In the spirit of Wittgenstein, it's important to note that the category of "neo-realism" has no single defining quality but rather a series of shared family resemblances which are present in varying combinations and in varying degrees in different films. Some of these common traits: the use of non-professional actors, location shooting, working-class characters, and a concern with everyday living conditions for these characters. As the term implies, these are films that profess to deal with "reality" rather than the wish-fulfillment of the dream factories of Hollywood and many other national cinemas.
As many critics have noted, "Rome, Open City" (1946), one of the cornerstone films of neo-realism, shares few of these qualities. For starters, director Roberto Rossellini chose not just professional actors for most of the film's key roles, but cast two stars then identified for their comedy work: Aldo Fabrizi (still a relative newcomer but already known for light-hearted fare) and Anna Magnani, already a star and, not coincidentally, Rossellini's latest love interest. Furthermore, many of the film's major scenes were actually shot in studios, particularly those featuring the fey and venomous German officer Major Bergman (Harry Feist) and his butch assistant Ingrid (Giavanna Galletti.) Rossellini's use of characters named Ingrid and Bergman can only be deemed one of the great coincidences in cinema history. Either that or a great pickup line.
But the reason "Rome, Open City," set during the Nazi occupation of Rome, proved so game-changing is that, despite major stars and the preponderance of studio shots, it is the "real" scenes that linger in the mind. Images that endure: grimy, poorly-lit stairwells, bombed-out buildings, a riot at a bakery, people scrambling across crumbling bridges to beat early evening curfew. And above all, one of the most famous scenes in movie history, that of Anna Magnani racing after a truck holding her captured fiancé only to be gunned down in the street, an act made even more brutal by the fact that Rossellini never shows these shots, only cutting them in on the soundtrack as Magnani collapses, a star abruptly cut down in the middle of the film, fifteen years before Hitchcock pulled off a similar shower shocker.
Moments like these constitute only a small part of a film that otherwise, at least seen today, looks like a relatively conventional studio melodrama, but these moments are so powerful that it's easy to understand the effusive rhetoric the film has inspired. Serge Daney, writing much later, called it "the beginning of modern cinema." Andre Bazin, who saw cinema's real power as rooted in its mechanical (photographic) ability to capture reality, waxed rhapsodic about Rossellini on multiple occasions because of his ability (along with other neo-realists) to produce films that looked more like reportage than fictional creations. For Godard: "All roads lead to ‘Rome, Open City'."
"Paisan" (1946), Rossellini's follow-up, qualifies as more "classically" neo-realist (as neo-realism came to be defined retroactively) with its almost entirely non-professional or virtually unknown actors chosen primarily for their appearances. The film follows the Allied invasion of occupied Italy from Sicily up North as the liberators are greeted with understandably mixed emotions by the populace. This is a film shot in the ruins of a war-ravaged country, ruins created by Allied bombing, where homeless children hustle to make a living and the war stubbornly refuses to end on schedule, often just too late for many of the characters.
The film is broken into six segments, most of which feature potential relationships between the Americans and the locals, relationships that will not come to fruition because of the immediate demands of war and, just as importantly, because of the almost impenetrable barriers of language and culture. Love, friendship and camaraderie take root but don't blossom, though hope remains that conditions will be more fertile in just a few months. This hope is expressed, albeit very tentatively, in one scene where culture clash produces a sense of wonder instead of providing an impediment. When three army chaplains enter a monastery, they are amazed at the idea of a five-hundred year old building and one that people even live in! The structure pre-dates America yet: "It doesn't show its age." Events take a more depressing turn when the monks are shocked to find out that one of the chaplains is (gasp) a Protestant and the other is (double gasp) a Jew, but that brief moment of genuine awe and respect endures. Hope is at least a possibility even after the grim ending of the film's final sequence.
Hope is a much sparser commodity in "Germany Year Zero" (1948) set in the rubble of post-war Berlin. A defeated people huddle together to share meager resources that are woefully insufficient to sustain even the depleted populace (one mostly free of males aged 18-45 or so.) Though war has ended, ideology endures. Carpet bombing can't bury a generation of poisonous lies, and the film's 11-year old protagonist Edmund is a product of this system. Raised on Nazi propaganda and encouraged by the few predatory adults who pay any attention to him, he believes it is moral to let the weak die to make a better world for the strong (i.e. the lucky) which brings him to a terrifying decision regarding his invalid father.
