I reviewed Roberto Rossellini’s PAISAN for this week’s Cinefile Chicago list:
Roberto Rossellini’s PAISAN (Italy)
Available to rent through the Gene Siskel Film Center here
If PAISAN is not as well known today as the films that precede and follow it in Roberto Rossellini’s celebrated “War Trilogy” (i.e., ROME, OPEN CITY and GERMANY YEAR ZERO), that is likely because it has existed for most of the past few decades only in dire-quality prints and has thus been the most difficult of the three to see. But the movie itself has always exerted a massive influence on the work of other filmmakers: Gillo Pontecorvo credited it with making him want to be a director (his landmark BATTLE OF ALGIERS from 1966 would be unthinkable without it), and it served as a major reference point in THE IMAGE BOOK in 2018 when Jean-Luc Godard provocatively juxtaposed its grim final images with cell-phone footage of ISIS executions. Cinephiles everywhere therefore owe the Cineteca di Bologna a huge debt of gratitude for carrying out a digital restoration in 2013 that seemingly rescued the film from oblivion. Among other things, this restoration proves that PAISAN, which was funded in part by MGM after the unexpected success of ROME, OPEN CITY in the United States, is a more polished-looking picture than many of us thought, and that much of what we assumed was its gritty “Neorealist aesthetic” can actually be attributed to worn and battered prints. Unlike the other films in the trilogy, PAISAN employs a vignette structure and is broken into six chapters, each focusing on the experiences of different characters in different parts of Italy in the final days and immediate aftermath of World War II. For each vignette, Rossellini hired a different writer (including Federico Fellini before he had ever directed a movie himself), although Rossellini reportedly revised the script extensively while shooting it, which is perhaps why the film ultimately feels so cohesive. Each story seems to carry some trace of the one that precedes it (there are American G.I.s named “Joe” in each of the first two chapters to cite but one obvious example) and a major theme running through all of them is the tragic inability of characters to communicate, often as the result of a language barrier. Also giving the film unity of purpose is the way the stories progress temporally and geographically; it begins with the first Allied landing operation in Europe when Anglo-American troops arrive on the southern coast of Sicily, and each subsequent episode moves both further north and forward in time so that the final chapter ends in the Po Delta with Germans executing Italian partisans who are not protected by the Geneva conventions after Italy’s surrender. All of the stories are powerful in their own right, often culminating with a surprise or ironic twist ending a la O. Henry, although the second episode is probably the most fascinating to watch from a modern perspective. This Naples-set story concerns the relationship between a bitter African-American soldier (a non-stereotypical character beautifully played by American actor Dots Johnson) and the Italian street urchin who steals his shoes. The soldier’s drunken confession that he doesn’t want to return home after the war has been rightly celebrated as one of the first moments in any movie made anywhere to criticize Jim Crow-era American racism. (1946, 126 min) [Michael Glover Smith]
PAISAN is the subject this week of the Gene Siskel Film Center’s online lecture series by Jonathan Rosenbaum on “World Cinema of the 1940s.” The event is on Tuesday at 6pm. More info and a link to purchase a ticket here.