Rossellini and the Filter of Neo-Realism

Monikers serve an important purpose. Through them we come to categorize matters for easy mental retrieval, all the while acknowledging that the moniker over-simplifies matters nearly to the point of falsification. But in a sense, such falsification serves a purpose as well, particularly when our concern is cultural knowledge. After all, cultural knowledge (especially in its “emic” formation, a fancy term simply meaning “with respect to an insider’s knowledge of a given culture) is itself inherently social. That is to say, cultural knowledge emerges from continual acts of negotiation between interested members of that culture. And within the culture of film, Roberto Rossellini has long been dubbed with the moniker of “The Father of Italian Neo-Realism”.

This moniker conceals two failings, both widely acknowledged and then instantly and conveniently forgotten. First, Neo-Realism itself is something of a misnomer, albeit a misnomer that continues to do significant cultural work. Ostensibly, it serves to demarcate films from post-fascist Italy that characteristically focus on the burdens of quotidian life for the underprivileged and the working class with an emphasis on social inequity, the privations of labor, the torments of unemployment, and the toll poverty takes on the family. Such films are shot in a stark manner with flat framing and deep focus; furthermore, they often employ non-actors in an attempt to bypass the mediated nature of film in order to draw the viewer into the immediacy of the protagonist’s despair.

But it is precisely this ploy, designed to absorb the viewer into the simulacrum of reality, which betrays Neo-Realism’s indebtedness to more traditional melodrama. The sentimental portrayal of social struggle reveals that Neo-Realism has its roots firmly planted in the very kind of contrived artifice that the approach purportedly negated. Of course on some level, we have recognized the artificial nature of New-Realism all along, but we rarely acknowledge the centrality of convention to an aesthetic that supposedly abandons convention for reality.

The second failing of the moniker “Father of Italian Neo-Realism” involves the designated director himself. Critics and film buffs often claim that Rossellini invented New-Realism with his first important film and his first major accomplishment of the post-fascist era, Roma, città aperta of 1945. Of course, there are other earlier candidates for the director of the first Neo-Realist film—most prominently Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione of 1943—but such a claim would place the beginnings of the Neo-Realist approach within the fascist era whereas commentators strive to portray the approach as a reaction against the Fascist regime of Mussolini.

Furthermore, many of the elements that constitute Rossellini’s Neo-Realist filmic technique were first developed not in Roma but rather in the fascist propaganda films (works that Rossellini, perhaps understandably, refrained from discussing as part of his development). Little of this matters, however, because Rossellini’s films, including Roma, have always sat rather uneasily within our typical understanding of the paradigmatic Neo-Realist film. He generally employs professional actors, creates rather fantastical characters and situations, demonstrates a profound concern with the religious and the otherworldly, and he revels in a quasi-ironic appropriation of Neo-Realist technique. That is to say, he employs Neo-Realism as a conscious style as opposed to a negation of style. And yet I would argue that it is precisely this willingness to play upon the non-style of Neo-Realism as itself an artificial pose that not only creates a place for Rossellini within the ranks of the Neo-Realists, but also makes him their finest and most riveting representative.

From Era notte a Roma (Escape by Night).

These ruminations resulted, inevitably I suppose, upon viewing the Roberto Rossellini 2-Disc Collector’s Edition recently released by Lionsgate, which contains what the packaging refers to as “two rare films from the Father of Italian Neo-Realism.” The two films in question are Dov’è la libertà? (Where is freedom?) and Era notte a Roma (literally, It was night in Rome but translated on the DVD cover as Escape by Night). Both films amply demonstrate that Rossellini’s filmic world does not occupy the space of Neo-Realism, but rather he forces us to view that world, by turns comically absurd and harrowingly unreal, through the lens of Neo-Realism. These films treat the fantastic as though it were reality. Moreover, they treat the surreal as a reality from which there is precious little hope for escape.

The search for an escape from a senseless reality where the best intentions are met with cynical brutality and wicked malice serves as the topic of Dov’è la libertà?, a satire seething with a dark humor made the more implacable by featuring the good-naturedly clownish visage of the famous Italian comic Totò. Totò plays Salvatore, an unfortunate barber imprisoned for 22 years for the murder of a man who boasted of having an affair with Salvatore’s wife. Salvatore was so outraged by the man’s attempt to besmirch the reputation of his wife (who proclaimed her innocence and devotion to her husband) that he murdered the man in a fit of passion.

