Judge Dan Mancini still thinks Roberto Rossellini's greatest creation was Isabella.
"I don't know what it means, 'neo.' It's real or it's not."—Roberto Rossellini
The most important and influential Italian director before the rise of Federico Fellini, Robert Rossellini was the father of the neorealist school that dominated Italian cinema immediately after the Second World War. The war was scarcely over when Rossellini took it upon himself to create films to remind the Allies that not all Italians were fascist. Many fought, suffered, sacrificed, and died to stand with America and Britain against Mussolini's government and the Third Reich. The most significant of these vehement attempts to rehabilitate the Italian people in the eyes of the world was his war trilogy. Rome, Open City, Paisan, and Germany Year Zero were made between 1945 and 1948, when the war was still vividly on everyone's minds around the world. Raw and mostly uncompromising, Rossellini's trilogy is a stark document of the hardships of life in Europe in the aftermath of World War II.
Over a decade since the DVD format first launched, Rossellini's war trilogy finally arrives in this gorgeous, comprehensive three-disc set from the Criterion Collection, their 500th release.
Facts of the Case
• Rome, Open City (1945)
• Paisan (1946)
• Germany Year Zero (1948)
Because of Rossellini's desire to paint a sympathetic portrait of Italians for America and the rest of Europe, his war trilogy often strays into propaganda. It is sometimes mawkish and sentimental. Occasionally, it is downright trite. These flaws are more than made up for by the movies' raw authenticity and their often harrowing and all-too-human portrait of the difficulties of life during and in the immediate aftermath of war. In terms of sheer scope, the war trilogy is unprecedented in its examination of the lives of a huge cast of civilians and soldiers—Italians, Germans, Americans, and Brits—as they try to function in a world gone mad with violence and destruction.
Of the three movies, Rome, Open City is the most impressive single work. Its sizable cast of men and women from all walks of Italian life—some noble, others venal—lends the movie an episodic structure that makes for an organic narrative feel. Yet Nazi Major Bergmann provides a strong villainous presence that drives the movie's crisp pace. The film's tragedy is built on the interconnectedness of the characters' lives through Rome's covert resistance and black market. As one character falls victim to the Nazis, the fates of the others are sealed. One of the more interesting dynamics in the picture is the convergence of the atheistic left (as represented by Pina's fiancé Francesco) and the Catholic Church (as represented by Don Pietro) in the face of fascist oppression. Don Pietro puts himself at great risk to support Francesco's anti-fascist movement; Francesco plans to marry in the church because he refuses to allow a fascist bureaucrat to officiate the ceremony. Rossellini's message is simple, but finely honed, surprisingly subtle, and naturalistic in the way he expresses it through both character and plot: The Nazi presence in Italy created a rag-tag community whose members were once at odds with one another. Rossellini treats all of his characters, and the political and social factions they represent, with dignity—even a woman who betrays the resistance for the Nazis' offers of material comfort in a time of great hardship is treated with far more pity than scorn.
Paisan is similarly epic in scope, though its episodic nature provides less thematically developed and character-rich snapshots of life during the war. The movie is a whirlwind tour through Italy as the Third Reich enters its death throes (Paisan famously includes actual footage of Nazi columns retreating through the streets of Italian cities). The best of its vignettes, as when an African American soldier cautiously befriends an Italian waif but finds himself unable to deal with the reality of the boy's living conditions, are loaded with almost documentary detail, closely studied characters, and genuine pathos. Less successful tales feel contrived, like that of a loose Italian woman whose cynical heart is softened by an American GI's tale of lost love. Critic Pauline Kael once compared the more trite entries in Paisan to the stories of O. Henry. That's overly harsh, but one of the movie's weaknesses is a reliance on revelatory finales that are too tidy for neorealism's focus on the complexities of life lived outside the safe confines of narrative artifice.
