A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Monday, February 6, 2017

Paisan (Roberto Rossellini, 1946)

The phrase "fog of war" was coined by Carl von Clausewitz in reference to the cloud of uncertainty that surrounds combatants on the battlefield, but it seems appropriate to apply it to the miscommunication experienced by the soldiers and civilians in Roberto Rossellini's great docudrama about the Allied campaign to liberate Italy in 1943 and 1944. The six episodes in Rossellini's film illustrate various kinds of problems brought about by language, ignorance, naïveté, and lack of necessary information. A young Sicilian woman (Carmela Sazio) struggles to communicate with the G.I. (Robert van Loon) left guarding her; a black American soldier (Dots Johnson) tries to recover the shoes that were stolen from him by a Neapolitan street urchin (Alfonsino Pasco) after he got drunk and passed out; a Roman prostitute (Maria Michi) picks up a drunk American (Gar Moore), but when he tells her of the beautiful, innocent woman he met six months earlier in Rome she realizes that she was the woman; an American nurse (Harriet Medin) accompanies a partisan into the German-occupied section of Florence in search of an old lover; three American chaplains visit a monastery in a recently freed section of Northern Italy, but only the Catholic chaplain (William Tubbs), who speaks Italian, realizes that the monks are deeply shocked that his two companions are a Protestant and a Jew. Only the final -- and the best, most harrowing -- section deals with the traditional concept of the fog of war, as Allied soldiers try to aid Italian partisans in their fight with the retreating but still fierce Germans. As in many Italian neorealist films, the actors are either non-professionals or unknowns, and their uneasiness with scripted dialogue sometimes shows -- at least it does with the English speakers; I can't judge the ones who speak Italian or German. There is also occasional sentimental overuse of the score by the director's brother, Renzo Rossellini. But on the whole, Paisan is still an extraordinarily compelling film, an essential portrait of war and its effects, made more essential by having been filmed on location amid the ruin and rubble so soon after the war ended. Glimpses of the emptied streets of Florence, bare of tourists and trade, are startling, as are the scenes that take place in the marshlands of the Po delta in the final sequence. The cinematography is by Otello Martelli. The screenplay earned Oscar nominations for Alfred Hayes, Federico Fellini, Sergio Amidei, Marcello Paglieri, and Roberto Rossellini, but lost to Robert Pirosh for the more conventional war movie Battleground (William A. Wellman, 1949).