The British Film Institute has just released a digital restored print of Roberto Rossellini’s important film Viaggio in Italia (Italy 1953). I’m preparing an introduction to the film and I realised that there is nothing on the blog directly about Rossellini, one of the most important directors in the history of global film. I’ve dug out some notes that I compiled for an earlier event in 2006 at the time of Rossellini’s centenary and I’ve updated them slightly.
Introduction: Rossellini and the ‘problem’ of Fascism and ‘neo-realism’
Any presentation of the work of Roberto Rossellini has to deal with a central issue in fi lm studies and more generally in cultural history. In most popular histories of the cinema, Rossellini is associated with the influential film movement known as ‘Italian neo-realism’. In particular, Rossellini’s film Roma città aperta (Rome, Open City), produced in 1945 has been hailed as the first ‘neo-realist’ film. That position was later challenged by scholars who made claims for Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (Obsession) made in 1943. But by the 1970s and the development of film studies, scholars began to re-assess their ideas about Italian cinema and to recognise that the roots of neo-realism were to be found in the early 1930s cinema of Jean Renoir in France and in the Fascist Cinema of Italy in the late 1930s. But the re-appraisal of Italian Cinema faced two problems. On a pragmatic level, most of the Italian films of the later Fascist period are difficult to see (certainly in the UK and US). Secondly, what Hay (1987) refers to as the “almost sacred trinity” of neo-realist ‘auteurs’, Rossellini, Visconti and Vittorio de Sica, had all been involved in the Fascist industry and it was difficult for them personally and for their supporters to re-assess their relationships with the Fascist state of the 1930s. De Sica did cover this period in his 1970 film The Garden of the Finzi-Continis and Federico Fellini (a boy in the 1930s) famously gave his view of the period in Amarcord (1973). But Rossellini, who became part of the Fascist film industry in 1936 did not look back to the period. Indeed, one feature of the late 1940s discussion of neorealism’ was the rejection of Fascist cinema as ‘worthless’.
Fascist Italy and the cinema
Roberto Rossellini was the son of a successful architect in Rome and he was 19 when Benito Mussolini assumed full dictatorial powers over Italy in 1925. On 27 April 1937, Mussolini inaugurated the new film studios of Cinecittà in Rome and the establishment of Centro Sperimentale – an élite film school. Both these innovations survived the Second World War and became part of a successful postwar Italian Cinema. Rossellini stumbled into the industry when he needed to earn money – having spent his family’s money on a playboy lifestyle. He counted as friends at this time not only Mussolini’s son Vittorio, but also future leading figures in the Italian Communist party. Through his connections he was able to get work as a sound technician, an editor and eventually as a scriptwriter. The three films Rossellini made during the war, La Nave Bianca (about a hospital ship), Un pilota returna (a pilot escapes from a prison camp) and L’Uomo della croce (an army chaplain on the Russian front) are all ‘propaganda films’ presenting heroic images of individuals in wartime. To some extent, they sound like British propaganda films of the time. Guarner (1970: 11) suggests that:
“. . . if they are considered apart from their set purpose as films, they reveal a personality distinct from other Italian films of the time . . . they do show sufficient respect for reality, care for objective mise en scène and perceptiveness over detail to raise them above the other Fascist films of the period.”
Guarner was writing at the height of the ‘authorship’ phase of film studies and he possibly overemphasises the ‘personal’ approach of Rossellini. What is more likely is that Rossellini learned from other filmmakers who had also developed some ‘realist’ techniques.
Rossellini and ‘neo-realism’
The roots of neo-realism are now seen to be in the 1930s, but there is no doubt that, in 1945, Rossellini’s film Roma città aperta caused a sensation in cinemas not only in Italy but also in the US and the UK, where it arrived in 1947. Film Review in the UK, a popular film annual, greeted the film with the following tribute:
. . . one of the most completely damning , moving and altogether inspiring anti-Nazi films ever made . . . tremendously effective both as entertainment; by turns exciting, amusing and terrifying . . . varyingly photographed, technically inferior [Open City] was always beautifully acted. Direction was assured, witty and full of brilliance; inspired to the extent of giving those sudden, human, familiar little touches to a movie which makes it suddenly, breathlessly alive.
