L’Amore (1948, Roberto Rossellini)

For a while there, I dismissed all Italian movies. Their horror is badly acted and makes no sense, 98% of their movies have awful lipsync and among the higher-quality pics I’ve seen are The Leopard (which I hate) and flicks starring Roberto Benigni. Sure, I admit Antonioni and Fellini can be great, and I liked Suspiria a whole lot, so I figured I’d give the country another shot this year via poster-boy Rossellini. Rome, Open City was wonderful, but before moving on to Paisan I took a pit stop with L’Amore, wanting more Anna Magnani – and what a pit it was.

L’Amore is actually a film and a half, or an hour-long feature preceded by a short. First off is The Human Voice, a one-woman play written in 1930 by Jean Cocteau. I’d heard it performed before, on an LP by Ingrid Bergman recorded sometime after her divorce from Rossellini and return to Hollywood. So two Rossellini lovers recorded the same French monologue – coincidence? The play is pretty straightforward, a woman who’s been dumped awaits a call from her ex-guy, talks to him through a failing connection, going through various levels of grief. Should be a showy actresses’s dream role. The Bergman LP sold it better, as far as I’m concerned, sounding more like an actual phone call, all the visuals imagined. Rossellini’s version adds straightforward visuals – an unkempt Magnani on the phone in her room, with no fancy editing or showy camerawork. The biggest problem is the sound, distractingly out of sync (distracting even for me, who was busily reading subtitles), harsh and shrill, Magnani’s whining getting on my nerves until I finally turned the volume waaay down. You’d suppose a one-person movie in a single room would have been a good chance for the Italians to try recording synchronized sound for the first time ever, but even the pioneering Rossellini didn’t think to try that.

In the second part, The Miracle, from a story by Fellini, simple Nanni has a religious mania. While up in the mountains herding goats, she meets a lone dude, whom she welcomes as Saint Joseph (as in the stepfather of Jesus). They share some wine and she wakes up later, wanders back to work. A few months later she’s pregnant. Neighbors taunt and joke with her, a devilish midget throws her from her “home,” which looked like a pile of clothes in a plaza, then literally the entire town comes out to throw her a fake parade then throw stuff at her. So she flees up the mountain, delivers the baby herself.

G. Moliterno: “… largely made, as Rossellini himself acknowledges in the film’s epigraph, to showcase the consummate acting talents of Anna Magnani.”

He also mentions that the Human Voice segment was shot in Paris during prep for Germany Year Zero. “A clear indication of Rossellini’s greater than usual attention to visual style here is given by the pronounced presence of mirrors throughout the film in order to underscore the ongoing fragmentation of the self.”

And if I may overquote from the same source:

[Nanni] clearly anticipates the characters of Gelsomina and Cabiria in Fellini’s La Strada and Nights of Cabiria, but Magnani channels an animistic vitality into the role that makes the poetry of Fellini’s two later creatures appear wan in comparison. And in fact, despite Fellini’s own appearance in the film as the silent and mysterious vagabond who prompts Nanni’s religious delirium… Nannì brings to mind the “durochka” or holy fool, of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev. … [Appeals against the film's banning in the States] also overturned the Court’s own decision in 1915 which had for decades denied films the status of self-expression and thus protection under the First Amendment. Part of the miracle of Il miracolo, then, turned out to be its role in initiating the beginning of the demise of film censorship in the United States.

Rome, Open City (1945, Roberto Rossellini)

I get conflicting messages on Rossellini: either he can do no wrong or he did only wrong, either his early stuff was groundbreaking then he dried up or he did his best work late in his career, either he told the ultimate truths in cinema or he was a deceitful opportunist. Fortunately, the exhaustive Criterion box of his early “war trilogy” went on sale, so now I shall see for myself. I watched Germany Year Zero on Turner Classic a decade ago, and it stands out as one of the most affecting (depressing) movies I have ever seen, so I’m inclined to think I’ll like the trilogy – and so far, so good.

