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DVD Review: Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy – The Criterion Collection

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The Criterion Collection has put out some amazing releases in its 25 years of presenting high-quality editions of important films — first on laserdisc and now DVD and Blu-ray — but it takes no stretch of the imagination to deem spine number 500, Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy, one of their best DVDs ever. Included in the box set are Rome Open City (1945), Paisan (1946), and Germany Year Zero (1948).

Cornerstones of Italian neorealism, these three films are astonishing for the circumstances in which they were created — on the streets of Italy and Germany near the very end of WWII and just after — and it’s the realism the productions were steeped in that translates into the truest glimpses of postwar life in Europe that fiction films have ever provided.

It’s clear from just a glance at Criterion’s beautiful three-disc set that this project has been a labor of love for the company for some time. Rome Open City and Germany Year Zero have been available on shoddy DVDs for a while, but the greatest film of the trilogy, Paisan, has never been available in its full original release version until now. Criterion presents all three here with wondrously restored transfers, and the wealth of extras included on each disc will likely surpass the already high standards cinephiles have come to expect.

Rome Open City

The most melodramatic film of the trilogy, Rome Open City is also its most traditional, although the seeds of Rossellini’s revolutionary filmmaking paradigm are certainly evident. Starring Aldo Fabrizi and Anna Magnani, who would become Rossellini’s lover, the film centers its tale in the Nazi occupation of Rome, and the Italian resistance that defied it. At this point historically, Rome was an “open city” that was supposed to be protected from air raids, but the decimated city tells another story.

The dramatic tale of courage, resistance, and betrayal is couched within an intimate and raw look at the destruction of a city. While many scenes are shot on a sound stage, Rossellini takes his camera to the streets often, capturing on a patchwork of film stock the crumbling buildings and starving masses — made up of many actual Nazi POWs — that were very much still a reality.

The first film in the trilogy is bleak, but it was going to get far bleaker as Rossellini stripped away the dramatic underpinnings of Open City in his next two films, and pioneered defining works of the neorealist movement.

Rome Open City is accompanied by a number of extras that pertain to the film specifically and the trilogy as a whole. It is the only film of the three to feature an audio commentary, and it is courtesy of scholar Peter Bondanella.

The disc’s best extra is a new visual essay from Mark Shiel titled Rossellini and the City, a look at Rossellini’s use of the landscapes of his locations — a hallmark of his realism. The visual essay format, which allows the author to present his academic essay with a constant visual aid present, is extraordinary and ought to be utilized by Criterion on future releases.

Also wonderful is the illuminating 2006 documentary, Once Upon a Time … “Rome Open City”, featuring a collection of archival material and documenting the fascinating history of Rossellini’s early filmmaking years creating propaganda for Vittorio Mussolini up until his breakthrough of Rome Open City.

Other supplements include a video introduction to the film by Rossellini from 1963 and a new interview with Rossellini scholar Adriano Aprà — both features included with each film — and an interview with Father Virgilio Fantuzzi about the role of religion in the film.

Paisan

Extraordinarily ambitious and both structurally and stylistically groundbreaking, Paisan proved that Rossellini was treading new cinematic ground. An episodic film, Paisan tells six different stories across the Italian landscape of Italians trying to communicate with Americans in a country on the verge of liberation that still had its share of problems.

Each episode feels rooted in its locale — Sicily, Naples, Rome, Florence, the Appenine Mountains, and the Po Valley are represented — and Rossellini favors even more of a documentary-like approach than he did in Open City. He described the stories in Paisan as glimpses — not true, but not too unimaginable either — of a country torn apart by war.

In a traditional sense of the time period, the Americans are the heroes and everything is going to be okay, but the tragically moving Paisan defies that romanticized version and displays a truly broken country. Every tale — from the Sicilian girl trying to help a patrol of American soldiers to a drunken GI finding just how badly the war has ravaged a young boy’s life to a group of Allied soldiers helping Italian partisans avoid Nazi capture — rings true in some way, presenting one of the most unique and compelling war films ever made.

The Paisan DVD includes another marvelous visual essay, this one from Tag Gallagher and titled Into the Future, discussing the trilogy’s impact on the world of filmmaking. Excerpts from a discussion about filmmaking Rossellini had at Rice University in the ’70s are included alongside the Rosellini introduction and interview with Aprà.

Germany Year Zero

After exploring Italy on a local level and a national level with the first two films of the war trilogy, Rossellini turned his attention to Germany, which had not been simply physically ravaged by the war, but morally and spiritually as well.

The film continued to advance Rossellini’s strides into neorealism while also providing inspiration for a defining cornerstone of the French New Wave, with François Truffaut certainly drawing from the film for his The 400 Blows.

Twelve-year-old Edmund lives in a bomb-destroyed apartment with his siblings and ill father, none of whom have the wherewithal to properly watch him. Frequently wandering the streets, Edmund finds himself coming under a number of bad influences, including a pedophiliac, Nazi-sympathetic former teacher who plants fascist ideals in his head.

Spare and succinct, Germany Year Zero is a cautionary tale about the evils that Nazism brings about, but it’s also a sympathetic portrait of a neighboring country that has been just as devastated, and Rossellini’s images of a bombed-out Germany are no less moving than similar ones of Italy. Made shortly after Rossellini’s son Romano died, the film’s themes of youth lost are all the more poignant.

The Germany Year Zero disc contains an essential hour-long documentary on Rossellini’s life by Carlo Lizzani, assistant director of Germany Year Zero. The very informative doc features interviews from family members and colleagues, as well as tributes from those he influenced, such as Truffaut and Martin Scorsese.

Other supplements include a Lizzani discussion about the film, interviews with Italian directors Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, the Rossellini introduction, the Aprà interview, and an illustrated essay from Thomas Meder on Rossellini’s relationship with mistress Roswitha Schmidt that may have influenced his decision to film in Germany.

In addition to the three individually packaged discs, Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy includes a 44-page book that includes essays from James Quandt, Irene Bignardi, Colin MacCabe, and Jonathan Rosenbaum. Criterion has packaged together an absolutely essential set for anyone interested in Italian neorealism, war film, or the history of cinema. Even with its January release date, Rossellini’s War Trilogy is a strong contender for the most important DVD of the year.

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About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.