Paisan may surprise first-time viewers with its snappy pacing and well-executed action. It's not a Michael Bay flick, but it's not a deliberately paced arthouse confection, either. The movie features gun battles (most of them small scale), and loads of narrative tension as characters avoid and confront German soldiers. Only the fifth vignette, which features a congenial and mostly uneventful meeting between a group of American military chaplains and Italian monks, lacks any real action or tension (it's still an excellent entry in the omnibus). The movie famously ends with a tragic clash between German soldiers and a group of resistance fighters working out of the Po Delta. The story's nighttime action is well-executed, expertly shot, and genuinely exciting. The vignette also contains one of the trilogy's two sequences of a child wailing convincingly over the body of his murdered mother. The scene is heart-wrenching in its verisimilitude.
In many ways, Germany Year Zero offers a clearer statement of neorealist style than either of the other two films in the trilogy. With its focus on a child struggling to survive in a cruel, corrupt, and unforgiving world, it is reminiscent of neorealist classics like Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (also made in 1948) and Luchino Visconti's Bellissima. Edmund, Germany Year Zero's 12-year-old protagonist, is forced to navigate a social and economic landscape so corrupted by defeat and desperation that his story can only end tragically. What is most surprising about the film is Rossellini's compassion for the German people. Made only a few years after the war, Germany Year Zero manages to evoke genuine pity for German citizens while unequivocally condemning the political and cultural rot of National Socialism. Modern viewers may be offended by Rossellini's associating Nazism with decadent homosexuality in the form of Edmund's former teacher, a simpering homosexual who convinces the boy to join the Hitler Youth and attempts to seduce him, but looking past that PC-ruffling element, the remainder of the film is clear and concise in both its condemnations of Hitler's government and support of common Germans. The story's tragic events unfold with keenly observed psychological detail and a true sense of fated tragedy.
Rossellini's war trilogy was made in Italy, on smallish budgets, without Hollywood-grade equipment, over six decades ago. No amount of analog or digital restoration wizardry could make them look like they were shot yesterday. According to their liner notes, Criterion created the transfers for the three films from 35 mm fine-grain master positives. Despite scratches in the enamel, density variations, and other flaws, the transfers are stunning—especially since Paisan and Germany Year Zero have been little seen in the United States because of their notoriously problematic source materials. Contrast and detail blow away any and all previous home video releases of the movies. Visually, the trilogy is a treasure-trove of footage of Italy and Berlin in the immediate aftermath of World War II. The streets of shattered European cities are emotionally evocative in a way that dressed sets or CG-enhanced locations can never match. Rossellini's war trilogy is a fine collection of stories, but part of its stature as seminal neorealist masterpiece is derived from the fact that the films were artfully shot in the real world during one the most consequential period of the 20th century. Don't let the absence of a pristine source scare you away from these incredibly significant films.
The restored mono audio tracks are similarly impressive, so long as one takes into account the extenuating circumstances involved in bringing these movies to DVD. Yes, there are spotty instances of hiss and crackle, but anyone familiar with how poorly these movies have been presented on home video in the past will be impressed by what they find here.
The three discs of Roberto Rossellini's War Trilogy sit in individual slim cardboard digipak style cases that are housed in a relatively sturdy cardboard slipcover with attractive black and white artwork. In keeping with the films' stature, each disc contains a beefy collection of extras that examine the individual films, the trilogy, and Rossellini's broader filmmaking career.
Each feature includes an introduction by Rossellini from the 1963 French television series Roberto Rossellini Presents. Each introduction runs in the neighborhood of three minutes and features Rossellini being interviewed about the film in question. Be warned, if you've never seen the war trilogy, Rossellini does drop the occasional spoiler (especially in the introduction to Germany Year Zero).
All three discs also contain interviews with film critic, historian, and Rossellini expert Adriano Aprà, who sheds light on the films and on Italian neorealism. He also talks a bit about the extensive restoration of the trilogy, and the challenges involved in cleaning the movies up without stripping them of their rough-around-the-edges charm. The interviews were conducted in 2009, in Italian (optional English subtitles are provided), and are presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen.
Here's a run-down of the rest of the supplements:
Rome, Open City includes a highly informative audio commentary by film scholar Peter Bondanello (The Films of Roberto Rossellini). The track was originally recorded for Criterion's laserdisc release of the movie.