Not an incredibly “neorealistic” movie – as the DVD commentary ceaselessly points out, it’s “far closer to the traditional melodrama or suspense film than to any realistic documentary.” But RR shot (partially) on the streets and at real locations, with (some) non-actors, using borrowed and stolen film stock for a (somewhat) newsreel-like texture, and so a movement was born. Visconti’s Ossessione was shot earlier, but wasn’t distributed outside Italy and its story didn’t have Open City’s sense of post-war rebirth.

Pina (the great Anna Magnani of The Golden Coach) is to marry Francesco. After F’s friend Manfredi goes on the run, the resistance descends on Pina’s apartment. The sympathetic, somewhat comic priest who is to marry her, Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi, later in Flowers of St. Francis) volunteers to help. But the nazis are hot on Manfredi’s trail, with help from his poorly-chosen girlfriend, a drug-addicted dancer named Marina who betrays him. They round up Francesco before his wedding, leading to the famous scene where Magnani is gunned down chasing after the truck that holds him.

I’ve seen that scene a bunch of times out of context, never realized it’s not the end of the movie, just of the first half. In the second half, Francesco is immediately freed from the prison truck by resistance fighters (making his fiancee’s death that much more pointless, as the commentary points out), but in a subsequent raid the priest and Manfredi are arrested, along with an Austrian deserter who Don Pietro was helping. There’s some scripty business among the nazis to point out the general weakness of their cause. After the deserter kills himself in his cell and Manfredi dies under torture, having never revealed the resistance secrets, Don Pietro is shot in front of the children he used to play with, little resistance fighters themselves, who will survive the nazi occupation that had just barely ended when this movie went into production.

When the movie’s lead nazis invite the weak, drugged-up Marina to their palace, show off her tortured-to-death boyfriend then steal back the fur coat they’d given for her cooperation, I realized the nazis’ names are Ingrid and Bergman – crazy, since a few years later Rossellini would fall for Ingrid Bergman. Bergman (stage actor Harry Feist) is effeminate and Ingrid (Giovanna Galletti, later in Last Tango in Paris) is butch, lounging on a sofa with Marina in a sinful opium haze, say the commentary, “underline how closely audiences of Rossellini’s time associated sexual deviancy with evildoing.”

Bergman:

Written with veteran screenwriter Sergio Amidei and young Federico Fellini, this wasn’t Rossellini’s first movie, just the earliest one that anyone pays attention to. Earlier he’d worked directly with Vittorio Mussolini, son of the country’s dictator, who describes Rossellini in the DVD extras (he lived through the 1990’s) as neither fascist nor anti-fascist at the time, just an energetic filmmaker.

The commentary by Peter Bondanella spends much of its time explaining why the movie shouldn’t count as “realism” at all, and does not make a sharp break with fascist cinema styles. But while downplaying the movie’s groundbreaking status, he also praises its story and technique endlessly:
“Much of the dramatic force of Open City resides in the lessons of humanity the main characters learn from each other. As Manfredi the Marxist revolutionary discovers, a priest is not so different from a worker, or even a partisan leader. In Open City we are asked to examine the common humanity that always transcends idiological or confessional labels.”

Don Pietro:

RR: “I’ve always advocated finding this ease of expression and demythologizing the camera and filmmaking, tackling it in a much simpler way, without worrying too much about perfect shots and images. The important thing was to get your point across.”

Hmm, neorealism was said to be a “reaction to the films of the Fascist era dominated by ‘white telephone’ films, which depicted ladies of leisure lounging on satin sofas, telephoning their lovers.” But isn’t that a precise description of Cocteau’s Human Voice, filmed by Rossellini four years later?

Francois Truffaut: “Rohmer once said that Rossellini’s genius lay in his lack of imagination, and it’s true. He didn’t like fabrication or artifice, or flashbacks or any kind of clever trick. He left behind the personal and specific to move ever toward the general. His first postwar film is Rome Open City, about a city. The next is Paisan – six stories about Italy from south to north. After that comes Germany Year Zero and then Europa 51 – at that point he needed an entire continent. … He was a very intelligent man. I’m not saying filmmaking is for idiots, but fiction requires a certain naivete that he didn’t have, so he worked with larger concepts.”

Buy from Amazon:
Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy DVD

The Golden Coach (1953, Jean Renoir)

“Don’t waste your time in the so-called real life.”

