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Related Reading: DEFA East German Cinema, 1946-1992 edited by Seán Allan and John Sandford.


Roma: Citte Aperta, 1946
[Rome: Open City]

MagnaniShortly after the liberation of Italy in 1945, Roberto Rossellini took to the war ravaged streets of Rome and filmed a highly unsettling, yet profoundly affirming story of the struggle and defiance of ordinary people in the face of human adversity, and created the indelible image of Open City. Using narrative, documentary styled filmmaking that would come to be known as neorealism, Open City chronicles the plight, not of individual characters, but of the collective soul of the Italian people. An idealistic resistance leader, Giorgio Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero), is pursued by a persistent German officer, Bergmann (Henry Feist), attempting to elicit the names of other members of the underground movement. He goes to the apartment of a lithographer named Francesco (Francesco Grandjaquet) seeking assistance in transferring money to other rebels, and encounters his fiancé, Pina (Anna Magnani), a kind, but weary widow who lives in an adjacent apartment. Pina sends her son, Marcello (Vito Annichiarico) to fetch Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi) a sympathetic priest who agrees to orchestrate the exchange. In the morning of Francesco and Pina's planned wedding, German soldiers search the apartment building, turning all the residents out into the street, and detain all of the men for routine questioning. Giorgio escapes and contacts a former lover, a self-absorbed actress named Marina (Maria Michi) who betrays him by disclosing his plans to Bergmann's assistant, Ingrid (Giovanna Galletti).

Filmed in austere conditions, the technical imperfections of Open City effectively contribute to the film's overall cinema verite appearance. The uneven film stock, salvaged from scrap reels, create a realistic, documentary appearance, blurring the distinction between the created story and the realized drama of postwar turmoil. The inconsistent lighting seems to reflect the frequent brownouts characteristic of fuel shortages and energy rationing. The rawness of Open City elicits a sense of realism to the film, as if experiencing an actual recorded document of a tragic period in history. It is also a testament to humanity's tenacity and perseverance, to the inexorable power of compassion and dignity. In essence, a chronicle of the soul.

© Acquarello 2000. All rights reserved

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Germania anno zero, 1947
[Germany, Year Zero]

Moeschke/PittschauAmid the rubble of postwar Germany, a 12-year-old boy named Edmund (Edmund Moeschke) is hired to dig graves at a cemetery, then is chased away when he is unable to produce his work permit. It is Year Zero - the beginning of a divided Germany - and the country is faced with an uncertain future of food rations, energy shortages, and an unstable economy. On the way home, Edmund encounters a crowd hovering over a dead horse, and is brushed aside by a policeman after asking for a portion of the horse meat. Without hesitation, Edmund then walks towards his next opportunity, as a slow-moving coal truck traverses the street, and Edmund immediately picks up the fallen pieces of coal. He returns home to a small room in a war-ravaged apartment building, where he lives with his invalid father (Ernst Pittschau), his resourceful sister, Eva (Ingetraud Hinze), and his cowardly brother Karl-Heinz (Franz Kruger). Fearing prosecution for war crimes as a Nazi soldier, Karl-Heinz refuses to register with the police in order to qualify for a work permit and social services, and the family is forced to subsist on three ration cards. Meanwhile, Eva, unable to find work, spends every evening escorting Allied soldiers at dance halls, where she receives a handful of cigarettes to be used for bartering goods and services. One day, while wandering the streets, Edmund meets his former school teacher, Mr. Henning (Eric Guehne), an inscrutable and discredited intellectual who profits from the sale of Nazi propaganda. Mr. Henning takes interest in young Edmund, and puts him to work with a group of young, disaffected vagrants. Inevitably, as Edmund becomes consumed by the despair and cruelty of his devastated environment, he drifts further away from the support and moral guidance of his family.

Arguably the most harrowing and nihilistic installment of Roberto Rossellini's Trilogy of War, Germany, Year Zero is a caustic portrait of dehumanization and social disintegration. Filmed soon after the unexpected death of Rossellini's young son, Romano, in 1946, the protagonist, Edmund, becomes a tragic symbol of national guilt and personal pain: the embodiment of lost innocence; the uncertainty of profound change; the guilt of survival; the seeming hopelessness of the future. In essence, the repeated image of Edmund wandering through the devastated wasteland of postwar Berlin reflects, not only the unreconciled spirit of the German people, but also Rosselini's own attempt to come to terms with his own loss. Inevitably, like the aimless Edmund, Rossellini, too, searches for an elusive meaning to an inconsolable tragedy.

