Rossellini, Roberto: Italian Neo-Realist Director (1906-1977)

Italian maestro Roberto Rossellini was born in Rome, May 8, 1906 and died on June 4, 1977.

Identified with the “neo-realist” label, Rossellini is one of the greatest directors of Italian and world cinema. He is responsible for the postwar rebirth of Italian cinema and one of the few truly great humanists, along with Frenchman Jean Renoir, to work in the medium.

In the early postwar years, Rossellini succeeded in making Italian cinema the rage of intellectual audiences all over the world. His WWII theme trilogy set the tone for the Italian movement. Its three basic units were landmarks in post-War European movement: “Open City” (“Roma Citta Aperta,” 1945); “Paisa” (“Paisan,” 1946); and “Germany Year Zero” (“Germania Anno Zero, 1947)

Born into a bourgeois family, Rossellini spent his formative years under Mussolini’s fascist regime. Rossellini’s father was an architect, which might explain his early interest in inventing and playing with mechanical devices. His also showed early passion for cinema, spending hours in movie houses, particularly those designed by his father. Rossellini’s later combined the two interests by inventing camera lens and lighting devices.

By his early l930s, he had drifted into filmmaking, a common pattern amongst the idle Italian rich. He began his film career as an amateur, making short subjects in a room in family villa. The second short, “Prelude a l’apres midi d’un faune” (1938), was banned by censors as indecent

The Fascist regime was trying to recruit young talent from well-to-do families to the nationalized film industry, and Rossellini became one of the first youths to join. Rossellini worked with his friend, producer Vittorio Mussolini, the Duce’s son, on the script for “Luciano Serra Pilota” (1938), a propaganda film directed by Alessandrini that showed some early elements of the neorealist style.
He was then assigned to direct a documentary about a hospital ship, which in mid-production developed into a feature-length dramatic film, “La Nava Bianca” (1941). Before the Allied invasion, Rossellini directed two more Fascist-commissioned films.

In 1943, he began shooting Desiderio, a modest precursor of the neorealist style, but he dropped out in mid-production; the movie was completed by another director in 1946.

After directing a handful of pictures under the official government banner, Rossellini, by then apolitical Roman, made an indelible mark on world cinema in 1945 with “Open City” (aka “Roma, Open City”), strarring Anna Magnani, the distinguished Italian actress who was also his companion.

Despite a lukewarm reception in Italy, the film was a sensation in France and the U.S., due to its raw, near-documentary style: grainy black-and-white cinematography, mostly amateur performers, and real locations, all attributes that moviegoers had not previously seen in feature films.

“Open City” was hailed for bringing a new kind of realism, neorealism, to the screen. Rossellini’s two subsequent films, “Paisan” (1946) and “Germany, Year Zero” (1947), bear the hallmarks of the neorealist style.

However, he drew increasingly critical fire for his use of melodrama, particularly due to his brother Renzo’s musical scores and the use of Hollywood narrative conventions. For his part, never a strict neorealist, Rossellini claimed that his goal was to show “people as they are,” to understand and illuminate rather than just recreate reality.

Rossellini moved away from the neorealist movement with “L’Amore” (“Woman’s Ways of Love” (1948), a two-part film, presented as an homage to the art of its star, Anna Magnani. He further incorporated other expressionistic elements into his work, evident in such films as “Fear,” an underrated film whose psychologically based visuals, had already been partially present in “Open City.”

In 1949, Rossellini further challenged expectations by forming a scandalous creative and personal union with one of Hollywood’s greatest stars, Ingrid Bergman. At the height of her success in Hollywood, Ingrid Bergman wrote a fan letter to Rossellini and offered to work for him “for the sheer pleasure of the experience.” They met, fell in love, and married in 1950, amidst public indignation. The union produced a son and two daughters, one of whom, Isabella Rossellini became a known actress-model. Official boycott of Rossellini’s movies in America followed, while Bergman was denounced by U.S. Senator Johnson and then blacklisted by Hollywood.

Rossellini-Ingrid Bergman Collaborations

Beginning with “Stromboli” (1949), the pair collaborated over the next six years on seven films. All of which were considered at the time failures by both the critics and the public, but recently have been more favorably reevaluated.

By 1958, Rossellini and Bergman had separated, following revelations of his love affair with India’s screenwriter Somali Das Gupta. Her pregnancy led to divorce from Bergman, with Rossellini being labeled “scoundrel” by India’s venerable prime-minister Nehru.

The documentary “India” (1958), which was booed at the Moscow Film Festival, was a box office failure, although its critical reputation remains high.

Erstwhile prestige and commercial success finally returned with General Della Rovere (1959), a wartime resistance story, which also marked a return to the more familiar neorealist style. A dramatization of a true WWII story about an opportunist who impersonates a general and winds up a hero despite himself, the film features a bravura performance from Vittorio De Sica, Rossellini’s colleague and friend. Nonetheless, Rossellini later saw the film as a retread of ideas and forms of his previous films.

By 1964, Rosselini had been canonized by numerous critics, as well as fellow filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard and Bernardo Bertolucci.  Bertolucci paid homage to him in his 1964 “Before the Revolution” movie, in which a character declares, “One cannot live without Rossellini!”

In the 1960s, increasingly concerned with cinema’s functions as an artistic and educational tool, Rossellini removed himself from the commercial arena and became the first major director to embrace the new medium of TV.

Science and History

Holding that the camera has the opportunity and duty to impart knowledge, he devoted his creative energies to TV films on science and history: The five-hour “The Age of Iron” (1964), “The 12-hour “Man’s Struggle for Survival” (1967); “The 6-hour “The Acts of the Apostles” (1968), as well as biographies of Socrates, Blaise Pascal, Augustine of Hipp, Descartes, Jesus, and Louis XIV. Of these, only “The Rise of Louis XIV” (1966) received its due acclaim, mostly because it is one of the few films to get theatrical release. Stylistically, the TV work established the foundation for materialist cinema, the direct descendant of Neorealism.

Voyage to Italy

The French magazine, Cahiers du Cinema, listed “Voyage en Italie” (“Voyage to Italy,” aka “Strangers” and “The Lonely Woman”) as one of the greatest films of all time. A cult movie and arguably Rossellini’s masterpiece, “Voyage to Italy” is innovative in its dwelling on subsidiary actions, apparently irrelevant to the main plot, and flaunting a peculiar narrative style that’s much closer to James Joyce than to the nineteenth-century melodramatic tradition. The movie’s uneasy union of theatrical foreground and documentary background is what makes it so intriguing.

In the last decade of his life, Rossellini directed for the stage and opera.

He also offered courses on filmmaking at Yale and Houston’s Rice University.

Rossellini’s last film to be released (posthumously) was The Messiah, in 1978, on which he worked as co-screenwriter.

Rossellini died in 1977; he was 71.

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