Il generale Della Rovere: Rediscovering Roberto Rossellini

On Film / Essays — Mar 11, 2015

More than thirty years after his death in 1977, Roberto Rossellini is remembered by your average film buff as the father of Italian neo­realism (Rome, Open City, 1945; Paisan, 1946; Germany Year Zero, 1948) and of actress and model Isabella Rossellini, one of his three children with Ingrid Bergman, with whom he conducted a notorious affair before their seven-year marriage in the 1950s.

But in the sixties, this protean talent had been canonized by critics as the filmmaker’s filmmaker, and revered by the new generation: Godard made numerous references to Rossellini’s work and collaborated with him on Les carabiniers (1963). In his landmark Before the Revolution (1964), Bernardo Bertolucci has a character declare, “One cannot live without Rossellini!”

None of the great masters of late twentieth-century cinema have lost so much standing. And none are more deserving of being rediscovered. In part, Rossellini brought this on himself. Few directors were as self-effacing: he considered himself a craftsman, not an “auteur.” He was more interested in the world of film—its technology, aesthetics, business—than in producing Great Works of Art. It is rumored that he was initially ashamed of Il generale Della Rovere—not because of any lack of quality but because he felt he was repeating himself. Within a few years, he had turned his attention away from theatrical film, concentrating on television series for the rest of his career. He was more interested in history and education than in the art of film. In retrospect, what else would you expect from the premier “neorealist”?

He was, along with Jean Renoir, one of the great humanists to work in the medium. For him, it wasn’t the art, it was the people; it wasn’t the story, it was the history. His life and work were informed by irony and paradox, so he transcends easy categorization. Perhaps that’s why we pay so little attention to his career today.

Roberto Rossellini was born into a bourgeois Roman family on May 8, 1906. His father was an architect. By his early thirties, he had drifted into filmmaking—a not uncommon career path for upper middle-class Roman young people at the time. Friendly with Vittorio Mussolini, Il Duce’s son, he collaborated on the script for Luciano Serra pilota (1938), a propaganda film. During World War II, he worked on several other Fascist-sponsored projects. But at the same time, he was secretly shooting footage that would be used in his groundbreaking neorealist classic Rome, Open City.

This film, graphically depicting the partisan struggle against the Nazi occupation of Italy, had an immediate and striking effect on international audiences. With its mainly documentary footage, punctuated by the striking performances of professionals Anna Magnani and Aldo Fabrizi, it had a profound influence on filmmakers worldwide. This was a tipping point, not unlike The Birth of a Nation, The Jazz Singer, or Citizen Kane.

Rossellini followed this tour de force with two other investigations of postwar Europe: Paisan and Germany Year Zero. Then came the Ingrid Bergman period. After divorcing their spouses, they married in 1950. It was a great scandal—hard to imagine from our vantage point, now that romantic peccadilloes have become an important economic engine of the Hollywood ­publicity machine. But this was a time when divorce was more controversial than abortion is today. From 1949 to the mid-1950s, they worked together on several films that met with neither critical nor popular success. Stromboli (1950), Europa ’51 (1952), and Voyage in Italy (1954)—the so-called Ingrid Trilogy—all share a common trait: the neorealist master is searching for a way to film the most famously beautiful Hollywood star of the time, and that struggle results in an obvious discordance. (Of course that tension is what makes these films so interesting to us today.)

In 1957, Rossellini went to India to film a documentary (India: Matri Bhumi, 1959), and had an affair with screenwriter Sonali Das Gupta, further offending the mores of the time and leading to the dissolution of his marriage to Bergman.

When the opportunity to film Il generale Della Rovere presented itself that year, it seemed like a chance for redemption. The cinematic hero of the late 1940s had spent ten years in the public doghouse. Now he could go back to the neorealist style that had made his reputation. It was almost as if Rossellini had been assigned an artistic penance: “You’ve been fooling around too long—do what we know you can do and admire you for doing.”

