With his mix of documentary-like immediacy and profound moral inquiry, Roberto Rossellini became a pioneer of Italian neorealism, a movement that transformed the way filmmakers captured the fabric of everyday life and and grappled with the most urgent social issues of their time. Emerging in the wake of World War II, 1945’s Rome Open City galvanized audiences with its fresh approach to narrative and innovative use of nonprofessional actors, and was followed by two equally rigorous accounts of the devastation of postwar Europe, Paisan and Germany Year Zero. Rossellini’s subsequent work, though made in the shadow of an international scandal resulting from his adulterous relationship with Ingrid Bergman, continued to take him in exciting new directions, yielding heartbreaking dramas like Journey to Italy and the lavish historical epics he produced for television in the sixties and seventies. On the 111th anniversary of his birth, we’re celebrating this great auteur—whom Cahiers du cinéma once hailed as the “father of modern film”—with a look back at some of his landmark achievements.
- In her essay on Rome Open City, Irene Bignardi calls Rossellini’s breakthrough “one of the most influential and symbolic films of its age, a movie about ‘reality’ that has left a trace on every film movement since.”
- At the height of her career, Swedish star Ingrid Bergman wrote a letter to Rossellini expressing her desire to collaborate with him. Their exchange inspired the director to make his stirring portrait of a woman in crisis Stromboli, igniting the pair’s on- and offscreen partnership.
- A dedicated film diarist, Bergman shot a wealth of 8 mm footage during her life, including these moments from the set of Stromboli:
- One of the director’s most spiritual works, 1950’s The Flowers of St. Francis was “something of an anomaly” in his career. “Never again would his films attain the directness, simplicity, even purity that is so gloriously on display here,” writes Peter Brunette, noting that St. Francis is “poised between the theological and the historical, between the Rossellini who emerged from neorealism into the full-blown spiritual crisis manifested in The Miracle, Stromboli, and Europa ’51, all set in postwar Italy, and the latter-day director whose abiding interest was in the depiction of history.”
- Richard Brody explains that Rossellini’s relationship with Bergman coincided with a turn to “a kind of reflexivity—personal refractions of Hollywood that joined documentary and artifice in a way that simultaneously called attention to both—that made the cinema itself their very subject and broke down the barrier between fiction and reportage, between performance and life. The modern cinema begins here.”
- Rossellini employs “a rough-edged, even somewhat deceptively offhanded, style that eschews the complacent, self-enclosed formalism of more traditional films,” writes Fred Camper in his essay on the Bergman vehicle Europe ’51, which chronicles the story of a socialite grieving the death of her young son.
- Naples and Pompeii provide the backdrop for the disintegration of a marriage in Journey to Italy, a film that is often regarded as a precursor to the existentialist masterpieces of Michelangelo Antonioni. In his essay, Paul Thomas explains how the characters’ “innermost concerns are made visible in external nature or landscape.”
- Disillusioned with the film industry, Rossellini began working in television, resulting in a string of evocative historical dramas that explore everyday life during key periods in Western civilization. “To say, as many have, that these movies lack acting, psychoanalysis, Murnau-like expressionism, overwhelming emotions, and the richest cinematic art is akin to closing one’s eyes at high noon and claiming the sun no longer exists,” writes Tag Gallagher on these late-career gems.