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Introduction: Synopsis of the Film
Paisà (1946) (or Paisan, as it referred to most often) is a movie by Italian film director Roberto Rossellini. It is a postwar neorealist film, a follow-up to Rossellini’s Rome Open City that depicts Rome of 1944 when it was occupied by the Nazis. Paisan presents life in Italy during 1943-1945 covering that period when Italy started to be liberated by the Allied troops. The movie consists of six separate episodes. Though they all are almost not interrelated and even present different characters, they all are bound by a common theme. They present differences between people in terms of language, nationality, and religion, as well as the relations between the Americans as the liberators and the Italians as the ones who have been liberated. Thus, for instance, the first episode presents an American, Joe from Jersey, who was ordered to guard a Sicilian woman, Carmela, who speaks only her native language. The episode presents the tries of these two people to communicate though the woman seems unwilling to do this at first. In the second episode, a black man is robbed by a Neapolitan street urchin, after which he discovers the whole horror in which people in Naples lived. The third episode presents the reunion of an American, Fred, and an Italian woman, a streetwalker; these two also speak different languages but seem to understand each other. The next episode is about an Italian partisan and an American nurse. This is followed by an episode that presents a theological argument between Franciscan monks and three representatives of different religions, a Catholic, a Protestant, and a Jew. The final episode is a confrontation between the German and the OSS; here the collaboration of the American and British soldiers, as well as the Resistance fighters, is evident. Each of these episodes is important and related to the general theme of the film; the expression of this theme is facilitated by the director’s use of different elements of style, such as composition, lighting, editing, and sound that add Paisa cultural value.
The Elements of Style
Elements of style used in the film helped the director evoke certain emotions in the viewers and express the overall theme of the film. Six episodes that present separate short stories are not completely fictional. Sometimes, the documentary is inserted into them, but the editing is performed so skillfully that the transition between fictional and documentary footage can hardly be noticed. Chronological movement makes one feel involved with the Italian history and the map of the Italian peninsula that is presented between the episodes only enforces this feeling (as well as organizes the six stories into a chain of events). Some elements of composition, lighting, and editing help the viewers get certain impressions from the movie. For instance, non-studio locations so typical for the Italian neorealism and built environment (stodgy abandoned towers and rocks) in the first episode create a presence effect that allows to get imbued with the characters’ emotions (for instance, jealousy that Carmela feels when thinking that Joe has a family). Lighting in some scenes of the second episode conveys the characters’ mood and influences general impression from the events (it is bright in the scene when a drunken American soldier entertains the boy, while it is subdued in the scene when the soldier discovers that the boy’s parents have been killed in bombing). The third scene is the only one that presents a flashback to the past when Fred tells the prostitute about his entry into Rome on the first day of Liberation. Sounds (of shots, screams, hurried footsteps, etc.) successfully utilized in the fourth episode reflect the chaos that reigned in Florence where the Nazis and the partisans were fighting street by street while British soldiers outside the city were waiting for reinforcements (Brunette 64). The fifth episode is abstracted from its location (Rossellini makes it openly fictional by presenting the north-central part of Italy and placing the southern monks in it). Framing the monks inside the monastery makes the viewers think that the outside reality does not matter for the monks; their relationships with God and each other have more effect on their lives than wars and revolutions. Finally, sounds (shooting and splashes of water when the Germans push the tied up partisans into the Po River to drown), as well as composition (landscapes, primarily) add authenticity to the film and help the viewer understand the real cost of freedom and the effect of war on human lives. In this way, different elements of style helped Rossellini produce necessary effect on the viewers.
The Theme of the Film
In addition, these elements of style contributed greatly into the expression of the film’s theme. The general theme of the film is that the war distorts every aspect of human lives, including such sources of pleasure as simple communication which most of people have lost. This is the general idea that the film is trying to express together with informing the viewers about certain historical events. The central film of Paisan, however, is the possibility for people to communicate even when they do not know the language of each other. All the episodes contain the dialogues of people who speak different languages but the act of communication between them still does take place and a definite level of understanding is still reached. Rossellini succeeded in expressing this theme by making the movie bilingual and even more in some episodes (for instance, the first episode where several Italian dialects may be distinguished).