Once Upon a Time…"Rome Open City" (52:30) is a 2006 retrospective making-of documentary that includes analysis and reflections by Isabella Rossellini and others. It's a great primer on both the movie and the hallmarks of the Italian neorealist style.
Rossellini and the City (25:07) is a visual essay by Mark Shiel (Italian Neorealism: Rebuilding the Cinematic City). In it, Shiel discusses how Rossellini shot the city of Rome to reinforce his own themes. He examines, in particular, how Rossellini avoids romanticism in favor of ordinariness. The piece is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen with mono audio.
Film critic and personal friend of Rossellini, Father Virgilio Fantuzzi, delivers a 5-minute interview in which he primarily discusses the religious allusions sprinkled throughout Rome, Open City, as well as Rossellini's personal faith (or lack thereof). The interview was conducted in 2009.
Disc Two has the shortest slate of extras. In addition to the introduction by Rossellini and Adriano Aprà, the disc contains a featurette and a visual essay. Rossellini at Rice University (13:34) finds the director participating in a Q & A (in English) after a screening of some of his films at the university in 1970. The piece appears to have been shot on primitive video. Both the image and sound are in rough shape, but the content itself is fascinating. Rossellini scholar Tag Gallagher's 30-minute visual essay places the war trilogy in its historical context as well as its context within the larger body of the director's work.
As with Rome, Open City, Germany Year Zero is accompanied by an impressive list of extras. The film itself was assembled by Rossellini with an international audience in mind. Shot mostly in Berlin, its characters speak German. The opening credits are also in German. The disc includes the movie's alternate opening for Italian audiences, which includes Italian opening credits and an Italian-language voice-over setting up the movie's events. The alternate opening is presented as a separate featurette, not an optional way of viewing the film.
Roberto Rossellini (65:40) is a 2000 documentary about the director's life and career made by Carlo Lizzani (Celluloid). It includes archival interviews with Isabella Rossellini, François Truffaut, and Martin Scorsese. Lizzano, who worked as assistant director on Germany Year Zero, also appears in Letters from the Front: Carlo Lizzano on Germany Year Zero (23:21). The piece is a presentation from a panel discussion at a conference on Rossellini held in Pesaro in 1987. In it, Lizzano shares portions of letters that he wrote to a friend during the film's production.
Filmmakers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani (Padre padrone) provide an 8-minute interview in which they discuss Rossellini's influence on their own work. They were particularly moved and inspired by Paisan.
Roberto and Roswitha is an illustrated essay by film scholar Thomas Meder (Rossellini's "Paisan" and Klaus Mann). In it, he examines the making of Germany Year Zero and how it was influenced by the director's four-year affair with German Roswitha Schmidt. The essay is a collection of text and photographs that you scroll through using your remote control.
In addition to the on-board extras, the set also comes with a 46-page insert booklet that contains details about the transfers, film and disc credits, an essay about the war trilogy by James Quandt, programmer at Toronto's Cinematheque Ontario, and essays on each of the three films by critics and scholars Irene Bignardi, Colin MacCabe, and Jonathan Rosenbaum.
All I can say is that, after Criterion's light-on-extras releases of The Flowers of St. Francis, The Taking of Power by Louis XIV, and Il Generale Della Rovere, it's about time Rossellini got the sort of lush and comprehensive DVD treatment that he's received here.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Be forewarned: Neorealist directors were fond of casting their films with amateurs instead of professional actors. They preferred the rustic authenticity it lent their stories. The acting in Rossellini's war trilogy is nothing to write home about. For North American audiences, the wooden performances will be most obvious in Paisan because of the prevalence of English dialogue spoken by American GIs. Rest assured, though, that the Italian and German line delivery in Rome, Open City and Germany Year Zero aren't any better, for the most part. Still, Rossellini and the other neorealist filmmakers were on to something: If you allow yourself to fall into the movies' rhythms, the poor acting will fade into the background and you'll be left with a kind of textured authenticity that is beyond the grasp of mannered pros. In other words, be prepared to meet the war trilogy on its own terms.
With three of the director's best movies and a boatload of quality extras, Rossellini's War Trilogy is the DVD box set that Rossellini fans have been awaiting for over a decade.
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