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Roberto Rossellini's War Trilogy

The Auteurs Daily

Rome Open City

"In the immediate aftermath of World War II, Roberto Rossellini made three films that helped to lay the foundations of modern cinema: Rome Open City (1945), Paisan (1946) and Germany Year Zero (1948)," writes Dave Kehr in the New York Times. "It's almost impossible to underestimate the importance of these movies, both for the impact that their startling realism had on the audiences and filmmakers of the time and for the influence they continue to exert on directors." Criterion's "three-disc Roberto Rossellini's War Trilogy uses photochemical and digital techniques to reclaim these masterworks... Wisely, there has been no attempt to make these films look pristine. Many flaws are still apparent (as they probably were in the original release prints), and the graininess of the image has been maintained. This is all very much in the spirit of Rossellini, who felt that technical perfection was a minor virtue compared to the warmth and spontaneity that could be captured once technique was thrown away."

Criterion's posted essays on each of the films: Irene Bignardi on Rome Open City ("not just a milestone in the history of Italian cinema but possibly, with De Sica's Bicycle Thieves, one of the most influential and symbolic films of its age"), Colin MacCabe on Paisan ("for the great French critic André Bazin, [it] was for European cinema what Citizen Kane was for Hollywood: an extraordinary advance in the ability of film to capture reality") and Jonathan Rosenbaum on Germany Year Zero: "The very title of the film offers not so much a documentary fact as a subjective reading of a documentary fact: not just a city and a population reduced to chaos but a terrain leveled spiritually and morally (which implies a place to build, but not necessarily or specifically what is to be built there)."

"The multi-episode Paisan is so inspired, and expansive, with such a generosity of perspective, that it seems a genuinely unprecedented piece of work," writes Glenn Kenny. "It's not for nothing that the writing credits cite eight people, one of them Klaus Mann, the son of novelist Thomas, who participated in the liberation of Italy as an American soldier. Among a lot of other things, the picture opens a window on the shifting attitudes of both liberator and liberated. To anyone who is inclined to boast, 'We Americans really saved Europe's bacon in World War II,' Paisan is a compelling 'Yes, but.' It is also almost unyielding in its despair.... It's quite unnerving to consider the fact that, up until this Criterion reconstruction, Paisan was for most intents and purposes a lost film."

"In all three films," notes the New Yorker's Richard Brody, "Rossellini gives the Germans plenty of screen time (the effete, bilingual SS officer in Rome Open City seems to be a template for Quentin Tarantino's Colonel Hans Landa) and lets them vent their ideology at length: for Rossellini, the war was also a war of ideas, and it's one that, even with the arrival of peace, was hardly won."

"Roberto Rossellini is one of the most elusive, unlikely, maddening, flighty, brilliant, persistent characters to repeatedly shatter and remake cinema," writes Mike Hertenstein in Filmwell. "His career was a roller-coaster ride of acclaim and derision. Through it all, he scratched out one of the richest veins of film history, one that is still producing all these years later, drawn upon by generations of filmmakers worldwide. Not bad for an incurable playboy-artist who drove crazy his actors, crew, funders, audiences and critics, pooh-poohing his own personal myth even as he wove it."

"Martin Scorsese has described him as 'the father of us all,'" notes Bill Weber in Slant, "and Rossellini's descendants most obviously include the French new wave, the British social-realist films of the early 60s, American mavericks from John Cassavetes to Hal Ashby, and even documentary makers of postwar generations across the globe."

More from Jeffrey M Anderson (Cinematical), Sean Axmaker, Brad Brevet (Rope of Silicon), Nelson Kim (Hammer to Nail), Jamie S Rich (DVD Talk) and Gary Tooze (DVD Beaver); and at TCM, morlockjeff argues a persuasive case for Rossellini's Era Notte a Roma (1960, Escape by Night), "which, unfortunately, has never enjoyed the reputation or respect of this seminal trilogy."

More on this week's DVD releases: Ryland Walker Knight on Jane Campion's Bright Star, Sean Axmaker and Joseph Jon Lanthier (Slant) on Wim Wenders's Paris, Texas and Michael Atkinson (IFC) on Bruce McDonald's Pontypool and Ulrich Seidl's Import/Export. And for this week's roundup, turn to Michael Tully at Hammer to Nail.

Image: Rome Open City.

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Hey, it’s kind of irritating that one must bow down to the 1.85 rectangle even at the Auteurs, where people should know better. Is it too much to ask, really, that if stills from 1.33 films are going to be used in the design as visual element they appear in the correct aspect ratio?
It is not too much to ask. More care’ll be taken in the future – thanks!

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