You probably won't find these at your local video store
Three DVD boxed sets and a documentary that are off the beaten track — or at least not on the shelves of video stores that only carry Hollywood hits — have gotten our attention this week.
"Roberto Rossellini's War Trilogy" (three discs, Criterion Collection, not rated): Italian neo-realism, a film movement that began towards the end of World War II and brought the movie camera out of the studios and into the streets, helped change the course of moviemaking around the world. Italy's Roberto Rossellini was a pioneering director in this style, which used both non-professional and professional actors to tell stories that documented the hardships of war and the difficulties of the post-war peace in a war-ravaged society. The films included here, all presented in newly restored high-definition digital transfers, are:
"Rome Open City" (1945, spoken in Italian with English subtitles): Filmed in 1944 and early '45, after the fall of Mussolini and the liberation of Rome by the Allies but with the war still raging in Italy, Rossellini's daring work is about the Italian partisans and their struggle against the German occupiers and their Italian fascist supporters. It captures a time when communists, socialists, Catholics and monarchists were all working together to fight the Germans. Aldo Fabrizi, a well-known actor, gives a memorable performance as a priest helping the partisan cause, while Anna Magnani, known up to then as a cabaret star, is electrifying as the fiancee of a Communist resistance leader. The film, which received many international awards, is often credited with introducing the neo-realist style.
"Paisan" (1946, spoken in Italian with English subtitles): Made up of six episodes that dramatize the Allied and partisan war effort in Italy, the film moves from Sicily to Naples, Rome, Florence and the northern Po Valley. Each story reveals a different aspect of the relationship between American GIs and the Italians they encounter (partisans, kids, priests, ordinary citizens), particularly the difficulty of communication. This release is the first on home video presenting "Paisan" in its original version.
"Germany Year Zero" (1948, spoken in German with English subtitles): Perhaps the grimmest of the films in the trilogy, Rossellini shot this in Berlin during 1947 amid the rubble of the city's massive destruction. This disturbing look at the legacy of fascism, the collapse of German society and the impact of both on those who survived the war is told through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy (Edmund Meschke). To help his invalid father and older brother and sister survive, he gets involved in the black market, becomes reacquainted with an old teacher who had been a Nazi and falls in with some older teenagers living on the margins of society.
Like all Criterion Collection releases, each of these movies comes with extensive and useful bonus features, including Rossellini introducing all three of his films for a 1963 French TV program; documentaries on the making of the films, Rossellini's use of the urban landscape, the place of these films in the director's long career and other related subjects; a videotape of Rossellini discussing his work with Rice University students and faculty in 1970; a booklet featuring essays by film scholars, and more.
"Omnibus: Leonard Bernstein" (four discs, E1 Entertainment, $49.98, not rated): It may be hard to believe, but over half a century ago not only did network television present live broadcasts that provided music education for adults, but it did so in an intelligent, sophisticated manner. Hosted, narrated and conducted by Leonard Bernstein on CBS and, later, ABC, a few years before he became music director of the New York Philharmonic and composed the music for "West Side Story," these broadcasts marked Bernstein's television debut and contributed significantly to his rising national and international acclaim. Working mostly with the Symphony of the Air (a reconstituted NBC Symphony Orchestra), Bernstein won two early Emmy Awards for these "Omnibus" shows.
This boxed set collects seven of Bernstein's "Omnibus" appearances from 1954-58, all restored and remastered for DVD. The broadcasts include "Beethoven's Fifth Symphony" (with a fascinating discussion by Bernstein showing how Beethoven constructed the first movement of his most famous work), "The World of Jazz," "The Art of Conducting," "American Musical Comedy," "Introduction to Modern Music," "The Music of J.S. Bach" and "What Makes Opera Grand?," plus a bonus performance of Handel's "Messiah."
A 24-page booklet includes an informative essay by New York Times music critic John Rockwell.
"Prom Night in Mississippi" (one disc, Docurama Films, $26.95, not rated): The kids are all right. That's the lesson from this impressive documentary about a high school in the small town of Charleston, Miss., which was integrated in 1970, but maintained separate senior proms for white and black students. In 1997, actor Morgan Freeman, a Charleston resident, offered to pay for one school-wide prom — if it was integrated. He was turned down. But in 2008, when Freeman again made the offer, the school board accepted.
The problem lay not with the high school seniors, who overwhelmingly supported the idea, but with their parents — particularly a group of white parents who wanted to maintain their sponsorship of a whites-only prom. This led some of the white kids to "compromise" by going to both the white prom and the integrated prom. The same white parents also refused to be interviewed for the film and barred the film crew from photographing the white prom. (That scene, and a few others, have been re-created, cartoon-style.)
The students talk candidly to the interviewers about their feelings toward race and integration. Particularly compelling are the interviews and with the school's sole integrated couple, who've been friends since junior high. There's also the usual prom-related stuff like girls buying their dresses and getting their hair done, and boys struggling to put on their tuxes and ties — and lots of footage of teenagers just being teenagers at the prom.
Directed and co-produced by Paul Saltzman, "Prom Night in Mississippi" was first shown on HBO last July. The DVD includes some deleted and extended scenes, plus an interview with Saltzman and co-producer Patricia Aquino.
"Bonekickers" (three discs, Acorn Media Group, $39.99): Call this one a guilty pleasure, but I'm a sucker for this dramatic series built around the exploits of a group of archaeologists, no matter how silly or melodramatic it gets at times. In concept, this BBC series, made by the folks behind the original British dramas "Life on Mars" and "Ashes to Ashes," is sort of an "Indiana Jones" meets "CSI" affair, featuring feisty (of course) Dr. Gillian Magwilde (Julie Graham) and her intrepid team of scholars/diggers. In most of the six episodes they get called to sites where historical relics have been accidentally unearthed, and their task is to use both modern scientific techniques and solid historical knowledge to figure out what's what.
Unfortunately, the series is undermined both by hokey historical re-enactments that show us what "really" happened at each site and by tedious relationship histrionics among the four principals (Graham, joined by Hugh Bonneville and Adrian Lester as fellow scholars and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as their spunky intern).
It's the kind of show where my wife and I would view one of the six hour-long episodes and wonder at the end, "Why did we watch that?" And then we couldn't wait to start a new one.