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.