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.