Roberto Rossellini | Stromboli | Open City | PaisÓ / Paisan | Francesco giullare di Dio / The Flowers of St. Francis | Europe '51 | Siamo donne / We, the Women | India Matri Bhumi | Socrates | The Age of the Medici
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Commentary on Rossellini:
Rossellini is a great filmmaker. He is great in content: his deep commitment to reason, thinking, the scientific world view and creativity. His liberal social concern and support for the poor. His love of peace. His deep view of Catholicism, and God. His vast knowledge of society.
He is great in form. His films are visually rich and original.
Some common subjects in the films of Roberto Rossellini:
Stromboli resembles Rossellini's later The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (1966). Both deal with outsiders who get involved with and try to transform a complex society. In both films, the locals engage in fantastically complex, but often pointless rituals. These rituals dominate their whole social lives. Both take place in beautiful settings, which contain endless corridors down which characters wander, as in a dream. Both films end up with the hero alone, facing major thoughts about his place in the universe. The two films differ in that Louis is the creator of many of the complex rituals in the second film, whereas the inhabitants of Stromboli have inherited theirs from time immemorial.
Rossellini's images during this sequence often have a common architecture. There is a horizontal band going across the upper portion of the screen. This band has most of the imagery showing the meaningful aspects of the location. It can be called the zone of information. Inside, in the church this zone shows the altar and the religious images. Outside, a similar zone typically contains the buildings of Stromboli, with their unique construction and appearance. The zone contains what is most striking and unique about the image currently on the screen.
In front of the zone of information, there is a large empty area taking up a huge region at the base of the screen. This is where the people tend to walk and move. This area tends to be almost empty, except for the humans. Outside it can be a yard or roadway. Inside the church, it is the empty space where the congregation moves and assembles. Towards the end of the shot, the people can walk up to and actually enter the zone of information, standing in front of small portions of it.
The zone is not at the absolute top of the screen. Instead, there is an upper band going across the top of the screen, sometimes narrow, sometimes quite large. The region is completely empty of people. It tends to have very meaningful objects in it. These objects are small in number, but profoundly significant. On Stromboli, this is where we see the volcano itself. It is a huge triangle, rising up over the horizontal zone of information, which contains the unusual buildings of the island. In the church, the upper region contains the statue of the Madonna, presiding over the church. The Madonna is draped from behind by curtains, which form a triangle similar to the volcano of Stromboli itself. The visual echo is appropriate. The volcano is where Bergman's character will find God, at the end of the picture. It is a place where the divine mystery and presence in the universe is made manifest. It presides over the island as a reminder of spiritual grace, just as the Madonna's statue presides over the church.
Bergman's character will have conflicts with both. She is understandably upset by and terrified of the active volcano. And she will later take down her husband's pictures of the Madonna in their house.
Rossellini's three part image construction is very easy to follow. We see a mighty symbol in the top horizontal region, otherwise nearly empty. We see a horizontal zone, densely packed with information - often rectilinear information, such as the altar pictures or the buildings. Finally we see the people moving around down below, doing their actions. Such images have great pictorial complexity and beauty. Yet the information they convey is easily seen and grasped. They seem logical. And yet full of new, complex information and visual imagery.
The people often move in organized processions. This begins with Bergman's wedding procession, which moves throughout the internment camp and church. Later, on the island, there is a procession of inhabitants of the island, who are carrying the couple's luggage. The two processions echo each other. Just as the wedding procession is a public recognition of a major ceremony, that of marriage, so does the procession on the island tend to give meaning to the entrance into Stromboli. This entrance also seems like an almost religious ritual, fraught with significance and meaning. Both processions tend to go down straight line paths. On the island, these are down the often narrow paths between buildings, and walled lanes between narrow stone walls. These echo the prison camp we have just left. They make it seem as if Bergman has traded one prison for another.
Rossellini shoots these narrow paths in several ways. One key shot is from above, at around a 40 degree angle or less. It has the typical three part construction of these scenes. But the empty area for the people down below is not entirely empty. Instead, it contains a walled path, seen from above, that goes from the lower right hand corner of the screen, almost to the upper left. It is a striking diagonal line. Bergman and her husband traverse this path.