© Acquarello 2001. All rights reserved>

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Francesco, giullare di Dio, 1950
[The Flowers of St. Francis/Francis, God's Jester]

Monks of the Nocere Inferiore MonasteryIn the midst of a torrential rain, Brother Francis of Assisi (Brother Nazario Gerardi) in the province of Umbria and his disciples arrive at their outpost in the rural village of Rivo Torto to seek shelter from the inclement weather, only to be driven away by a trespassing peasant who, along with his donkey, have forcibly laid claim to the modest hut. It is a base and uncivilized response that Brother Francis optimistically rationalizes by remarking "Have we not now reason to rejoice? Providence at last has made us useful to others" before continuing on their journey. Arriving at the abandoned ruins of the chapel of St. Mary of the Angels, the friars set up camp on the outskirts of town where they immediately begin to reconstruct the derelict chapel and upon completion, set out in the morning on daily communal interactions with the villagers, propelled by their spiritual mentor's words of guidance to set an example for others and "engage in honest work and make yourselves not dependent on each other". Regrettably, but amusingly, the selfless intent of the charitable gesture is taken all too literally by the naive Brother Ginepro who invariably returns to camp in a state of undress, often offering his sole remaining possession - his cassock - to beggars on the street. Relegated by Francis to the confined task of cooking meals within the camp in order to keep him from falling prey to opportunists in the village, Ginepro is soon kept company by an endearing, but absent-minded old man named Giovanni who has arrived at the chapel with a bull in tow demanding to speak with 'Saint' Francis, having decided to forsake his family (who, in turn, seem more perturbed by the loss of the useful farm animal than by the desertion of their dotty patriarch) and follow Francis in his humble vocation. However, worn down by the hapless and trouble-prone Ginepro's interminable attempts to return to ministry service, Francis accommodates his request and sends him out into the countryside, where a fateful encounter with a ruthless and megalomaniacal tyrant named Nicolaio (Aldo Fabrizi) becomes a test of absolute faith.

Shooting primarily in exterior spaces, using unobtrusive camerawork, and incorporating natural environment with a cast of non-professional actors (with monks from the Nocere Inferiore Monastery playing the roles of St. Francis and his disciples), Roberto Rossellini creates a sense of timelessness and contemporary relevance to the universal themes of humility, compassion, faith, sacrifice, and community in The Flowers of St. Francis. Depicting episodes in the life of St. Francis and the nascent Franciscan movement as mundane events in a personal search for existential purpose and inner peace, Rossellini captures a tangible and corporeal essence to spirituality and benediction: the incident at Rivo Torto, his meeting with Sister Clare (Arabella Lemaitre) who would later found the Clarissines (or Poor Clares, the second Franciscan order modeled after his doctrine of absolute poverty, charity, and service), his encounter with a leper (which historically occurs earlier in his life), his communion with nature (that led to his identification as patron saint of animals and the environment). By portraying St. Francis and his disciples within the context of everyday human struggle through all its simple joys and disappointments, celebrations and travails, the film presents a remarkably lucid and accessible portrait of the interrelation between humanity and spiritual enlightenment.

© Acquarello 2003. All rights reserved

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Europa 51, 1951
[No Greater Love]

BergmanIn an upscale district of Rome, a cosmopolitan American socialite named Irene Girard (Ingrid Bergman) hurries home with her pet in tow and is greeted by the concierge with the inconvenient news that the elevator is again out of service. It is a perfunctory irritation for the carefree and sophisticated expatriate whose pressing engagement is revealed to be the hosting of an intimate dinner party with her husband George (Alexander Knox) that has now been revised to include the recent invitation of two additional guests: George's aunt Margaret and her son, an intellectual and communist radical named André (Ettore Giannini). With little time before their friends arrive, Irene rushes to the bedroom in order to change into her evening clothes, only to be repeatedly accosted by her coddled, temperamental adolescent son Michel (Sandro Franchina) who sullenly - and unrelentingly - demands her undivided attention. However, with the gradual arrival of the dinner guests, Irene cursorily dismisses Michel who is relegated to his room for the evening, making only a brief, polite appearance to receive a gift train set which the young man accepts with visible indifference before summarily walking away. The vacuous and uneventful dinner is then disrupted by the housekeeper Cesira's (Tina Perna) harried notification that Michel - perhaps in a desperate bid for attention - has fallen down a flight of stairs. The incident proves to be a turning point in Irene's contented and self-absorbed bourgeois existence as her inconsolable grief becomes a catalyst for introspection and social conscience.