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One of my new favorite movies! Rivette must’ve dug this one, being about theatrical performances bleeding into real life, with characters and camera always behind and in front of screens and fences, sheets and curtains.

An Italian theater company arrives “in a Spanish colony of Latin America” in the early 1700’s and attempt to build a theater and make a living amongst locals who care more about bullfighting. Camilla, the lead actress of the group (Anna Magnani in an amazing, vibrant performance) entertains the affections of three fans: the local star bullfighter, the viceroy (who offers her the titular coach) and troupe member Felipe, who wants to settle down in the wilds of America. With the threat of duels, revolution, prison and worse, Camilla contrives a way out, donating her coach to the church and retreating back behind the curtain, letting all three men off the hook. Movie (this version of it, anyway) is in English, with a wild mix of accents.

In interview, Renoir says he was highly concerned with color (it is brilliant – see shot above), with Anna’s wonderful acting, with being able to change the script and with playing around with the nature of acting, on the stage and in real life.

Renoir: “My principal collaborator on this film was the late Antonio Vivaldi. I wrote the script while listening to records of his music, and his wit and sense of drama led me on to developments in the best tradition of the Italian theater.”

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Andrew Sarris: “To claim, as reviewers at the time did, that Renoir had failed to produce a convincing narrative, is to scorn Matisse and Picasso for not painting plausible pictures.”

Andre Bazin: “Renoir directs his actors as if he liked them more than the scenes they are acting and preferred the scenes which they interpret to the scenario from which they come. This approach accounts for the disparity between his dramatic goals and the style of acting, which tends to turn our attention from his aims. The style is added to the script like rich paint liberally added to a line drawing…”

J. Rosenbaum: “As Bazin suggests, the actors are employed as if they were different kinds of paint, freely spilling over the initial designs, but it’s worth adding that the colors are employed on occasion as if they were actors – a splash of yellow or blue in an incidental decor carrying all the allure of a memorable extra.”

Rosenbaum again:

All three films are comic period fantasies in dazzling color, offering a kind of continuous, bustling choreography in which shifting power relations between upper and lower classes and between spectators and performers literally turn the world into a kind of theater. In this respect, they might be said to offer more abstract and less politically anchored versions of the films Renoir made during the thirties. Unlike their predecessors, they’re deliberately removed from real life. And given the sense of political as well as the personal defeat that came with the war and his departure from France, followed by a lengthy period of living in exile, they’re unable to hide a subtle aftertaste of regret lurking behind all that gaiety – a sense that utopia can only be found, if at all, on a soundstage, not in the Popular Front that once meant so much to Renoir. This sadness only occasionally rises to the surface, as in the memorable exchanges between actors Camilla and Don Antonio at the very end: “Felipe, Ramon, the viceroy… disappeared.” “Now they are part of the audience. Do you miss them?” “A little.”

Scorsese says there were versions in Italian and French, and that the ending (which looks like it came from a degraded print) was newly restored in the 90’s.

Don Antonio, leader of the actors group, played by Odoardo Spadaro of Divorce, Italian Style:
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Rome’s Cinecitta studio was equipped for sync sound recording in the 50’s? You wouldn’t know it from the Italian movies I’ve seen.

A few comic reminders that we’re in the 18th century: “Tomorrow papa is being bled with leeches, the day after I have my purge.”

Cameo by French actor Jean Debucourt as the bishop, of Epstein’s silent Fall of the House of Usher, Cocteau’s Eagle With Two Heads and Max Ophüls’ Madame de…

The three men, below from left to right:
– Ramon the bullfighter – Riccardo Rioli, whose film acting career began the year before, and ended the year after with a small part in a Mankiewicz picture.
– The Viceroy – Scottish Duncan Lamont, charming in this, later in Mutiny on the Bounty and Quatermass and the Pit.
– Felipe: American Paul Campbell, who was a beef-and-cheesy enough actor to get himself cast in The Deadly Mantis. He lived long enough to have seen the MST3K version – here’s hoping he did.

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The great Anna Magnani plays Camilla. Star of Mamma Roma, Bellissima and Rome, Open City, she also beat out Kate Hepburn and three other Americans for the 1955 Oscar for The Rose Tattoo.
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“Where is truth? Where does the theater end and life begin?”