In 1945, during the closing months of World War II, Roberto Rossellini kicked of the neo-realism film movement in Italy with Rome, Open City, his look at Nazi oppression and the Italian anti-fascist resistance. Rossellini’s follow-up, Paisà (aka Paisan, 1946), is in much the same vein and serves as the second of a trilogy of neo-realist films examining aspects of the Second World War. (The third film — Germany, Year Zero — is also on the Sight & Sound list.) Like in Rome, Open City, Rossellini makes use of on-location shooting and a cast populated largely by amateur actors or non-actors, but the director tries to work on a much larger canvas for this film. Or perhaps that should be canvases, as Paisà is actually a collection of six stories that track the progress of the war as Allied troops move ever northward up the boot of Italy. Each story is an autonomous block, completely separate from the other tales, but they share the common thread of focusing on moments of interaction between Allied personnel and Italians either fighting in or affected by the conflict. Though spiked with humor, romance, and devout expressions of faith, Paisà is not a film that revels in the downfall of fascism. Instead it is unflinching in its presentation of the brutality of oppression and the violence and sacrifice it took to liberate a still-stricken nation. But through all the suffering Rossellini never preaches, it is left to the audience to decide upon the grand purpose of these tales. (120 min.)
S. – We are going to tackle things a little differently than usual yammering about this film: a more rapid-fire back and forth style in keeping with Rossellini’s vignettes that explore personal interactions born out of wartime.
The opening story follows a small party of American soldiers arriving at night in an unfamiliar Sicilian village on the trail of the German troops that had recently departed. Despite being received with little enthusiasm by the locals a village girl offers to guide them as she hopes to gain some information about her father and brother. However, the details of why this group find themselves together is less important than the personal dynamics portrayed of young, confused and scared people trying to find their way. Yet the heightened tension engendered by the constant threat of violence seems to make any natural behaviour or genuine connection impossible. The amateurish acting, particularly by the American soldiers, in this portion of the film added an awkwardness that prevented me from feeling particularly empathetic towards any of the characters. I was fearful for them though. The permission that wartime gives for resorting to savagery, even by those wishing to reach out to others, never allows you to relax. Tragedy seems inevitable.
J. – Yeah, perhaps a bit too inevitable. This first segment was far and away the weakest of the bunch. It was relatively light on incident, so as you said it was more a character study of American GIs and provincial Italians, but most of it didn’t click. One sees here the danger of using amateurs in performance roles. It has to be difficult to direct people who don’t speak your native language — did Rossellini realize how bad these guys were at acting? (Robert Van Loon, as Joe, somehow manages to be stiff and hammy at the same time, which is actually pretty remarkable.) And the downer ending was telegraphed yet still disjointed (which unfortunately will happen again in another segment).
So when the movie switched gears to story two and had an American military policeman giving a very unconvincing performance of being blind drunk as a Naples street urchin messed with him, well, I feared we were in for a long, lousy movie. But this second segment really takes a turn once it gives actor Dots Johnson the chance to cut loose in a drunken monologue atop a rubble pile with the amused and confused kid at his side. It’s a great scene, full of false bravado, and I can’t help but notice that it takes an Italian film to give some screen time to an African-American soldier and the troubles of being black in America. I became much more invested in the film from that moment, in part because the amateur acting and the poverty-wracked locations now felt real and experienced.
S. – The mood certainly picked up atop the rubbish heap after a wobbly start, with a much stronger lead performer and some moments of humour infused into proceedings. Again the theme of things being tough on all sides is portrayed, but this time achieving greater sympathy. It also made me think about the wider repercussions of the war, the setting for these stories are during the final stages of the conflict and often occur away from the fighting. But the consequences on society will clearly linger throughout the next generation.
The impact of the war on civilian life is given another twist as we witness the third story, about a prostitute plying her daily trade amongst the swinging nightlife that has developed around the influx of soldiers in Rome. There is the sense that the celebration has gone on too long and what was born out of joy and relief has descended into ugliness. Through the drunken reminiscence of a GI we witness the rapid fall from grace that this women, and by extension the city itself, has undergone.
