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Guilt and Exculpation in Roberto Rossellini’s 'War Trilogy'

Carmela Sazio in Paisà (1946) (all photos IMDB)

“The War Trilogy” is just as propagandistic as any film from the Mussolini period; the difference is most of us want to believe this propaganda.

There would be no Rossellini and perhaps no neorealism without fascism and not simply because we often think of neorealism as a rejection of fascism; neo-realism was born in the midst of fascism and originally served its propagandistic purposes.

Classic Italian cinema has its roots in fascism. In 1937 Benito Mussolini and his son Vittorio founded Cinecittà, the renowned Italian film studio later dubbed “Hollywood on the Tiber". Believing cinema to be “the most powerful weapon", Mussolini set in motion a newly invigorated film industry in Italy, watched over but not directly controlled by his head of cinema Luigi Freddi, that provided not only open propaganda (although it provided plenty of that) but also impressive technical achievements (like the mass scenes in Scipio Africanus of 1937), the romantic opulence of the “white telephone films" (comedies and melodramas that openly celebrate conspicuous consumption), and more daring and remarkable films (even if these were often made in spite of the regime) such as Luchino Visconti's Ossessione of 1943 (a film widely regarded as the progenitor of the neorealism movement).

Roberto Rossellini -- one of the brightest luminaries of postwar Italian cinema, revered by directors and critics alike, and generally lauded as the true father of neorealism -- began his career in this fascist context. He was close friends with Vittorio Mussolini and it was through the latter's influence that Rossellini was able to direct his first three notable films: The White Ship (1941), A Pilot Returns (1942), and The Man with a Cross (1943). Often dubbed the “Fascist Trilogy", these are propaganda films. The first was funded by the Minister of the Navy, the second was sponsored by the Air Force, and the third rewrites then-recent history to depict an Italian defeat at the hands of the Russians as a victory.

Moreover, if we are to ground the rise of neorealism in Rossellini's output, then it is to these films that we must turn -- despite the fact that neorealism is often explicitly defined as the postwar response to fascism and the consequent economic and social ruin. The films of the “Fascist Trilogy" bear many of the hallmarks of this much-debated style of filmmaking: the use of non-actors, location filming, a documentary approach even in fictionalized narratives, contemporary protagonists and situations, the inclusion of the quotidian detail often left out of film, and a concern with the rigors and demands of everyday life (in this case, of course, the everyday lives of enlisted men). The White Ship, along with Rossellini's ties to Mussolini, made the director the darling of the fascist regime; the film won the Cup of the National Fascist Party, the most prestigious award for film in fascist Italy.

Critics and Rossellini enthusiasts, of course, ostentatiously exert themselves in an effort to absolve Rossellini of any complicity with the fascist political landscape within which he worked and thrived. Many writers emphasize the notion that Rossellini was forced to deal with a greater level of censorship and authoritarian control than is conducive to a director known for his insistence upon independence. But this is a backward projection of an older Rossellini who feared being tied to the fascist past: of course, an authoritarian regime would impose authoritarian control; the fact is Rossellini greatly benefited from his connections to Mussolini -- there would be no Rossellini and perhaps no neorealism without fascism and not simply because we often think of neorealism as a rejection of fascism; neo-realism was born in the midst of fascism and originally served its propagandistic purposes.

The project of absolution of both Rossellini and Italy at large, the attempt at political redemption through aesthetic means, arguably starts with Rossellini himself in his most celebrated film Rome Open City of 1945, which together with Paisàn (1946) and Germany Year Zero (1948) form the so-called “War Trilogy". These films chart a concerted effort to distance both Rossellini and Italy from fascism, to make a plea to the Allies to consider Italians not simply contrite former enemies but rather, and more importantly, victims themselves of fascism -- now coded a foreign (German) importation rather than a home-grown form of authoritarian control.

Criterion Collection's recent Blu-ray edition of the “War Trilogy" encourages one to consider once again the history, politics, and aesthetics behind these films. The reason for rehearsing Rossellini's past here is not simply to reveal his opportunism (although he certainly was an opportunist), but also to gain a stronger purchase on just what is at stake in these films -- particularly the seminal Rome Open City -- and what makes them (and neorealism as a whole, or at least Rossellini's brand of it) work the way that it does. It is not the case that Rossellini moved from propaganda films full of tendentious artifice to a cinema of truth. The “War Trilogy" is just as propagandistic as any of the films in the “Fascist Trilogy".

