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Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy (DVD Review)

25 Jan, 2010 By: Mike Clark

War Trilogy

Street 1/26/10
$79.95 three-DVD set
Not rated.

Decades before the Doobie Brothers were even thinking about takin’ it to the streets, director Roberto Rossellini (father, with Ingrid Bergman, of actress Isabella Rossellini) made cinematic history by filming World War II’s aftermath on the scene as it was happening.

Cannes winner Rome Open City (1945) made a huge impression at the time; individual images are so striking that they’ve been staples, since I was a child, of coffee table books on film history. It followed then that its original screenplay (co-written by Federico Fellini) could get an Oscar nomination back when the xenophobic Academy regarded foreign-language titles as if they were remnants from Mars.

Shot just after the city’s liberation when combat still raged in the rest of the country, it’s a still powerful story of Italian Resistance (by everyone from savvy pros to a meekly brave priest) in the waning days of Fascism. Giving Rossellini box office success he didn’t always enjoy, the film put actress Anna Magnani on the international map — helping, in a way, to set up her subsequent 1955 Oscar win for Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo.

Rossellini followed with the six-part Paisan (1946-48). We all know that a single inferior segment can routinely sink an anthology film, but here’s a rare case where the quality is fairly consistent. Standout segments include an interlude between a Yank soldier and an Italian prostitute (played by Maria Michi, also memorable in City as a drug-addicted nightclub performer), and a segment involving an impoverished kid con man bilking a black American MP played by Gar Moore. (He must have wondered about having to go all the way to Italy to land something more than a one-dimensional role in 1946 — a situation akin to how so many blacks at the time could only improve their station by serving in the war.)

Prints of Paisan have been so notoriously bad that even the one Turner Classic Movies ran a year or two ago made your eyes bleed. Criterion’s print of it isn’t up to City’s quality but is still a long leap forward. The source is an MGM copy (the studio handled distribution in Italy according to IMDb.com), and it’s pretty wild seeing it of all movies launched by a Leo the Lion roar.

Germany Year Zero
(1948-49) wasn’t as well received at the time, but this story of bombed-out Berlin strangers forced into communal living conditions could constitute a remarkable evening of home viewing with Billy Wilder’s trenchant postwar Berlin satire A Foreign Affair (1948, not on DVD but on TCM a lot) and 1950’s Montgomery Clift starrer The Big Lift (as in “Berlin Airlift” and available on public domain DVDs — not all of them looking wretched). In its queasily touchy-feely portrayal of an old schoolteacher recruiting young boys from the rubble, you won’t find many vintage movies that are as as specific about pedophilia from this era.

For extras, Criterion has done a full-court-press on this one: archival Rossellini intros, an Open City documentary featuring Isabella; essays; and the Taviani Brothers (great Italian filmmakers themselves) recalling how the director’s pain over underwhelmed reaction to Zero never abated.

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