Other shots during the entrance involve Rossellini pointing his camera straight down the long paths between buildings. These paths extend deep into the distance of the shot. They are almost archetypal images, showing the audience what it is like to stare into such long corridors. These interesting shots temporarily abandon the three part zone construction, giving some visual variety to the sequence.
There are occasional tracking shots here. One of the best follows the couple down the staircase outside their home, after their first trip inside their house. The tracking is very graceful and surprising. One wonders how the camera can float so smoothly down the outside of the staircase.
More often, Rossellini pans. The finale of the entrance into Stromboli consists of one of Rossellini's best panning shots. This is the one that starts off with the characters on a path by the ocean surrounded by volcanic rocks, and which ends with an ominous shot of the volcano. Rossellini's pans anticipate those of Antonioni. Rossellini's seem to be a little bit faster. They also tend to be anchored to a series of intermediate compositions, what I've labeled as "rest stops" in the panning shots of Richard Fleischer.
The maze scene is shot from above, so viewers can actually see the whole structure of maze like buildings at once. The idea is to inform the viewer, and to allow them to understand. The viewer gets an insight into the unique maze like architecture of Stromboli. Like many of Rossellini's images, it is both visually beautiful, and a clear exposition of the environment of the story.
Rossellini is notable for the exceptional logic and clarity of his exposition. His films look as if they were created by Mr. Spock, the logical Vulcan of the Star Trek shows. Part of this lucidity is related to his visual style. Many of the scenes in his films are staged in a rectilinear manner, one designed to make clear all the relationships and events taking place. They often show typical events of these locales. The films are expositions of complete, standard processes.
When the boat leaves for Stromboli in the opening scenes, we see it actually leaving the dock. The dock structure is a rectangle surrounding the boat. Rossellini shoots it face on, so we see the rectangle in pure form. It is a striking rectilinear composition. It also makes clear the entire process of leaving the dock. It is an inclusive image: it shows both the boat, and the dock machinery, all in one shot. All of this is typical of Rossellini. He wants to inform his viewers as much as possible, to show them entire processes, whenever he can. Similarly, we see the boat leaving the harbor, and shots of the train with its railroad bridges. All of these try to show complete processes, both an object and its background. There is both an educational and a documentary aspect to all of this.
In the fishing scene in Stromboli, the fishermen are all lined up in a row in their long boat. Rossellini shoots them frontally, with the plane of the image parallel to their line, thus emphasizing this linear arrangement. Behind the fishermen in their boat is a trough, running parallel to the line of the fisherman. This is where the tuna are dumped after being caught. Rossellini frequently cuts to this trough, showing the placement of the tuna there. His camera is now at an exactly 90 degree angle to the fishermen, showing the trough straight on against its long length. Other aspects of the staging are also rectilinear. Bergman's boat approaches along the fishing boats on a straight line, parallel to the boat itself. Later, she leaves the fishermen and watches them; the pier she is on is at a straight perpendicular to the line of the boat. The whole staging is designed to make clear the fishing process. Its rectilinear quality is visually fascinating in itself. It also helps the film exposition seem logical and clear - Rossellini's paramount qualities.
Stromboli does not tip its hand on its beliefs. Both of the characters have traits that hurt their sympathy. The hero is a relentlessly close minded man, who clings to his traditional way of life. Like everyone in his town, he has all the answers, and thinks everyone else from the outside is just stupid. He and the other islanders are as close minded as a bunch of cartoon characters. The heroine is a bit of a tramp, with a life history of opportunistically using men to make her way in the world. Getting a job herself never seems to be an option for: she expects men to support her. Yet, I have to honestly admit that the life on Stromboli would drive me crazy too. Like most modern people, I couldn't stand it, and I think she is right to rebel against it. With two such less than heroic people on screen, it is hard to know what to think about the characters, or their situation.
"I am in God's presence night and day. And He never turns His face away." - William Blake.
