Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Scorsese on Rossellini

(Originally posted November 27 2006, reposted with swell vintage poster images to celebrate the release of the new Criterion release of Rossellini's WAR TRILOGY - already available at Videomatica, as are THE FLOWERS OF ST. FRANCIS and Scorsese's documentary). And don't miss Mike Hertenstein's write-up at Filmwell.)

Martin Scorsese's MY VOYAGE TO ITALY is a journey through the Italian films which have shaped the director's work. Here's a transcription of what Scorsese had to say about Rossellini and his work.



PAISAN is made up of six episodes that follow the Allied army, the Americans and the British, as they pushed their way up the boot of Italy from south to north, driving the Germans out. The episodes that had the biggest impact on us as we watched the picture were the ones that were about sacrifice. These sacrifices were for something that I guess I really didn't understand at the time, at such a young age. They were for freedom.

In the Naples episode of PAISAN, I saw something that really shocked me. I realized that if my family had never left Italy, I could have been one of those kids up there on the screen, reduced to stealing shoes, selling them on the black market, even sort of casually buying and selling the right to rob American soldiers. These kids were already so toughened up by war and what came after it that they learned every trick in the book. Like this one, right here: to create a panic to get their soldier, their victim, away from the competition. …

PAISAN was no fantasy. Especially this Naples episode. Like this scene, where the kid takes the drunken soldier (his name is Joe) into a puppet show to get him out of sight, to hide him from the other kids. Joe's having a good time, but once he realizes that the crowd is cheering on the story of a white knight beating a Moorish knight, a black knight, it triggers something in him. It's just a little too close to the prejudice he has to live with every day back home. …

The places looked real. They didn't look like sets. … These films were part of an explosion called Neo-Realism which was shaking up film-goers all over the world. The climax of the Naples episode was the most disturbing thing about it. A few days later, after Joe has sobered up, he spots the kid in the street and he wants his shoes back. … ("Take me to your home!") They drive all the way to the outskirts of Naples. The kid gives Joe any old pair of boots. His own boots, of course, are long gone. The boy take shim to the place he now calls home. … where the victims of Allied bombing raids wound up after their homes were destroyed. Now Joe's seen a lot, but he's never seen anything like this. Neither had I. ("Where's your mother and father?" "My mom and dad aren't here anymore. They are dead. The bombs. Boom!") …

In this version – the American release version, the only version I've ever seen – they used a map to introduce each episode. The Sicilian episode is the first one in the movie, and for my family, it was obviously the most important. … (the story is described) … When the Americans come back, they find Joe's body and they assume that he was murdered by Carmella. They don't know that she's dead too, shot by the Germans and dumped off the side of a cliff. They'll never understand that she sacrificed her life to save theirs. But we do.

Every movie is the product of its own time, but the neo-realist movies were much much more than that. After neo-realism, nothing would ever be the same again. …

If you ever have any doubt about the power of movies to effect change in the world, to interact with life and fortify the soul, then study the example of neo-realism. … They needed to dissolve the barrier between documentary and fiction, and in the process, they permanently changed the rules of movie making. Altogether, these movies amounted to a prayer: that the rest of the world look closely at the Italian people and see their essential humanity. That's why they had to be truthful. There was no choice. … For the first time, illusion took a back seat to reality. (The Bicycle Thief) … Beyond everything else, neo-realism came to exist out of a moral and a spiritual necessity.


In a way, you could say that neo-realism began with Roberto Rossellini. He was born in Rome in 1906. His father built and owned the first modern movie theatre in Rome. And when he was young he started going to the movies there every day. Of the many films he saw, two films by the American director King Vidor – THE CROWD and HALLELUJAH – seemed to be especially meaningful for him. It's not surprising: they're both great movies, landmarks in fact, and they've been meaningful for many filmmakers, including myself.

