizens of that city. The exchange is wry, cleverly written, well acted by both De Sica and Messemer, and a clinic in Rossellini's ability to use comedy and drama simultaneously to advance his themes -- while we're entertained by Bardone's naked ass-kissing, it also demonstrates his loyalty to personal survival over moral principle or political ideology. De Sica and Messemer may be too polished for traditional neorealism, but the subtlety of their performances in that scene and others would be well beyond the gasps of amateurs.
Throughout the movie's first half, Rossellini seems to be setting up a statement about the slippery slope of political neutrality in the highly politicized environment of a country occupied by enemy forces. Unfortunately, Il Generale Della Rovere largely unravels during its second half, becoming a one-dimensional assertion of national pride instead of a complex examination of the human soul. Inside the walls of the Milanese prison, Bardone's vivacious personality turns dour and self-pitying. And Rossellini engages in a simplistic, almost propagandistic, political exploration that culminates in a finale that is sentimental and manipulative. Indo Montanelli's novel about Giovanni Bertoni was despised by partisans who believed he made a hero of a traitorous spy on the basis of nothing more than speculation and wishful thinking (Montanelli was in the same prison as Bertoni, but didn't witness the man's execution and extrapolated his relationship with the Gestapo based on scant evidence). Rossellini's film largely adheres to Montanelli's account, resulting in a finale that feels ideologically convenient, sappy, and deeply artificial. Still, the movie's ending might be easier to swallow if De Sica's performance in the second half of the film were as vibrant as in the first half. If Bertoni's interactions with his fellow inmates crackled with the same drama and comedy as his interactions with the Italian underworld earlier in the film, a bit of gooey sentimentality would be forgivable. As it stands, the last hour of Il Generale Rovere is a bit of a slog.
According to Criterion's liner notes, their high-definition transfer of Il Generale Della Rovere was sourced from the original 35mm negative, then digitally restored. The results are excellent. The black-and-white image sports gorgeous contrast -- deep blacks, bright whites, and a wide range of grays. Rossellini's footage is almost uniformly free of nicks, scratches, or other defects (there's a noticeable flaw in the emulsion during one shot near the beginning of the picture). Rossellini integrates wartime archive footage of decimated Italy into his own footage in order to give the movie a neorealist pop. Not surprisingly, the archival material is of lower quality, but its authenticity more than makes up for the weaker contrast and age-related flaws. The presentation is full frame and windowboxed (unfortunately) to compensate for displays prone to overscan. The original analog mono audio track has also been fully restored. Dynamic range is pinched, but dialogue is consistently discernible. The track is free of hiss, pops, and crackles.
The disc is fairly light on extras. There is a quartet of video interviews. Rossellini's three children, Isabella (13:42), Renzo (9:47), and Ingrid (5:50) analyze and talk about their memories of Il Generale Della Rovere. Rossellini scholar Adriano Apra (7:46) also provides a substantive interview. The pieces run between six and 14 minutes in length. Isabella's and Ingrid's are presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, while Renzo's and Apra's pieces are full frame. In addition to the interviews, film scholar Tag Gallagher provides a fine video essay called "The Choice" (15:14) that covers the history of Giovanni Bertoni's imprisonment, Indro Montanelli's short story and novel, and Rossellini's film. The disc also contains a trailer for the film.
A slim insert booklet offers a brief essay by film writer James Monaco called "Rediscovering Roberto Rossellini" and an excerpt of an interview with Montanelli in which he defends his interpretation of Bertoni's actions and generally runs down Rossellini's film.
Mediocre Rossellini is better than no Rossellini at all. Criterion's release of Il Generale Della Rovere offers a fine transfer and an acceptable array of extras given the film's quality. While you may want to avoid a purchase based on the movie's second-act fizzle, the extraordinary quality of its first act makes it worth adding to your Netflix queue.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Italian)
Running Time: 132 Minutes
Release Year: 1959
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Visual Essay