The second collaboration between Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman (after Stromboli), Europa 51 is a provocative, haunting, and compassionate examination of the isolating and often misunderstood path of personal redemption and spiritual service in contemporary society. Composed of alternating sequences of daytime and nighttime episodes (that would be similarly used by Federico Fellini in his subsequent film, La Dolce Vita), the film presents a recurring visual dichotomy that illustrates the polarizing division between wealth and poverty, spirituality and materialism, vanity and humility, selfishness and benevolence: Irene's evening conversation with André that results in her financial assistance of the Puglisi family on the following day; her overnight care for a consumptive prostitute named Ines (Teresa Pellati) after encountering her in the red light district; her return visit to the Puglisi family home on the chaotic night of a bank robbery. Similarly, the Girard family's emotionally reserved and veiled expression of disapproval over Irene's charitable actions over cocktails that contrasts with the festive atmosphere of the Puglisi family's overcrowded apartment as their son returns home from the hospital further reflects Irene's disconnection from her staid, rarefied social environment of the privileged class in postwar Europe, and her gravitation towards a simpler and more nurturing peasant community. In essence, as Irene leads an increasingly humble life of service to humanity, her existence figuratively becomes one of cloistered monasticism. In the exquisite and profoundly moving final sequence, Irene, abandoned by her family, finds solace and renewed purpose in the affectionate cries of her adoring and devoted surrogate family. Framed against the bars of a mental institution, her contemplative image - bathed in sunlight - becomes one, not of captivity, but of benediction and enlightenment.

© Acquarello 2003. All rights reserved.

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Viaggio in Italia, 1953
[Voyage in Italy]

Sanders/BergmanVoyage in Italy opens to a shot of a reserved British couple, Alex (George Sanders) and Katherine Joyce (Ingrid Bergman) traveling in silence down a long, empty, narrow road on the Italian countryside. They are awaiting the sale of an inherited villa in Naples, and have decided to seize the occasion and spend undivided time together by touring the regional attractions. But away from the structure and familiarity of their comfortable life in London, the trip begins to expose the tedium and strain of their relationship. As Alex's demeanor turns from complacent boredom to outward hostility towards the unfamiliar customs of a foreign land, it is evident that he indirectly lashes out at Katherine's misguided, romantic ideas that led them to their lonely, uncomfortable journey. One day, Katherine melancholically recounts the story of a former suitor who became gravely ill after risking his health in order to see her (a thematic reference to James Joyce's The Dead), but Alex remains unmoved by the incident, and dismisses the folly of the young man's actions. As an emotional defense, Katherine withdraws from Alex, wounded by his disaffection for her tale of lost, unrequited love. When Alex shows disinterest in Katherine's touring plans, the two agree to make independent plans during their remaining days in Naples. As Alex joins a company of idle British tourists in Capri, Katherine occupies herself by visiting natural wonders, and symbolically, finds a reflection of her own surfacing emotional conflict over her eroding marriage.

Roberto Rossellini creates a graceful, understated portrait on the dissolution of marriage in Voyage in Italy. A stylistic influence on the bleak industrial landscapes of Michelangelo Antonioni, Rossellini introduces the environment as a relevant, dynamic character in the lives of a married couple in crisis, and provides a visual metaphor for suppressed emotions. The echo of the Greek fortress caves and the ionization of the craters near Vesuvius become literal reflections of Katherine's physical actions. Moreover, the contained eruption just beneath the surface of "small Vesuvius", the catacombs of a village church, and the uncovered casts of human bodies at Pompeii further represent Katherine's inner turmoil and marital disillusionment. The final scene shows Katherine figuratively swept away by an environmental tide of emotional abandonment. It is in this confusion that they find themselves desperately searching for each other - hopelessly lost and unable to be together - and realize their own incompleteness and mutual need. It is a resigned reconciliation.

© Acquarello 2001. All rights reserved

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