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Vol. 6 No. 35, October 2002

 

 

Tag Gallagher

Reply to Bleasdale

 

 

 

John Bleasdale

'The Unrealistic Rossellini'

_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 6 no. 34, October 2002

http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol6-2002/n34bleasdale

 

In his review of my 1998 book on Roberto Rossellini, [1] John Bleasdale writes: '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.'

 

Rossellini's sense that life is more important than cinema is one of the reasons his cinema is so rewarding. Although he was born wealthy, this wealth disappeared quickly, and his adult life was a constant struggle for money, for ways of making movies, a struggle he pursued with zest. The fact that he spent energy on pursuits other than film does not seem to me to be a condescending observation, or to lessen the amazing accomplishment of the pictures; rather, the contrary. Especially at the age of 70. Especially if you consider that only three of his movies ever made any profit to speak of, and that during the last seven years of his life he was able to produce more than forty hours of his history movies against opposition and obstacles of every sort. The sheer energy and persistence required to get anything done in Italy is mind boggling.

 

The observation that at 70 he spent energy on sex, and was as a result sometimes physically exhausted when it came to shooting, comes from one of his oldest and dearest friends who was also a medical doctor, Enrico Fulchignoni (a film director in Italy before World War 2; a professor at the University of Paris when I knew him).

 

I don't see this observation as condescending. Rather the contrary. In Rossellini's case, without the sex there wouldn't have been the film. It was all part of the same zest. For the record, my 'interrogation' was constant during fifteen years working on the book, and has continued since its publication. I never needed to bring up the subject of Rossellini's sex life; everyone I spoke to brought it up first.

 

Bleasdale writes: '_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.'

 

None of these was filmed 'under the supervision of the [F]ascist regime'. Vittorio Mussolini was involved with only two of them, and only marginally, and essentially as a figurehead.

 

It's important to note that fascism and Fascism are quite different things, and it serves no worthy purpose to conflate the two.

 

Bleasdale writes: 'Gallagher argues convincingly for a re-appraisal of these films as non-fascist, if not anti-fascist'.

 

Well, I tried to argue they were anti-Fascist.

 

Bleasdale writes: '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. 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.'

 

The line about Spain becoming a Soviet satellite occurs in a summary of the Fascists' arguments in favor of intervention. Bleasdale erroneously attributes the sentiment to me. And his summary of my presentation of Mussolini and his regime is egregiously misleading. I never suggest that Mussolini was a good, let alone great, statesman, and I assign responsibility for the tragedies that ensued to Mussolini's own personality and the corruption of his regime. Page after page in the book is devoted to depicting the hollowness of that regime.

 

My concern in depicting Roberto Rossellini living, from age 16 to 37, within the suffocating provincialism of Fascist Italy, was to show that Fascism, at least until 1938, was even more unremarkable to most Italians than was 'Reaganism' in the US in recent times. The 'demonisation' occurred later. The dissident voices, destined to be canonized in the post-war period, were exiled or marginalized or scoffed at during the 1930s. In researching through English-language sources, I found book after book that told me, in detail, why Mussolini and Fascism were evil; I found almost nothing that told me why virtually everyone in an otherwise impossibly factious and ungovernable nation was content with Fascism during its first fifteen years.

 

Bleasdale writes: '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.'

 

This is news to me, about Magnani, totally contrary to her character, and hard to believe. She had refused the starring role in Visconti's _Ossessione_ not because she was pregnant but because Visconti wanted her to have an abortion.

 

Bleasdale writes: '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.'

 

Truffaut was not a lonely exception; but he was Rossellini's (paid) assistant. His colleagues at _Cahiers du cinema_ were as supportive as he. Rohmer, Rivette, Godard, Bazin all defended Rossellini enthusiastically. Even in Italy there were supporters. Low as the nadir of 1956 was, the nadir eight years later was even lower. Truffaut was not supportive of Rossellini's history films in the early 70s.

 

Bleasdale writes: '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.'

 

But why is it unfair? Or even inaccurate? Fellini was in fashion; Rossellini not. I doubt anyone can come up with a film that got worse reviews from the Italian press than did _Viaggio in Italia_. It had taken a year to find anyone willing to distribute it and it disappeared from the screens almost immediately. It's difficult to find anyone who had a kind word for it -- or a bad word for _La strada_. A few years later _Cahiers du cinema_ voted _Voyage in Italy_ the greatest Italian film ever made. (It was shot in English; dubbed into Italian.)

 

Bleasdale writes: '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).'

 

Seems to me a sponge is active. The metaphor isn't mine, but that of a number of Rossellini's friends. They said: 'He ate you up.'

 

Bleasdale writes: '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.'

 

Laziness was never the problem. It was a joke because he was always in bed; he did everything in bed.

 

Boredom was a problem. Even in the 1930s Rossellini's enthusiasm was at its greatest when first conceiving a project. The process of getting the initial enthusiasm into the finished film often involved enormous difficulties (which Rossellini generally overcame) and even more enormous tedium and boredom (to which he occasionally succumbed). His hope, during the late 60s and 70s, was to get others to direct the history films which he would conceive and outline. He wanted to enlist Fellini and Altman and Truffaut and film students all over the world into implementing designs for which he was the stylist. This hope was not dictated by laziness but by the immensity of the task.

 

At the same time there was, I believe, often a problem with Rossellini in that he did not at times believe in his own powers as an artist, or the artistic merit of his own work -- a theme which I try to explore in the book.

 

Bleasdale writes: '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.'

 

I devoutly hope this was true -- in the good sense of these qualities!

 

Rossellini, especially in his last decades, battled doggedly against his fickleness and his boredom. He said he tried each day to demolish his ignorance, brick by brick. His formal education had scarcely included grammar school. Now he read hundreds of books, underling passages, taking notes. But he would read a dozen books at the same time -- a page from this one, then a page from that one.

 

It is easy to focus on Rossellini's failings and inadequacies. He never tried to hide them. They were the 'other side' of his successes and virtues. Fickleness was part of unfailing energy to explore the new. What I find awesome in his life is his incredible persistence. He may have been a great sinner, but he never stopped trying to be a saint. He didn't let failures and inadequacies stop him from being Rossellini.

 

Newton, Massachusetts, USA

 

 

Footnote

 

1. _The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini: His Life and Films_ (New York: Da Capo Press, 1998). All page numbers in parentheses. Some pages of corrections and additions to the book are available from me by email: <tag@sprynet.com>.

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2002

 

Tag Gallagher, 'Reply to Bleasdale', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 6 no. 35, October 2002 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol6-2002/n35gallagher>.

 

 

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