Friday, July 14, 2017

Rossellini's War Trilogy -- ROME OPEN CITY, PAISAN, and GERMANY YEAR ZERO -- now on Blu-ray from Criterion

If TrustMovies had to pick three films above all others that might stand in for the World War II experience, I suspect it would be what is now known as The War Trilogy from Italian filmmaker Roberto Rossellini. In a way this strikes him as odd, since of course the USA was fighting against the Italians during this time (as well as the German and the Japanese). Yet this great, unsentimental-but-entirely-humane filmmaker was able to capture the war so searingly from the POV of the Italians, the Americans in Italy, and finally the Germans in their immediately post-war experience that this great trilogy becomes a viewing experience like no other we have. You can save your Saving Private Ryan for those times you need a rah-rah-then-shed a-tear moment. Rossellini, with his documentary style coupled to such indelible, vital drama, is the man for me.

I've seen the three films that comprise the trilogy each twice now on video, and the new Blu-ray edition from The Criterion Collection is most probably the best rendition -- high-definition digital restorations with uncompressed monaural soundtracks -- we'll get, complete with Criterion's usual plethora of special features that themselves make up an entire viewing experience: introductions to each film by the late Signore Rossellini, audio commentaries, and interviews with film critics, scholars, and other filmmakers, and a booklet full of smart essays.

The most dramatic and moving of the three is the first film, ROME OPEN CITY, made in 1945, which I falsely remembered as ending with that shocking and memorable scene involving the great actress Anna Magnani (above) and the German Gestapo. But, no, that scene ends the first part of the film, and it is the parish priest, played by Aldo Fabrizi (below), whose continuing story commands the remainder of this breathtaking movie.

Rome Open City is such a galvanizing, moving and engulfing experience that its follow-ups can't begin to better it. But they don't try. Instead, they provide things quite different and unexpected -- for their own time and even now, more than 70 years later.

PAISAN (made in 1946) offers six vignettes of life in wartime, as the Allies, led by the Americans, arrive in Sicily and slowly, haltingly make their way northward. These short tales are quite different, one from another, yet together they provide an indelible picture of life in wartime. In the first, a young Italian girl (below) leads a group of American soldiers through a minefield and into a fortress where events takes their sad and unruly course.

A street child and an American G.I. bond in an episode that must have seemed shocking at the time and still has the power to startle, as the soldier, a black man, admits he does not want to return to America, and is then confronted with what Italy has become for those who've lost everything. This segment is so full of life and vitality yet has the power to punch us in the gut.

A wartime love story of sorts, told in present-day and flashback shows us the sadness and cynicism that war produces, as an American soldier and an Italian young woman meet, and then meet again some time later with results as different as night from day. The performances here, as throughout, join professionals with non-pros, and this mixture results in scene after scene in which real life seems to coalesce into humor, surprise and sometimes high drama.

A kind of road trip on foot by a young woman hoping to find her partisan lover and a man who wants to reunite with his family provides the most exciting, stomach-tightening episode of the film. Here we view both the awful destruction of Florence, as well as the great beauty of the architecture that remains, as we watch the near-suicidal journey these two take trying to get to and then across the Arno river.

In the quietest segment, three American chaplains -- a Catholic, a Protestant and a Jew -- visit a monastery in the Apennines, where the monks have some trouble adapting to the idea of freedom of religion. This episode -- sweet and welcoming -- proves a respite from the war raging elsewhere.

Finally, we have the segment dealing with the Italians partisans and their fight, joined now by the Americans, against the Germans in a region near the Po River. This is by far the most downbeat of the vignettes, and yet it seems a more than fitting finale to a film that, as we learn from the supplemental features, was scorned by Italians when it initially opened and only after France heralded it did the rest of the world see it -- and slowly come to agree with that assessment.

In retrospect, and after this second viewing, Paisan seems to me the linchpin of the trilogy due to its breadth and scope, as well as to the depth it brings to each segment. It is war as seen from so many different and contrary angles that is cannot help but broaden one's own ideas of home, country and what constitutes humanity.

Leave it to Rossellini to force us to identify with the "other" -- and in a major manner. In his concluding film -- GERMANY YEAR ZERO (from 1947) -- you will find yourself identifying with and caring about Germany and some of its inhabitants, immediately post-war, as the ravaged country tries to pick itself up and go on. The filmmaker never excuses Germany's actions during wartime (he doesn't do this regarding his own country of Italy, either). Instead he concentrates on individuals and their immediate needs.

In this, the shortest film in the trilogy, Rossellini's main character is a young blond boy, about as German as one could find, who seems at this point so bone-thin as to maybe not be able make it to his next meal. He and his remaining family are never sure where that meal will come from, in any case. (In the film's opening, a newly dead horse is carved up in the middle of the street as a meal for those who surround it to take home and, one hopes, somehow cook.)

We meet the boy, Edmund, his feuding family (they live in a bombed-out building), some would-be "friends," and a fellow who had been a teacher and also a believer in the Nazi philosophy, some of whom become involved in Germany's post-war black market. The film is ugly, uncompromising and generally unpleasant, and yet Rossellini makes us root for this kid and his survival, even as we understand his situation. It's a strange accomplishment and one that leaves as bitter a taste in one's mouth as was probably felt by those Germans who lasted out the war and its bombings and then had to do whatever it took for continued survival.

Hitting the street just this past week from The Criterion Collection, on Blu-ray in a new boxed set, ROBERTO ROSSELLINI'S WAR TRILOGY runs a total of 302 minutes. It's available now -- for purchase and I hope, eventually, for rental, as well.

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