Rossellini's father died when he as 26, so he was forced to do something he'd never done before – get a job. That's when he turned to film. He started off doing sound effects, editing and dubbing, and he was drawn to the documentary form right from the beginning.…

During the occupation, Rossellini was already starting to envision a whole new kind of movie.…


"It's a story of a priest. the one who was executed by the fascists." The picture Rossellini was talking about, when it was finally finished, was called ROMA CITTA APERTA. Here in America, it was called OPEN CITY. ("Look, priest. Look! Are you satisfied? This represents your Christian chrity, your love for the fellow man. You can't save your accomplices. You'll end up a traitor. We'll destroy you all. All! Right to the last one!" / "You haven't spoken.") If it can be said that neo-realism began with one film, it would have to be OPEN CITY. …

With OPEN CITY and PAISAN, he had as great an influence on the cinema as Griffith or Eisenstein. Everybody seems to agree about that. But apart from those early milestones, his work isn't widely known. And a lot of the people who do know the later films don't appreciate them.

Take VOYAGE TO ITALY, made in 1953, which is one of my favorites. Now, I first saw it when I was a film student, and I was kind of prepared for it. So my first reaction was immediate and emotional. But over the years I've found that other people didn't always share my feelings about the picture. Like many of Rossellini's films, it's not instantly accessible. But if you give yourself to the film, if you spend time with it, you find it can be a rich, moving experience. I think the reality is that Rossellini was one of the few filmmakers who actually became more adventurous as he got older, and that's rare. His work from the fifties, sixties and seventies is as impassioned as his neo-realist films. It's just different…

Like Orson Welles with CITIZEN KANE, Rossellini came to resent OPEN CITY. Which isn't very surprising when you think about it. You're in the middle of your career, and everytime you make a new film it's compared and measured against something you did way back at the beginning. And your new work comes up short. This can be very very frustrating, even infuriating. Of course, that doesn't change the fact that OPEN CITY is a one of a kind film, where history and cinema met to create something uniquely powerful. OPEN CITY became a worldwide success, a phenomenon really…. At the time, Life magazine wrote that "the film helped Italy to regain that nobility it had lost under Mussolini." That's not the kind of thing you usually read about a movie. In a way, OPEN CITY became the new Italy's ambassador to the world.

It's a film about ordinary people – a priest, a pregnant woman, a group of Communist resistance fighters, a few kids – who all become heroes under extraordinary circumstances. It's also a film about occupation and its price, whereas PAISAN is a film about liberation and its price.


Some critics and historians consider PAISAN's final episode set in the Po Valley to be the purest form of neo-realism. Stripped of all dramatic artifice, things simply happen, and we're drawn further and further into the hopeless situation of some truly courageous people. Fellini, who was one of the assistants on PAISAN, said that Rossellini didn't want to be tied to a script. He was in search of something that he could only get by leaving himself open to every possibility. Some partisans and American and English soldiers are completely cut off in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by Germans. They find out that they won't be getting any support from the Allies. They get so hungry that they are forced out into the open. … The American soldier finds a way of repaying the family for their kindness. The family prepares a meal for the men, polenta and eels. It seems pretty simple: fishing for the eels, picking them out, and then killing them, right in full view of the camera. Just an act of everyday brutality. And it's also a way of preparing us for what's about to happen. The family has been compromised by their own hospitatlity, and the Germans slaughter them.

Fellini said that Rossellini seemed to know exactly what he wanted during the shooting of this episode. He was driven to find a new way of telling a story on film, where nothing is artistically embellished or enhanced. Everything seems to be simply unfolding, as in life. For me, this clarity of vision has an almost religious impact. As the French film critic Andre Bazin said, Rossellini was simply directing the facts. … (End of PAISAN)


