DVD Review of Paisan
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/15/10
Having grown up amongst many folks of Italian descent, the term paisan, or pal, was quite familiar to me; especially when used by non-Italians to describe Italian friends of theirs. A similar meaning is conveyed with the use of the term as the title of the second film in Robert Rossellini’s War Trilogy. Paisan (Paisá), from 1946, is not nearly as well known as Rome Open City, his first trilogy film, but it is a significantly better film, as well as being more truly a Neo-Realist film than its more melodramatic predecessor. Part of the reason is that the 126 minute film is episodic, so that the mawkishness and melodrama, that is inherent in many war stories, never gets to the point of overwhelm. Made and released a year after Rome Open City, Paisan often played on double bills with the earlier film when it was released in America. The film is set during 1943 and 1944, and each of the six episodes follows the Allies’ chronological battles northward through Italy. Each episode highlights willful or mistaken miscommunication between the Allies, the Italians, and the Nazis. The film won many awards, in its day, but curiously languished while other Neo-Realist films became exalted as classics. While not, overall, a great film, three of the episodes reach heights that contain great moments, and these are enough to argue the film passes the near-great threshold, meaning reasonable arguments can be made in its favor. Those episodes are the third, the fourth, and the sixth and final one. The others range from bad to solid. All the episodes open with narration by Giulio Panicali.
The first episode follows a band of soldiers in Sicily. Ay night, they make it to a deserted village’s church. They persuade a young girl, Carmela (Carmela Sazio), in search of her lost family, as a guide through local minefields. They make their way to a seaside castle. When the rest of the Americans decide to return to the church, for others, they leave Carmela in the care of Joe from Jersey (Robert Van Loon). Joe is the stereotypical not so bright GI, and his attempts to communicate with the girl are feeble. Then, despite being warned, he lights up a cigaret in a castle window and is shot by a German rifleman who has seen him. The Germans then go to investigate, and find only Carmela. Joe is bleeding, and taken to a cubby hole to hide, by Carmela. The Germans send her to get food and water for them, but when she finds Joe is dead, she takes his gun and shoots at them. The shots alert the Americans, who return, only to find Joe dead in the cubby hole and Carmela gone. The camera shows her dead body tossed to the rocks below (suicide or the Nazis?), but the Americans don’t see this and assume she killed Joe. While some good moments, the acting throughout, is atrocious. The GIs and Germans speak in clichés and Carmela is stiff as can be. Some nice cinematography cannot hide the weakness of the screenplay here.
The second episode is the shortest and most famous one in the film. It is set in Naples, where an orphan, Pasquale (Alphonsino Pasca) runs across a drunken black American GI named, of course, Joe (Dots Johnson). Initially, he thinks the grown ups are looking to auction off a Negro. Pasquale tries to buy him, but loses, but later follows him about, and they end up on a rubble heap where Pasquale warns Joe he’ll steal his shoes if he falls asleep. The next thing we see is Joe, now in an MP uniform, chasing a truck where thieving Pasquale is caught red-handed. Three days have passed, and Joe does not recognize Pasquale, although the boy recognizes Joe. Finally, Joe makes the connection, and demands the return of his stolen shoes. When they get to the rubble heap where the child lives, and after finding out of his dead parents, Joe takes off without his shoes, as if scared of the ruin about him. This section is often lauded as some great comment on American racism but it’s nothing of the sort. Joe is an unfortunately buffoonish and cowardly portrayal of black soldiers, and the notion, advanced by some critics, that he is shocked at the squalor he sees, is simply not tenable, especially for ‘Neo-Realism.’ And the acting is not any better than the first episode.
Episode three, set in Rome, is by far the best of the film, and is like an O. Henry sort of tale. It features a return performance by Maria Michi, who played the conniving drug addict Marina, in Rome Open City. Here she plays an impoverished girl named Francesca who forced into prostitution to survive. The episode opens with Francesca avoiding assorted contretemps six months after the city’s liberation. She picks up a drunken American soldier named Fred (Gar Moore), and takes him back to her place, despite his refusal. When he does not want to have sex with her a flashback arises, as he relates his tale of liberating the city, and meeting Francesca, before she was a prostitute. The audience thus sees that the girl of Fred’s dream and the prostitute he is currently with are the same person, but Fred is unawares. Seeing that she was the reason Fred came back to Rome, but never found her, he falls asleep. Francesca then slips out, and gives the Madam her old address, and to let him know, when he wakes up, that his Francesca will be waiting there. We then see her, the next morning, dressed more classily, but waiting in vain for Fred to return. Fred glances at the paper, but either is too cynical to believe it is from Francesca, or was misinformed by the Madam as to why the address was important. The episode ends with Fred leaving Rome. This episode is a perfect blend of sweetness, sorrow, and romance, leavened with enough reality to make it work, and the fact that it’s not a full length film only heightens its power. This is Rossellini and Neo-Realism at its best, and prefigures the pain felt by Giulieta Masina’s character in Federico Fellini’s Nights Of Cabiria. Michi shows she could have been a really good actress, not just a pleasure for the eye.
