Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Paisan


Roberto Rosselini's Paisan was his second postwar film, made after his scrappy, low-budget Rome Open City, which was filmed in the immediate aftermath of World War II with any film stock he could scrape together. Paisan is similarly rough and minimalist, continuing the ragged neorealist style that Rosselini inaugurated with his postwar work. The film consists of six tales set during the Allied liberation of Italy from the German occupation, focusing largely on interactions between Italian citizens and American soldiers, with the German troops a constant peripheral presence and lingering threat. The film is an interesting fusion of neorealist naturalism, melodrama and sentimentality. The stories Rossellini is telling are melodramatic rather than naturalistic, built around ironic reversals and stock characters, and the emotions evoked are generally broad and universal rather than specific. The film is more about the general experience of the liberation than it is about any particular stories or characters from this period, so its characters are fairly generic and its dialogue is mostly functional and rote.

Rossellini was working with a mix of actors and non-professionals, drawing from the ranks of the American soldiers still stationed in Italy to portray the Americans in the film. But the effect isn't quite realistic so much as amateurish; almost all of the Americans turn in awkward, stiff performances and not all of the Italians are much better. The amateur performances add to the sense of a film captured on the fly, with whatever materials are at hand, whatever locations can be filmed and whatever people are around, most of them real people who'd really lived through some version of the events depicted here. The film follows the structure of the Americans' northward advance through Italy, with each episode set in one town along the route of the military campaign, from the very south in Sicily to the very north in the Po River region. As the film progresses, and as Rossellini depicts the military struggle proceeding north, the relations between the American military and the Italian people become closer, less prone to misunderstandings and miscommunication. In the first three episodes of the film, the language barrier and differences in attitudes prevent a true connection between the Italian people and the Americans liberating the country, but in the final three episodes those divisions are increasingly erased.

The climax of the first tale is a touching scene between the American soldier Joe (Robert Van Loon) and the Italian girl Carmela (Carmela Sazio), who had been guiding a group of American troops through a dangerous area where only she knew the way. At one point, the other soldiers go out scouting, leaving Joe behind with Carmela to hide in a hilltop fort until the rest of the troops return. Joe doesn't speak any Italian, and Carmela doesn't speak any English, and yet the two sit side by side, trying to communicate, speaking to one another without really understanding anything of what the other is saying. They occasionally get a word or two, or can communicate through gestures and pantomime. The scene is very moving in its quiet, simple way, as they attempt to overcome the language barrier between them and make a connection. Rossellini stages the scene in one long take, a steady shot of the two people sitting next to one another by a window, talking, struggling with their words, smiling and sharing stories about their lives that, for the most part, they know the other person doesn't understand. It's a wonderful scene, and the warm emotions of this moment set up the heartbreaking ironies that follow from it in subsequent scenes, when a group of German soldiers stumble across the fort. The episode ends, not with communication but with further misunderstandings; that brief moment of frustrated connection is extinguished by violence.

In the second story, a black American soldier (Dots Johnson), drunk and disoriented, is taken advantage of by kids and street thugs — disturbingly, a couple of hustling kids try to sell him to the highest bidder in a back alley — and eventually winds up being led around by the bratty Pasquale (Alfonsino Pasca). As in the first episode of the film, the focus of the story is the inability to communicate across the language barrier between Italian and English. Sitting atop a pile of rubble — Rossellini filmed in the real streets of wasted Italian cities — the soldier entertains the boy with a frenzied re-enactment of a naval battle, in which the boy understands no more than a few words but enjoys the spectacle anyway, laughing and smiling. What he misses, of course, are the notes of pathos in the man's story, his drunken musings on home and the poverty and squalor that await him back in America. But the soldier doesn't really get the kid either, not until the end of this story when he finally confronts the reality of how so many poor, displaced Italian people are living: gangs of kids without parents, families without homes, large makeshift communities assembled from whatever trash is at hand.


In the third story, the American soldier Fred (Gar Moore) is picked up by the Italian prostitute Francesca (Maria Michi), who takes him home and listens to his story about the early days of the war. He tells her about a girl he met back then who was beautiful and kind and embodied, for him, the happiness of the liberation. Now it's six months later and Fred has grown cynical and exhausted, and he looks at the Italian people, and especially all the girls who have become prostitutes catering to the American GIs, with contempt and disgust. Of course, Francesca is the girl from the story, and once again this episode turns on a very O. Henryesque irony, based on the soldier's failure to recognize the girl he so badly wanted to see again. He also fails to recognize, as the black soldier had, the difficulties of surviving in the postwar chaos, and he has no sympathy for girls like Francesca who do the best they can to get along in this difficult situation. This sequence, which takes place mostly inside and is noticeably glossier than some of the other sequences, demonstrates the limitations of Rossellini's approach here. Without the virtues of the rough, realistic street photography of postwar Italy, all that's left are the tired clichés of the writing and the amateurish performances.

