Rossellini Regained

Daniel Kasman

Reputations resurrected, re-contextualized, and revitalized: even as the future of home video, at least in the form of the DVD medium, is starting to look uncertain, at the very least cinephiles must rejoice at its power to change our impression of film history. Or perhaps a bit more of a qualification: DVD’s power to change the impression of film history for those who have discovered film only in the age in which its vitality and popularity is found in the home theater rather than the public one. If the Region 2 news commented upon last week about the new availability of films by French director Maurice Pialat was a cause for celebration, we cannot go onward without mentioning another of the world’s greatest filmmakers who is about to be (re-) seen in a new way: Roberto Rossellini.

Like most directors associated with the post-war neo-realist film movement out of Italy, Rossellini—whose films Rome, Open City (1945), Paisan (1946), and Germany Year Zero (1948) are canonical masterpieces of the era—is rarely popularly remembered for his films outside of the 1940s. This is despite the fact that the man essentially defined if not created what we understand now as modern “art cinema” in the 1950s with the much lauded series of films Rossellini made with actress Ingrid Bergman—Stromboli (1950), Europa ‘51 (1952), and most especially Voyage to Italy (1954), a film that changed the face of film before more “pop” revolutions inspired by Breathless and Psycho. To recapitulate Rossellini’s career—much forgotten—would be beyond the scope of this tiny note (one may want to check out Hugo Salas’ Senses of Cinema “bio” on him here, or buy Tag Gallagher’s impressive and essential tome on the filmmaker). But work is being done in odd places in odd ways to help open up the filmmaker through the DVD market, and we wanted to get the word out.

Chronologically speaking, this November Lionsgate will release a set which includes Where is Freedom? (1954) and Era Notte a Roma (1960), soon to be covered here but currently a mystery to this author. The jump between the time period associated with the filmmaker’s collaborations with Bergman and a work made around Rossellini’s first experiments with what would later be called his “didactic” style, such as Viva l'Italia! (1961), will make for a poignant view into the short-term evolution of one of cinema’s greatest artists.

A bigger splash will undoubtedly be made by Criterion’s enshrining of Rossellini’s 1966 television film The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (commonly known a The Rise of Louis XIV) in a handsome release early in 2009. Coming towards the beginning of Rossellini’s mature didactic period, the film settled once and for all the debates that Rossellini was no longer a neo-realist filmmaker, or that neo-realism as a movement had long died. If anything, Rossellini’s didactic works, including Louis XIV and other such masterpieces as Blaise Pascal (1972) and later works on Socrates, St. Augustine, and Descartes clarified that perhaps Roberto Rossellini was the only director working—or perhaps had ever worked—in neo-realism. These are films where realism did not mean use of non-professional actors, or social-realist narratives, or location shooting, or the many other textbook qualities commonly ascribed to the movement, but rather, in the words of New York Times’ critic Manohla Dargis, they were movies that attempted to present the world, unadorned.

To flesh out the canonical intervention posed by Criterion’s release of the 1966 film, the company’s Eclipse label will follow up with a rich collection of some of Rossellini’s 1970s work: Blaise Pascal, The Age of the Medicis (1973), and Cartesius (1974). Along with Louis XIV, this bountiful foursome, in unplanned conjunction with the release of earlier films by Lionsgate, should help filmgoers new to the cinema of Rossellini, or only familiar with his immediate post-war work, to greatly revaluate not just the artist and his reputation, but cinema itself. As with any filmmakers in the rarest of the rare categories—that of cinema essentialists, people who make art that not only could not be produced in another medium with a relative degree of fidelity, but more importantly people who, in their filmmaking, reveal an aspect of the art that could only exist in cinema—watching Rossellini films is tantamount to watching cinematic philosophy. A major step in expanding the importance not just of a filmmaker but also of a medium, the releases of these films will once again assert that Rossellini movies are not just new ways of seeing the world, as all films are, but, critically, are also new ways of seeing the world in film.


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