Where to begin with Roberto Rossellini

Ahead of our neorealism season, we take a whistle-stop tour through the career of Italian master Roberto Rossellini – a man who reinvented cinema. And then kept on reinventing it.

22 April 2024

By Alex Barrett

Journey to Italy (1954)

Why this might not seem so easy

Italian filmmaker Roberto Rossellini caused scandal in both his life and work; his filmmaking was unorthodox and experimental; his interests adventurous and multifaceted. ‘Il miracolo’, from his two-story anthology film L’amore (1948), was denounced as blasphemous and banned in the US before the ban was overturned by the US Supreme Court. His high-profile extra-marital affairs with Swedish mega-star Ingrid Bergman and Indian screenwriter Sonali DasGupta triggered international outrage. He changed the face of cinema with Rome, Open City (1945), but swiftly fell from commercial and critical favour.

The latter, while unjustified, is not hard to understand, given how his work continually challenged expectations – he frequently rejected conventional narrative structure, focusing instead on atmosphere and character, while stringing together a number of ‘moments’ that often concluded in a downbeat manner.

Paisan (1946)

Each film was also a ‘moment’ within Rossellini’s wider oeuvre, but the full extent of this inquiry has been obscured: firstly, because some works achieved greater prominence than others; secondly, because Rossellini abandoned several films mid-production, meaning they were finished at a later date, often by others, thereby confusing the linearity of his thought development. This is exacerbated by the fact that certain films exist in multiple versions, sometimes with large divergences in how the story unfolds.  

Still, while Rossellini’s unconventional approach might have alienated audiences at the time, today it means his films remain startlingly fresh. More problematic is the way Rossellini frequently equated homosexuality with vice and corruption, and the way the dramatic construction of the biblical works (Acts of the Apostles, 1969 and The Messiah, 1975) presents the Jewish leaders as a hive of scheming villainy.

The best place to start – Rome, Open City

During three apprentice films, La nave bianca (1941), Un pilota ritorna (1942) and L’uomo dalla croce (1943), Rossellini began developing a realist aesthetic. All three were war-time Fascist propaganda, but just weeks after the liberation of Rome, Rossellini began shooting the decidedly anti-fascist Rome, Open City.

In telling the story of a resistance leader trying to evade the Nazis, the film sketches in the personal lives of those who support him – and betray him. Richly textured and sprinkled with humour, the film has a light touch and a heavy heart: the brutality of life during wartime is keenly felt. Even today, the shocking twist that spirals the action into the film’s darker second half has lost none of its power.

Rome, Open City (1945)

Heartbreaking and pertinent, the film was cobbled together on odd scraps of film. The location photography, captured on the war-torn streets, not only adds to the pathos but imbues the film with an authenticity that helped birth Italian neorealism – a movement that favoured non-professional actors, regional dialects and location shooting, and focused on the socio-political and economic reality of everyday life. As such, Rome, Open City remains one of the most influential achievements in cinema history.

However, Rossellini was never completely comfortable with the neorealist label. He claimed that, for him, neorealism was “nothing but a moral stance that can be expressed in four words: love of one’s neighbour”. Furthermore, despite its neorealist credentials, Rome, Open City drew heavily on melodramatic conventions and featured established stars Anna Magnani and Aldo Fabrizi in major roles.

What to watch next

Germany, Year Zero (1948)

Rossellini said that with Rome, Open City he wanted to take an honest look at the things around him, because the war had eliminated the luxury of fiction. With his next two films, he continued this approach: if Rome, Open City operated at city-wide level, Paisan (1946) studied the whole of Italy via six short stories of the liberation, starting in Sicily and moving north. Germany, Year Zero (1948) explored the impact of Nazi ideology on a young boy in post-war Berlin.

Rossellini later returned to the war in Il generale Della Rovere (1959), about a swindler who becomes a hero, Era notte a Roma (1960), about three Allied soldiers taking refuge in a Roman attic, and Anno uno (1974), about Alcide De Gasperi’s efforts to reform democracy in post-war Italy.

The war also informed Stromboli, terra di Dio (1950), in which Karin (Bergman), a displaced Lithuanian, marries an Italian to gain freedom from an internment camp, only to find herself even more entrapped when they settle on the eponymous island. One of Rossellini’s greatest achievements, Stromboli was his first collaboration with Bergman – she had written to him after seeing Rome, Open City and Paisan, offering herself as an actor. Soon, they were entangled both personally and professionally.

