Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 6 No. 34, October 2002



John Bleasdale

The Unrealistic Rossellini




Tag Gallagher

_The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini: His Life and Films_

New York: Da Capo Press, 1998

ISBN 0306808730

802 pp.


It is a consistent irony that one of the founding fathers of Italian neo-realism should himself have led such an unrealistic life. His biography traces a familiar trajectory: from the groundbreaking beginning full of initial promise, then dissipated by his own actions and/or the hostility and misunderstanding of his contemporary audience and the critical establishment, to a state of final recognition and (almost) respectability. Along the way there are stories of betrayal and excess, the speed of cocaine and the speed of delivering a print by sports car from Rome to Paris in 48 hours. There are the ambitiously conceived and fascinatingly innovative films that never get shot. There are films begun and abandoned, sometimes to be finished by somebody else. There are films butchered by the editors of unimaginative or jealous Hollywood tycoons. And there is the marriage to the Hollywood actress and the divorce. Much of this brings to mind a figure such as Orson Welles and the two have much in common, with their reputations for innovation and the self-made myths of genius and failure. They are both fantastic fabulators, table-talkers who construct their own legends, spin their own yarns, amusing and charming, but only occasionally reliable. However, whereas Welles has posthumously achieved an iconographic figure so great as to tempt not only a myriad of biographers but also other film-makers to paint his portrait, Roberto Rossellini has been relatively overlooked, despite his aforementioned reputation as one of the founding fathers of Italian cinema.


Rossellini was born into one of the richest and most vivacious Roman families, which alongside its fortune and eccentricities could also boast the possession of a piece of Garibaldi's beard. Rossellini's wealth was nothing exceptional among the neo-realists. Visconti was a Milanese aristocrat who could finance his own films regardless of whether anyone went to see them, and De Sica could earn healthy sums as an actor or singer whenever money to make films was difficult to find. From the pampered child whose occasional ill-health saw an end to any attempt at formal schooling, Rossellini graduated smoothly to the playboy, driving fast cars, going to parties and brothels, and knocking about town with an enthusiasm somewhat at odds with the austerity and solemn fascism of the period. Filmmaking was fallen into during the pursuit of an actress. Or at least this is what he told Truffaut, and it might be true. As Gallagher rather crassly puts it: 'Even at seventy, Roberto would devote more time and energy to making women than to making films -- which in his circle was considered merely good taste.' (39) There is a condescending chumminess to this statement, as well as an uncomfortable lack of interrogation. One wonders how Tag evaluated time/energy expenditure.


Alongside a couple of experiments in underwater and nature documentaries, Rossellini's first feature film work was pursued on fascist orientated themes. _Luciano serra pilota_ (Luciano Serra Pilot), _La nave bianca_ (The White Ship), _Un pilota ritorna_ (A Pilot Returns), and _L'uomo dalla croce_ (The Man of the Cross) were all filmed under the supervision of the fascist regime, most involved to a varying extent Vittorio Mussolini, the dictator's son, and all of them dealt with military subjects. Gallagher argues convincingly for a re-appraisal of these films as non-fascist, if not anti-fascist, citing the comparatively slack censorship and Rossellini's eel-like evasions of authority. However, at times Gallagher spoils his argument by engaging in a senseless polemic:


'How do we assay Rossellini's moral responsibility in the Fascist period? Do we condemn Rossellini for participating in a film like _Luciano serra pilota_, in which the sins of Italy's imperialism in Ethiopia are never mentioned? Do we condemn Gary Cooper for white-washing British imperialism in _Lives of a Bengal Lancer_ or Cary Grant in _Gunga Din_?' (50)


Well, yes and no. These films aren't necessarily condemned, but the gaps and the culpability of Hollywood's rewriting of history has hardly gone unnoticed. The clatter of straw men being bashed resounds. This false opposition between the apparent condemnation of fascist Italy's cultural production and the allowance of all sorts of wickedness when it comes to English speaking cinema becomes more disturbing as Gallagher broadens his scope to provide a view of fascism and its foreign policy:


'Still today Ethiopia is cited as evidence that Fascism was evil. Less cited are the Philippines where 600,000 Filipinos died on Luzon alone during the American conquest' (51)