J. – Yeah, I would say that the most compelling aspect of the third story is this vision of post-liberation Rome and the effect that the war has had upon the local people. That more documentary aspect I think worked a bit better than the actual story, which was a bit too contrived and maudlin. But despite the clunky twists, I rather liked the performances in this piece, particular Maria Michi’s as the fallen woman who thinks she has found a second chance at happiness. (Michi was quite good in Rome, Open City as well.) The two leads had actual chemistry, which is surprising given the language barriers and cookie-cutter story.
But it is story number four where Paisà really took off for me. I loved this tale of a British nurse and her Italian friend darting into a raging battle in Florence in an attempt to find their loved ones. This was just masterful filmmaking, and I’m not sure I’ve ever really seen a director do so much with so little. Rossellini’s budget was clearly tiny, so it raises a problem: how do you have a big-ass battle when you can’t afford even a wee tiny one? The way the film does this through sound effects, clever camerawork, and making use of the deserted streets of Florence is amazing. It is utterly gripping and intense even though I don’t think you see a single German soldier the entire time. This one had me in thrall the whole time.
S. – The flight of two desperate civilians through a Florence under siege was outstanding. It was a perfect short story. The extent of the danger was quickly and convincingly established, the dual personal purposes of the protagonists trumping the logical approach of the defending forces. Maybe in such surreal circumstances two ordinary people could achieve what an army could not. The tension was terrific, deserted city streets being far more eerie than an enemy in full view. As you said, J., this sequence was masterfully done and served as a dramatic contrast to the next vignette set in a monastery.
So from the tension of the war torn streets we escape into a protected haven where a quiet and contemplative existence carries on with little reference to the struggles outside the walls. The actions of the devout Catholic brothers are sympathetically and respectfully represented, yet the arrival of military chaplains provokes some hard questions about what purpose the cloistered lifestyle really serves.
J. – I’m slightly surprised that this is all you have to say about the chaplains and the monks story, because it might have been my favorite in the bunch — although I admit I am not quite sure of the point it was trying to make. But I really like the clash there between the cloistered monks (apparently played by actual Franciscan friars) and the more worldly American chaplains. I rather like that the American army chaplains were of three different faiths but able to get along just fine and see each other as equals, whereas the monks, separated as they were from the world and in a very Catholic nation reacted almost in horror that they had let a Protestant and a Jew into their domain. But I like that this segment was not so much a serious examination of faith and tolerance (although it skillfully handled both those matters) but rather a comedy.
And I was particularly thankful for those laughs after witnessing story six about the struggles of American OSS officers and Italian partisans in the marshes of northern Italy. This last segment was very interesting in terms of the subject matter and appealingly matter of fact about perserverence and bravery. It was also probably the most visually unusual of the stories, filmed as it was aboard small boats and in inhospitable conditions. But the brutal ending really left me cold, in large part because it was so abrupt and arbitrary. And I suppose that was the point, but I really don’t understand exactly what Rossellini was going for there by putting so final and disturbing a turn of events at the end of this film. It just seems strange that, since the Allies and the Italian anti-fascists ultimately won, the last word in Paisà is one of senseless death and not one that at least allowed a little hope for the future. I will never demand a happy ending, but this final segment really soured much of the experience for me. A damn shame given how much I enjoyed stories two through five.
S. – It was certainly a bleak note to close on, although throughout the film (with the exception of the monks) I felt that the recurrent theme was the destructiveness of war. This movie is unusual in that it does not try to give you any answers or provide a justification for the hardship and horror depicted, I think that is what makes it so affecting. I thought having the final story involve actual combat was a natural progression and gave the sequence quite a different feel from the intermediate pieces by bringing us back to a soldier’s eye perspective. Rosellini seems to deliberately avoid any kind of glorification of war, there are no heroes here. Instead there is bickering, confusion and poor decisions among the troops. Once again civilians play a role, showing some kindness in the midst of their precarious situation, yet they are not spared from violence. The sum total of Paisà is the same message echoed through many different perspectives, there are no winners in war.