(Cut to: "This movie, filmed in Berlin in the summer of 1947, aims to be the true and objective witness of a great city now mostly destroyed, where three and a half million people tried to survive a miserable existence.") In 1947, Rossellini went to Berlin to make a film called GERMANY YEAR ZERO, the last third of what became his postwar trilogy. It's about a young boy named Edmund who's trying to grow up in a world that's been completely decimated by war. Edmund has nothing, and nothing to look forward to. In this world of corruption and never-ending horror, the only rule is survival. All the conflicting forces around him drive Edmund to do something unthinkable: kill his own ailing father, who has lost the will to go on. In his mind, it's an act of mercy, but once he's done it, there's nothing left for him but despair. Compared to the early films, GERMANY YEAR ZERO feels a little detached. But I think that Rossellini needed to stay detached because he is presenting us with a truly terrible reality here. Try to imagine what it was like in Germany after the war, after their entire culture had self-destructed. What would it be like to be an innocent in a guilty world? For me, GERMANY YEAR ZERO is a film of real compassion. Edmund's death is a lonely sacrifice, just like Carmella's. in fact, sacrifice is what links the three films in the trilogy. I think that Rossellini was pleading with the nations of post-war Europe to find some sympathy and tolerance for their former enemy so that they could all go on together. I don't think anyone else had the courage to make a movie like this in 1947.

Rossellini followed GERMANY YEAR ZERO with something different, a sort of tale called THE MIRACLE. Federico Fellini wrote the story, and this is Fellini himself right here, playing a drifter. THE MIRACLE is a vehicle for Anna Magnani – in fact, it's unthinkable without her. She plays a shepherdess, a woman of limited intelligence but infinite faith. ("Jesus, Joseph, and Mary. Why are you leaving? Please don't go. May I talk to you? How beautiful. Beautiful saint of mine. I am so happy. What a joy. You make me want to die, and that's that. Then you can take me to heaven with you. To the contemplation of God.") THE MIRACLE is about the question of faith, and it's a running theme in Rossellini's work at this time. I think he was trying to ask the question, "How can faith survive world war two and the horrors of the Holocaust?"

("…Know what they always tell me? Crazy people can't go to heaven. …") She has convinced herself that he's Saint Joseph. But he's no saint, and he makes the most of the situation. ("This is heaven. It's heaven on earth. The crazy woman received grace. I feel sick.") She's slow to realize what's actually happened to her. Once she does, she believes that she's going to give birth to the baby Jesus. ("It's the grace of God." "Yeah, grace. You wish!") The homeless people she stays with throw her out. The people in town have absolutely no sympathy for her whatsoever. To them she's just a fool. Everybody has a good laugh over the "miracle" that's about to happen. But then there really is a miracle. A child is born. The miracle is life.

THE MIRACLE seems like such a simple film, but it's very special because without calling attention to it, Rossellini's communicating something very elemental about the nature of sin. It's part of who we are, and it can never be eliminated. For him, Christianity is meaningless if it can't accept sin and allow for redemption. He tried to show us that this woman's sin, like her madness, is nothing in comparison to her humanity.

It's odd to remember that this film was the cause of one of the greatest scandals in American movie history. When THE MIRACLE opened at the Paris Theatre in Manhattan, Cardinal Spellman who was the cardinal of New York at the time, and the Legion of Decency – that was the Catholic watchdog organization – called the movie "a blasphemous parody" and they mounted a campaign to have it pulled from the theatres. Josephy Burstyn, the film's US distributor, took his case all the way to the Supreme Court. And on May 26, 1952, the court decided in his favor. They held that movies were entitled to the same freedom of speech as the press, and they completely struck down the idea of blasphemy as grounds for censorship. Now, I've run into plenty of my own problems with censorship, so I know from personal experience what a landmark decision this was.


THE MIRACLE caused a scandal, but it was nothing compared to what happened a year later with STROMBOLI. STROMBOLI was the first Italian film I ever saw on a big screen in a theatre. Even at the age of seven you could feel the scdandalous air around the movie. You could almost taste it right there in the theatre. Of course, I'd overheard my parents talking privately about the details. Rossellini and his star Ingrid Bergman had had an affair, and then a child out of wedlock. Today it doesn't seem like a very big thing, but it was back then. They were condemned throughout America, and not just by the church this time – they were actually condemned on the floor of the American senate.

