The Evolution of Reality in Rossellini's Films

According to French screen writer Jean Grault, a close friend of Roberto Rossellini: "Rossellini entered the cinema world almost by chance. He wanted to be a race car driver..." (Aprà 12). However, after spending all of his father's inheritance by age 26, Rossellini was forced to reconsider his aspiration and entered the working world, the world of cinema. Quickly learning the ropes around the set, he exploited his connections and landed an assignment working with Francesco DeRobertis on his movie for the military, Uomini sul fondo . With this working experience, Rossellini landed his first solo experience with directing a full-length film, La nave bianca . Struggling to survive in a time of war, Rossellini's creative passions were unleashed with these early films. During the first few years, his desire to make increasingly realistic films became a common thread stringing his works together. Though this desire remained constant through the passing years, Rossellini's approach on how to portray realism changed with each film and with each trilogy that he made. Starting from almost a superficial definition of reality, that of just filming people in the streets, his conception of reality evolved to include the realms of psychological realism as well as developing of more ingenious forms of expression.

When he ventured onto the cinematic scene in 1941 few people could detect the potential within this young Roman. His passion for cinematic realism had yet to be fully realized in those early days while working on the sets of La nave bianca, Un pilota ritorna and L'Uomo dalla croce . Though the Fascist government supported any aim on increasing cinematic reality to bolster it's propaganda, Rossellini believed in his own intuition and followed a course that would develop realistic aspects.

In the Fascist Trilogy as a whole, the most important characters were not professionals. Their humility and common ways of acting and speaking was pleasing to the audience who empathized with their hometown appeal. Shot on-location within the actual ships, the backdrop of the documentary and narrative action in La nave bianca increased the authenticity of the film more than any constructed set. In addition, the documentary aspects gave the viewer a privileged look inside the inner workings of a battleship in war. This type of technical accuracy extracted from the documentary footage and the on-location backdrop, legitimized the film by making it more realistic. In addition, Rossellini coupled this technical authenticity with a human touch by adding a simple love story. He documented the swelling of emotion and passion between two people when one faced the possibility of death in war. This heart-felt story was excluded from the government's recommendations for cinematic realism due to it's ineffectualness for disseminating propaganda. Nevertheless, Rossellini embraced this narrative structure because it faithfully reflected the events which were unfolding in the lives of hundreds of young Italian couples. Within the story line Rossellini captured the fear of every mother, wife and girlfriend of every soldier who faced the possibility of death in war on a daily basis. The audience could empathize with this young couple as they were experiencing parallel situations with the people in their life.

Rossellini continued on with this realism in the story line with the next two films in the Fascist Trilogy. The action of the film began to focus more closely on the fictional narrative structure, most likely due to the leniency of the censorship board with Rossellini, the recipient of the Fascist Party Cup and intimate friend of the Duce's son. In addition to the technical realism of the documentary footage and on-location shooting, Rossellini draws more attention to the delicate love story in Un pilota ritorna . By fabricating a powerful contrast in the final scenes between Lt. Rosatti's declaration of love and the exploding bombs outside, the viewer focused on the blossoming relationship. Their story became illuminated by the light of the eruption outside.

When the smoke cleared and the armies all went home, Rossellini was left standing between the bombed-out ruins of the city which once boasted grand splendor, Rome. Convincing his wife and his mistress to sell their beloved jewels, Rossellini found the financial backing needed to begin a film on the liberation of Italy and the partisan struggle which was still dragging on. Roma citta' aperta was a film about fear, Rossellini's fear and that of the entire city of Rome. This was a fear that festered within every Roman who watched silently as Nazi troops invaded their streets and harassed their neighbors. Rossellini's success in portraying this emotion brought thousands of people to the theaters. Each with the hope of getting a glimpse into their life and to find comfort in that they were not alone.

In addition to this Hollywood-type manipulation of emotion, Rossellini focused on a second event which was simmering between the partisan factions, ideological tension between the Communists and the Catholics. Though this political reality did not draw the undivided attention of the mainstream, it's tension vibrated throughout the resistance struggle. As a more profound deliberation of reality than documentary footage, non-professional actors and popular emotion (all of which were included in Roma citta' aperta) , Rossellini's only flaw was in trying to squeeze all of these tensions into a limited cast of characters. Moderate political thinkers were practically non-existent. An appreciated introduction to a deeper form of realistic observation, Rossellini's attempt at examining the partisans' ideological fractures was a step toward a deeper and more moralistic truth which he continued to develop.