Finally released, Salvatore finds himself in the company of a beautiful young woman who takes him to a dance competition and bilks him of a substantial portion of his money. He finds a place to stay but is thrown out unceremoniously by his landlady with no justification and no warning. She doesn’t allow him to stay a single night longer, forcing him to sleep on the stairs. He finally encounters his former in-laws only to discover that his now deceased wife really was an adulteress with several lovers, his mother-in-law is a loan shark, the young girl they attempt to foist upon him is pregnant with his father-in-law’s child, and the whole family had acquired its wealth by taking financial advantage of a Jewish family that they reported to the Germans.

Salvatore’s solution is to return to prison because there, he contends, the inmates at least believe that there is an outside world where people are good and women virtuous. When his ideals proved to be illusory, he sought solace in a place that still held those illusions dear.

It is Totò’s wonderfully expressive face that allows this film to succeed so brilliantly. Each realization deepens the impact of a graceless reality upon those lugubrious eyes, that crooked jaw, those askew lips. He observes it all with a passivity that barely contains the urge to act that surges just below the surface. And then he shrugs, realizing the futility of all action save resignation. The final shot portrays Salvatore regarding his fellow prisoners with an air of bemusement underscored by an insouciant joy. He seems to answer the titular question by proclaiming in his glance that freedom can only be found in the illusion of freedom and that there is no greater lack of liberty than that of the free man.

Freedom and captivity are also the main themes of Era notte a Roma. Esperia (Giovanna Rolli), a beautiful small-time black market dealer in Fascist wartime Rome, finds herself unwittingly providing sanctuary to three escaped Allied POWs: the Russian sergeant Fyodor (Sergei Bondarchuk), the British major Michael (Leo Genn), and the American pilot Peter (Peter Baldwin). She hides the soldiers in her attic but their presence quickly becomes an open secret within the community. Should the Germans or the Fascist regime discover that she is harboring them, she will face the firing squad but other members of the community, including her communist fiancée Renato (Renato Salvatori) cajole her into keeping them. Thus she becomes captive to her own attempts to maintain the freedom of the soldiers.

Esperia attempts to accommodate her clandestine guests while also attempting to preserve her own well-being. Esperia and Renato speak little to no English, the POWs only speak a smattering of Italian. The Russian speaks no English and no one aside from Fyodor speaks any Russian. Yet the camaraderie of the group grows to be so intense that they manage to communicate in spite of their linguistic limitations. We are privy to everything that is said (through the subtitles) and therefore recognize how much detail gets lost as they speak and gesture to each other but we also realize how much genuine feeling and sentiment gets across.

In one of the most moving sequences of the film, Fyodor makes a gentle Christmas toast in his slow, belabored Italian in which he tries to assure his companions that he will carry memories of them warmly in his heart throughout the remainder of his life. Frustrated by circumstance and the limits of communication, he abruptly breaks into his native tongue (understood by none of his auditors). He decries the ravages of war, the futility of individual effort, and the devastation that human beings inflict upon other human beings. He is furiously voluble but his eloquence is lost on his listeners. And yet they watch him with such tender understanding, such unveiled sympathy that we realize that Fyodor could have no more attentive and concerned audience.

The film is not without its flaws. Once Esperia is forced to ask the POWs to vacate her apartment after being threatened by the neighborhood watchman (who had been trying to turn a blind eye along with the rest of the community but now feared he was putting himself at risk), the plot drags a bit. The wickedness of the defrocked priest who longs to have the British major captured and take advantage of Esperia is never justified nor is his character onscreen long enough for him to become interesting in his mystery. He remains a cipher, little more than a tired plot device designed to provide the narrative with a suitable ending.

The typical critical take on Era notte a Roma is that it is a combination of Rossellini’s Neo-Realist approach with the contemplative tone of his later films. However, it seems far more to the point to think of both this film and Dov’è la libertà? as demonstrations of the wide variability of Rossellini’s take on the Neo-Realist aesthetic.

These films, in many ways, flaunt their artifice and yet there are moments—sublime moments that leave an indelible mark upon one’s memory—when something else emerges. It is not reality as such. No film can truly present reality. But these moments bring to light some rarefied emotion that we connect to reality, whether it be reality as we have experienced it or reality as we hope to experience it. Such moments are fleeting, of course, but they transform our engagement with the film from a curious peek into a feigned reality to an experience so real that it eludes our attempts to hold it in check.