Paisan (1946, Roberto Rossellini)
Paisan is comprised of war stories, but not the kind peepaw Matt Damon told his grandkids. Like Rossellini’s other films of this period, this anthology of brief, semi-true and semi-fictionalized tragedies from the Allies’ campaign in Italy during the penultimate year of WWII brilliantly communicates the life-loathing destruction and dehumanization of war (any war), while serving as a welcome antidote to the empty rah-rah heroics of the usual cinematic narrative about this specific war. Where it falls short of the other two films in the director’s War Trilogy (the painfully realistic, unfathomable horror Germany, Year Zero and the almost Gothic, Dreyer-like Rome, Open City) is in its somewhat oversized ambitions. Its six “episodes” are not evenly compelling, nor are they evenly written and performed; you could imagine watching entire feature-length versions of the second or final vignettes, though you wouldn’t want to violate their elegance. Those are the almost note-perfect Naples story in which a black MP (Dots Johnson) is befriended and robbed by a wily orphan, which manages some covert commentary on the treatment of people of color in America (pretty brazen for a 1940s film that ended up being distributed here by MGM); and the harrowing chronicle of OSS members and American soldiers attempting in vain to hold court against brutal, desperate Nazis around the Po River. That last sequence makes the most lasting, nightmarish impression — achieving the same final sense of anger and futility as the other two War Trilogy titles — and is full of well-defined characterizations and performances despite its brevity. If one’s soul doesn’t feel emptied out by the scene in which we discover that the kind family that provided food and shelter to the soldiers has been entirely murdered apart from a young child (which feels like a prediction of the same scene in The Searchers that George Lucas later cribbed), it’s doubtful they can ever be impacted at all by cinema. And among a uniformly excellent cast, the nonprofessional actor John Whaling Allen* as the leader of the brigade of troops is unforgettably stoic and real.
These two installments stand out because of the actors, and because of believability; a peculiar kind of anticlimactic romance creeps into the opening episode (about a bereaved young woman guiding some soldiers through Sicily) as well as the fourth (about an American nurse trying to find her former lover, a partisan in Florence). These aren’t bad but they also feel far more conventional than is usual for this series if you set aside their downbeat endings. I can’t say anything so kind for the extremely disappointing third segment (Federico Fellini’s name is in the writing credits and this certainly seems like something he’d come up with) that feels like a bad O. Henry story, again with an odd finale serving the miscommunication theme: a prostitute who makes her living, along with many others, by showing a good time to the boozy American soldiers occupying Rome stumbles upon a man she realizes she had a very pure and loving liaison with in the first days of the Allied invasion. It’s all good and well to point up the heartbreak of tempered expectations and glory faded out by reality, but this relies on the extremely improbable premise that the same two people find one another some months later, and moreover that they fail to recognize one another (even after he tells their story). Like some of the other segments, this one also ends rather awkwardly, failing to put across anything beyond a minor bummer: she’s disappointed when he doesn’t show up at the address she gave him later, and he finds the address and thinks it’s something else and tosses it aside, driving away. It sucks that further cuddling and fucking won’t be had, yeah, but against the immeasurable miseries and agonies captured elsewhere in the film, this expression of the travails of wartime seems a bit trite.
The least successful segment of all, however, is the fifth; unlike the others, it has little direct relation to the war itself, but that isn’t the problem. A monastery has been liberated and a trio of American chaplains elect to sleep there temporarily. There is a great deal of idyllic slice-of-life stuff about the Americans praying and exchanging pleasantries with their benefactors, until suddenly someone lets slip that two of them aren’t Catholic and one is even a Jew, and all hell breaks loose… sort of. Actually — and bear in mind this is coming from a non-religious person — it seems that the revelation turns the monks into extraordinarily petty bitches, whispering gossip about the Jew in their midst, confronting the Italian-speaking Captain Martin (William Tubbs, in probably the film’s worst performance), who is Catholic, about why he hasn’t tried to convert the heathens; and then — in what sounds like the prompt for a post from r/JustNoMIL — fasting in protest of the fact that they are housing two non-Catholics. This inexplicably prompts Martin to give a speech sincerely honoring the monks and their way of life — the inspiration for Jack Nicholson’s aimless wedding ramble in About Schmidt? — at which point the segment abruptly ends. If the purpose of all this is to illuminate that antisemitism continued even among those united against the Germans (the Catholics are distressed by the presence of the “Lutheran” but note that it’s the Jew they keep mumbling about in alarmist tones), it’s far too lengthy and elaborate to serve such a simplistic purpose; and its relatively minor, fruitless ironies have little in common with the rest of Paisan. Moreover, in a film in which almost every scene features multiple spoken languages, this episode is by far the most stilted and awkward in its depiction of talking and interpreting, and in a manner that does not seem intentional.
All that said, the third of Paisan that works truly does soar; and the final sequence is possibly the most accomplished moment in the entirety of Rosselini’s War Trilogy. It’s perhaps also necessary to provide the caveat that this is all based on a first impression of not just this film but (going back a few months) the other two films as well; it’s possible there are thematic connections, heavier connotations to the moments I semi-dismissed above that are as yet invisible to me and will become clearer on future viewings. What isn’t in dispute is Rossellini’s general mastery of gorgeously capturing the essence of real life without making it artificially pretty or ugly; and his uncanny ability to communicate — in blunt, horrifying fashion — the real human costs of war, whether a celebrated and necessary or a futile one. Despite their reliance upon fictionalized scenarios, all three movies in the War Trilogy should be required viewing for everyone who ever cheered on the “good guys” without really confronting the complexity of who they were and the cold humanity in the evil that they faced.
* Note: this is actually a guess as to the actor’s identity; much of the cast in this film and nearly all of the cast in the final sequence is uncredited.