Paisà (1946)

Paisà has stayed in my mind not because paisa florenceof the stories it tells, but because of the sheer power of its images: bombed cities, the familiar landmarks in ruins, as in this scene from the “Florence” segment of the film. In the stark afternoon light, the damage is laid bare. What does it matter, that an American nurse has fallen in love with a painter, now a partisan, Lupo, who is most likely dead? The destruction of the city with its precious art is the true subject. With every scene, I was peering past the actors, trying to catch another glimpse of the crumbling Duomo. Germans bombed the bridges and destroyed more than a third of Florence’s medieval monuments.

The Florence that we and successive generations of men since the days of the Medici knew and loved is no more,” wrote one of the American art historians sent to survey the damage. “Of all the world’s artistic losses in the war, this one is the saddest.

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The backgrounds stun, while the main action gets in the way. Caves in Naples where impoverished families lived among the rubble: Rossellini happened upon them and reworked the story to show the incredible squalor, after the Allied bombing and the booby-traps set by the retreating Germans. I’ve read accounts of these sites by soldiers of the liberating armies, but I couldn’t have imagined the reality until he showed it to me.

The haunting landscape of the Po Deltabody in boat in Italy’s north, where the final sequence of Paisà takes place, did not incorporate any documentary footage. A handful of American OSS operatives are working behind-the-lines with Italian partisans. The odds are against them, bleak weather complicating their efforts to get weapons and ammunition. Rossellini brought me there, paddling with them in long, flat boats through the reeds under overcast skies.

Rome Open City

Director Roberto Rossellini saw his 1945 masterpiece as an antidote to the escapism that had characterized Italian cinema under the Fascists. After everything Italians had lived through during the war, he said, “we couldn’t afford the luxury of these made-up stories.”

Fair enough, but was this opening salvo in the neorealist campaign any less of a myth?

The film was dark and gritty—such a contrast to the clean aesthetic of Fascism! The style was no-style. Much of it was shot on the street, as opposed to in a studio, using non-actors to play most of the parts. roma-citta-aperta1-890x395The German soldiers in the film were real POWs. Instead of a glamorous movie star, Rossellini’s leading lady, Anna Magnani, was earthy, a woman of the people. The character she plays was based on a real woman killed in the streets by the Germans. The priest in the film, Don Pietro, who works with the Resistance, was also based on a real person.

But for all of the picture’s authentic, documentary feel, despite the deaths and betrayals, and notwithstanding the brutal scene of torture that we, along with Don Pietro, are made to witness, “Rome Open City” is a surprisingly uplifting film. Its message, in Rossellini’s own words, was that the German Occupation brought out the best in Italians, purifying them of the taint of collaboration with an evil regime:

If we go back to that period in our minds, it was perhaps the loveliest most thrilling period that we lived through, and the most extraordinary thing is that at that moment when everything seemed destroyed, when our lives seemed completely shattered, it’s precisely out of those ruins and debris, all that destruction, that there suddenly and miraculously arose in Italy, in every field of life an activity, a pugnacity, a consciousness and a human warmth that were absolutely astonishing.

Certainly Italian audiences were proud to recognize themselves in the ordinary heroes of this martyred Rome, and felt vindicated in the eyes of the world when “Rome Open City” won the Grand Prix at Cannes. A new Italy was rising from the ashes, one that was no longer passive. An Italy in which Catholics and the Left could find common cause in the quest to behave decently.

“It’s not that hard to die a good death,” says Don Pietro, “what’s hard is to live a good life.”

Let’s call it a necessary myth.