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HTF DVD REVIEW: Roberto Rossellini's War Trilogy



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#1 of 2 OFFLINE   Matt Hough

Matt Hough

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Posted January 21 2010 - 02:25 PM

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Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy
Rome Open City/Paisan/Germany Year Zero
Directed by Roberto Rossellini

Studio: Criterion
Year: 1945/1946/1948
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Running Time: 103/126/73 minutes
Rating: NR
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 Italian/German/English
Subtitles: English
MSRP: $ 79.95

Release Date: January 26, 2010
Review Date: January 21, 2010
 
 
The Films
 
Overview
 
One of the founding fathers of the European film movement known as neorealism, Roberto Rossellini had actually made films in Italy prior to the three films represented in this three-disc set dubbed his War Trilogy. These are the films, however, which cemented his international reputation as a filmmaker to be reckoned with, all three emblematic of the war torn countries and desperate people involved in their making.
 
Rome Open City  - 4/5
 
During the German occupation of Rome, a leader in the resistance movement Giorgio Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero) is hiding out in an apartment house assisted by good friends Pina (Anna Magnani) and her intended Francesco (Francesco Grandjacquet). Also in on transporting the wanted Manfredi out of the city (as well as transporting money and ammunition to the underground) is Father Don Pietro Pellegrini (Aldo Fabrizi). Manfredi has been involved with cabaret singer Marina Mari (Maria Michi) who turns her lover’s whereabouts in to Gestapo leader Major Bergmann (Harry Feist) when Manfredi dumps her prior to leaving the city. The Germans will stop at nothing in order to get information out of any locals they can capture, and transporting Manfredi out of the city becomes the number one priority of the resistance movement.
 
Though Rome Open City is often cited as one of the birth children of the Italian neorealist movement, Rossellini’s use of many professional actors, studio sets, and a heavily crafted melodrama along traditional lines (script by Sergio Amidei, Federico Fellini, and Roberto Rossellini) makes it a less sterling example of the genre than the other two films in this set, not to mention Vittorio De Sica’s truer Shoeshine and Bicycle Thieves. That’s not to diminish the very real entertainment value implicit in the film from beginning to end. The German occupation seems archly real (the torture sequences in the film go far beyond what was the norm for that era) and the squalid conditions for many unquestionably raw. There are magnificent performances from Anna Magnani and Marcello Pagliero, but the film’s trump card is the stoic but achingly devout performance by Aldo Fabrizi as the priest working within church edicts but loyal to his country and his God. Fabrizi never overreaches for effects (there is a very amusing moment where he toys with the positions of two statues), and his underplayed piousness is tremendously moving giving Rome Open City a haunting quality that isn’t soon forgotten.
 
 
Paisan – 4/5
 
When the Allied armies invade southern Italy, their march up the peninsula liberates towns and provinces one at a time. Paisan tells six stories of Allied-Italian interaction, all with different tones and all with twist endings. In southern Italy, American soldier Joe (Robert Van Loon) and Sicilian Carmela (Carmela Sazio) attempt to communicate while the rest of his squad scouts ahead trying to avoid land mines planted by the retreating Germans. In Naples, a drunken MP (Dotts M. Johnson) sees a side of life he isn’t expecting courtesy of street urchin Pasquale (Alfonso Bovino). In Rome, American soldier Fred (Gar Moore) is taken home by a hardened prostitute (Maria Michi) unaware that she’s the sweet, fresh-faced girl he had fallen in love with six months earlier. The city of Florence finds two people (Harriet White, Renzo Avanzo) urgently trying to cross the river to find loved ones at the mercy of some stray German occupiers. A monestary is the setting for a meeting between three American chaplains of different faiths and a group of monks who view the two non-Catholics as lost souls. The final segment involves a small band of American soldiers and some Italian partisans in the Po River Valley under attack by German forces who surround them.
 
The theme of the film is communication as each of the six segments features individuals on various sides attempting to make their wishes and feelings known to someone else. The segments vary in tone and tempo, and though all are worthwhile, a couple of them would have been improved with more fleshed out scenarios and a longer running time (particularly the Naples and Florence segments). Rossellini uses documentary footage to begin each segment establishing markedly well the time and place of the story. The footage shot for the movie usually blends very well with the archival news material, and there is a great degree of immediacy as if the war were actually happening around them as the footage is being shot rather than the war having been over for months. Maria Michi as the prostitute Francesca and Bill Tubbs as the Catholic chaplain make the greatest impressions in their individual segments.
 