Unlike other world leaders, Mussolini, we are told, 'never amassed an estate nor even collected his salary' (49). The Spanish Civil War is conflated into 'Spain was becoming a Soviet satellite' (61), and so Mussolini generously sends in the troops. There is in all of this a defiance of easy stereotyping and the drawing of vapid conclusions but, as with his exasperation concerning Gary Cooper and Cary Grant, Gallagher suggests that he is a lone voice when in fact he is in good company. His view of Italy during the fascist period is one widely accepted in Italy today, not least by one of the leading members of the government coalition, the Alleanza Nazionale, the leader of which party, Giancarlo Fini, went so far as to describe Mussolini as the century's greatest statesman. [1] In attempting to cut through the myths of demonisation, Gallagher falls for the original and fascist myth of Mussolini as the down-to-earth leader of the Italian people who got caught up in the romantic dreams of that people, the Fatalita' Italiana. [2]


If fascism trained the novice filmmaker, it was in fascism's destruction that Rossellini fulfilled his promise and showed what would widely be considered a genuinely new type of film. _Roma, citta aperta_ (Rome, open city) tells a simple story of the resistance during the German occupation of Rome. The moral delineations are simply drawn: the good side is represented by the children, the pregnant Sora Pina, the communists and the catholic priest. The villains are the Nazis and the drug-taking lesbian. The emotional moments of the film are likewise simple and immediate: a series of martyrdoms, the brutal and senseless machine gunning of Sora Pina, the torture and death of the then Christ-like communist resistance leader, and the quiet and understated execution of the priest, witnessed by the children. All we have left is the band of children, who walk off in a possibly communist solidarity towards the cupola of St Peter's.


The innovations Rossellini introduced are sometimes invisible to us now. Showing a pregnant woman with a visibly large belly for instance was considered unconventional at the time. It was usually enough to state that the character was pregnant, and Rossellini had difficulty persuading Anna Magnani to dispose of convention. The film retains an improvised and immediate look, from the actual destruction of the city in which the film is shot, to the movements of the camera, which seems to be forever catching up with people like a surveillance camera whose batteries are running down. However, Rossellini exaggerated the extent of his 'realism' to foreign journalists. His cast was made up of unknowns picked from the street, he insisted, despite the fact that two of the leads were played by famous Italian actors, paid considerable sums. The cinema-from-the-street was shot to a large extent in a professional studio with designed sets. The improvisation followed a script which had gone through many careful revisions. When Aldo Fabrizi wanted to use a method-like approach to his emotional scene, Rossellini stood by patiently with the bottle of glycerine that was ultimately employed to gain the same effect.


But neo-realism was never about having a documentary methodology. It is almost a commonplace to acknowledge that all 'realisms' have no privileged claim to transmit unalloyed reality. Rather, realism is a genre, an artistic convention that looks like something but isn't something. _Paisa_ (Paisan) would again contribute to the myth, but at this point Rossellini was beginning to move towards a freer way of making films. The script would be rewritten on the spot and actors cast from faces in the crowd, but there were still professional actors and there was still the original script.


So far Rossellini had achieved a magnificent success. Both _Roma, citta aperta_ and _Paisa_ were hailed critically and commercially successful. Both films significantly contributed to the emergence of a post-war Italian identity, not so much for the Italians, who would begin to complain that _Paisa_ showed Italy in too negative a light (too many prostitutes), but for Europe and the Americans. New York and Paris hailed Rossellini as an authentic and acceptable Italian voice. Selznick opened his cheque book and a certain Swedish actress wrote a letter.


_Deustschland im jahre null_ (Germany in year zero) dealt with a similar postwar landscape to _Roma, citta aperta_, but Berlin wasn't Rome and the grim zero that the film runs down to was not the grim hope of new beginnings born of sacrifice that closed the earlier film, but rather despair and suicide. Audiences were no longer prepared for this type of realism.


Rossellini's final rejection of Selznick and acceptance of Ingrid Bergman brought neither success nor complete disaster. Rossellini continued to make unique and challenging films, almost all of which were critical and commercial disasters. From _Stromboli_ in 1949 to _Fear_ in 1954, he directed Bergman in magnificent performances as their marriage failed. It was in the theatre with _Joan of Arc at the Stake_ that the partnership finally achieved commercial and critical acclaim, but by then their partnership was over.