This is a very fair and perceptive review. Rossellini and his collaborators made the best of what equipment and filmstock they could fi nd in the ruins of Rome and mixed it with melodrama, comedy and action. The film has since become mythologised as ‘realist’, but it was the more considered Paisà (1946) and Germany Year Zero (1947) that more clearly fitted the developing neo-realist ideal. All three films include location shooting and use of non-actors in many roles, but they also required studio shooting and they made use of the highly emotional music provided by Rossellini’s younger brother, Renzo.The failure of Germany Year Zero, a very bleak and emotionally shattering film, saw the end of one kind of realist filmmaking for Rossellini – ironically before Rome, Open City had been fully distributed. Rossellini went on to be a great innovator, but also a good interviewee about his methodology. The following quote is a useful guide to Rossellini’s cinema and to neo-realism more generally:
The subject of the neo-realism film is the world; not story or narrative. It contains no preconceived thesis, because ideas are born in the fi lm from the subject. It has no affinity with the superfluous and the merely spectacular, which it refuses, but is attracted to the concrete. . . It refuses recipes and formulas. . . neo-realism poses problems for us and for itself in an attempt to make people think. (Roberto Rossellini in Retrospettive, April 1953, reprinted in Overby (1978))
This argues for cinematic realism as a progressive aesthetic opposed to ‘entertainment cinema’ and in favour of ‘education’. (Rossellini was taken up by Marxist critics in the 1970s, but he remained a Catholic humanist intellectual throughout his life). One of the central features of Rossellini’s camerawork in his ‘neo-realist trilogy’ is the combination of the ‘long shot’ and the ‘long take’. The long shot is the ideal framing device to show crowds and the movements of soldiers in battle. Its use in Hollywood tends to be restricted to establishing shots and genres like the western where ‘figures in a landscape’ are important. Usually, however, stories are told in mid-shot and medium close-up with attention paid to individual characters. Long shots are also difficult to organise on studio sets, where framing is often required to disguise the fact that a set is just a collection of ‘flat’ walls without a ceiling. Allied to the long shot is the use of deep-focus which allows the filmmaker to compose a shot in-depth with objects in the foreground and the background, both in sharp focus. Different actions can take place within the frame and the audience can select to look at the foreground or background. Deep-focus works well on location and like the long shot was common in silent cinema before bulky sound equipment began to restrict camerawork.
A long take is any shot lasting longer than about 20 seconds (the Hollywood average throughout the studio period is about 12 seconds). For the filmmaker, the long take poses problems because all the actions must be carefully worked out in advance. Long shots and staging in-depth help because they give greater possibilities of movement in the frame. Alternatively, moving the camera by panning or tracking allows greater freedom. The panning and tracking camera, shooting in long takes, is a feature of Rossellini’s films at various times, especially in the more action-orientated episodes of Paisà.
Rossellini’s fi lms tend to focus on stories about ‘ordinary people’ in situations which are in one sense ‘ordinary’ – except that in Italy in the late 1940s ‘ordinary life’ was often quite ‘extraordinary’. Here is a useful quote from another spokesman for neo-realism, scriptwriter Cesare Zavattini describing the starting point for a typical neo-realist film:
“A woman goes into a shop to buy a pair of shoes. The shoes cost 7,000 lire. The woman tries to bargain. The scene lasts perhaps two minutes, but I must make a two-hour film. What do I do? I analyse the fact in all its constituent elements, in its ‘before’, in its ‘after’, in its contemporaneity. The fact creates its own fiction . . .” (See Williams (ed) 1980: 29-30)
Zavattini can ask himself, “Why does the woman want the shoes?”, “What else will she not spend the money on if she does buy the shoes?”, “How important is the sale to the shopkeeper – does he know the woman?” etc. In Rossellini’s terms the narrative comes from ‘the world’, from the ‘reality’ of an everyday experience.
