For all its extensive scholarship and the widespread admiration of its most canonical titles, Italian Neorealism remains a rather complicated assembly of films. When exactly did the movement begin, and when did it end? What are its defining traits, how strictly were these traits adhered to and who were its most staunch proponents? Significant names are inseparable from the era, of course — Vittorio De Sica, Cesare Zavattini, Luchino Visconti and Roberto Rossellini among them — and many of their films from 1945-1950 fall into the traditionally accepted definition of the form. But there continues to be an enigmatic condition to this historically and artistically vital period of productivity, even if formal, scenic and thematic commonalities surely exist. In general, it often comes down to knowing Italian Neorealism when one sees it. And one certainly sees it with Paisan (Paisà).
Released in 1946, the second film in Rossellini’s “War Trilogy” — coming just after Rome, Open City (Roma città aperta,1945) and before Germany Year Zero (Germania anno zero, 1948) — Paisan recounts the precarious progression of American liberation near the end of World War II, from the first Allied landings of 1943 to just before the end of the Italian campaign in 1944. Originally titled “Seven from the U.S.” (just six stories made the cut), Rossellini’s film charts a course northward through Italy, moving into six unique regions of the country, telling disparate yet parallel tales of survival within a related national and wartime context. The stories are linked by the uneasy processes of collaboration and cohabitation, and are set apart by the diverse ethnic and ideological profiles of each sequence’s inhabitants. Written by Sergio Amidei, Klaus Mann, Federico Fellini, Marcello Pagliero, Alfred Hayes and Vasco Pratolini, the script for Paisan was essentially a loose framework for Rossellini, who — with his sundry cast — favored improvisation based on last-minute inspiration. Bridged by Giulio Panicali’s narration and inserts of newsreel footage integrated into each segment’s chronicle, Paisan’s episodic structure is further connected by currents of fleeting happiness and jaded fatalism, by heartbreak, compassion and, most resonant, a deeply felt, fully realized depiction of humanity.
According to Colin MacCabe, who cites pioneering French film critic André Bazin, “The complexity of Rossellini’s image and its greater grasp of reality… was achieved by a strange amalgam of documentary technique and fiction.” This is most noticeable, he writes, “in the use of nonprofessional actors; the streets of the towns and cities in Paisan are so vivid because the figures inhabiting them are not actors but the men, women, and children living through the dreadful realities of postwar Italy, including many American GIs.” Granting the film’s unified style and fundamental subject matter, the quality of Paisan’s performances vary considerably — indeed, some are quite bad — and this owes to the use of largely amateur actors as well as the multilingual nature of its poorly dubbed dialogue. At the same time, though, while not exactly the caliber of Gregory Peck and Lana Turner, of the Hollywood stars Fellini claimed Rossellini sought for the film, there are those with noteworthy talent. Take Maria Michi, for example, who was extraordinary in Rome, Open City and again plays a touchingly ill-fated young woman in Paisan; and William Tubbs, a credible actor making his debut here and one who would continue to work with not only Rossellini (on The Machine That Kills Bad People and Europe ’51, both released in 1952), but also with the likes of Henri-Georges Clouzot and Jean Renoir. The child actors in Paisan — like those in Rome, Open City and Germany Year Zero — also appear convincingly hardened beyond their years.
Rossellini called Paisan the “roughest of sketches”… “neither completely fictional nor absolutely true, but they’re probable,” and the film’s narrative is subsequently a patchwork of emotions and events, all with equally affecting consequence. Likewise, tonal shifts in Paisan are as variable as the acting (they’re regularly related). The mood oscillates naturally between grim seriousness and light comedy. The characters are burdened by never-ending threats, by the struggle to merely survive and by the desire to make it home if, in fact, there’s a home to go back to; or, as in the case of the Black GI Joe (Dots Johnson), a home worth going back to. There may be the momentary pleasures of a Hershey bar or a preferred brand of cigarette, but most in Paisan appear simply exhausted, overwhelmed by the dire necessities of food and drink. Someone like Joe dreams of a hero’s welcome, a ticker tape parade awaiting his stateside return, but an underlying concern of the film is whether there will ever really be a return to normal in the first place. How, after such atrocities and so much death, can one live with the shame, the pain or the literal and spiritual poverty? How does one make sense of the madness, the chaos, the confusion? “It’s the end of the world,” observes one elderly lady, mourning what has become of her nation, “we’ve sinned too badly.”