 
Germany Year Zero – 4.5/5 
 
With his father (Ernst Pittschau) desperately ill and his older brother (Franz-Martin Grüger) in hiding as a ex-Nazi soldier, thirteen-year old Edmund Koehler (Edmund Meschke) bears the burden of providing for his family in a war-torn Berlin immediately after the war. Scrounging for food, cigarettes, coal, or anything able to be hocked or bartered, Edmund even does odd jobs for his pedophilic former teacher (Erich Gühne) in the hope of stumbling into something lucrative to put food on the table or bring in a few marks to pay the electric and gas bill. Things go from bad to worse, though, when the father must be taken to the hospital and is coming home where there will be no food to eat nor any electricity to offer even meager comforts.
 
The bleakest and most haunting of the three neorealist films in the set (Rossellini dedicates it to his young son Romano who had died before production started; the director’s consuming grief can be felt in every frame of this film) features appalling glimpses of the bombed-out Berlin and the starving people in the streets cutting up a dead horse and squabbling over the choicest morsels. Against this horrific background, Rossellini charts his most desolate story yet, a truly cherubic child completely corrupted by the conditions he’s forced to adapt to or die. There’s no optimism (even a momentary stop to listen to the strains of an organ playing in a cathedral is oppressive rather than hopeful), and Rossellini films it all without blinking the camera’s eye forcing us to witness one truly unspeakable moment after another until despair eventually sets in. The performances are superb especially the super creepy Erich Gühne who can’t keep his hands from caressing the faces and necks of the boys he recruits and little Edmund Meschke whose angelic face and eagerness to please breaks the heart over and over again.
 
 
Video Quality
 
Rome Open City – 3/5
 
The film has been framed at 1.33:1 and is slightly windowboxed in Criterion’s usual fashion. Though the film has been cleaned up tremendously from the scratched, faded, and badly worn prints of old, there are still some signs of the rough nature of the elements Criterion had to work with. Blacks are dark gray at their best though the grayscale and contrast are usually better than average. Sharpness is usually better than one would expect, but there are still occasional scenes where a scratch here, some hair and debris there, and inconsistent grain levels make themselves known. The white English subtitles are very easy to read. The film has been divided into 27 chapters.
 
Paisan – 2.5/5
 
The film has been framed at 1.33:1 and is slightly windowboxed in Criterion’s usual fashion. Brought from the brink of unwatchability, the film now boasts a decent grayscale and a fair degree of sharpness. Of course, there is only so much that technicians can do with some cannibalized materials, so there are still scratches and debris with black levels only a tiny bit better than in Rome Open City and shadow detail still lacking. White subtitles are easy to read, and the film has been divided into 25 chapters.
 
Germany Year Zero – 3/5 
 
The film has been framed at 1.33:1 and is slightly windowboxed in Criterion’s usual fashion. Although in somewhat better shape than the two other films in this collection, the transfer won’t be winning any prizes for clarity or grayscale brilliance. Brightness, sharpness, and contrast are all inconsistent though when scenes are good, they look very good indeed. Blacks aren’t much improved from the levels of Paisan, and there are scratches and a hair or two that also momentarily distract. Still, the subtitles are easy to read, and the film has been divided into 18 chapters.
 
 
 
Audio Quality
 
Rome Open City – 3/5
 
The Dolby Digital 1.0 sound track has received a thorough scrubbing, and it’s much better than it has any right to be. Still, you’ll be able to hear the remnants of low level hiss and some stifled crackle in the background. Because the sound was completely post dubbed, it has that hollow flatness and lack of fidelity that often betray this kind of sound design.
 
Paisan – 3/5
 
Much has been done to retrieve an adequate soundtrack from the original elements, and the Dolby Digital 1.0 track, while tinny and often hollow sounding, still manages to convey the dialogue (much of it in English) and the involving music score by Renzo Rossellini in a listenable fashion. There is low level hiss present constantly and some places where crackling has been reduced but not eliminated.
 
Germany Year Zero – 2.5/5 
 
Rossellini used direct recording for many of the scenes in the film, but the sound recording is relatively prehistoric, and there’s a fair amount of consistent hiss and some low level flutter and crackle on occasion for this Dolby Digital 1.0 soundtrack.
 
 
Special Features
 
Rome Open City – 4/5
 
There is a video introduction in French (with English subtitles) by Roberto Rossellini which runs 3 ¼ minutes. It was filmed in 1963 when the film was about to be shown on French television.
 
The audio commentary by Rossellini scholar Peter Bondanella was prepared in 1995 for the laserdisc of the movie. Regardless, it’s a marvelous lecture on the film and the neorealist movement that any fan of Rossellini’s will definitely want to hear.
 
