(Paisan, Italy - 1946)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Carmela Sazio, Robert Van Loon, Dots Johnson, Alfonsino Pasca, Maria Michi, Gar Moore, Gigi Gori, Harriet Medin, Renzo Avanzo, Dale Edmonds, Cigolani
Genre: Neorealism
Director: Roberto Rossellini
Screenplay: Sergio Amidei, Federico Fellini, Roberto Rossellini, Alfred Hayes, Annalena Limentani, & Marcello Pagliero based on stories by Victor Haines, Klaus Mann, & Vasco Pratolini
Cinematography: Otello Martelli
Composer: Renzo Rossellini
Runtime: 134 minutes

If documenting "the facts" is the goal of neorealism, then purists should consider Roberto Rossellini's follow up to Open City the genre's finest accomplishment. What separates Paisan from its peers is it's episodic nature. It's the most authentic and truthful film of the group because instead of playing by the rules of a drama and tying most characters and events together, it essentially gives you reenactments of situations that really did happen in some form.

As the second part of Rossellini's trilogy of war, Paisan presents sketches of what it was like to live in Italy from 1943-45 while the Allied troops invaded Sicily and ultimately liberated the country from Nazi control. Each segment begins with a map and a narration explaining where the Allies have progressed up the boot. A reader informed me of an American misconception regarding the title. "Paisa" has been translated it into "Paisan" meaning "fellow-countryman", however the word Paisa is a Neopolitan word meaning something along the lines of "little town." Thus each episode takes place in a different area of Italy so as to represent the Paisa variance of the time.

Open City reeked of propaganda, but Paisan leaves me feeling just the opposite. Rossellini might not have totally restrained himself politically, but he's clearly pointed out the bogusness of government sponsored newsreels. It's supposed to be the film that's fiction (and of course it is because it's not a true truthful documentary) and the newsreel that's fact. Now, I don't believe that a government could really get these segments in the same form because they are more intimate & personal, detailed & concise. However, Paisan gives you six very newsreel-esque episodes that no government would dare to show for a few reasons. Most prominently, the focus isn't steeped toward any one country, people are more concerned with staying alive than with politics and flag waving, and Rossellini shows the tragic reality while refusing to make the people and events look good.

I don't want to make Paisan sound like a major downer. It's once again very humanistic with involving stories that are hardly all doom and gloom. They are handled directly without any fluff, but if anything that only enhances the comedy, romance, tension, and so on. Of course, there are episodes that are dark and bleak (although not to the extent of Open City since there's reason to believe the Germans will lose control), but what stands out is more the folly of it all. It's sad and urgent sure, but for example many problems would be easily avoidable if everyone spoke one language or took the time to learn the other people's. As you'd expect in these situations the Italians certainly come out looking better than anyone else, but the film still feels almost entirely objective. A key to this is that it's their country and they know it better than anyone. For the most part they are the only ones that understand their language, so it's logical that they would have a better understanding of the situation and, if everything were equal, would come out on top. The communication barrier makes for several funny moments, but nobody wins in war and again the "heroism" is more in risking your life for your fellow man than anything else.

If I'm sounding a little wishy-washy in the above paragraph, it's probably because the episodes are very different. Each story focuses on a small group of people dealing with the problems of living through these troubled times. The people are all in the same country, but Rossellini realizes they are different people with different lives. Thus, while wartime may breed more similarity than peacetime, everyone still has different difficulties, feelings, and emotions. The film feels objective because Rossellini is rarely commenting on his material. He's not presenting the same ideas or themes over and over, and he's certainly not beating them into your skull like Steven "you will feel what I feel" Spielbum. Rossellini is instead living or dying on the material alone, but of course the situations are strong and honest enough that he has no trouble surviving. The definitive of Paisan is not any one slice, but all of them together give you close to a full understanding of what it was like to live in Italy during the liberation period.

When Rossellini is at his neorealist best, as he usually is here but particularly in the final episode, it seems like he has no style at all. The material he's presenting is so strong that it has a huge emotional impact without needing to be heightened. By far the flaw of Paisan is brother Renzo Rossellini's score that at times calls unnecessary attention to itself. It works in the Rome episode since it's a love story and the Po River episode because it's very visual, but generally goes against what Roberto is doing, which is taking the position of the invisible onlooker. It seems as if he's told cinematographer Otello Martelli to just role tape, to follow the action without offering any perspective or personal touches. Writing that sounds almost idiotically simplistic, but in any case Rossellini's "stylelessness" can be remarkably effective.

