Judge Daryl Loomis is at the command of an army of freedom fighting cats.
I don't trust priests. They're all spies.
By 1959, Roberto Rossellini had long established himself as one of the giants of neorealist filmmaking. With movies like Paisan and Germany Year Zero, he proved that he could do amazing things within a real life scenario. By the end of the decade, though, his popularity was sagging and, whether by directive or by simple circumstance, he made a change that year with the release of Il Generale della Rovere, a rare piece of artifice from the director that looks like regular Rossellini, but feels very different.
Facts of the Case
It's 1943, the Germans have taken military control of Italy, and citizens are disappearing all over the place. Grimaldi (fellow neorealist director Vittorio De Sica, Bicycle Thieves) is a conman who hangs out at the missing persons office to scam people into thinking he can find their loved ones, but for a cost. When he is found out, he is given a choice. He can go to regular jail and serve out his hard time or he can get off scot free if he goes to a political prison under the alias of a recently deceased general and ferrets out the leader of the resistance. He chooses the latter, not realizing that he would sympathize with his fellow inmates in spite of his ruse.
Before, Rossellini sought out truth in reality, but with Il Generale della Rovere, he readily finds it in the artificial world of backlot sets. Instead of the on the street immediacy that is a feature of much of his work, this has a style much more typical of a Hollywood movie, with more melodrama and a broader plot than he normally would employ. It's the same kind of story that Rossellini always directed, but the plot comes more to the forefront than the "reality" of it all, which is refreshing.
Much of the success comes down to the lead performance from Vittorio De Sica, who plays the living embodiment of the truth vs. fiction argument the director was known for. De Sica makes a number of changes throughout the movie that take him down the path to truth. At first, he's a complete fiction. He leads a double life, scamming grieving war widows while schmoozing the German authorities into looking the other way. Often, to pay them off, he has to spin a number of lies around the big lie to keep things going. After he makes a mistake and starts working a woman and her mother just days before her husband's death notice arrives, she makes a thing of it, forcing his arrest and the second part of the story.
The Germans make him a conman again, but now he's under their thumb and, now that he's the one affected rather than someone else, he takes another step toward the truth. It's not a truth in sense of his being found out, he refuses to come clean even when it means his life; this is an internal truth of spirit. It's the story of the people in the prison and how they accept Grimaldi as the General Rovere at face value. As freedom fighters, they immediately fall into rank behind him and it empowers him, much more than some simple scam ever could. A pivotal scene in which the prison is bombed shows the moment when he officially becomes Rovere. With the prisoners near riot, he demands to be released from his cell so he can order them to calm down, which they do at once. From then on, there's no question that Grimaldi is dead and General Rovere now lives again.
Rossellini plays up the artificiality of the production to get at a larger truth that comes out both through the story and in the filming. De Sica's fantastic performance brings it all together, as he takes an obviously fake character and walks him through obviously fake sets and finally arrives at the big truth about wartime and taking sides. It's something that would be much harder in a typical Rossellini production and he really succeeds under his restraints. Il Generale della Rovere is one of the director's more enjoyable films and one that I could recommend to almost anybody.
The Blu-ray from Raro is quite strong, as well. The 1.37:1/1080p image looks very good, with great clarity and excellent contrast, but there's a strange feature that some won't like. The image, given a brand new HD transfer, has been windowboxed fully, giving the most complete image, but also revealing the rough cut edges and rounded corners of the frame. It isn't distracting, just a strange decision that will annoy a certain portion of the audience. Otherwise, it looks great. The only real issue with it is that the scenes removed from the director's cut look a little worse than the theatrical release footage (included on the disc as a special feature), but that's understandable given the relative states of the two prints. Outside of that, it's tough to complain. The 2-channel Master Audio track is also good, but has less to do than the image. There is little to no hiss or crackle in the background, the music sounds good, and the dialog is always clear.
Extras are good, as well. Aside from the theatrical version of the film, the disc opens with "The Truth of Fiction," a visual essay by Adriano Apra about the film that includes an extensive interview with Rossellini's son, Renzo Rossellini, Jr., and details everything from the production to the issues surrounding the story. It's very good stuff, though it kind of negates the next extra, a half-hour interview with Renzo Rossellini that, surprise, is the same interview as in the visual essay. A forty minute interview with Apra is more helpful, as he discusses the differences between the two cuts of the film. An interview with Aldo Strappini about the hi-def transfer and the original trailer round out the disc.
As somebody who tires easily of the neorealist style of Rossellini and others, I was surprised by how engrossed I got in Il Generale della Rovere. Part of it is that the artifice makes the movie seem more cinematic and less like a super boring documentary, but much of it comes down to the fact that he was able to match that artifice to a story that is all about it. It makes sense as a plot and, as opposed to real life scenarios, it is able to get to some things that his realism cannot. With a strong Blu-ray to back it up, the movie is highly recommended.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Raro Video
• Alternate Cut
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