Paisan: More Real Than Real

On Film / Essays — Jan 26, 2010

Roberto Rossellini’s second postwar film was released in the United States as Paisan, and one can understand why the distributors wanted to use a title familiar to many Americans as meaning “friend” or “countryman” for a work that is at root a reflection on the virtues of fraternity. The Italian title was Paisà, which in Neapolitan dialect can also be an affectionate term for a person from the same village. Rossellini’s collection of stories sketches an image of a whole country—Italy in the year of its liberation from German occupation and fascism—by evoking six very specific local worlds. The individual dramatic episodes trace the path of the liberation of Italy from south to north, but other than that find no immediate unity of tone or theme. The terrible tragedy of the individual murder of the young girl Carmela in the first episode, set in Sicily, and the wholesale massacre of partisans in the final episode, in the Po Valley, might seem to sit uneasily with the comedy of the second episode, in which a drunk military policeman has his shoes stolen by a street urchin in Naples, or with the fifth episode, in which a Franciscan monastery in the north of Italy is shaken to its foundations when it finds itself entertaining a Protestant and a Jew. But Rossellini always has one subject: Italy in the brutal year of 1943–44 and the clash of cultures and languages as the invading Allied armies fight their way up the peninsula.

Paisan was very different in its funding from Rossellini’s first postwar film, Rome Open City, which had been shot on a shoestring. The success of Rome Open City meant that Rossellini could envisage a project with a budget ten times bigger and with American money involved. The result, for the great French critic André Bazin, was for European cinema what Citizen Kane was for Hollywood: an extraordinary advance in the ability of film to capture reality. Welles’s innovation, for Bazin, was formal and technological. He used the new lenses available at the end of the thirties to produce a depth of field that left the spectator free to pick out significance in a more complex image. The complexity of Rossellini’s image and its greater grasp of reality, according to Bazin, was achieved by a strange amalgam of documentary technique and fiction. This is most noticeable in the use of nonprofessional actors; the streets of the towns and cities in Paisan are so vivid because the figures inhabiting them are not actors but the men, women, and children living through the dreadful realities of postwar Italy, including many American GIs. Perhaps the most striking of these performances is in the very first episode. Carmela, who offers to guide the American soldiers because she wants to find her father and brother, was played by an untrained fifteen-year-old, and much of the pathos of this opening section comes from her portrayal.

It would, however, be a great mistake to think that this amalgam of which Bazin spoke is the result of some straightforward arithmetic in which truth is added to fiction. If we examine the case of Carmela, we will see how complicated is the process by which Rossellini makes reality live in front of the camera. Carmela was not a Sicilian but a girl whom Rossellini had found in a Neapolitan village. Her “reality” is to be found not in some simple authenticity but in her independence of spirit and in her very real distance from the Sicilian villagers around her. It gives force to her decision to ignore them and set out with the Americans. But if this interplay between the villagers and an Italian outsider is part of the reality the film captures, part of the way the film comes to life, it posed problems for another of the film’s most realistic elements, and emphases: the various dialects that Italians speak. Italy is not one country but a multitude of little countries, and each has its own version of the official language of the Italian state. Carmela’s Neapolitan speech could not pass for Sicilian, and she had to be dubbed. This procedure was used again in the monastery sequence, for while the monastery in the story is set inland from Rimini, in the north of Italy, the actual monastery filmed was near Salerno, in the south. Thus all the dialogue of the friars, who spoke Neapolitan, had to be dubbed into the Romagnolo dialect.

Rossellini’s realism, that is, should not be understood as some simple transcription of reality but as a juxtaposition of elements that become real as the camera captures them. This is very obvious in the way he sets his fictional material in real locations. A great deal of the power of the final shot, in the third episode, of the American soldier Fred leaving Rome, without having sought out the girl he loved some six months earlier, derives from the fact that he waits for the lorry to pick him up outside the Coliseum. Much of the force of the second episode, in Naples, comes from the footage of the extraordinary caves at Mergellina, in which the street urchins live. Indeed, when Rossellini discovered these caves, he abandoned the original story line for Naples in favor of the one we have. However, perhaps the most striking use of location comes in the fourth episode, in which an English nurse and an Italian man traverse the well-known streets of the center of Florence, she seeking her lover, he his wife and child. These famous streets are now the literal front line of the battle between the Germans and the partisans, and the great Uffizi Gallery becomes simply a place to avoid fire. The transformation of the historic city into a battleground is made most vivid when a British officer, consulting a guidebook, wants to know exactly which famous bell tower he is looking at, and the Florentine, desperate with worry about his wife and child, says that he has no idea.

This conversation at cross-purposes is typical of a film in which the role of language is to obscure rather than reveal. From the opening dialogue between Joe and Carmela, in which neither can speak the other’s language, the film insists on the distance between intention and reception in speech. Even when language does communicate, it often does so by accident. The most moving example of this comes at the end of the fourth episode, when a dying partisan tells the English nurse that Lupo is dead, completely unaware of the fact that he is speaking to Lupo’s lover. This emphasis on language as miscommunication seems at odds with Paisan’s message of the universal brotherhood of man, and it is a contradiction left unresolved by Rossellini in the end, enduring at the heart of his remarkable film.

In the original pitch document, Paisan was described as a film that would celebrate the American liberation of Italy, but Rossellini abandoned early scripts as the filmmaking process threw up the real subject at hand—the realities of Italian life in the period of 1943–44. The film does end, however, with a genuine example of partisans and Americans fighting together in the Po Valley. This final section is by common consent the most fully realized of the episodes and is a magnificent conclusion to the film: the images of the flat landscape of the Po marshes, with its extraordinary horizon, the brutality of the conflict, and the simple presentation of peasant life linger long in the memory. It does not, as it could have done, focus on an Allied-Italian victory but on a brutal massacre by the Germans. And yet there is something more touching, and perhaps more real, in the shared hardships and defeat of this final section than would have been afforded by a military victory.

Any simple description of Paisan would make it sound both miserable and despairing, but the verve of the stories and the sense of the camera finding realities as yet unseen actually make it one of the most inspiring and energizing of films. It was a prizewinner at Venice, although its reception in a politically divided Italy was mixed: too Christian for the communists and too communist for the Christians. Internationally, however, the film was greeted with unanimous critical acclaim—most importantly in France, where Bazin chose it as the key film with which to explicate the importance of Italian neorealism as a whole.