The far Left has always had a fanatic hatred of gays. Such overrated turkeys as Bertolucci's The Conformist (1970) suggests that Fascism was rooted in gayness, while Gregory Nava's El Norte (1984) contrasts its noble peasant heroes with gay waiters in the USA. Such truly bad films have been promoted relentlessly by critics, who share their politics. The international effort to achieve civil rights for gays, which I support, is now making people have a much more realistic and sympathetic look at this group.
The apartment building's basement laundry is also full of equipment. It and its back alley exit form one of Rossellini's mazes.
The apartment building roof is also maze-like. It has a three-dimensional quality, with shots looking below the roof. In some ways the entire apartment building can be considered a maze: basement, roof and the apartments in between connected by that geometric staircase.
In Open City, the Nazis want to run Rome. We see their marked-up maps full of their plans, and discussions at their headquarters.
Meanwhile, some key local administrators, the priest, the printer, are actually focal points of the Resistance. They are some of the people actually running the city.
In the opening of M, Lang shoots straight up a staircase, making geometric patterns. Open City has many spectacular shots up and down its apartment staircase.
M shows two parallel power structures running the city: the police and the criminal underworld. Open City depicts two rival groups trying to run Rome: the Nazi occupiers and the underground Resistance.
The police in M and the Nazis in Open City use maps to help their administrative plans.
The scene in Open City where the worried parents yell at their kids who've stayed out after curfew, recalls a bit the subject of M: parents terrified their children will be murdered by the serial killer.
The printing press in Open City recalls a bit the machinery that opens Lang's sequel to M, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933).
A film that might be influenced by M, Marcel CarnÚ's Le Jour se lŔve (1939), also involves complex staircase shots and a man trapped in a building.
Band of Outsiders (Jean-Luc Godard, 1964) has similar scenes wandering all over the zone near the aunt's house, which show the strong influence of Rossellini. The exteriors here seem delightfully maze like, an intricate procession of paths, waterways, fences, yards, walls, hollows and rises, alleys and roads. The characters wander through all of these. Godard's effect is more tongue-in-cheek than Rossellini's. It is something deliberately done for effect, as a matter of pure visual style, as are several other sequences in Godard's avant-garde film. In contrast, Rossellini embeds his maze as a part of a movie plot - the characters in Florence are taking a roundabout route to evade the Nazis.
Platform (Jia Zhang-ke, 2000) also reminds one of Godard and Rossellini. The young characters are often wandering through city wall areas and old building yards which bear a resemblance to these earlier filmmakers.
Rossellini has always been interested in outsiders. Here, we see large numbers of Americans, plus some English characters as well, intermixing with the Italians. Rossellini has never depicted Italy as racially homogeneous - rather, it is full of foreigners of every stripe. This makes a welcome contrast with, say, Rohmer, who tends to depict France as consisting of nothing but the ethnically French.
Despite the apparently humble imagery, Francesco giullare di Dio is not a gentle film. Instead, like Europe '51, it offers a ferocious challenge to the viewer, to change our lives, and start living in ways that will help other people. This is not easy.
Peace is central to this film. The final line has St. Francis sending out his monks to preach peace to the world. The sequence with the tyrant is one of the great pro-peace scenes in film history.
Rossellini concentrated on outdoor filming. He showed primitive looking buildings, wooden constructions, and simple, crude looking ornamentation. Everything looks primitive and rudimentary. Aggregations of people, such as the tyrant's followers, seem barely organized, and dispersed through simple buildings, tents and bands. People seem to be simple farmers, or very crude and low brow rag-tag soldiers. Soldiers tend towards primitive brutality, and they commit appalling attacks on ordinary folks. It is a depiction of everyday life in the Middle Ages as "nasty, brutish and short" (Hobbes' summary of pre-civilized life in Leviathan.)
One suspects that Tarkovsky got his ideas, not from Rossellini directly, but by using Bergman's film as a model. And Tarkovsky in turn seems to have influenced Sergei Paradjanov's Tsvet granata / The Color of Pomegranates (1969). By contrast, the ornamentation of the knights' helmets in Bresson, seems to echo similar sculptured ornaments on the tyrant's helmet in Francesco giullare di Dio.