Aside from although not totally excluding the final segment, technical imperfections abound. Not nearly to the level of Open City, but certainly there are scenes that are naturally underlit, although that in a way goes along with the dark tone of the piece. The acting here is not as good as Open City because there aren't even a few professionals. The honesty and awkwardness of the performers adds to the realism in some cases though. Some people find the film melodramatic, but Open City was the one that was melodramatic and manipulative. If Paisan occasionally seems to dip into melodrama it's probably because the actors aren't good or experienced, and in the end bad acting has a lot of similarities even if the intentions are different.

The first, second and sixth segments are the great ones in my opinion. The first is definitely the most moving. The Italians don't believe the Americans have come even though the soldiers are right before their eyes. They don't trust them at all until one of them starts speaking Italian, and even then... The Americans don't trust the Italians either, but one soldier figures out that there's less to fear from the young woman Carmela (Carmela Sazio) that claims to know her way around the mines than from the mines themselves. Both sides look stupid during this segment. While the soldiers are trying to secure the area, you have a ranting woman going on in Italian about whether they harmed her son Licata who they obviously wouldn't know even if he were around. As the soldiers don't let Carmela look for her missing father and brother like she came along for and they need their one man that speaks Italian, she gets stuck staying with a homesick soldier from New Jersey named Joe (Robert Van Loon). Joe tries to make the best of the situation, but the pouting rebellious Carmela is tired of being ordered around by men with guns and Joe only knows seven Italian words if you count Mussolini and Carmela. Joe is a comedian of sorts, but he's only content that Carmela understands him if she repeats the word in English. When they finally begin to form a bond, Joe, who has no clue of the danger, uses his cigarette lighter again because he didn't understand why Carmela objected the first time and it has tragic consequences for both of them.

"I wouldn't be surprised to find a battleship in your pocket!" The second segment shows the desperation and poverty of newly reclaimed Naples. The children have grown up way too quickly. They've learned to do whatever it takes to survive including selling a drunken American M.P. that's there to help them and stealing his shoes when he's asleep. The lonely M.P., also named Joe (Dots Johnson), happens to be black. The kid he calls Paisan (Alfonsino Pasca) takes him to a puppet show and he's enjoying it at first until he realizes the Moor is just fodder for the white knight. Deciding not to stand for this racism, the drunken soldier hops onto the stage and takes over for the Moor jobber, which nearly causes a riot. I think this is the funniest segment of the bunch because once Joe sobers up he just rambles on endlessly, so thrilled to have an audience even if one that doesn't understand a word he's saying. It's particularly funny that he doesn't know his audience is the same as the shoe thief, telling Paisan kids like this thief have made him cynical and he'll find the one that stole them and boot him in the butt so hard he'll see stars.

The outstanding segment is the final one, an isolated action where Italian partisans fight alongside allied soldiers deep behind enemy lines in the marshes of the Po River Valley. This is a daring segment with two almost wordless battle sections. Legendary French film critic Andre Bazin, the key to getting respect for "washed up" Rossellini's initially reviled Voyage in Italy, said Rossellini's technique during these portions gave the audience the exact equivalent of the inner feelings of these men. While Open City was choppy and had the feel of something that they better get right the first time because they couldn't afford to shoot it again, here we see great ambition. It's ambition that's fully realized too with the camerawork, editing, score, and ambience all coming together perfectly. Considering what the skirmishes in Open City look like, I don't think it's a stretch to say this is nothing you'd expect from neorealism. However, in it's own way it's as great a segment as there is in neorealism and the one time where you can hold neorealism up against any of its peers from a technical perspective.

Central to the first battle is a Partisan boat floating in the middle of the river that a few Allies are trying to retrieve. This boat contains a dead Partisan marked as a traitor, showing the Partisans are as good as dead if captured because they are considered renegades and thus not protected under the Geneva treaty. The Allies retrieval strategy is smart, but that doesn't make their plan any less dangerous. Although there are few words, shifting focal lengths, and several cuts, because the movements are clearly conveyed without that disorienting stuff that can work but seems to have become an excuse to not bother writing anything solid, one always understands exactly what the soldiers are doing and why.

The camera circles the Partisan boat from a distance so smoothly, as if it's floating too. These scenes are intercut with a few soldiers from both sides. What's so impressive about these shots is that the camera follows the action without ever altering the plane, as if like the soldier going a little too high or to one direction will be the difference between survival and getting your brains blown out. These battle scenes mount unbelievable tension and are a perfect climax to a great film, particularly because Rossellini doesn't turn the episode into a bunch of harping on the obvious inhuman practice of killing off "rebels" that "aren't war prisoners."



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