The difference is that most cinephiles have simply accepted the propaganda of the “War Trilogy" as truth. But this was, of course, central to Rossellini's strategy. He once said: “I sought only to picture the essence of things. I had absolutely no interest in telling a romanticized tale along the usual lines of film drama. The actual facts were each more dramatic than any screen cliché." There are no facts here, however -- it is artifice through and through -- and Rome Open City is replete with the most blatant of cinematic and political clichés. That this overly romanticized filmic expiation of Italy's sins was ever taken as any manner of “realism" is perhaps the surest sign that aesthetic propaganda is perniciously effective.

Rome, Open City (1945)

Rome Open City may be the most effective work of propaganda within film history. It has long stood as a milestone within the trajectory of the medium. Jean-Luc Godard famously quipped, “All roads lead to Rome Open City." In a somewhat breathless essay on the film, included in the Criterion booklet, Irene Bignardi writes that Rossellini created a film that was “a new kind of movie, never before seen." Such hyperbole is common in critical assessments of the film and its importance.

Writers often celebrate the manner in which Rossellini portrays the unlikely alliance between the Catholic priests and the communists, standing together in solidarity against the reprehensible incursions of the debauched and depraved German enemy. Historians often point out that this was indeed a precarious alliance that fell completely apart in the immediate aftermath of the war. Rossellini's point seems to be that people of good will unite in the face of evil, regardless of ideological difference. It is one of many of the humanizing themes in the film.

Indeed, Rossellini endeavors to demonstrate that his main protagonists -- the priest Don Pietro Pellegrini (Aldo Fabrizi), Pina (Anna Magnani), and Giorgio Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero) -- are far more alike than their differing social classes and political ideals would suggest. When Manfredi informs Don Pietro that the signal from the members of the underground that he is supposed to meet in Manfredi's place (Manfredi being under suspicion and concerned about surveillance) is a popular song, he is surprised and amused to see that Don Pietro not only recognizes the silly secular tune, but can whistle along.

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There is a sense within the film that Rossellini attempts to construct images elucidating the brotherhood of man -- in times of duress and suffering, people come together and this is an inherent force for the good. But there is one group of people that has no such redeeming characteristics, people that Rossellini feels very comfortable vilifying in the most outlandish ways: the Nazi occupiers. The person in charge of the Nazi forces in Rome, Major Bergmann (Harry Feist), is portrayed as a degenerate homosexual, so depraved in his unnatural delight in torture that he is more caricature than character. His right-hand woman, Ingrid (Giovanna Galletti), is a remarkably ghoulish lesbian.

What is truly shocking is that, apparently, Rossellini strongly felt otherwise. In an interview conducted at Rice University, included as an extra in the Criterion release, Rossellini congratulates himself on what he regards as his innovation in providing a “human explanation" for the German officer. “He is not a mask, but a human being," Rossellini insists. But that hardly fits the Bergmann presented on screen -- he is all mask owing to his radical dehumanization. If all men are profoundly alike and have an innate striving toward the good, in Rossellini's vision, then the German enemy perforce must be inhuman and simply evil.

Of course, no mention is made of the fact that this “enemy" was Italy's ally mere months prior to the onset of filming the picture. The one scene that comes closest to acknowledging the issue at all is one in which Don Pietro and Pina are walking together. Pina asks how a supposedly loving God could allow such outsized suffering. Don Pietro claims that it is wrong to look to God here when man himself has brought this calamity down upon his own head through his iniquity and injustice. Notice that the priest neglects to blame the Italians as such. The war is set at the feet of humanity as a whole. The entirety of the world's human population is to blame but despite their share in the culpability (certainly no greater share than the Allies implicitly) the Italians are here portrayed as victims, not the perpetrators of the catastrophic state of the world.

What is striking in retrospect is how successful this expiation campaign was -- not just in the reception history of this film but with respect to the cultural reclamation of Italy in general after the war. As just one example, think of the great (or even the average and dull) US WWII films of the postwar error. They are filled with duplicitous Japanese and rapacious Germans, often portrayed in a manner not far removed from Rossellini's crass take here -- incited by some deep-seated unnatural savagery, incapable of human warmth and sympathy. It is far more difficult to think of such a film where the Italians are considered in the same light. Even films that depict the Italian campaign often feature the Germans as the main enemy. There is a strong consensus among historians that the Italian Resistance prior to the arrival of US troops was a rather trivial and underwhelming force against the Nazis (quite unlike the French Resistance) but one would never get that impression watching Rome Open City. What is disappointing is not that the film takes a point of view, nor even that it exaggerates or alters historical fact, but rather that it does so in such a disingenuous and tendentious manner.

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