The fourth episode is also very good, but its being almost twice the length of the third episode weigh it down a bit. Set during the battle for Florence, in a divided city wherein all the bridges but the Ponte Vecchio have been destroyed, an American nurse named Harriet (Harriet Medin) seeks to be reunited with her lover, a painter named Guido Lombardi, aka Lupo, now a famed Resistance leader. She teams up with a partisan named Massimo (Renzo Avanzo), who seeks his family. They both act foolhardy, yet make it into German territory. When Massimo is shot, she learns that Lupo is dead. While the most visually kinetic and exciting episode, and, in many ways, the most ‘realistic,’ it is also quite predictable. Lupo’s death is telegraphed in many ways. Thus, it lacks any real power, at its end, the way the third episode had.
The fifth episode is easily the worst, most preachy, and worst acted episode in the film. Three American chaplains- a Roman Catholic, a Protestant, and a Jew, are welcomed to stay the night at Roman Catholic monastery. When the monks find out that a Protestant and a Jew, especially a Jew, is in the building, they freak out. Initially, the American priest, Captain Martin (William Tubbs, The Wages Of Fear) is offended by the monks’ claims, and explains to them the virtues of tolerance. Then, at suppertime, when the chaplains and monks eat, under a code of silence, the American priest sees the monks refuse the food they scrounged up, along with that the chaplains brought. Breaking code, the American priest asks the monks why they are fasting, and they claim it is in the hopes that the two ‘lost souls’ will ‘see the light.’ Incredibly, instead of being offended or insulted, and instead of letting his fellow chaplains know of the condescending insult to them, Martin simply says he is moved by the gesture. It is truly a bizarre ending for the episode, and an episode that is not well written nor well acted.
The sixth and final episode is, after the third, the best in the film, and also has the most action, battle-wise. Set in the Po River, amongst the reeds, American OSS officers, are battling Nazis, and save two downed English airmen. But, they soon run out of food and supplies, and are captured by the Germans. The Nazis do not kill the Allies, but shoot and drown the Italian partisans. When two Americans interfere they are shot dead, and the episode and film end with flowing water.
It is a terrific ending to a film that has distinct hills and dales. On the negative side are the three worst episodes, but even they have positive moments (excepting perhaps the ridiculous fifth episode). The positives in the other episodes are quite strong, with the apex being episode three. That the film lets all the participants speak their own language, thus being one of the few films for which dubbing would not be a feasible option, adds to the realism of the mise-en-scenes. The screenplay, naturally, has its highs and lows, like the film, and was written by Rossellini, Sergio Amidei, Klaus Mann, Federico Fellini, Marcello Pagliero, Alfred Hayes, and Vasco Pratolini. The cinematography, by Otello Martelli, also varies between great and pedestrian. The film’s soundtrack, by Renzo Rossellini- the director’s brother, is a big improvement over that in Rome Open City. It complements and does not overwhelm scenes with melodrama, as it had in the earlier film.
The DVD, put out by The Criterion Collection, is part of a three disk set called Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy. Also included are Rome Open City and Germany Year Zero. Paisan lacks any audio commentary, and that’s a shame, and an unfortunate blow to Criterion’s increasing reputation as having lost their commitment to producing the best available DVDs. Adding to that reputation’s loss is a mediocre print of the film, shown in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, that has had no restoration done to it (a number of scenes have HUGE blemishes, dark spots, and tears in the film visible- and one cut in episode five blatantly removes the Protestant and Jewish chaplains from a scene with no explanation, as if God actually removed them), and the aforementioned subtitles issue; although in this case, there is a need for them, although a more readable color (not unbordered white) and font should be used, especially on black and white films. There is a video introduction to the film, from Rossellini, and interview with Rossellini scholar Adriano Aprà, excerpts from videotaped discussions Rossellini had in 1970 with a Rice University audience, and the best feature on this disk is a half hour long video essay called Into The Future, narrated by film scholar Tag Gallagher. It’s a quite cogent, if a tad PC, analysis of the trilogy of war films. An insert booklet has mediocre essays by James Quandt, Irene Bignardi, Colin MacCabe, and Jonathan Rosenbaum in it. Overall, the package for this particular film is underwhelming, and Criterion really needs to get on the ball to provide its customers a fair return for their investment.
That said, Paisan is worth the investment, by itself, both for its highs, artistically, and its import as the true first Neo-Realist film from Rossellini. It should be watched, studied, and enjoyed, then watched again, be one a paisan, guido, or in between.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the The Spinning Image website.]
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