What he created, however, pointed as much to the future as to the past. The foundation of Il generale Della Rovere is the raw neorealism of the 1940s. But the flourishes foreshadow the historical essays that would absorb Rossellini for the rest of his career.

The plot is based on the true story of Giovanni Bertoni, as told by Indro Montanelli, one of the premier Italian journalists of his time. Montanelli’s life story itself is worth a couple of movies. He moved back and forth between the Fascist and partisan orbits throughout the war years. Like our hero, he was supremely apolitical—a signal Italian trait.

To realize this kaleidoscopic character, Rossellini convinced Vittorio De Sica to essay the role. Outside Italy, De Sica is regarded as the second most important neorealist director (Shoeshine, 1946; Bicycle Thieves, 1948). But in reality, De Sica worked more often as an actor than as a director. And you can see why here: the square Roman face, the aquiline nose—he’s an emblem of Italian iconography.

De Sica plays the role of Emanuele Bardone, based on Bertoni. In turn, the shyster Bardone plays Colonel Grimaldi, eking out a living cadging fees from families eager to rescue relatives who have been arrested by the Gestapo and their Italian collaborators. Note that it isn’t clear that “Colonel Grimaldi” is simply ripping off his clients. He genuinely seems to be working for their loved ones’ release. That’s a signal of the irony that overarches and informs this film.

The role Italy played in World War II was equally ironic. It was the only major country to switch sides from World War I to World War II, but Italy’s alliance with the Nazi regime did not last long. After the secret armistice with the Allies in the summer of 1943, Italy was an occupied enemy of Germany. The film takes place, in Genoa, in the winter of 1943–44.

This Janus role is mirrored by the film. Il generale Della Rovere is really two films knit together: the first half gives us the story of Bardone surviving under the German occupation; in the second half, in prison, Bardone, blackmailed by the Gestapo into masquerading as General Giovanni Braccioforte Della Rovere, hero of the Resistance, slowly grows into his new role.

It is hard to underestimate the iconic significance of the general. The Della Rovere family dates back to before the Renaissance in Italy and included two popes, one of whom, Sixtus IV, was responsible for commissioning the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, named after him. For Italians—in the film and in the audience—the name Della Rovere had profound resonance.

As Bardone slowly becomes a version of this mistakenly slain hero, we see Italy emerging from its shameful period of Fascism into a new role as heroic victim of Nazism. The ironies here are powerful, and supremely Italian in nature. Bardone’s assumption of the role of national hero parallels Italy’s own voyage out of Fascism. As a film, Il generale Della Rovere seems disjointed—but that was precisely Italy’s experience in the war. Few films have such a sophisticated narrative symbology.

Note, too, the intense focus on our hero. He’s on the screen for an hour and a half before we see a scene without him. This is all about the shyster-impersonator who assumes the role of iconic hero against his will, grows into the role, and fulfills its fiction. That De Sica was himself a director as well as an actor heightens the dramatic irony.

One scene is especially important in hindsight. At the end, when the firing squad is exacting its vengeance, the victims stand in front of a curiously painted wall, with a city landscape, that adds a strange poignancy to the tragic event. (Rossellini had shot scenes of the inmates painting the mural themselves that didn’t make the final cut.) This seemingly eccentric feature foreshadows most of Rossellini’s work for the next fifteen years. In the sixties and seventies, he concentrated on historical and educational subjects and invented numerous techniques for melding artificial settings with realistic action. The father of neorealism became the champion of “artificial realism.” (Imagine what he might be doing today with digital CGI tools at his command.) And it is this fascination with the intersection between film and reality that commanded the admiration and attention of a new generation of filmmakers at that time.

Il generale Della Rovere
is the fulcrum that balances the in-the-street neorealism of Rossellini’s films from the forties and fifties with the historical collages of his films of the sixties and seventies. Few filmmakers have exhibited this range of approaches. Few filmmakers have evinced such an objective understanding of their craft. Roberto Rossellini deserves to be restored to the first rank of the twentieth-century pantheon.