Rossellini's real breakthrough occurred while working on L'Amore and La macchina ammazzacattivi, where he discovered that reality was more than an external entity that was not objective. He began his exploration with Anna Magnani in the first episode of L'Amore where he made use of scientific methodology to extract psychological aspects from his subject. First, he filmed her in a barren room and used the camera as a microscope to study her every movement. He began to add variables, the telephone calls, and watched with scientific precision her behavior and reactions. The tool that he used was the plan-sequénce method of filming, first concentrating on the subject and then on her in her environment. Under this microscope, separated from her environment, Rossellini discovered an internal reality (the subjects' thoughts, feelings, emotions, suffering, etc...) all which had only been treated on the topical level in his past films. Enchanted by this seemingly new find, Rossellini let this concept develop within him until it exploded upon the cinematic scene in his Solitude Trilogy.

In La macchina ammazzacattivi Rossellini developed a discourse on reality itself. Captivated with the theory that he could influence the audience's perception of the veracity of information portrayed in a film, he put this theory to test with the help of Saint Andrew. In finally showing that the old man, presumably Saint Andrew, was actually a devil who wanted to manipulate Celestino's moral instincts, Rossellini succeeded in urging his audience to become more active viewers instead of accepting what is shown. Just because the old man in tattered clothing was associated with Saint Andrew in the beginning scenes of the film did not mean that it was true. Just because this old man had given Celestino the power to fight a war in the name of his personal morality did not mean that his actions were moral. Extending this concept to film as a whole, Rossellini showed that just because realistic images are portrayed did not mean that they were accurate or were charged with moral value. An objective realism would consist of images of common people in the street, an empty portrait which would make no statement at all. Though this would reflect realistic scenes, it would not be realism. Realism, Rossellini contends is "'...the artistic form of the truth...,' emphasizing that realism was a moral position, not an aesthetic one..." (Films 87).

After these discoveries Rossellini's next set of works took a definite turn toward this new perception of realism. In each Stromboli terra di dio, Europa '51 and Viaggio in italia Rossellini took a more methodical approach to the women featured in these films. He examined them individually, in their marriage, in their family and in their environment as a whole and observed how they reacted when certain variables in their life have changed (eg. their son dies, their marriage crumbles, or they are placed in a repressive provincial setting). Their behavior was recorded at close range and were focused upon by Rossellini's continuing use of the plan-sequénce style of filming. Their feelings were not directly expressed to the audience with the melodramatic expressions of past films. Instead, their feelings were projected on their immediate environment so that the viewer had to act as an interpreter. For example, feelings of loneliness were not expressed directly in the dialogue but rather in the barren terrain, the sterile forum of an unhappy marriage, or in the cultural alienation in a foreign city.

The most dramatic change though was Rossellini's avid pursuit of moralistic themes and messages, things that had been relatively absent from past films. Perhaps Europa '51 illustrated this the best with Irene's effort to practice Christian charity. When those around her misinterpret her simple faith as mental illness she is immediately alienated. In the re-evaluation of the bourgeois world in which she lives, Irene has discovered that her life was void of any moral commitment or spirituality. By having her try to combat her apathy, Rossellini attempted to convey and encourage Christian themes of charity.

Throughout these formative years, Rossellini's sense of reality and style transformed dramatically. With very little directing experience, he captured images reminiscent of a newsreel instead of a commercial film. The reality that he chose to portray consisted of realistic images and a simple story line which were fused together with documentary footage. This approach lacked any attempt on the part of the director to add anything more than what his camera lens saw. After the war ended, Rossellini was freed from his Fascist responsibilities, and focused again on filming reality as he saw it, just people in the streets. He retained many of the realistic aspects (eg. non-professional actors, on-location shooting, contemporary subject matter, etc.) and added to them other realistic consideration. He began to document collective emotions in a more conspicuous manner as well as acknowledging important political tensions between the partisan factions in an objective manner. Rossellini found his true voice while working on the films of his transitional period. Using a more precise method of studying his subject, Rossellini found himself at the edge of a new type of realism, psychological realism, which he began to explore passionately. Soon after, he stumbled upon the realization that reality was not just a series of realistic images strung together to make a realistic scene. This type of stark reality could neither be credible nor carry a moral message. Using these breakthroughs as a jumping point, Rossellini dived right into his third trilogy, that of Solitude. Here, the reality in his films began to attack moral issues as well as internal realism in his female characters, psychological realism.

In his devout search for realism Rossellini paid the price for turning away from the mainstream audience's preferences. He was scoffed at by critics for his apparent simplicity and laziness and ostracized by audiences who just did not understand the films. However, in the face of these atrocities and insults, he forged ahead. Despite the fact that along the road he became discouraged with what he perceived as the lack of an intelligent audience, Rossellini's discoveries of new forms and expressions of reality and his recognition of Italy's moral shortcomings, changed the face of Italian cinema forever. But how did an unknown young Roman, with little experience, push himself to the front of the line so quickly? What was he trying to do? In an intimate French interview surrounded by friends Rossellini explained it: "Non cerco di risolvere i problemmi del mondo. Sono un uomo del mondo e voglio essere presente.1 (Aprà 23).

1. "I'm not trying to solve the problems of the world. I'm a man of the world, and I want to be present."