Il Generale Della Rovere was one of Roberto Rossellini’s most successful films commercially, winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and there is a simple reason why. It’s not that good a film. It’s a rather formulaic film, slathered with faux patriotic sloganeering, whitewashed politics, and a rather banal cinematic approach. Rossellini was, along with the film’s star, Vittorio De Sica, one of the two big name directors of what was known as Italian Neo-Realism. But while 1945’s Rome: Open City was also a financial success for Rossellini, he went almost fifteen years between that success and this one, in 1959. De Sica, however, had more commercial and critical success in the interim.
The film’s plot is supposedly based on real life events that took place in World War Two, after Italy switched sides, leaving the Axis and joining the Allies. However, there has been dispute among historians over whether the tale is true or not, and just how much of the tale, if true, is apocryphal, or the result of hagiography, because it was based on a novel by Indro Montanelli. The tale follows the life of a petty con man named Victorio Emanuele Bardone (De Sica), who uses a bunch of assorted aliases (including that of a phony Italian colonel named Grimaldi) to run his assorted scams and schemes, fleecing attractive women (wannabe actresses and prostitutes) and desperate families who are willing to pay him for information on the whereabouts of relatives who have been arrested by the Nazis.
The black and white film runs for two hours and 13 minutes, and the first 45 or so minutes follows the escapades of Bardone, and watching him gamble and lose, fleece his suckers, and generally act in unethical ways, is the best part of the film. Especially good is watching him interact with a Nazi colonel named Muller (Hannes Messemer), for both men are essentially the same person, phonies who are out to wreak havoc in the world. The one difference is that Muller actually has fangs, and is willing to use them, whereas Bardone lacks the fangs and the will.
Eventually, he is caught and detained by the Nazis after his scheme to fleece a rich woman backfires. He pretends to have information on the man’s whereabouts, for which the woman paid 100,000 lira, but the woman finds out that her husband was shot. Brought before Muller, Bardone’s list of petty crimes is exposed before his victims. Then we get some of the best parts of the film, where Muller (who claims to like Bardone) convinces Bardone to pass as a recently killed Italian General, so to flush out Italian Resistance leaders in a Milan prison. Had he not, he would either appear in front of a military court and be sentenced to death or do the Nazis’ bidding. If he does, he will get a million lira and safe passage to Switzerland.
The last 85 or so minutes of the film are scenes of Bardone adjusting to prison life and not being comfortable in his new role as fink. But, these scenes could have been trimmed to a third their length with little loss of plot and impact. In fact, the emotional impact would have been heightened for nothing occurs in these scenes that reveal anything regarding plot or character. Especially contrasted to the wonderful scenes of Bardone the con from earlier, these scenes go limp. Part of this is because the film expects its audience to know the story of Della Rovere beforehand, thus many of the scenes play off that expectation. But, coming in to the film cold, these scenes are revealed for the isolated and uninteresting moments they are.
It’s as if this film suffered from middle filmitis, when films that are not first in a series rely too heavily upon an audience’s memories of earlier films to inform them of the traits of characters, the chronology of prior events, and a general knowledge of the world the film series is set in, even though it’s not a middle film. These scenes needed to be cut or given greater expository content. Plus, whether one has read the source novel or not, whether one knows the real story or not, the film so blatantly telegraphs its ending of Bardone becoming so ennobled by his imposture that he decides to join the execution of the men he was sent to fink on that one’s teeth almost hurt from the grating. The film ends on Muller accepting the blame for his plan’s failure.
Naturally, the flaw lies all with the screenplay by Montanelli, Sergio Amidei, and Diego Fabbri. Regardless of the book or the reality, that does not excuse the film’s tanking in the second half. It becomes didactic in the worst way, and this is especially disappointing due to the deft portrait painted of Bardone in the first part of the film. The intermix of documentary footage from the war and obvious set pieces actually works quite well, and the film’s scoring, editing, and technical gimmicks (rear screen projections, etc.) are all fine.
The acting by De Sica is excellent, and that by Messemer is even better. One cannot even fill out a full hand’s digits with complex and human portrayals of Nazi officers onscreen, and Messemer’s Muller may be the very best I’ve ever seen — pragmatic, ruthless, yet even remorseful. The rest of the actors were barely passable, with some of the prisoners reduced to utter stereotypes of profession and ethnicity by either the script or the lack of actors’ abilities. That said, the female characters portrayed by Sandra Milo (Olga the prostitute), who gained fame in Federico Fellini’s 8½, and especially the sexy Giovanna Ralli (Valeria), showed dramatic potential with De Sica that was wasted.
The film also would have done much more had it focused on a battle of wits between these two men. Alack, it did not. It became a political screed; one ironically presented as flushing out the truth about the war, even as it whitewashed the Fascist role in Italy’s downfall, blaming it almost exclusively on the occupying Nazis. While one can forgive numerous implausibilities (imagine an American equivalent- wartime prisoners who find out Generals Eisenhower or MacArthur are imprisoned, and not being able to detect a two bit fraud), melodramatic twists, and plot holes, if other parts of the film pick up the slack, didacticism is almost impossible to overcome.
The DVD package from The Criterion Collection, to be released March 31, 2009, is a good one, but not a great one. On the plus side is a 15 minute long visual essay on the political implications of the film. Done by Tag Gallagher, a Rossellini biographer, it sets up the background tale of Della Rovere superbly, even if it does not deal with the technical or artistic merits of the film. Also well done are three interviews with Rossellini’s children, Isabella (13 minutes long), Renzo (9 minutes long), and Ingrid (5 minutes long), as well as Italian film scholar Adriano Apra (7 minutes long). All give insight into the film and Rossellini, and each segment’s flaw is that they are too short. There is also a theatrical trailer, as well as a booklet with a solid essay by film critic James Monaco and a bit of a 2000 interview with the novelist Indro Montanelli. Monaco, however, misuses the term symbology for symbolism on page 5. I do not believe this a typo, so one can only wonder how a critic could not get the difference in the two words, much like people often misuse loath and loathe.
On the negative side is the glaring absence of an audio film commentary. Surely it costs not that much to get someone to do one? Given that it’s often free advertising for the film historian or critic, this is simply inexcusable, and should not cost much, if anything. Almost as annoying are the standard white subtitles that Criterion unfortunately uses. Lacking an English dub would not be so bad if the subtitles were readable. White subtitles on a black and white film (and one with far more white than black) are difficult to read, especially in a dialogue-intensive film like this. Rossellini is not Antonioni in that regard. Even worse is that about 10-15% of the dialogue goes untranslated, so nuance is lost.
This is one of those films that I can marginally recommend viewing, if only because it illuminates the better work being done at the same time, like Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. On its own, however, Il Generale Della Rovere is vastly overrated and a disappointing film in not only Rossellini’s canon, but that of Italian cinema, despite its financial success. Hollywood was not alone in this regard. Why it was so critically well regarded, however, is a mystery, since its flaws are apparent. Then, again, never underestimate the power of patriotic screeds, especially when the legend looms larger than the man. Damn, I didn’t know Rossellini loved John Ford.