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Close-Up on "General Della Rovere": Rossellini Returns to War

For a time, it seemed Roberto Rossellini was ready to leave behind the devastation of World War II...
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Roberto Rossellini's General Della Rovere (1959) is playing in the United States September 1 - 30, 2016.
For a time, it seemed Roberto Rossellini was ready to leave behind the devastation of World War II, a milieu he as much as anyone helped to indelibly commit to cinematic memory with his Neorealist masterworks. While a traumatized psyche remained in films that followed his trilogy of Rome, Open City (1945), Paisan (1946), and Germany Year Zero (1948), it was revealed via a more subtle manifestation of conflict related angst. Rossellini had moved beyond explicit depictions of the war and its aftermath, even while lingering psychological effects still abound (see his collaborations with Ingrid Bergman). This would change in 1959, with the release of General Della Rovere, Rossellini's first full-fledged wartime film in more than 10 years. While not of the caliber of these earlier titles (not really even in the same category), this return to his Nazi-occupied homeland proved to be another in a long line of exceptional films from the great Italian filmmaker. One indication of General Della Rovere's affinity with the films of the immediate post-war era is the mere presence of Vittorio De Sica in the starring role. Make no mistake, De Sica was more than just Neorealism. He was, first and foremost, an accomplished actor, a matinee idol years before war broke out. But by 1946, with Shoeshine, and even more so following Bicycle Thieves (1948) and Umberto D. (1952), his name alone was iconic enough to carry with it a multitude of filmic connotations, and most of that, at least outside Italy, had to do with Italian Neorealism. 
De Sica plays Vittorio Emanuele Bardone, a man in the midst of the war playing both sides, and each against his own selfish aspirations. He is cordial to the Nazis, beyond the ideal point he should be. Near the beginning of the film, S.S. Colonel Mueller (Hannes Messemer) declares the hostilities to be the byproduct of a just and necessary war. Bardone agrees. We, of course, know he doesn't really mean it, he knows he doesn't mean it, and chances are, Mueller knows he doesn't mean it. But what else is he going to say right then and there? At the same time, Bardone is also well known amongst his fellow Italians, for better or worse. On the one hand, he perhaps earnestly wants to help those he offers to assist, and it may even be he actively seeks out opportunities to lend such support. On the other hand, much of what he does is for himself alone. As Italian film scholar Peter Bondanella puts it, Bardone spends his time, "helping to save Italians arrested by the Gestapo, or by pretending to do so." "Sometimes up, sometimes down," Bardone is a self-described "self-made man," and to get where he is, he has had to swindle one person after another. Though in his own words an "unlucky bastard," he remains an obstinate gambler, and that type of life necessitates money. To fund his vice, he is prone to making notoriously empty promises, and some, like lover Valeria (Giovanna Ralli), mock and deride his inevitable ineptitude and his compulsion (she wisely hides some of her jewels to keep him from pawning them). In his penchant for shortsighted false hopes, Bardone nevertheless conveys optimism: the optimism of persistence. It would seem he gets involved in these shams and schemes in order to simply have something to do, something to give his life some purpose. A former engineer, Bardone seeks to maintain the semblance of a prior existence, with respectability through appearance, social standing, and demeanor. And in order to do that, he is constantly hustling, constantly trying to remain relevant in a time and place when many past professions and personality types cease to matter. Still, compared to the aforementioned Neorealist films, not everyone is so destitute in this version of the war. There are thriving gambling dens, lavish meals, and money to spend, so one can partially understand Bardone's resolution to preserve such a civilized position. But then come those meddlesome air raids and suddenly everyone is equalized by the war and its disregard for distinction.
As this character construction is unfolding (and the exposition, while essential, does take up a surprising amount of screen time), resistance leader General Della Rovere is shot and killed when he should have been taken alive. So for the Germans, the question then becomes, how can they keep him alive, or at least the impression he is alive, so they can use him to get the information they need? Eventually, Bardone is busted. The dashing De Sica looks pathetically hangdog as the jig is up and he is accosted for his fraudulent ways. Faced with death or imprisonment, he agrees to assume the role of the departed general; putting on an act should come natural for the charlatan. The prospect of 1 million lira and safe passage to Switzerland is too good to pass up and seals the deal.
