Paisà has stayed in my mind not because of 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.
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 Delta 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.