(1906 - 1977)
Three Key Films: Paisan (1946), Stromboli (1950), Voyage in Italy (1954)
Underrated: The Rise of Louis XIV (1966)
Unforgettable: The sudden suicide of the boy in Postwar Germany, emotionally ravaged and unable to comprehend a life without war, at the climax of Germany War Zero (1948).
The Legend: Roberto Rossellini devoted his life to documenting people. These were good guys, bad guys, princes, paupers, nuns and whores, and he put them under a microscope with a wide lens. Every Rossellini character has a context and a sociopolitical meaning, and yet every Rossellini character has his or her own soul. When he became one of the most important figures in Neorealist film, he manufactured a filmic language of storytelling by and for the masses; he put the camera in their hands and assembled masterpieces from their footage—films that were as manipulative and overwrought as a Carravagio and as intimate and subtle and humanistic as an Edward Hopper. These are the films he is most famous for, but Rossellini continued to make films, working in as many styles as stories he told.
When he and Ingrid Bergman collaborated on five films—all of them sensational and all of them almost unseen—he examined the postwar world, thinking forward with astonishing clarity (Francois Truffaut, when writing for Cahiers du Cinema, essentially called 1954’s Voyage to Italy the first modern film). And in the 1960’s, when modernism took over European film, he took a step forward and a step back by moving to television and crafting minimalist, textual historical dramas like his indispensable The Rise of Louis XIV, becoming more and more experimental as his subjects became more conventional. We’re talking about a director who made biopics—on Socrates and Blaise Pascal, no less!—and a travel documentary on India, and all of them are as conservative as they are wildly impressionistic.
How exactly should Rossellini be remembered? What is his legacy? He is an acknowledged master, yet only a handful of his films are widely known, visible and appreciated. Something must be done about this before the work of a passionate, versatile, innovative genius disappears entirely. Austin Dale