Aside from the German and English speech, so distinct were the regional particulars of each Italian dialect in Paisan that even in Italy the film was often shown with subtitles. While “Paisà” could be roughly translated as “friend” or “countryman” or someone from the same village, the film’s stress is frequently on division, on misunderstanding, a failure to express one’s feelings or true intentions and the inevitably weary cynicism brought forth by years of war and its ravages. MacCabe notes: “This emphasis on language as miscommunication seems at odds with Paisan’s message of the universal brotherhood of man and it is a contradiction left unresolved by Rossellini in the end…”. Still, the characters try all the same. Even as death counts continue to mount, many seek solace in faith and companionship, in a shared heritage or in the comfort of a common language, and Paisan’s broad portrait of striving civilization introduces relationships forged, or at least attempted, in such severe circumstances. But romantic bonds are distorted and thwarted by war’s instability, and what can be a transitory refuge for some, a chance for interpersonal redemption, can just as easily lead to disappointment, sadness and longing. As MacCabe suggests, the manifold factors of socioeconomic desperation and preconceived notions of national character contest this assimilation. Partisans and Americans fight together as one, but there is no escaping the merited skepticism of foreigners, whether they bring aid or animosity — “You people with guns are all the same,” says one justly disbelieving citizen.
Complemented by Renzo Rossellini’s score and Otello Martelli’s cinematography, Paisan’s rendering of Italy at war is a mutable travelogue besieged by rubble and deprivation, presented in the raw visual detail that recurrently accentuated Neorealism’s integral immediacy. From the shockingly confined caves at Mergellina, housing the destitute denizens of the region’s displaced populace, to the exposed vastness of the Po valley in the film’s concluding chapter, an isolated battlefront at the seeming ends of the Earth, Paisan’s geographic compendium is as compelling as the faces of those who dwell within its borders. Yet amongst the arduous realities of these authentic locales, Rossellini incorporates intensified elements of genre filmmaking, particularly the thriller, logging, for instance, the foreboding advancement of soldiers under cover of darkness and the dangerous flight of two desperate characters through the war-torn streets of Florence.
Premiering at the Venice Film Festival in 1946, the first time the event was held since the war ceased its operation in 1943, Paisan, like much of Italian Neorealism, was not met with an overwhelmingly positive homegrown welcome, which was understandable given the proximity of its depicted events and what many had far too recently experienced firsthand. Nevertheless, Rossellini’s film fared well at the Italian box office and, through the distribution of MGM (of all studios), garnered international acclaim. It received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, a BAFTA nod for Best Film and the National Board of Review named it the year’s (1948’s) Best Film and Rossellini the Best Director. However, the eventual success didn’t prevent Rossellini from facing criticism on political and ethical grounds, specifically from those who questioned his dogmatic intent — from MacCabe: “its reception in a politically divided Italy was mixed: too Christian for the communists and too communist for the Christians.” In the years after, Rossellini’s moral constitution was also questioned, ridiculously prompted by his affair with Ingrid Bergman.
Paisan is structurally and visually uneven, with peaks and valleys of emotional incitement. Events occasionally occur without any rhyme or reason, and there is a correspondingly tragic and poetic element to the futility of its battle-scarred perspective. It is undeniably bleak, as each chapter concludes with what could, at best, be described as an unhappy ending, and its austerity is powerfully uncompromising throughout. But as MacCabe discerns, while “any simple description of Paisan would make it sound both miserable and despairing… the verve of the stories and the sense of the camera finding realities as yet unseen actually make it one of the most inspiring and energizing of films.” Rossellini astonishingly blends the good and the bad into an imperfect merging of society in all its multiplicity of guises. Death, desolation and violence are as pervasive in the film as love and empathy. It is a messy picture, chaotic and rife with behavioral ambiguities and flawed individuals. Paisan is, in other words, very much like reality.
Jeremy Carr (@jeremyrcarr) teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Vague Visages, Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, The Retro Set, The Moving Image and Diabolique Magazine. His monograph on Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) is forthcoming with Auteur Publishing, and he is a contributor to the forthcoming collections David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, and ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press.