1946 // Italy // Roberto Rossellini
Criterion Collection (LINK)
After gaining critical acclaim for his post war neorealism entry Rome, Open City (1945), Roberto Rossellini, together with his collaborators Sergio Amidei, Federico Fellini and others, expanded their trait of approaching “reality” from one city to the whole country. Following the same spatial direction and chronological order of liberation of Italy from the Nazi Germany, with the allied force from Americans and British, Paisan charted six short stories in six different locations, allegorically “reprising” the history in 1943-44, a time where victory and defeat, triumph and suffering interspersed.
The film encompassed the whole of Italy and reflected on what the filmmakers found and experienced in their own journeys of location shooting. Characters, plots, and locations were continuously and sometimes drastically changed in view of new ideas and discoveries to correspond more closely to the “truth.” Hence, when southern monks were enlisted to play their northern counterparts, one cannot accuse Rossellini for cheating since it’s their faces of serenity and innocence that correlated to the “reality.” For all the blank and flat performances from the non-professional actors, like in films by Robert Bresson, are not the major concern; in contrary, it’s their physicality and faces, as well as the dubbed dialects, that constitute the sense of realism.
It would be too clumsy to narrate all six stories one by one in this short review. In general, they focused on the experience of the Italians as well as the liberators during the war and the immediate aftermath, including the war efforts of the partisans and the allied soldiers, the inevitable predicament of children and women, as well as the miscommunication across racial, cultural and religious differences. It started in Sicily in the first episode and went north, as the liberation forces did, to Naples, Rome, Florence and eventually ended at the Po Valley.
Each stories has a different tone and theme, it could be tragically sad when an American soldier being shot shortly after he was emotionally connected, across language barrier, with a Sicilian girl; bitterly melancholic when an Italian prostitute waiting for a foreign soldier who would never care enough to find her even with a written address; comically scandalous when a group of Catholic monks commenced fasting in order to save the “lost souls” of a Protestant chaplain and a Jew; or mournfully furious when the Germans executed the Italian partisans one by one by pushing them into the river with hands tied.
Albeit all the differences, the episodes are linked by emotion and the clinical representations on the allied forces and the Italians. Paradoxically, Paisan could be viewed as both post-war propaganda and anti-American. In spite of their bravery, we could not dismiss the ignorance and arrogance of the allied forces, which I think reflects more closely to the contradictory nature of “reality.” But as other anthology films, one cannot expect all episodes to be “equally” good. Indeed my personal favoritism towards the second episode, a bitter story between a black American soldier and a parentless Italian boy amidst the bombed-out Naples, affects my subsequent viewing negatively as I find the remaining stories failed to impress me again by over-topping that episode. Some parts, when viewed individually, are weak in character portraits as the characters are generalized into an abstract representation, or the stories end unexpectedly without moral realization or catharsis.
This film is closed with a short narration, “this happened in the winter of 1944. At the beginning of spring, the war was over,” just after the execution of several Italian partisans under the hands of Germany. This ambivalent, almost sarcastic note contradicts the triumphant victory of liberation at the time the film released, yet as Fellini once remarked on the film, “we were surrounded by a whole new race of people, who seemed to be drawing hope from the very hopelessness of their situation. There were ruins, trees, scenes of disaster and loss, and everywhere a wild spirit of reconstruction.” It’s the reemergence of hope after utter destruction, speaking of that Paisan is nonetheless a triumph.