Stromboli’s focus on Karin’s interior state and its quasi-mystical ending led it to be branded a betrayal of neorealism – but this feels like a misunderstanding. Not only does the film follow Rossellini’s own conception of the term, it also contains many of the traditional elements: location photography, non-professional actors and documentary-like sequences. Furthermore, Karin’s psychology is shown as being directly moulded by the war. Rossellini’s style hadn’t changed, so much as developed – as it would continue to do.

Stromboli (1950)

In all, Rossellini and Bergman made five features together, three of which – Stromboli, Europa ‘51 (1952) and Voyage to Italy (1954) – are often lumped into an informal trilogy. But the films weren’t made consecutively, and looking at Rossellini’s other work from the period is enlightening about his wider thematic preoccupations: there’s an equally strong case for a trilogy comprising Francesco, giullare di Dio (1950), Europa ‘51 and Dov’è la libertà…? (1954). In Francesco, Rossellini explored the humble piety of Saint Francis and his followers, Europa asked what reaction such saintly love would garner in contemporary society, while Dov’è la libertà…? satirised how a morally bankrupt society would respond to someone attempting this kind of goodness.

A kindred spirit to the holy fools of Francesco and Dov’è la libertà…? also featured in Rossellini’s vastly underrated magic-neorealist/commedia dell’arte mash-up The Machine That Kills Bad People (1952), in which a kind-hearted photographer is bestowed with a camera that kills evildoers by petrifying them – an act sometimes taken as a metaphor for Rossellini’s views on the cinema.  

Indeed, in the early 1960s Rossellini declared that cinema was dead, and that mass entertainment was ‘cretinising’ the populace. His solution was to launch a project designed to inform the public, thereby saving them from the ‘ignorance’ that was ‘scourging’ society. Made mostly for television, this project included portraits of historical figures responsible for epochal change: The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (1966), Socrates (1970), Blaise Pascal (1972), Augustine of Hippo (1972), Cosimo de Medici and Leon Battista Alberti (in The Age of the Medici, 1973), René Descartes (in Cartesius, 1974), and Jesus in The Messiah. Though deliberately didactic in nature, their richly textured (if sometimes inaccurate) recreation of historic daily life makes them warmly enveloping.

The roots of this approach stretch back to Francesco, but were honed in Rossellini’s retelling of Garibaldi’s campaign to unify Italy, Viva l’Italia (1961), and his period romance Vanina Vanini (1961), in which the class-crossed lovers, a princess and a revolutionary, are merely part of a wider historical tapestry. Meanwhile, his ethnographic docufiction India: Matri Bhumi (1959) surveyed a society gripped by modernity and recently freed from colonialism – thereby linking it both to his earlier studies of post-war life and to his educational project’s focus on era-changing moments.

Viva I’Italia (1961)

Where not to start

Made for the pay cheque and later disowned, Anima nera (1962) again features a character marked by wartime experience – but this time Rossellini’s approach was cynical and contemptuous, and the nouvelle vague-esque stylings make it something of an outlier within his filmography.

Even more unusual is Giovanna d’Arco al rogo (1954), based on Paul Claudel’s and Arthur Honegger’s oratorio, which Rossellini had directed on stage. Featuring Bergman as Saint Joan, the film dispenses with realism in favour of hyper-stylised fantasy: as she ascends to heaven, Joan looks back over her trial and execution. The focus on saintly love connects it to Rossellini’s other work, but nothing else he made is as lavish and lyrical.

Likewise overlooked is Bergman and Rossellini’s final collaboration, Fear (1954), though perhaps for better reasons: adapted from a Stefan Zweig novella, it’s an effective if unremarkable tale of blackmail and marital strife, far more conventionally plotted than usual for Rossellini.

Bergman and Rossellini had already explored a troubled marriage more adventurously in Voyage to Italy, in which a bickering couple (Bergman and George Sanders) travel around Naples, visiting a number of historic sites. Minimally plotted but maximally subtextual, the film anchors the characters within the wider contexts of history, geography, sociology, psychology, morality, mortality and even mythology. An astonishing work of staggering depth, it helped create modern cinema as we know it.

Chasing the Real: Italian Neorealism begins at BFI Southbank in May.

Rome, Open City is back in cinemas nationwide from 17 May.