Europe '51 does NOT endorse any specific program for social change. Instead, it says that the existing system is not working, and putting people through misery. It rejects both raw capitalism and Communism. It also does NOT believe charity is adequate. Rossellini greatly admires the charitable work in The Flowers of St. Francis and Europe '51. But he does not think it is enough. Both films instead advocate social change. Both films want us in the audience to speak up, and to work for change.
Europe '51 and its heroine want some new social programs to emerge, that will improve people's lives. It does not specify what these programs will be. One might guess that they might involve the Welfare State/ Safety Net OR democratic socialism OR the cooperatives advocated by peaceful left-wing anarcho-syndicalism. Or maybe new obscure ideas no one has heard of yet. But they will be informed by humanism and Christian concern for the poor.
Europe '51 challenges its audience, to start working hard to improve society, along Christian humanist lines. It leaves it up to us, the audience, to figure out HOW to change society. But it tells us the task is urgent and important.
It never occurred to me that the heroine of Europe '51 might be in any way mad. Instead, her confinement in an asylum, was an allegory about the way society persecutes reformers, and tries to control, contain and hide Christian humanist ideas.
The film echoes a number of Rossellini images and subjects:
The opening of the film stresses the tolerance of Indians, and their respect for all races, who live together in the subcontinent. This was a major theme of PaisÓ as well. India's heritage of peace recalls St. Francis in Francesco giullare di Dio, who preached peace. Rossellini is touching on his two chief political and social themes, here in the film's overture.
Elephants always seem very special to humans. They seem to convey some astonishing message of nature. They are so big, and like the whales in Melville's Moby-Dick, seem like nature personified. Encountering them is a richly meaningful experience. So it seems profoundly right for them to be filmed in a way equivalent to the monks of the preceding film, who also had a special message for humanity. Both monks and elephants are a special, admirable group, with something important to convey. Both groups convey joy, with a bit of a sympathetically comic edge.
The year before, Satyajit Ray had shot Aparajito (1956) in Benares.
Other Rossellini films focus on material that interests children:
The introduction to La Communale said L'H˘te was starting a career in the French film industry. A recent check of his credits showed he made 12 films as a director, mainly from his own scripts. One was a 1965 version of La Communale. Despite all this, he seems largely forgotten today. In fact, since most of his work was made for television, it seems as if it never received much critical attention at all. Although the French New Wave of the 1960's allowed over 100 young directors to make their first films, including Jean L'H˘te, most never achieved the slightest recognition
The use of zooms in the film is also disconcerting. The zoom lens always made me unpleasantly conscious of the presence of a camera on a set; generally speaking, I usually regret its common employment in films of that era.
Socrates does have an unforgettable climax, however. Rossellini's camera tracks with Socrates, as he walks backward and forward in his cell after drinking the poison used to execute him. The image is overwhelmingly moving. This is an apparently simple image, but it is very dignified. It links Socrates to the most basic and familiar of human actions. It has an everyday quality, as if Socrates is participating in everyday life. The directness of Rossellini's tracking shot is also involving. It follows the most central sort of straight line motion, and is part of Rossellini's rectilinear style. Its logic and fundamental geometric and spatial quality make it into a central image of motion in the world.
Just as India Matri Bhumi showed the construction of a huge dam, The Age of the Medici climaxes with Alberti's work as an architect. Earlier, the architectural contests for the construction of Florence's church are a major theme.
And as India Matri Bhumi tries to inform people in the West about India, the climax of part 2 of The Age of the Medici has a merchant who traveled through Asia briefing Florence's scholars on what he has learned. Later, a map of the world is constructed based on such information.
Rome has to be rebuilt by Alberti, because much of it is in ruins due to neglect. Earlier Rossellini films with ruins include war ruins in PaisÓ and Pompeii in Viaggio in italia.
A tour-de-force sequence in Stromboli shows the heroine's entrance into that island. A major part of part 2 of The Age of the Medici depicts Cosimo's return to Florence after his exile. He enters as a solitary person, underscoring his resemblance to the solitary heroine of Stromboli. Part 1 of The Age of the Medici also shows an English merchant's entry into Florence, and his tour of the city.