Under the guise of the general, Bardone is temporarily jailed. His main objective: to find and finger Fabrizio, commander of partisan forces, who may also be incarcerated with a group of other rebels. As Della Rovere, Bardone is admired and catered to, but in his cell, surrounded by the written testaments of condemned men facing imminent death, the gravity of the sweeping situation sinks in. Bardone finds his initial detachment wavering and his willingness to snitch dissipates. He was asked to be a decoy for the ducks, but now, as Bardone says to Mueller, the German is asking him to be the rifle, too. Starting his assignment with the voiced mindset of "Why would you pay for someone else?" Bardone keeps the ruse up long enough to find his national dignity at odds with his prior sense of individual gain. During a bombing one evening, he quite incidentally assumes a position of power and calming authority. In spite of his own nature, he inspires the men and finds his own courage.  At several moments in General Della Rovere, Bordone echoes the young boys of Paisan and Marina (Maria Michi) from Rome, Open City. Whether their actions are "good" or "bad" (save for most of the Nazis, such simplistic black and white designations are seldom easy with Rossellini), what they do they do out of self-preservation. Call it opportunistic, call it a base desire to live; during war, that's life, and Rossellini here adopts the same objective, non-judgmental viewpoint of survival instincts manifest in differing ways during the direst of times. Bardone embodies the ethical juxtaposition. He is, according to Rossellini, a "deplorable swindler and an authentic hero."
If its time-period most recalls Rossellini's Neorealist films, in this theme of complex personal dilemmas, General Della Rovere also calls to mind his collaborations with Bergman, particularly in terms of the moral blurring of character. It is painful to hear Bardone utter phrases like, "Our German friends are nearly always very understanding." He is obviously attempting to console his countrymen, but that he does so by simultaneously sticking up for the Nazis sits uneasy. It's a precarious balance of having it both ways. "Put yourself in my shoes," he tells the colonel, essentially stating a key thematic strain that runs throughout much of Rossellini's pre-television work. Even Mueller himself is not entirely evil, as he is, after all, the one giving Bardone a chance to live, though it is a demeaning and compromising chance. Nearly 15 years removed from the immediate effects of World War II, General Della Rovere was frequently maligned at the time of its release, for a variety of reasons: aesthetic, political, ideological. Yet it was a tremendous commercial triumph. Rossellini himself saw the film's financial success (and it was his most commercially profitable project since those Neorealist works) as being a faulty step backward, almost a resignation to make that for which he was more widely known rather than continue in the more divisive vein of, say, Journey to Italy (1954). He initially turned down the project, stating, "I don't make commercial movies, only experimental ones." But upon reading journalist Indro Montanelli's article on which the film was based, he was captivated. From Montanelli's four-page story, a 300-page script was drafted and production was underway. A mere four weeks later, shooting was complete. The film, despite his doubts, was a much-needed generator of finances and respectability for Rossellini. It was celebrated at the Venice Film Festival, where it took home the Golden Lion (shared with Mario Monicelli's The Great War [1959]), one of several awards bestowed on the picture the world over. It was a box office hit and its tragicomic tone became something of an Italian film industry standard in the years that followed.  
Many also saw (and still see) General Della Rovere as taking a familiar Rossellini setting and polishing it up beyond appropriate recognition. This is an unfortunate and not entirely fair criticism. Bondanella, for instance, notes the artificial lighting, the "mannered" sets, and even the transitional wipes between scenes as shortcomings. These and "other special effects,” he writes, “likewise reinforce the emphasis on film illusion over film realism." It is true Rossellini’s Neorealist films had a rough-hewn quality that undoubtedly contributed to their potency, but that was as much a matter of necessity as it was a formal methodology. Now, with better technology at his disposal, why not sharpen things up a bit? Rossellini takes advantage of the available equipment, with long single shots benefiting from smooth camera movements, pointed lighting, crisp, clear cinematography, and even a rare, early zoom lens (which he controlled by joystick). Although filmed in Cinecittà Studios, some of the locations still look as decrepit as Rossellini's Neorealist pictures, even if they were constructed. They appear sufficiently dingy and bombed out, just shot better. Inserted newsreel footage occasionally brings the film back to an unadulterated reality, though admittedly the notable contrast between those shots and the obviously fictional scenes is at times jarring (but nowhere near as off-putting as one of the worst rear projection sequences ever committed to celluloid).
Renzo Rossellini provided the score for General Della Rovere, as he would often do for his brother. Carlo Carlini was behind the film's exquisite cinematography. Editing the film were Cesare Cavagna, who had worked with Rossellini around the same time on India: Matri Bhumi (1959), the director's semi-documentary passion project, and Anna Maria Montanari, receiving her sole editing credit.World War II was by 1959 a rather sore subject for Italians, and upon its release, General Della Rovere’s reopening of old wounds (specifically Nazi collaboration) met with a considerable degree of resentment. But through proficient direction, an incisive script, and De Sica's fine performance, Rossellini managed to win over (most) audiences and critics. In Bosley Crowther's review at the time, he said that with General Della Rovere, Rossellini managed to do what he had done in films like Rome, Open City. "He has turned the spotlight of his brilliant talent upon the isolated and unsung heroes of those times," he wrote. "He has caught in the clear eye of his camera the dauntless and gritty qualities of those impassioned resistance fighters who would not yield, even in prison and faced with death. He has shown, in the experience of one man, how the example of these heroes in defeat could inspire an ultimate emulation and a sense of moral victory." If it sounds a little "Hollywood," it is, in the best stirring sense. Besides, a victory is a victory, and that General Della Rovere most certainly is.

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