In the fourth sequence, the American nurse Harriet (Harriet White Medin) and the Italian citizen Massimo (Renzo Avanzo) try to find a way into German-occupied Florence, where Italian partisans are heroically fighting against the Germans while British troops sit just outside the city, waiting for reinforcements to arrive. Obviously, the gap between Allied efforts and Italian efforts remains large, but Harriet and Massimo run hand-in-hand through the city, each desperate to get inside for a different reason, her to find an Italian partisan who she loves, him to find his family who he fears may be in danger in the German zones of the city. The episode is basically an extended action sequence, with an emphasis on the spatial geography of the city, as the pair run across rooftops, dodge through hidden tunnels and avoid snipers and German patrols. It's a thrilling, effective sequence that ends with a moving, expressive closeup, one of the film's most glorious shots. Rossellini excels at closeups, at faces, and his final image of Harriet here is a sudden classical composition that emerges with devastating power from the loose, ragged style of the surrounding scenes.

The film's fifth segment concerns a trio of American military chaplains — a Catholic, a Protestant and a Jew — who arrive at an Italian monastery and are welcomed by the monks. The monks, however, are discomfited by the realization that two of their guests are not Catholic, and they become concerned about the two "lost souls" who they fear have made the wrong choice in terms of religion. This story evokes the gentle humor that Rossellini directed at the brave priest in Rome Open City; it's obvious that Rossellini has great respect for religion without being entirely straight-faced about it. The sequence where the monks find out that the American chaplains are not all Catholic is clearly played for humor, as they go running around the monastery in a panic announcing to the others that there's a Jew amongst them. It seems like Rossellini is setting up the story to mock the provincialism and intolerance of the monks, but instead it turns out that the monks are genuinely worried for the men, that they believe so strongly that their Catholicism is the only correct path that they don't wish for any good men to risk their souls with another religion. The segment is tonally unbalanced with the rest of the film and ends with a saccharine speech from one of the American chaplains, driving home the moral of communion between Italians and Americans, praising the Italian monks for their "pure faith."


In the final segment, depicting the battles on the Po River, the boundaries between the Italians and the Allies have been virtually erased. The Italian partisans speak Italian, and the American and British soldiers speak English, but they all seem to understand one another, without the difficulties of language seen in the earlier segments. They are working together towards a common goal, and the segment opens with a taut suspense sequence in which an American soldier and an Italian partisan cooperate from different points along the river in order to fight some German sentries while retrieving the body of a dead soldier. In this episode, the various armies and nationalities intermingle, and in the nighttime scenes it's impossible to see who's who; one can only hear the voices drifting across the dark river speaking English or Italian. Even so, this episode also emphasizes the one crucial distinction between the Italians and the Allies, which is that the Italians are fighting here for their homeland, for their people, while the Allies are on foreign soil. There's a difference, too, in the treatment of the prisoners who are captured by the Germans, and the film ends with a moving and horrifying tribute to the sacrifices of the Italian partisans who fought and died in the battles to push the Germans out of Italy.

On the whole, Paisan is an interesting if deeply flawed movie. It is obviously a very emotional look at the postwar period and the events that affected the Italian people in the final stretch of the war. If the film's writing is occasionally sentimental and generic, Rossellini pours real feeling into his images and into his portrait of the rubble-strewn streets of his home country.

5 comments:

DavidEhrenstein said...

I much prefer Paisan to Open City. Its very raggedness is a considerable plue.

Harriet White Medin's career is fascianting. She pops up In Bava horror films and at the end of Bertolucci's (wildly underrated) film of Paul Bowles' The Sheltering Sky.

Ed Howard said...

Fair enough. Paisan has its moments but I think Open City holds together far better as a whole.

Medin is a highlight here, she probably gives the best performance.

Bobby Wise said...

"Paisan" has its moments but they are few and far between. The first couple of sequences are almost unwatchable. The last few are good but still can't amount this to a great film. "Open City" is one of those milestones of cinema and not even fair to compare to "Paisan".

Stuart said...

I love Paisan and believe it to be the best of his unofficial postwar trilogy. The other two films, in trying to sustain a lengthy story-line and develop fictional characters, succumb far more to the melodrama/sentimentality that only occasionally creeps into Paisan. Part of the problem I think people have with it, at least relative to the others, is that, given its episodic structure, it's practically impossible not to compare the different vignettes together, finding some that are deeply flawed when compared to the best and coming to the conclusion that the film is good but inconsistent. For me, the flaws are insignificant, as are the gritty specifics of each story. To me the relationships between the segments are what is important, making even the worst of the episodes endlessly complex and fascinating. It's easily a top fifty film for me, and the others, while good, are far far behind it.

Ed Howard said...

Bobby, I'm with you. Open City is a shattering masterpiece, and this just isn't.

Stuart, interestingly, I find that Paisan, despite not being committed to a single story and set of characters, has just as much sentimentality and melodrama as the other films, if not even more. I like your point that the relationships between the segments work even when the individual segments are subpar, but the film just doesn't do it for me on the whole despite its good points. I certainly understand the perspective of those who love it, though.