The Value of the Film
The combination of successful use of the elements of style and vital theme expressed by the film helps to realize Paisa’s value. The greatest value of the film lies in its touching upon every person who watches it. Irrespective of nationality, race, age, and gender, this movie appeals to every viewer as a human for who communication is the essence of life. This is what the meaningfulness of Paisan for every viewer consists in. Therefore, the cultural value of the film lies in its uniting all the human beings in their striving for the right that was given them by nature, the right for communication.
Outside Critical Opinions
Finally, critical opinions of the experts contribute into the evaluation of the abovementioned aspects of Rossellini’s film. Two opinions under consideration are those expressed by Peter Bondanella and Andre Bazin who have common views on the film. The central statement of Bondanella’s Paisa and the Rejection of Traditional Narrative Cinema is that Paisa “moves Rossellini’s narrative farthest from traditional cinematic patterns associated with the Hollywood melodrama toward an original and revolutionary style” (Bondanella 64). This statement can be regarded as quite accurate; besides, it is well-grounded because it is supported by consideration of different aspects of the film further in the writing. The critic correctly identifies the main theme of the film and examines the scenes from it with regards to communication failures and successes presented in the film. Bondanella also exhibits a perfect understanding of the elements of style used in the movie providing a thorough analysis of episodic organization, editing, choice of location, selection of actors, and the like peculiarities of the film. In general, the review is quite consistent and the author’s using some dialogues from the film helps him to support the arguments he presents.
Another review is the one made by Andre Bazin. The central statement of this review is “There is no progression other than a chronological ordering of the story […] But their [the episodes’] social, historical, and human foundation gives them a unity enough to constitute a collection perfectly homogeneous in its diversity” (Bazin in Fowler 60). This statement can also be considered accurate because it reflects the essence of the work that follows the statement. The critic discusses technical characteristics of the movie paying special attention to the “proportions between water and sky in every shot” (Bazin in Fowler 62), the unit of cinematic narrative in the film, performance of the actors, etc. The critic does not identify the theme focusing instead on the film’s elements of style and its plot. Bazin’s review presents the movie in a favorable light and his calling the episodes of the film “supreme bravura moments of the Italian cinema” (Bazin in Fowler 63) eventually makes the reader believe that it is indeed so.
Therefore, it can be concluded that Rossellini’s Paisa can be called an exemplary Italian movie (exemplary for its time) owing to its rich elements of style, vital theme, and cultural value. Rossellini created six separate episodes and intertwined them into a whole story of Italy’s liberation. Numerous elements of style that he used at this helped him to achieve mild transition between documentary and fictional footage (quite contributing here was the map of Italy that links all the episodes); in addition, such elements of composition as non-studio locations and built environment added the film authenticity; lastly, skillfully used lighting transmitted the characters’ emotions and general mood of the film ranging from entertaining to tragic. Though Paisa was not duly appreciated by the public as it was released, its value for the Italian cinematography was recognized shortly afterwards, which can be seen from critical opinions of the experts regarding this film, Peter Bondanella and Andre Bazin, in particular. These experts critically considered the elements of style used in the film, its expression of the theme, and other peculiarities; at this, they both praised Rossellini’s direction and his craftsmanship. Thus, Paisa is a true neo-realist work that establishes connection between the real world and people, as well as events, in it.
Bazin, Andre. “An Aesthetic of Reality: Neo-Realism.” The European Cinema Reader. Ed. Fowler, Catherine. London and New York: Routledge, 2002.
Bondanella, Peter E. The Films of Roberto Rossellini. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Brunette, Peter. Roberto Rossellini. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996.