Just like THE MIRACLE, STROMBOLI was centred around one woman and her story. This was a problem for critics who felt that Rossellini had drifted too far from pure neo-realism.

The fact that the woman was played by Ingrid Bergman, one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, only made matters worse. Rossellini had betrayed the movement that he'd helped to invent. Actually he was growing and changing as an artist, but people got very angry with him. And so he really got it from both sides of the Atlantic with STROMBOLI. Of course now, fifty years later, the controversy and the criticism are gone, and we can look at the movie on its own terms.

In the film Ingrid Bergman is a Lithuanian war refugee named Karin. She's stuck in an Italian displaced persons camp, and she can't go back to her own country because she's been romantically involved with a German soldier. Her visa applications for Argentina is denied, Italy won't take her, so she has no place to go. One of the Italian POWs, who’s a Sicilian fishermen, gives her a way out. [He marries her] But then she sees where they'll be living: Stromboli, an isolated island off the coast of Sicily. And she realizes she's just walked into a whole different kind of prison. Rossellini once described Karin like this: “This woman has undergone the trials of war. She comes out of it bruised and hardened, no longer knowing what human feeling is.”

Every morning her husband goes out to sea with the other fishermen. [They cross themselves]. One day she wonders down to the shore and a man comes by, and he shows her how they look for fish. Even though things start innocently, this happens in full view of the Islanders and for them of course it's unthinkable, it's unpardonable. She has no idea that she's disgraced her husband – remember, this is a very small, closed society. They are locked on this island. In this world, when you lose your respect as a man, it's a real tragedy.

She becomes so desperate that she'll do absolutely anything to get off this island, so she pays a visit to the local priest who offers to help her and her husband emigrate. But she wants to make sure he's going to help. Watching this scene, as young as I was, I could tell just by the body language that something truly forbidden was being played out. [“You are the one man who can give me comfort.” /” I am no more than the parish priest of a community of fishermen…. I am a priest and I can only assist you during confession or in prayer. … what I feel for you is a deep feeling of pity. May the Lord guide you. Compose yourself. Meditate, think.”].

The tuna catching scene is the center of the whole movie. The heart of it. You're slowly drawn into what really is the core of existence for these people: the praying, the waiting. It’s as if the camera had been there thousands of years ago to record an ancient ritual of food gathering long before history was ever written, when it was still something that was passed down from one generation to the next. It's about the sanctity of eating as a communal act and gathering food with the people you know. The food is sacred, a gift from God. The scene is actually quite long. It builds slowly, like a piece of music. [Huge fish are loaded into the boats, and the fishermen pray “Jesus and Mary, thank you. Please protect us.” Husband: “Did you like the fishing?” “No, it was horrible. I don’t feel well. … I believe I’m pregnant.”]

When the volcano threatens to erupt, the Islanders go out in their boats and wait it out. For them, this is normal. But for Karen, she's reached her limit and she can't take it anymore. The only way left to get off the island is to actually walk over the volcano to get to a boat on the other side. Because of Ingrid Bergman's presence in the film, STROMBOLI was produced by RKO, which was owned at that time by Howard Hughes, who really didn't know what to do with the picture. So he cut 25 minutes and inserted a voiceover at the end tying up all the loose ends and reassuring us that Karen returns to her husband. But in Rossellini's version, it's open ended.

What happens to Karen at the volcano? Rossellini once said the important thing was to find out if this woman could still cry. But it's more than that. [Stars. Karen wakes.] Here's a woman who’s undergone a series of horrible trials, and who now has a baby growing inside of her. At the edge of the volcano she wakes up to a new spiritual reality. [“Oh god.”] It doesn't matter whether she goes back to her husband: this is a film about her journey, a journey that many of us may have gone through at different times in our lives… [“What mystery.”] Suffering, acceptance, transcendence.[“What beauty.”] And finally, peace.

