Thursday, May 24, 2007


1946, Italy, directed by Roberto Rossellini (original title: Paisà)

Made almost immediately after Rome, Open City, Paisà abandons that film's generally conventional structure in favour of a series of almost completely unconnected vignettes that are linked only in that they chronicle the progress of the American army up the length of Italy during 1943-44. The episodes are strikingly different in nature, though they tend toward the downbeat (a notable contrast to the usual depiction of literal and figurative liberation), and collectively paint a tough-minded portrait of the aftermath of war, which brings with it new conflicts and challenges.

Rossellini's main interest here is the meeting between two apparently alien cultures, those of wartime (and often backward and impoverished) Italy and the American military machine as it rolls up the peninsula, providential supplies in tow. It's not always a happy meeting, beginning with mistrust in Sicily, whose residents greet the Americans, and the collapse of Mussolini's regime, with some ambivalence (the complexities of Sicilian post-war loyalties are explored in greater detail in Francesco Rosi's Salvatore Giuliano). Even in areas where the Americans are actively greeted as liberators - with the film incorporating, almost seamlessly, documentary footage - the local population has difficulty relating to its military saviours, such is the economic gulf that separates them, with the US military seen by many hungry Italians, including children, as a soft target for theft. As the film progresses, however, the restoration and resumption of humanity creates a powerful bond between the two cultures, with a paradoxical optimism emerging from what is often a despairing catalogue of individual incidents. The final sequence, in particular, speaks eloquently of the power of individuals to seek to understand another culture - a theme explored by many of the filmmakers from Africa who cite the Italian neo-realists as an important influence.

Although many of the smaller parts are played by non-professionals, with various sequences filmed on the streets of Rome and other Italian cities (one part of Italy often masquerades for another: the Sicilian sequences were filmed in Amalfi, though the devastation of Naples, in the second episode, is absolutely authentic), Rossellini artfully blends in professional actors, with almost all of the American roles played by experienced theatre hands (some of whom, like William Tubbs, had interesting post-war film careers) to anchor each episode.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States