Rossellini completes his “War Trilogy” with the story of Edmund, a young German boy who navigates bombed out Post War Berlin to find food, shelter, and money for his ailing family. Rossellini’s on location photography frames this personal nightmare with haunting precision, making Edmund, his ex-nazi brother in hiding, sickly father, and older sister, a collective of past trauma’s with little hope for the future. Germania anno zero (Germany Year Zero) focuses on the everyday struggle for survival, but also the deceptive and manipulative qualities people use when faced with such situations. Edmund is countlessly betrayed, whisked away, and forced out because he’s a child, never taken seriously as a bread winner even when his own brother sits impotent, unable to provide with fear of getting arrested for past crimes. Where Paisan looked to explore the vast ramifications of WWII, Germania anno zero brings the conflict of war torn environments back to a personal reckoning where Open City began it in Italy. But Rossellini does this in Berlin of all places, humanizing the common German people instead of vilifying them for their past actions (or inactions in the case of Edmund’s dying father). Still, it’s a film about succumbing to the pressures of chaos, and Edmund’s final decision marks a distinctly pessimistic stance on the whole affair, one primed with deceit, regret, and finally death. In the neo-realist tradition, Germania anno zero doesn’t pull any punches in examining the horrors of post war life.
In Europa ’51, Roberto Rossellini subverts his own neo-realism roots to indict the complacency and ignorance of the post-war elite, church, and bureaucracy. He uses stars, including his own wife Ingrid Bergman and the Italian star Giulietta Masina, yet still retains his potency toward expressing complex ideas. Rossellini’s protagonist, Irene (Bergman), lives a shallow and callow life with her rich husband, whiney kids, and lavish house. After a family tragedy, she’s forced out of her shell and into the harsh world beyond the jewels and dinner parties. Irene soon realizes the world offers more important chances at humanity than wealthy life affords her. She chooses to open her eyes toward the social ills plaguing post WWII Italy and puts herself into the lives of the common citizen. Irene sees first hand the societal reverberations of the war and attempts to help out in any ways she can. Rossellini does not paint the poor as helpless either, instead showing them as gracious of Irene’s attention and acknowledgment. Irene’s rich family doesn’t fare so well, and along with the church and the police, make up a trio of disjointed, selfish, and close-minded institutions that ultimately hinder Irene from exploring the outside world and making a difference. Europa ’51 is a character piece at heart and Bergman gives a subtle and tragic performance. But the Rossellini discourse always remains in Irene’s gaze, her eyes wondering why so many outsiders step in her way when all she’s trying to do is understand the disenfranchised majority. Inevitably, she becomes a martyr, but not in the traditional sense. Irene, trapped by the bars of the final image, smiles and waves at her last visitors, realizing she’s found guidance not through double talk and promises of her rich kin, but through the screams and laughter of the supposedly wretched poor.
The six short stories which make up Roberto Rossellini’s Paisan share one pressing motif. Each consists of a momentary friendship born from the circumstances and consequences of war, specifically the Allied invasion of Sicily and Italy in 1942. These stories range from personal (the boy and the American soldier) to the epic (the final sequence of execution) and their impact is varied as well. Rossellini’s a director of such calculation, at least in the few films I’ve seen by him, that his stories scream for more attention than they are actually given. Paisan seems the perfect exemplification of Rossellini’s attention to human interaction (best seen in the segment with the monks and Army Chaplains). These short stories roll together through the use of voice-over narration as connective tissue, also using a cut away of a map charting the Allied advance into the different sections of the region. Rossellini’s mastery of situations between people in conflict, both physically, mentally and spiritually, is something to respect and herald, but Paisan doesn’t feel whole as a film. Maybe that’s Rossellini’s point, to show the meandering and wide reaching devastation of war on all fronts, but Paisan is a film I respect more than I actually enjoyed. A definite neo-realism masterwork, just not my cup of tea at the moment.
Rossellini’s The Flowers of St. Francis displays a potent sense of purpose and faith, especially during the final images of a group of Friars, having spent the whole film learning from St. Francis’s stoic, peaceful, and forgiving example, treking off in different directions to spread the gospel. Told in vignettes, the story of St. Francis and his flock has a strange lightness for such a seemingly serious and uptight subject. The film even has moments of comedy spread throughout as its Friars bumble towards enlightenment one step at a time.
I’m still grappling with it’s themes of divine intervention and blind faith. While the father’s seemingly help so many people, they are also abused, hounded, and even harmed by countless others. Even so, the Friar’s continue with their mission in the face of adversity and doubt within themselves, a difficult cross to bear for anyone. As my mom would say, “set a good example for your brother.” Rossellini seems to be saying the same thing.