GERMANY YEAR ZERO is about the loss, or the absence, of faith. STROMBOLI is about one woman's discovery of faith. And then Rossellini made a film about having faith, the embracing of faith. With Pasolini he adapted “The Flowers Of Saiint Francis,” a book that was written in the 14th century. In the aftermath of world tragedy, Saint Francis is example of unconditional love for every living thing.

I've never seen the life of a saint treated on film with so little solemnity. And so much warmth. FLOWERS OF SAINT FRANCIS was shot in early 1950 in the mountains around Rome. Rossellini used real monks to play all the principal roles. The film consists of a series of episodes in the lives of Saint Francis and his fellow brothers. These episodes play like little parables. But this Saint Francis is just the opposite of the somber saints with halos that were used to seeing in other movies. Rossellini made a film about a human being, but a human being, who is struggling to be good. Francis is alive to the beauty of all living things, including fire.

The faith shared between Francis and his brothers is so great that there's room for all kinds of eccentric behavior. In this scene, the brothers are saying goodbye to Francis and going off for the day to preach. Brother a juniper is very upset: he's disappointed that he's the one that's gotten stuck with the job of staying behind to make the meals while everybody else goes up to preach. So he comes up with what he thinks is a terrific scheme. He takes all the food that is meant to last for two weeks, throws it into an enormous pot, and put and cooks it up all at once, thinking this is going to free them up to code and start preaching. The old man, who is the newest and most enthusiastic, and I must say least intelligent of the brothers, is no help – especially when he starts throwing the firewood into the pot, not into the fire where it should go. It's a calamity.

This saint: he lives and breathes, he suffers cold and hunger, and from time to time he feels overwhelmed by the suffering of other people. For me the most beautiful scene in the picture is the one in which Francis meets a leper. I'm not sure I've ever seen another film that portrays the reality of compassion with such eloquence: the terror of compassion, of contact that direct.

In the end, the monks realize that they'll have to split up: it's the only way to spread their beliefs, each one venturing out on his own and performing simple acts of compassion. I've always loved the way they decided which direction to take.
Francis: we have arrived, my brothers. It is time to separate. From now on, each
of us will go alone to preach to the world.
Father, which way should we go?
We'll follow God's will.
How do we know what's his will?
Spin on the
spot where your feet are planted, like kids do while playing. Don't stop until
you are dizzy. [The monks spin and fall down.] Brother, which direction were you
facing when you fell down?
Facing sienna, just like me.
And you,
Bernardo?
Facing Florence.
And you, Ginepro?
Facing Arezzo.
And
you, Elia?
Facing Pisa.
And you, Ruffino?
Facing Spoleto.
And
you, Egidio?
Facing Foligno.
And you, Giovanni? Facing where?
Facing
over at that bird on the tree.
Then follow that bird, because that's the way
God wills you to go. Now go brothers. Travel all around the world, and preach
for peace.
What would happen if Saint Francis were alive in postwar Europe, where everyone was desperate to forget the war and return to normal. Would he be recognized as a saint or would people just think he was crazy?


Rossellini asked himself these questions with his next picture, in which he took a different approach to the idea of sainthood. He made a film that takes you through the process of someone actually becoming a saint in a world that didn't believe in them anymore. He called his film EUROPA ‘51. Ingrid Bergman plays an English woman named Irene Girard. She is living a comfortable life in Rome with her husband George and her son Michel. But something's wrong. Irene and Michel have lived through the air raids of London together, so the bond between them is very intense. But now everything back to normal, Michel feels neglected. He wants Irene’s attention , and he'll do anything to get it. [They argue. Later, he throws himself down the stairs.] This boy who's grown up in wartime just doesn't know how to live in a world of peace. [She promises to stay with him always, but he dies.]