“Once Upon a Time . . . Rome Open City is a 2006 documentary on the making of the film and the history of its production. Many interviews on the film’s uneasy birth come from archive sources since many of the principals have passed away. Still, it’s an illuminating visit with many important people connected to the production as well as Rossellini’s children and Ingrid Bergman. It’s presented in nonanamorphic letterbox and runs 52 ½ minutes.
 
There is a 12 ½-minute interview with Adriano Apra, a Rossellini scholar who discusses the three meanings of what the term “Open City” meant in connection with this movie. Recorded in 2009, it’s in anamorphic widescreen.
 
“Rossellini and the City” is a fascinating video essay by critic Mark Shiel in which the scholar discusses the importance of the locations used for the three films in this set. It runs 25 minutes and is in anamorphic widescreen. A note for first timers: Shiel gives away the endings of all three movies in this featurette, so if you don’t want the endings to be spoiled, save watching this feature until after you have viewed the three movie in this collection.
 
The briefest of the bonus material for the movie is an interview with Father Virgilio Fantuzzi, a family friend and Rossellini expert who discusses the influence of religion in the movie despite the filmmakers’ continual denials of its importance to him. The 2009 interview runs 5 ¼ minutes and is in anamorphic widescreen.
 
 
Paisan – 3/5
 
There is a video introduction by Roberto Rossellini (who speaks French with English subtitles) which runs 3 ¼ minutes. It was filmed in 1963 when the film was about to be shown on French television.
 
Rossellini scholar and friend Adriano Apra speaks for 17 minutes on the film’s themes and importance. Filmed in 2009, it’s in anamorphic widescreen.
 
“Roberto Rossellini at Rice University” features excerpts from videotaped question and answer sessions conducted by James Blue. These 1970 interviews last 13 ½ minutes in windowboxed 4:3.
 
“Into the Future” is the disc’s best extra, Rossellini scholar Tag Gallagher’s 31-minute video essay which delves into all three films in this collection. Once again, viewers who are coming to these films for the first time would not want to view this until after seeing all three movies.
 
Germany Year Zero – 4.5/5 
 
There is a video introduction (in French with English subtitles) by Roberto Rossellini which runs 3 ¾ minutes. It was filmed in 1963 when the film was about to be shown on French television.
 
The print of the film used for the transfer is in German with German main titles, but the disc also offers the Italian main title sequence and prologue which runs for 2 ¾ minutes.
 
“Roberto Rossellini” is a 65 ½-minute documentary on the life and career of the Italian director including his prewar films, his neorealist period, his films with Ingrid Bergman, and his career directing television films up until his death in 1977. Directed by Carlo Lizzani, the feature offers archive comments fromIngrid Bergman, Martin Scorsese, Francois Truffaut and others in describing their personal and professional ties to the master.
 
“Letters from the Front” finds director Carlo Lizzani, who served as assistant director on the movie, reading and commenting on a series of letters he wrote while on location in Germany filming the movie, his first experience of working with Rossellini. This 1987 lecture was filmed in 4:3 and runs 23 ¼ minutes.
 
Rossellini scholar and friend Adriano Apra speaks for 12 ¾ minutes on the film’s themes and importance. Filmed in 2009, it’s in anamorphic widescreen.
 
Directors Paolo and Vittorio Taviani discuss the influence on Rossellini on their work in this 8-minute anamorphic widescreen featurette.
 
“Roberto and Roswitha” is a pictorial essay by Thomas Meder chronicling the five year affair between the director and Roswitha Schmidt in a step-through montage featuring text and vintage photographs.
 
The enclosed 46-page booklet contains cast and crew lists for each of the films in the collection, a nice selection of stills from all three movies, a critical appreciation of all three movies by movie curator James Quandt, and individual critiques of each film by Irene Bignardi, Colin MacCabe, and Jonathan Rosenbaum respectively.
 
 
 
In Conclusion
4/5 (not an average)
 
You won’t find many classics more important to the history of international cinema than the three films collected in this box set. Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy brings together the director’s first three neorealist achievements along with an amazing and important collection of informative and entertaining bonus features. Highly recommended!
 
 
 
Matt Hough
Charlotte, NC
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#2 of 2 OFFLINE   Mark VH

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Posted January 24 2010 - 05:20 AM

Great review - Dave Kehr also offers really fine appreciation of this set in today's New York Times here: http://www.nytimes.c...ml?ref=movies. 

I'm positively salivating over these discs, which probably constitute the most important DVD release of the year thus far.  Despite it being only January, I can't see much eclipsing it in the next 11 months.