Another gem from Rossellini, this film (which operates under various titles) is not quite what I expected given the general critical writing on Rossellini. On the other hand, if I’d never read any Rossellini profiles I would have recognised aspects of the film from European cinema generally around 1960.
The common view is that after his break-up with Ingrid Bergman, Rossellini moved away from cinema proclaiming it was dead and turned first towards documentary and eventually towards historical narratives for television. In between he made a few films to make some money but these were of lesser value. I already knew this wasn’t true since many years ago I was lucky to see Viva L’Italia (1961) his Garibaldi film at the NFT in London. I think that was when I first read about his revolutionary new zoom lens device known as the Pancinor. This device enabled the operator to move freely with a subject, maintaining focus and obviating the need to cut – Rossellini devised the technology to allow him to extend the effectiveness of his long take style.
According to José Luis Guarnier (Roberto Rossellini, Studio Vista, 1971) Rossellini used the device for the first time on Era notte a Roma. I confess that I didn’t notice this watching the film – but I did think that the film was very well composed and shot and that is probably the best endorsement.
Era notte a Roma translates via Google as ‘It was night in Rome’ or perhaps ‘To Rome at night’ and actually that title makes sense – more sense than some of the official English titles. The setting is Italy in the latter part of 1943. The Nazis have taken control of Rome, Italians are moving over towards the partisans and the Allies have landed in Sicily. Three soldiers have escaped or been released from an Italian prisoner of war camp in the North of Italy and have made their way South. They are holed up in a village and the villagers arrange a bargain with a group of nuns who are looking for wine and food to take back to Rome. The nuns will take the POWs and in exchange will get ham and wine. But the nuns are actually black marketeers led by a beautiful young woman played by Giovanna Ralli. She wants rid of the POWs as well but she has a kind heart and one of the men, an American airman (played by Peter Baldwin), has an old wound that has re-opened. She ends up letting the men stay in the spacious attic above her apartment. The other two men are a British officer (Leo Genn) and a Russian sergeant (the great Sergei Bondarchuk, a talented actor and director).
The men end up staying for several weeks, culminating in a Christmas dinner. Nobody is fluent in more than one language so communication is difficult, but in the famous Christmas dinner sequence the Russian makes a moving speech in which the meaning is clear from his intonation and facial expressions. Giovanna is also part of the partisan network and the men meet her boyfriend and others in the movement. Inevitably it becomes impossible to keep the men’s presence a secret and there is a great deal of tension before they are exposed to the fascists and their Nazi bosses. The final section of the film, leading up to the point when the Allied troops arrive in the capital, opens the narrative up further to include the aristocratic family who own the working-class apartment block. They too are on the side of the partisans and the landlord is a Vatican officer whose family entertains an aristocratic German officer. Just as in Roma citta aperta and Paisa there is a sequence involving local priests – with refugees hidden among the novices. This sequence and another in which Leo Genn pretends to be a butler to serve the German officer are played with wit and a gentle sense of the absurd. I was reminded of Fellini’s contributions to the scripts of the earlier wartime films.
Far from being some kind of ‘commercial filler’, I found this to be a moving film about life under occupation and an interesting exploration of the relationships between the occupied population and the escaped POWs. It’s a longish film – according to IMDb the official length was 138 mins in Italy, but only 82 mins in the US (which probably explains some of the negative comments). IMDb also suggests a DVD lasting 151 minutes. The Region 2 DVD that I watched lasted just under 129 mins – the rough equivalent of about 134 mins at film speed. I think Rossellini needed the longer running time to present the ‘reality’ of the lives of the men in the attic and the people who hid them.
The performances are all very good and I was particularly struck by Leo Genn’s British officer. Genn was not only a distinguished stage and screen actor but he had also been a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Royal Artillery in 1943. When he recreated his wartime persona he was 55 years old, but that doesn’t seem to matter. His calm and ability to speak the Latin of his schooldays and appear to genuinely learn Italian during the course of the narrative give the film a real grounding in the period. This was an actor and trained barrister who prosecuted war crimes at Belsen and narrated both the events at the 1953 Coronation and the opening of the UN in 1947. The Wikipedia page on Leo Genn refers to his role in “Rossellini’s remarkable and largely forgotten film”. The film is remarkable and it shouldn’t be forgotten. It’s not as ‘dramatic’ as Roma citta aperta but it possibly teaches us more about the experience of wartime in an occupied city.