Rossellini's career had reached its nadir. The almost universal critical antipathy towards him was relieved by one exception, Francois Truffaut. However, Truffaut was becoming almost a school in his own right. His championing of Rossellini, as well as personally vindicating for Rossellini himself, also led the way to a total reassessment of films, some of which had been born already neglected.


After a chaotic stay in India, Rossellini returned and, unpredictable as ever, made a critically and commercially successful film, _Il generale della rovere_. The sixties also saw new possibilities open up with a move into television -- dramatic productions such as _La Prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV_ (The Rise of Louis XIV) which, originally made for French television, was then granted cinematic release -- and documentaries such as _L'eta del ferro_ (The Iron Age). With this later production, and up until his final film, Rossellini emerges as a great educator, someone who wishes to show us the greatness and the humanity of civilisation. His final film _The Messiah_ was an attempt to humanise Christ, an attempt difficult to accomplish in the wake of Pasolini's _Gospel According to Saint Matthew_. The next film was to be a life of Karl Marx.


The final uncompleted dualism is a key to understanding Rossellini as a thinker. In the end the communists and the catholics argued over who should bury him and this seems to be a fitting tribute to someone who managed to maintain an openness to the war-time alliance between the church and the party that we see traced in _Roma, citta aperta_ and which for the next thirty years would struggle for the body and soul of Italy.


Gallagher's book is a boisterous defence of Rossellini, which at the same time recognises why a defence might be needed. It reassesses many of his films, while allowing Rossellini himself to remain the complicated figure that he is. At times, partisan support can become unfair. Italian critics are likened to 'a herd of lemmings' because they preferred Fellini's _La strada_ to _Viaggio in Italia_ (439). I am not even sure if this image makes sense. The historical analysis is both detailed and comprehensive, but there is the occasional drift into the usual banalities about Italy, the country of dreamers, etc. (7). The style with which Gallagher writes is immensely readable. Following his own contention that 'biography is fiction' (x), _The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini_ is really a picaresque novel:


''Imagine! A murdered woman who revenges herself immediately afterward! Ha!' Almedia exclaimed. 'But it's perfect for the film!' exclaimed Roberto.' (124)


His life is easily made to look like fiction. One of the paradoxes any realism has to overcome is that people in 'real life' follow the models stylised fiction presents us with. At their most real, they act like film stars, or sometimes bad actors.


Gramsci and Croce both informed Rossellini's intellectual development and Gallagher is precise and clear in delineating these influences. Rossellini, however, has an essential passivity throughout despite the energy and the adventures. He absorbs ideas like 'a sponge', we are told more than once (30, 110). Notwithstanding all the arguments and the reading and the manifestos, Rossellini films in a haphazard way, often employing a method not because of the filmed result, but because it is easier or it takes less time. The most extreme manifestation of this laziness comes with Rossellini's increasing tendency to delegate the role he ought to take, or in the ultimate case to simply abandon the film and leave it incomplete. Rossellini emerges as at times inspired in his ambivalence, even heroic, but throughout Gallagher's account there is also the suspicion that the master filmmaker was still the dabbling playboy, frustratingly fickle and easily bored. On inventing a remote control for the zoom of his camera, we are told: 'Friends were quick to note he had found a new way to be lazy. He was in heaven.' (513) This ennui extends to cinema in general: 'By 1960, watching movies bored him, with rare exceptions' (553).


To access Rossellini's cinema is difficult to do now. Many of his films are scarce and the some of the versions most often seen were not edited under his supervision. However, in this timely intervention, Tag Gallagher begins the process of seriously understanding the maddeningly but entertainingly unrealistic Rossellini.


University of Ca' Foscari

Venice, Italy





1. Quoted in _La Stampa_, 1 April 1994.


2. Alessandro Campi's _Mussolini_ (Bologna: Il Mulino, 2001) provides a comprehensive review of the fascist and antifascist myths surrounding Mussolini.



Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2002


John Bleasdale, 'The Unrealistic Rossellini', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 6 no. 34, October 2002 <>.



Read Gallagher's Reply:

Tag Gallagher, 'Reply to Bleasdale', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 6 no. 35, October 2002 <>.



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