The Details is a column that catches the small within the big, focusing on the individual elements that make cinema so expressive.
Twenty minutes into Roberto Rossellini’s Il generale della Rovere (1959), long before we can fully understand just what exactly our protagonist Bardone (Vittorio De Sica) is up to in the city of Genoa during World War II, Bardone arrives at the Wehrmacht headquarters in the city.
Our detail is a single shot done in a long-take. It begins with grim looking townspeople plodding up a stairway:
Bardone follows. The camera, at the top of the steps, curls to the right to follow Bardone’s walk, reveals a Wehrmacht receptionist in a confined room filled with more townspeople…
…and continues to follow Bardone as he enters a chambered space filled with supplicants in various states of recline, boredom, and anxiety, all waiting to be seen by the Wehrmacht commander:
Bardone takes his hat off and with suppressed energy waits for something. It is clear he does not think he is waiting in the same manner or for the same reasons as the others in the room. Nervous, he moves around.
The camera pans to the left to follow his gaze, which opens the space up to a view of sorrow and misery (and, as happens several times in the movie, the eyes of an extra meet the camera):
The camera pans back to the right, timed to the footsteps of another Wehrmacht receptionist, who inexplicably lets Bardone into the main office ahead of all those waiting:
The camera follows. Another room: more people waiting (mostly women), another SS receptionist. More doorways, and, finally, the final room. Bardone opens the door and Rossellini cuts before we can see the interior.
Fairly matter of fact, right? Narratively, yes: Bardone arrives, waits around not for his turn but for his connection, and is let into the Wehrmacht officer’s office.
But more important than any story occurrence is that Rossellini’s mise en scène in this sequence brings to a non-dramatic climax all that we have felt so far throughout Il generale: moral unease about Bardone. Until this point, what he does, exactly, and why remain vague: interactions with an SS colonel and later his own wife all seem to indicate something shady about our hero, but we can’t quite put our finger on what. Considering the clandestine setting of Nazi-occupied Genoa with its supplicating populace and curfew-confined nightlife, for a while it seems that Bardone may be up to something and that that something may be resistance, or at the very least something for the common good.
This sequence shot entrance into the Wehrmacht headquarters resolutely says “no” with a sudden clarity expressed entirely through cinematographic means. Without an event, that is, without a dramatic scene that tells or shows us what Bardone does for a living, the way the man navigates the space in this scene finally gives Il generale’s viewers a concrete sense of this man’s position in those most morally ambiguous of 20th century settings. The single-take shot emphasizes his mobility between the Italians and the Germans, the sufferers and the oppressors, the needy and the powerful, and De Sica’s performance gives Bardone the airs of a man who knows he doesn’t fit in with the crowd of supplicants and feels uncomfortable waiting with them. By funneling our lead character through a carefully defined space of architecture, of society, and of emotion, Rossellini in a single scene, in a single shot, brings into sharp clarity all that has so far been unspoken about Italian collaboration during the Second World War.
Il Generale della Rovere is available on R1 DVD from The Criterion Collection.