Thursday, December 1, 2011

#498: Paisan

(Roberto Rossellini, 1946)

I didn't think it was possible, but Paisan is even better than its predecessor, the better-known (primarily because the original cut was more readily available in the US before Criterion's trilogy release) and generally more highly regarded Rome, Open City. After the worldwide success of that film - made in the final moments of the Nazi occupation of Italy and the first moments of liberation from Italy's fascist regime - Rossellini had much more freedom in determining the subject of his next feature. He picked an extremely ambitious anthology that intended to document the path of US troops through Italy during the invasion, from Sicily to the Po Valley.

Each of the six stories Rossellini tells feature at least some American and (with the exception of the fifth story, and relatively speaking the third) ends tragically, though beyond that there isn't much of a connection between the segments. In the US, the film was broken up with unnecessary maps charting the progress of the army - here there is just a narrator as the camera sets the stage for the next story. Yet the juxtaposition of the slow progress of the Allied forces with these small tragedies makes the impact on the viewer's perception of World War II and war in general that much more visceral. Tragedy is the common bond of all participants in war - we connect with the Italians and the British and the French in a much more authentic way when we face hardships together than when we celebrate victories.

Of the six segments, the first was the most compelling to me from a narrative perspective. The relationship between the soldier and the teenage girl is so clumsily moving, both for his unfounded confidence that if he talks more she will understand him easier and for her gentle ability to struggle to make a connection despite being in the middle of the most traumatic experience in her short life. It's these human connections - made in mere minutes of screen time - that are so impressive and ultimately make the conclusion of the sequence so heartbreaking.

And yet it is the fourth that had the largest impact on me. I lived in Florence for a semester in college and while I didn't spend much time near the Uffizi I know the Piazza della Signoria fairly well. This makes the experience of seeing the Uffizi's square turned into a war zone a truly shocking sight, the kind of personal connection (however tenuous) that makes something so abstract seem very, very real. Every sequence here is excellent however - and appeals in notably different ways (though the third and fourth lean somewhat toward melodrama) - making this stand quite easily next Rome, Open City as one of the definitive films on World War II.

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