Not rated! The Americans just rolled into Italy as the great liberators! We didn't have time to censor movies, let alone establish an MPAA! Also, it's Italy! You think they want to tell its audience not to imply that prostitution exists? They live differently, guys! Sure, prostitution and violence are frowned upon, but this is the nature of war! It's not going to be sanitized for me. Honestly, this movie would probably get a PG today if it was animated.
DIRECTOR: Roberto Rossellini
I love that I had an assignment that lined up with my intention to watch my Rossellini War Trilogy that I got for Christmas. (I'm a very specific and acquired taste.) I had seen Rome, Open City years ago and don't really remember a lot of it. It's on the list, guys. I'll get around to it. But I do really want to watch the other two in the box because of how much I (low-key) enjoyed Paisan. Okay, it's that and a need to watch everything that ever existed, but I gotta be me.
I've never even heard of a war anthology movie before. In the loosest sense, I suppose that Inglorious Basterds could be lumped in as a war anthology movie, but all of those stories intersect to form a single narrative. This is an anthology movie in the simplest form. What I find really weird (and hard to review without straight up reviewing every section individually) is that the segments really feel like they were made by separate directors. The only thing that ties these movies together is that they are about the influence of the American occupiers in Rome immediately following World War II. Look at the release date on this movie! 1946! This is a fresh wound for Italy. War movies during these time periods are so unique. Italy at this period in time has a weird relationship with the allied forced. The Americans are the liberators, but they simultaneously need to go home. There is such a cultural disparity between the Americans and the Italians. In a way, Rossellini is constantly examining that relationship and it makes sense that he uses the anthology format to explore these themes. It is odd that he makes almost every single story a bittersweet one. Often, despite having a positive mood throughout, the story ends tragically. In some sequences, like the first one, it makes sense. The nature of war often leads to tragedy. But there are some stories where Rossellini (I keep wanting to write Passolini, and that guy was really not the guy I'm talking about right now) has all the makings of a heartwarming tale and he intentionally left turns it into a wall. There is the story of the priests which seems heartwarming, but I don't know if it exactly sticks that landing. Pretty much a lot of these stories end up being total bummers, which I normally love. But in an anthology film, it seems like there are opportunities for different kinds of stories. Why the mood for the movies stays the same just seems like a lost chance.
The weird thing about Rossellini is that he's actually kind of a genius, but in the weirdest way possible. He makes these absolutely beautiful movies, but he was never formally trained. He made his greatest movies in the wake of an economic disaster. Italy was wrecked and he ended up giving birth to Neorealism. But, like I said, he was never formally trained. It's amazing to see him do these cinematic somersaults but get fundamental things about film so clunky. Like, his mistakes ultimately don't matter because the movies are absolutely gorgeous. They hit mostly all of the right tonal and thematic notes. But we normally don't find mistakes in our cinematic classics. From what I understand, Rossellini was multilingual. (Of course, he's from Europe. This sentence is a blatant attack on the American education system.) He ended up making Germany Year Zero completely in German, which means he has to have a fundamental understanding of language. But I get the vibe that he understands and speaks rudimentary English, but is far from a master of it. The acting of the American actors is rough. Like, really rough. Part of that comes from my American perspective. I am used to foreigners being non-American. When I can't understand the language, I don't exactly look at performances. Paisan shows Americans as the people who don't speak the language. They are actually speaking English, but from an Italian perspective, no one cares what they are saying. Their performances are there simply as the people who can't be understood. Boy, these performances (for the most part) can get really rough. The opening segment feels like amateur actors. I know that Rossellini rarely used actual actors. Rather, he employed actual workers. This idea would carry over into the rest of the Neorealist movement. But I'm sure that Rossellini gave these amateur actors plenty of notes and crafted their performances into something that would be considered nuanced. The GIs in these movies are not at all nuanced. They all seem to be doing these awful John Wayne impressions. This isn't true for all the segments. The second segment actually has this great performance, but I'm sure that can probably be chalked up to Dots Johnson's natural talent. More often than not, the non-Italian performances are pretty weak. Couple this with some pretty rough ADR and some of the portrayal can get pretty rough.
I am really confused about the story about the friars. I don't know if this is a criticism at this point, but I feel like I need to vocalize my frustrations. There is one story that is meant to be heartlifting. It is really weird to actually get pro-Catholic stories nowadays. We get a lot of pro-Christian stuff (most of it pretty rough), but most stuff is pretty anti-Catholic. There is this segment all about an American Catholic chaplain meeting with a group of friars outside of the blast zone. It is this cool look at the world inside the monastery versus the life of the world. It shows the value of what happens inside the world of prayerful. It is the beautiful look at the faith of these men and I really loved it. Then it also showed the value of the chaplain and the parish priest. There's this Prince and the Pauper vibe of how different lives they have. I really like it. Then the friars discover that two of the other chaplains aren't Catholic and they get really bigoted. Okay, the story needed conflict and it is pretty hilarious how they react. The chaplain acts as the voice of reason. He is the Catholic we identify with and that's great. But the scene ends in a very weird place. The friars, despite being wildly bigoted, still see the two other chaplains as lost souls. But because they are good people, they treat them nicely. I like it so far. But the chaplain is so moved by their hospitality, he kind of passively approves of their bigotry. I don't know if "bigotry" is the right word. They are genuinely concerned with the states of their souls. But they also see them as sinners version the Catholic chaplain who sees them as soldiers in the same spiritual fight. This is an awesome concept to cover and I'm really surprised that more stories don't cover this topic. But the anthology format really truncates this story into something incomplete. The story needs more finesse because part of me feels like the chaplain is converted to the perspective of the friars. I never want the chaplain hate anyone, but I do think that there is a lack of nuance in this sequence and that's kind of a bummer.
I really want to watch the rest of Rosselini's movies. He tells a really compelling and straightforward story. Even the idea of the anthology really works. It is, weaker, however, when the anthology stories are straight war stories. The mini war narratives are pretty dull, actually. I like the effects of war sooner than I like the war itself. The greatest war movies are about characters. They aren't about strategies or violence. Placing war narratives within an anthology film really highlights the weaker spots of the movie. I'm not saying that there is no characterization in these moments. In fact, the last shot of the movie, which is the end of one of these segments, is remarkably powerful. But a war movie is usually long because the length of the war does something to a person. We don't really get that character change in the course of a twenty minute segment. So instead, it becomes simply about the valor and bravery of the soldier. Perhaps I am too cold-hearted, but that doesn't interest me as much as it should. Patriotism is important, but it feels hollow in this short format. Regardless, the anthology movie format is always a fun one for me and I want to see if some of these themes and motifs carry over in Germany Year Zero.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.