Rossellini and Bergman
In 1948, Rossellini received a telegram from Ingrid Bergman offering to work for him for next to nothing, so impressed was she with his neo-realist films. Rossellini didn’t know that Bergman was at the height of her popularity in Hollywood, but he saw the possibility of Hollywood money and invited her over to Italy. They started a passionate affair and she starred for him in Stromboli (Italy 1950). Stromboli saw Rossellini shifting his approach in two significant ways. The story involves a Lithuanian woman who in the aftermath of war finds herself in a displaced persons camp in Italy. Karin (Bergman) chooses marriage as her passport out of the camp and finds a Sicilian fi sherman on his way home from a prison camp in South Africa. With Hollywood money, Rossellini made the most of the landscape of the volcanic island of Stromboli. He also continued a policy of using several local people in acting roles, but this time placed amongst them one of the biggest fi lm stars in the world. Suddenly the film becomes almost a documentary on Bergman as a sophisticated woman attempting to act with an amateur cast – just as the character, Karin, finds herself stuck on a ‘primitive’ island from which she feels she must escape. The Hollywood studio, RKO cut the film by nearly 20 minutes and it flopped badly in an English language version in America. Now the film, at its original length is considered by many critics to be a masterpiece. Audiences are likely to dismiss the film or to be overwhelmed by it. Partly this is a function of the completely ‘open ending’ when it is not clear what Karin will do about ending or maintaining her marriage.
Eventually, Rossellini and Bergman were divorced from their previous partners and they married. Rossellini proved a jealous husband/director and would not allow Bergman to work for anyone else. In 1953 he cast her in a fi lm often cited as having a major influence on the French New Wave in the late 1950s, Viaggio in Italia. This film continued the idea of using the predicament of the actor as a feature of the narrative. Bergman plays the wife of an English ‘gentleman’ who inherits a house in Italy. The couple have a ‘difficult’ marriage and they think that a holiday to complement their trip to Naples to sell the house might improve their relationship. George Sanders plays the husband and he found working for Rossellini very difficult, not least because Rossellini and his scriptwriter constantly changed the script the night before a day’s shooting so that Sanders and Bergman were unaware of what might happen. In one famous scene, the couple are sent to the ruins of Pompeii where Rossellini knew that a startling archeological find was to be revealed. Their consternation became part of the plot. On this film Rossellini proved that, as long as you have a clear overall plan, you could make it up as you go along – something Jean-Luc Godard has never forgotten.
‘The cinema is dead’
Rossellini and Bergman split up in 1957 and in 1961, Rossellini declared cinema dead and launched into a television career. From now on he eschewed conventional narratives and sought to make ‘historical films’ with a strong educational purpose. There were clear links to his earlier films in that he concentrated on his characters as ‘people’ first and important historical figures second. He concentrated on detailed research into the clothes, furnishings and everyday rituals of the central characters who were played by non-actors, or at least non-stars. The details were accurate but the sets were not lavish and the camerawork was as simple as possible.
Rossellini wanted an unobtrusive camera that could record the action without unnecessary cuts or dramatic close-ups. To this end he invented a remote control zoom device that enabled him to easily change the focal length as the camera moved just enough to capture the whole scene and the movements of the characters in a restricted area. The most acclaimed of these films, made for French television, recorded The Rise to Power of Louis IV (France/Italy 1966). Others focused on Socrates, Blaise Pascal and Cosimo de Medici. In 1976 he produced a life of Jesus and when he died in 1977 he was said to be working on a film about Karl Marx.
These notes refer to only a selection of Rossellini’s film credits from a career spanning forty years. By necessity, they are limited to the films that have received public distribution in the UK. Apart from Rome Open City, Rossellini’s films have not been major box office successes – they have been more discussed by critics and other filmmakers than by popular audiences. Yet Rossellini’s films and his ideas about films have been very influential, both on filmmakers outside the US entertainment system attempting to apply neo-realist ideas and to modernist filmmakers like those of the French New Wave, as well as his early collaborators such as Federico Fellini and younger Italian directors such as the Taviani Brothers. Since his centenary in 2006 one or two more titles have become accessible with English subtitles in the US and as imports from Italy. I hope to watch some of these and write about them on the blog.
Roy Stafford, 20/5/06
References and further reading
Peter Bondanella (1993) The Films of Roberto Rossellini, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Jose Luis Guarner (1970) Roberto Rossellini, London: Studio Vista
James Hay (1987) Popular Film Culture in Fascist Italy, Bloomington, Indiana: University of Indiana Press
David Overby (ed) (1978) Springtime in Italy: a Reader on Neo-Realism, London: Talisman
Pierre Sorlin (1996) Italian National Cinema, London: Routledge
Christopher Williams (ed) (1980) Realism in the Cinema, London: Routledge Kegan Paul
Robin Wood (1980) ‘Roberto Rossellini’ in Richard Roud (ed) Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, London: Martin Secker & Warburg
The best starting place for a websearch on is via Senses of Cinema