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Roberto Rossellini is not often discussed as a director of actors, and Vittorio De Sica is remembered less as a performer than as a filmmaker. Il generale della Rovere, Rossellini’s searing World War II morality drama from 1959 featuring De Sica in an emotionally complex starring role, may therefore come as a surprise to some. De Sica’s embodiment of Emanuele Bardone, a character based on a real-life scoundrel and wartime opportunist named Giovanni Bertoni, will certainly be a revelation for those who know him only from his directorial triumphs, but may also astound those who have seen his effortlessly charming work sweeping Danielle Darrieux off her feet as the Baron Fabrizio Donati in The Earrings of Madame de . . . . There’s a trace of the preening, larger-than-life Donati in Bardone at the outset, but Rossellini’s film surveys the slow shedding of that veneer, until all that’s left is a man, flesh and bone. De Sica, who commands the screen nearly every minute, makes that transformation into something noble, and Il generale della Rovere into a grand, Crucible-like tragedy.
De Sica and Rossellini’s work here is not as anomalous as it might seem. Despite his much-written-about preference for nonprofessional actors (which helped define his work, from such early neorealist breakthroughs as Paisan and Germany Year Zero to the later historical films), Rossellini had not exactly boycotted muscular central performances up to this point; he’d directed his wife, Ingrid Bergman, in the robustly sentimental trilogy comprising Stromboli, Europa ’51, and Voyage to Italy, after all. (Of course, Anna Magnani was no slouch in Rome Open City either.) And De Sica was hardly a part-time thespian: He was a movie star long before he went behind the camera, and his list of acting credits dwarfs that of his directorial efforts.
As Bardone, De Sica at first seems to play on his matinee-idol status: the shyster has a certain snake-oil salesman charisma as he, having assumed the name Colonel Grimaldi, falsely promises distraught Genoan wives and daughters information about their missing husbands and fathers—captured by the gestapo for opposing the Italian Social Republic—in return for cash. Despite his grim wartime surroundings, Bardone puts on airs; decking himself in the dapperest duds he can find, he floats above the desolation, to which he believes he is immune, and assumes he is in the good graces of the Germans, as he heedlessly acts as informer to them. The world he has built up around him, as much a self-deception as a deception of others, is about to come crashing down. For the first half of Il generale della Rovere, De Sica retains his rascally movie-star sparkle, but his bright eyes gradually dull as his moral sense ignites.
Rossellini’s film, based on a book by journalist Indro Montanelli, pivots on a conceit that’s no less metaphorically rich for being loosely based on fact. The gestapo enlist Bardone to go to prison—by blackmailing him with accusations of embezzlement, fraud, and bigamy but also promising him a million lire and safe passage to Switzerland—in the guise of della Rovere, a legendary, recently killed partisan general, in order to extract crucial information from his Communist allies and identify the leader of the resistance in prison. In taking on della Rovere’s persona, a double of sorts, Bardone will confront his mirror image, and come face-to-face with his true self. At first, with scenes like the one in which the prima donna Bardone asks his prison guards for slippers, scarf, pajamas, and magazines, one can easily see the film’s situation played for laughs (its mistaken-identity narrative was clearly borrowed for the Kevin Kline White House satire Dave), but it soon evolves into a rich tale of moral and political awakening. And every step of emotional progress is written achingly on De Sica’s haunted visage, while Rossellini’s unhurried pace (in the second half of the film, his camera often takes in the prison surroundings with a chilling, matter-of-fact solemnity not unlike that in Bresson’s A Man Escaped) allows for the transformation to happen in a credibly gradual manner.
One of De Sica’s most heartrending moments comes when Bardone, the world and his conscience closing in on him, scans his drab cell to find it tattooed with the desperate final scrawls of executed partisans. This is when he begins to realize that the walls of this tiny room seem no longer to protect him but truly to imprison him, perhaps without chance of escape. This is the beginning of a process that will strip De Sica bare of pretense, and our first glimmer of not the movie star but the man—and the maker of Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D.: political, engaged, moral.