Michel's death basically strips Irene of herself. She loses her reason for being. The first person who tries to bring Irene out of her depression is her cousin, Andrea. Andrea, who is a committed Marxist, tries to educate Irene and open her eyes to the misery in the world. This is the beginning of a change in Irene and without knowing or intending to, she is becoming a very different kind of person. She meets the family of the sick child. But at home, her own family is very concerned.
Irene: Let me explain to you mother. I'm not hurting anyone. I'm only trying to
find a way, don't you understand?
When she goes back to see the family she's helped, they are celebrating because their son Bruno has finally come home. She enjoys the warmth of people who simply like to be in each other's company. It's a small community of people living together in cramped quarters, and there's a prostitute living next door much to the disapproval of her neighbors. Maybe most of all, Irene simply wants to spend time with this boy who reminds her of her son. After helping one family, the floodgates opened. She wasn't there for her son when he needed her, so now Irene wants to be there for everyone.

Rossellini doesn't call attention to her evolution: the picture feels purely objective, almost as if it had no style. It's as if we're just walking by Irene's side, just following her emotional progress. Irene spends more time around the neighborhood and she becomes very attached to a few of the kids. She visits the home of a woman who's taken in many of these abandoned the children, and who happens to have three children of her own. Her name is Passerotto. And she's played by the great Giulietta Masina, who was married to Fellini.. It's easy to take advantage of Irene, because her need to help others is insatiable. So she agrees to take Passerotto’s place at the factory for the day, but once inside the factory Irene comes face-to-face with a side of life she's never known before: the tedium and pressure that most people have to go through every day, just to make a living.

When Irene gets home that night, it's as if she's walking into another world. What's actually happened to Irene is so impossible to imagine for her husband that he is convinced she has a lover.
George: it's perfectly clear to me what's going on. It shows in the way you act, in the way you dress, and everything you do is to please him.
And so she crosses over. She leaves her husband and goes to live in the slum, cutting off all ties with her life of comfort. Now all she can see his human need: there's nothing else. I read actually cares for the prostitute who is alone and who is dying of tuberculosis. It's only a matter of time before she crosses the line and gets into real trouble with the police. The police are very suspicious of her. They want to know how a respectable woman like her could possibly be living in the slum with a common prostitute. For her husband, there's just no alternative. [He commits her to an asylum] It takes her a little time to figure out exactly where she is.

Now, she understands. But it really doesn't matter where she is, there will always be people in need. Everywhere. [“You are not alone. Don't worry. I'm with you. I'll stay with you.”] The doctors in the asylum keep pressing her about her plans, her goals, her ideas.
Now, do you want to join a religious order.
No.
Are you a member of any political party?
No.
Then what are your ideals?
My ideals are the ideals of those who need me, day by day.

They keep pressing her: does she want to return home to her husband?
No, if I went home, I would save neither myself nor the others. I would only return to being what it was before. Don't think it wouldn’t be easier. … I want to share the sorrow of those who suffer. The pain of those who are distressed. I want to live with the others and save myself with them. I'd rather be lost with them than saved alone. I only feel that I can belong to them when I'm free of everything else. When you are down to nothing, you are bound to everybody. I have nothing more to say. Take me back to my room.
Rossellini doesn't condemn anyone in EUROPA 51. Not Irene's family, not her husband, not even the doctors who lock her away. He makes the case that society has rules, and that those rules are what define madness and sanity. That's the disturbing truth of this picture.

"People today only know how to live in society, not in community. The soul of society is the law. The soul of the community is love." That's Rossellini in 1963 describing this film that he made about Europe in 1951. But really it could be anywhere, and it could be now.

If you ever have an opportunity to see the picture, it's important to get past the imperfections in EUROPA ‘51. The dialogue dubbing of the minor characters is pretty poor, and that's also a problem in some of the other films Rossellini made around this time. It was a difficult time in his career: he was finding it harder and harder to make movies and the conditions were getting very tight, almost impossible. But he made the picture he wanted to make. EUROPA ‘51 is such a forceful film that it transcends its limitations.

1 comment:

Ima said...

This is fantastic!