Roberto Rossellini’s mid-career output is best known for The Flowers of St. Francis or his Ingrid Bergman collaborations like Voyage to Italy. But we should welcome two films from the period have come out on Lionsgate R1 DVD, Dov’è la libertà…? (Where Is Freedom?, 1954) and Era notte a Roma (Blackout in Rome, 1960). The former is a Carlo Ponti and Dino de Laurentiis-produced vehicle for the legendary comic actor Totò, and the latter is a run-through of many of the very same World War II moral and partisan dilemmas that animated the likes of Roma, città aperta (1945) and Paisà (1946). Rossellini, like Max Ophüls and Kenji Mizoguchi, is one of those directors whose DVD representation—particularly in America—has seemed inversely proportional to his greatness. (Slowly, progress is being made for all three.)
Like both Ophüls and Mizoguchi, in fact, Rossellini was a filmmaker very deeply concerned with women (though probably the one least likely to earn the label “feminist”). In the earlier movie there is a running line of patriarchal comedy, consistent with the gentle and bemused (and somewhat un-Rossellinian) misanthropy which runs through the entire film, whereby each decent woman turns out to be a selfish schemer “like all the rest.” Era notte a Roma, on the other hand, is less a mainstream project for Rossellini and more a reflective reimagination of his neorealist “roots.” Here he pulls off an intriguing little trick with regard to the figure of Woman. A nun takes in three on-the-run Allied soldiers in the closing weeks of World War II (an Englishman, an American, and a Russian). But the “nun,” Esperia, turns instead out to be a beautiful, small time black marketeer, and a partisan. The way Rossellini handles women characters, as seen in these two films, is I think exemplary of the way he works in general. This is to say, his idealizations can run him into lazy or worn-out directions, even if the films turn out to be good or great. (Tag Gallagher reports in his critical biography of Rossellini that the director ran out of enthusiasm for the project during its production, and Mario Monicelli and Federico Fellini helped finish up the film, which was only released two years later, in 1954.) At the same time, Rossellini’s obstinate visions could sometimes cut through the fog that could accumulate around a concept, and with brio and surprise he could alight upon a clear concept and its image in perfect harmony. Era notte a Roma does not quite deliver on this front to the same extent that Rossellini’s best work does, but it crops up in minor ways all throughout the film, such as a scene where fascists try to root out partisan impostors amidst a group of priests. The truth of who we are, according to Rossellini, is produced from the actions we undertake in moral quandaries of times both great and humble.
Dov’è la libertà works out the same basic problem that animated Rossellini’s much more “serious” Europa ’51 (aka The Greatest Love) made just before—that is, what becomes those whose adherence to a commonly held good leads them, logically, to a destination with which society cannot make sense? In the case of Ingrid Bergman’s character, the virtues of love and charity drove her “mad.” With Totò’s character, Salvatore, it is the very freedom he long thought he desired, spending over two decades in prison after a crime of passion. His character missed World War II, but though Rossellini is responsible for some of the great cinematic reckonings of that conflict, in this film there’s a dry semi-joke made of the war’s impact. When Salvatore gets out of prison, he tries to show a woman he’s just picked up where his old barbershop used to be. When a passerby informs him that it was destroyed long ago, Salvatore asks: “Bombs [i.e., in the war]?” “No, before that—demolition.” But later in the film, a truly dark development takes place, a specter of the war: a Jewish man returns to Salvatore’s in-laws to demand reparation, for they had grown rich off of his beleaguered family’s belongings before Auschwitz claimed most of the clan. Though comedic, the film rummages through the moral and historical rubble of postwar Italy in a sense analogous to the literal rubble of Italian cities in neorealist cinema.
Totò, the moment he steps outside the prison gates, suddenly understands the true nature of his newfound freedom. It appears on his face, and is supplemented by the narration. He had been living in routine comfort, security. He had been carefree, but the responsibility of freedom intimidates. This is no philosophical crisis: this is instead the responsibility of securing room and board for oneself, of being respectable among all the latent miscreants who constitute “honest” society.
A closing note for those who will watch Era notte a Roma. Though the film is in many ways a retread of earlier material, its camera style beckons ever-so-mildly to the films that Rossellini would start making a few years later—the late historical telefilms, four of which will come out on R1 DVD courtesy of Criterion/Eclipse very soon. At several points, in sparely decorated rooms, the camera slides over a small handful of actors inhabiting a single space. A certain artifice occasionally envelops these actors, partisans hiding out in attics and basements. See, for example, around the 51’-54’ mark, particularly the zoom out from Fyodor’s case just as he makes a decision to try to leave the attic. I am convinced that utility alone does not explain this zoom. Rossellini had previously just developed the Pancinor lens which would become his late hallmark. (It allowed him to zoom and pan with greater mobility.) This certainly does not describe the entirety of the film, or even the entirety of any particular scene. But at times we see a movement or a zoom which feels neither “neutral” (i.e., unnoticeable) nor a purely stylized flourish—its smoothness becomes a certain indifference to the coherence of an actor-friendly framed space. What we are seeing is a new way for Rossellini to articulate a relation between the camera and the objects it is filming.