Like "Paisan," "Germany Year Zero" has the authenticity generated by location shooting. As Edmund weaves through the city's shattered streets and decrepit courtyards, it's hard not to think about how much fun this all might be for a boy with a different temperament. What a fine game it would be to chase your friends through twisted back alleyways and abandoned buildings no longer guarded by territorial adults who now have other more immediate duties to occupy their thoughts. But Edmund bears the self-imposed duty of defending not just his family but the regime he has grown up in, a belief system that needs to die (though such a thing is never truly possible) before the country can begin anew – in year zero. So there's no joy in Edmund's unsupervised wanderings, just mounting burdens that 11-year shoulders and an 11-year old mind aren't built to carry.
Adding to the immediacy of "Rome, Open City," perhaps as much as any aesthetic choice, was the fact that it began filming in early 1945 when the war was still raging in much of Italy and was screened in the months immediately after the Nazi capitulation. Talk about the ultimate "torn from the headlines" movie. That Rossellini was only able to shoot the film during this lean time by scraping together mismatched film stocks of varying quality only adds to the legend of the film. While some audiences were discomforted, the film wound up being a big box office hit as well as a critical one, a testament to the populist appeal of neo-realist cinema.
After WW2 it was no longer sufficient to use cinema solely to create escapist fare. Hollywood candy floss would always play a vital role, the dominant role in fact, but the 20th century art form of cinema had to deal with the realities of everyday life after global annihilation had barely been averted (and at the hands of a regime that used cinema to chilling effect.) Nor was it enough to simply tackle "tough subjects" in the socially earnest but studio-artificial Hollywood tradition. The apparatus of the cinema itself needed to leave the studios and meet the world rather than simply re-create it. And it is this moral imperative at the heart of neo-realism that has been echoed in virtually every film movement that has followed: cinema verite, the French New Wave, New German Cinema, and so on.
If "Rome, Open City" wasn't actually the beginning of modern cinema, it was a beginning, one of the films that, along with "Paisan" and "Germany Year Zero" and other neo-realist films, transformed the ways in which future generations of filmmakers would think about the relationship between cinema and the real world. The last sixty plus years of world cinema would not have looked the same without Rossellini's pioneering work.
In the insert booklet, Criterion includes an explanation of the extraordinary difficulties involved in restoring the three films in the set. "Rome, Open City" offers its own challenges because Rossellini had to shoot on whatever film stock he was able to scrounge up at the time, but the other two films presented other challenges. According to Criterion:
"The disastrous condition of ‘Paisan''s materials have rendered the film virtually unavailable for decades, while ‘Germany Year Zero' has never been seen in the United States in this original version, with German opening titles and its complete and correct original-language soundtrack."
Criterion goes on to note that all three films required extensive digital restoration, but that "‘Paisan' alone required more than 500 hours of MTI Machine time for more than 265,000 individual manual fixes."
The final product still looks rough by Criterion standards with plenty of signs of wear and tear including dust, vertical scratches and some spotty contrast. But this is a testament to the ‘disastrous conditions' of the source material. There's a point at which continued restoration destroys rather than enhances the source, and there's little doubt that Criterion has done as much as possible to both restore and preserve ‘Paisan.'
"Germany Year Zero" fares better, but still exhibits signs of source damage and doesn't have the sharpest or most consistent black-and-white contrast that we would like in a perfect world. "Rome, Open City" is the best looking of the bunch by far with surprisingly consistent contrast. The image resolution is a bit soft in a few spots (see the church scene around the 27-28 minute mark as an example), but overall this is very solid.
The full-screen image has been pictureboxed on all three films which means some viewers will see the image framed by black on all four sides (like in a picture frame.)
The films are presented in Dolby Digital Mono. There's not a lot to say about the soundtrack in general. The music sounds tinny in many spots but that's a minor consideration. English subtitles are provided except in the case of the (substantial) English dialogue in "Paisan."
The boxed set includes three discs each with a separate keep case. The three discs are tucked into a cardboard holder along with the relatively thick insert booklet.
All three discs include a brief "Introduction by Roberto Rossellini" (3-4 min.) which appeared on the 1963 French television series "Roberto Rossellini Presents" and were directed by Jean-Marie Coldefy.
