Tuesday, May 1, 2012
Paisan and Landscape of War
Paisan (1946) is the second film in Roberto Rossellini's War Trilogy. The first, Rome: Open City (1945), focused on the resistance to German occupation in 1943-44 in that city, while the third, Germany Year Zero is rooted in Berlin, examining the aftermath of a city physically crushed in defeat. Paisan, however, is a travelogue, divided into 6 distinct stories, set in 6 distinct geographical places. It starts with the Allied invasion of Sicily in July of 1943 and slowly works it ways up Italy until the 6th story ends 20 months later in the bitter fighting in the northern Po Marshes.
While many admirers were and remain awed by Rossellini's inventive style, wedded to content that was fresh and unseen in Italy for for most of its 20 years of living under Fascist control, others point out the director's sensitivity to landscape and in Paisa we move from the rocky countryside of Sicily through the southern port of Naples to the relatively undamaged Rome, to the bitter inner city fighting in Florence, to the serene monastery of Romagna untouched by battle or history, ending in the grim marshes of the Po.
While the film can be easily read as "news from the front", Rossellini has other clear goals. He examines the effects of war on everyone he trains his camera on. The war's characters are also reinforced by how nature and the towns and cities they move through help construct them. Sicily is seen at night as a small town is now in the hands of Americans patrolling to the sea. Townspeople want the soldiers to tell them of missing relatives. The soldiers are seeking a guide to the area. No one can speak the others language well, but a young woman offers to guide them to a castle and while the patrol pushes on she is left with one soldier who is killed by a sniper while she is dragged off by Germans who casually throw her to her death off a cliff. The returning patrol finds their mate and curses the woman for his death. There will be no explanations.
Naples is a port city traumatized by war and now teeming with Allied supply ships, thousands of troops, and numerous displaced refugees, along with countless street urchins all hustling to stay alive. A drunk American is being guided by a young boy, eager to steal his boots. He takes the soldier to a puppet show, but when he passes out, the boy is gone and so are his shoes. A few days later we see the soldier, now as an MP, driving his jeep through the clogged streets. He sees the boy, grabs him and demands his shoes back. The boy takes him to his neighborhood and the man is stunned by the absolute number of homeless families living in squalor while they hover about open fires, cooking whatever is at hand. The MP understands this world and loses all interest in shoes and leaves the area as the story stops.
In Rome, 6 months of freedom from the German occupation has turned the city into a respite area for combat soldiers. The starving young women have been reduced to party girls and prostitutes for the thousand of American and British soldiers and the story focuses on a drunk tank driver who is taken back by a woman who recognizes him from the moment of liberation a half year earlier. She hopes for some kind of reconciliation. He staggers off after sleeping off his bender to find his ride back to base and a note with a number that he tosses off as garbage.The woman is left huddled in a courtyard in the rain hoping for the man's return.
The 4th tale brings us to the horrors of combat in the ancient city of Florence. An army nurse and an Italian father team up to get into the center of the city. The nurse wants to find her lover who now is a famous resistance leader. The father seeks his family. They refuse the warnings of the observors outside the fighting and work their way through the streets and roofs of the city, dodging bullets to reach the partisans. Here amidst the cruel street fighting, the nurse discovers that her lover is dead and the father disappears into the maze of the fighting to continue his own search. The episode ends with the partisans suddenly throwing two Fascists they have captured onto the street where they gun them down.
Rossellini, after presenting endless grim reporting of war's cruelty, suddenly shifts to a gentle examination of three Army chaplins seeking shelter and food for the night from an ancient order of monks in an untouched rustic monastery.The chaplins have been together for all 20 months of the fighting and are awed by the fact that they have found this brief respite from their duties. The monks are stunned that their guests are not just Catholic but a Jew and a "follower of Luther". Their confusion of being briefly thrust into theological modernity, is countered by the Catholic chaplin's devotion to his two mates. Religious tolerance and ancient kindness meet briefly before the final scene.
Here Rossellini's vision of the cruelty of combat is centered in the marsh land of the Po Valley. The tranquility of Romagna is completely shattered by the desperate situation that Italian partisans aligned with a few American special operations officers find themselves engaged in. Short on food, ammunition and cut off from communication, except by radio, the soldiers move quickly by small skiffs through the reeds to elude their superior German opposition who control the area with large boats and overwhelming numbers. The Germans kill any partisans they find and the scene opens with an executed partisan floating down the Po tied to a life preserver and a warning sign stuck to his corpse.
The partisans retrieve and bury him. While hoping for some kind of air drop that never comes, the partisans find food from a small village. This kindness is repaid by the Germans returning to the area and killing everyone that they can find. It is a battle with no quarter and when the partisans are finally captured they are quickly separated from the surviving Americans and prepared for quick execution. Hands tied behind their backs they are casually tossed into the river from the side of a German gunboat. When two Americans attempt to intervene they are gunned down.The scene and film ends with a postscript that tersely explains that this action has taken place a few months before the declaration of peace.
The abrupt ending of the scene is characteristic of Rossellini's vision of the war. The conflict is a nightmare that effects both population and landscape. Trying to reason why is nowhere near as important as witnessing it as it occured. Others can try and explain. Paisa exists to show. The fact that the film stills feel fresh and contemporary is Rossellini's success. If the concept of "neo-realism" is ever to be understood, Paisan is the film that helps explain it in the most concrete fashion.