Era notte a Roma (1960)

8 02 2009

Well, it seems like Rossellini indulged himself into his original World War 2-era interests one last time before he completely began his “educational” television productions. For at least an hour and a half, this is a very political yet very intimate retelling of three concentration camp runaways (one from Britian, one from Russia, and one from the USA) hiding in the attic of a young Italian woman. These sequences recall Rossellini in his cinematic prime, yet are painted in an aesthetic that is a bit more modern. It’s not nearly up to the technical level of L’Avventura (which of course came out the same year) but it definitely has a little Antonioni-ness to it. Things get messy, as they often tend to with Rossellini, towards the end, but it is an interesting endeavor, if not an entirely successful one.

At 136 minutes, this certainly begins to drift away from what pulled me to Rossellini in the first place. The running time of The Flowers of St. Francis and Germany Year Zero are both under 90 minutes. This isn’t to say that I get tired of Rossellini’s shtick after awhile, but instead, his films fare better as concise, straight-forward documents that unfold in real time. This film does give that impression for a good part of its length. The sequences that take place in Esperia’s attic have an effortlessly languid pace to them. Even when the discussions among the three men turn to ramblings on communism, and/or fascism, a sense of realism is indeed maintained. The tension between the three runaway protagonists certainly helps this case.

Oddly enough, Rossellini’s focus isn’t limited to these three men. Although Mr. Pemberton’s opening narration gives that impression off, Rossellini scope also includes Esperia, the women who reluctantly hides them in her attic and her boyfriend, Renato. In a slightly tongue-in-cheek bit of writing, Esperia finds out about the possible consequences for her actions from Renato, who advised her to shelter escapees in the first place. She is shocked to learn that she could be killed by firing squad if she is found out. Despite the danger involved, Renato can’t help but giggle at his lover’s naivety. It’s a charming little moment in a film is desperate need of more.

Towards the end, Rossellini himself escapes (lame pun, indeed…) the tone of his WWII works, and goes into uncharted territory. Characters are thrown out, and new ones appear almost seamlessly. This is awkward, to say the least, but definitely reaffirms my own idea that the film is an extremely interesting development for Rossellini as a filmmaker. It is a bit bizarre, and maybe unsettling for some, to think that he would make The Rise of Louis XIV only six years later. In a way, it also kind of makes sense. This is, after all, somewhat of a transition piece. The positives from both of Rossellini’s stylistic eras are present, but so are the negatives, I suppose.

The Children are Watching Us (1944)

8 02 2009

Probably the best film I’ve seen from Vittorio De Sica, though rewatches of Umberto D and Shoeshine are definitely in order. While I don’t think this film is as achingly personal as the recent Rossellini efforts I’ve watched, it does have the advantaged of being more polished and formally pleasing. That doesn’t mean this is any more or less “light” than Germany Year Zero, it just feels like the person behind the camera has greater understanding of cinema’s technical possibilities. I’d say De Sica is a much better filmmaker than Rossellini, where as Rossellini was just better at coming across something that hits me deeper.

It is probably worth mentioning that the physical state of this film is much better than any Rossellini film I’ve seen. Once someone restores Rossellini’s war-time efforts, I might have to amend this statement, but until then, I’ll say that De Sica seems to have a better concept of visual compositions. There are some legitimately virtuoso moments here, such as the tracking shot that follows the protagonist’s nearly-fatal walk along a railroad, or the  low-angle shot that beautifully closes the film. The imagery from De Sica’s catalog seems much more memorable than the imagery in Rossellini’s. He’s a bit more vivid of a storyteller, which is obviously a plus, as is the fact that his films are less socially conscious.

Even though it was made in 1942, and was held for release until 1944, there is no mention of war for the entire film. I doubt I will ever be able to say the same for a Rossellini movie. Personally, a film like Germany Year Zero still works because it is about feelings that are not exclusive to decaying of a post-war city. Here, on the other hand, feelings related to war are not even referenced. Instead, all of the drama comes from the internal, which leads to more interesting characters.

Another point in De Sica’s court is for his setup: a mother leaves her family for an ex-lover, comes back, and then leaves again. It has melodrama written all over, but does stay rather subtle for a majority of the film’s length. I really love the touch De Sica adds to the structure by having the mother being somewhat reasonably undescisive. While it was interesting that De Sica maintained his interest in a naive child, I can’t help but feel like he was a little undescisive as well. At times, he seems willing to explore the tension between the parents and their doomed relationship, but at other times, he just wants it to be the backdrop in a coming of age story. The characters are not really alloted enough time for me to consider this to be in the same vein as Naruse, or Ozu. It probably doesn’t help that the ending is rather schmaltzy, either. Overall, though, this is pretty much fantastic.