ROME, OPEN CITY
This is the only film to come with a commentary track. Film scholar Peter Bondanella emphasizes the significance of the film's depiction of cooperation between the Catholic Church (in the form of Don Pietro) and the Marxist Resistance fighters. It's a fine commentary track that is heavier on analysis than anecdote, but Bondanella sometimes spends too much time describing the action that is about to occur in excessivedetail.
"Once Upon a Time… ‘Rome, Open City'" is a 2006 documentary (53 min.) directed by Marie Genin and Serge July. It's a fairly straightforward telling of the film's production and its impact, featuring archival footage and interviews with Ingrid Bergman, Isabella Rossellini, Anna Magnani, and others. What I remember most? A shot of Ingrid Bergman from 1971 juxtaposed with a more recent shot of Isabella Rossellini leaves little doubt that they were mother and daughter. Those are some fine genes to inherit.
"Rossellini and the City" (2009, 25 min.) is a visual essay by author Mark Shiel which focuses on the use of cityscapes in the three films. It's done in the same style as the great Tag Gallagher visual essays Criterion has used before (one of which is included on the "Paisan" disc) but this time focused almost exclusively on city architecture rather than film analysis.
The disc also includes interviews with film historian Adriano Aprà (2009, 12 min.) and critic Father Virgilio Fantuzzi (2009, 5 min.)
"Paisan" isn't quite as packed with features as the other two discs, but it has one wonderful feature: the visual essay "Into the Future" (30 min.) by Tag Gallagher. Gallagher has done visual essays for Criterion before (the best being on Rossellini's "The Taking of Power by Louis XIV") and his newest offering doesn't disappoint. Gallagher spends about ten minutes on each of the three films, analyzing the repeating visual motifs and themes threaded throughout.
Of interest to Rossellini scholars is the "Rossellini at Rice" feature which offers 13 minutes of rare archival footage from the director's 1970 appearance at Rise University. The black and white footage is in pretty bad shape, and the audio is a little shaky. English subtitles would have been nice even though Rossellini speaks English.
The disc wraps up with another interview with Adriano Aprà (2009, 17 min.)
GERMANY YEAR ZERO
"Roberto Rossellini" (2001, 65 min.) is a documentary directed by Carlo Lizzani, assistant director on "Germany Year Zero." Lizzani traces Rossellini's career all the way back through childhood up through his late television. There's a little bit of overlap with the documentary from the "Rome, Open City" disc (I think they both used footage from the same Truffaut interview) but this is a useful feature even though it's a little more focused on providing facts than analysis.
Lizzani returns with "Letters from the Front" (23 min.), a podium discussion about "Germany Year Zero" from the 1987 Tutto Rossellini conference in Pesaro, Italy. As assistant director (and uncredited co-writer) he has plenty of special insight on the film. Footage is in black and white.
"Roberto and Roswitha" is an odd inclusion. This "illustrated essay" by scholar Thomas Meder claims that Rossellini's interest in shooting in Germany was fueled in large part by his affair with Roswitha Schmidt, his mistress of three years. This is a text/still photo feature that you navigate through with the right arrow on your remote. I guess this is of interest to Rossellini scholars, but I can't say that I see the relevance.
The disc also includes interviews with Adriano Aprà (2009, 13 min.) and directors Paolo and Vittorio Taviani (2009, 8 min.)
The 44-page insert booklet sits next to the three discs in the cardboard holder which, by the way, is indexed separately as Spine Number 500 in the Criterion Collection. It includes an overview of the trilogy by James Quandt, and essays about the individual films by Irene Bignardi, Colin MacCabe, and Jonathan Rosenbaum.
There are only a handful of films in cinema history that can be considered true game-changers, movies that fundamentally changed the way the medium was employed by filmmakers and received by audiences. The three films in the "War Trilogy" are a substantial part of the foundation on which the last sixty plus years of world cinema has been constructed, and Criterion has provided the definitive edition of these essential films. It was exhaustive just to write this review, so I can only imagine how much effort was expended in constructing this set.
The extras are both plentiful and wisely chosen. This is not a "bells and whistles" release which simply packs in extras for the sake of having a lot to list on the back DVD cover. The extensively restored transfers present these films in the best condition most viewers have ever had the chance to see them.
"Rossellini's War Trilogy" is one of Criterion's greatest and most important releases. What a great way to celebrate turning 500.