“The camera’s a ballpoint pen, an imbecile; it’s not worth anything if you don’t have anything to say.” – Roberto Rossellini
Near destined for filmmaking success after his father built the first cinema in Rome, the ‘Barberini’, Roberto Rossellini was a master of Italian Neorealism taking post-war cinema by the scruff of its neck with films such as Rome, Open City, Paisan and Germany, Year Zero.
With a particular interest in telling stories of ordinary lives devastated by the effects of WWII early in his career, through the 1960s and his career end, he became increasingly infatuated with the unconventional, constantly experimenting with new styles and techniques.
A director deeply admired by Martin Scorsese for his monumental impact on Italian cinema, Scorsese said of Rossellini’s 1950 film Stromboli that it was like “experiencing the power of cinema itself… And I was also seeing that cinema wasn’t just about the movie itself but the relationship between the movie and its audience.”
As one of the most influential directors of the mid-20th century, we take a look back at this master of Italian Neorealism…
Roberto Rossellini’s six definitive films:
Rome, Open City (Roberto Rossellini, 1945)
Rossellini’s third film didn’t shy away from the horror’s of war, despite WWII officially ending only mere days before the film’s release, as a result, it was initially shunned by Italian audiences looking for escapism, though this would change in the coming years.
Together with Paisà and Germany Year Zero, Rome, Open City made up the “Neorealist trilogy” telling stories of working-class individuals using many non-professional actors. Rossellini’s 1945 film recounts the tale of a resistance leader, Giorgio Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero), chased by Nazi’s into hiding during the Nazi occupation of Rome in 1944. Among Pope Francis’ very favourite films, Rome, Open City creates a tangible sense of fear and genuine experience, features that would quickly become an integral part of Rossellini’s Neorealist style.
Paisan (Roberto Rossellini, 1946)
Nominated for an Oscar for best original screenplay, Rossellini’s anthology film and follow up to Rome, Open City explores miscommunication and recklessness in the face of unprecedented evil.
Recounting six different stories set in Italy’s WWII campaign each following a similar theme of misperception, many argue that Rossellini’s fifth film was the first to mark his dominance in the Neorealism era. Martin Scorsese said of the film, “I saw it for the first time on television with my grandparents, and their overwhelming reaction to what had happened to their homeland since they left at the turn of the century was just as present and vivid for me as the images and the characters”.
Rossellini’s shocking anthology film depicting the harsh realities of war would mark his cinematic ascension.
Germany Year Zero (Roberto Rossellini, 1948)
Rossellini would bookend the Neorealism trilogy with a pessimistic take on the problems a post-WWII Berlin placed the country’s youth, subsequently creating a bleak wartime horror.
Germany Year Zero tells of Edmund, a 12-year-old boy navigating the devastated rubble of Berlin with little sign of future hope, particularly in a country that would rather forget its past and present. Losing his own nine-year-old son Romano just months before he began production on the film, Rossellini’s devastating film is marked by an understandably unrelenting pessimism reminding viewers of the sheer loss of hope and innocence that was left in WWII’s wake.
Stromboli (Roberto Rossellini, 1950)
“This too was a very important film of Rossellini’s second period. Very beautiful,” speaks Martin Scorsese, holding Rossellini’s eighth film about a woman escaping an internment prison in extremely high regard.
Upon escaping the prison with help from a fisherman named Antonio (Mario Vitale), Karin (Ingrid Bergman) travels with him to the volcano-threatened village Stromboli where she struggles to adapt to a tough life. Described by American film critic Dave Kehr as “one of the pioneering works of modern European filmmaking”, Stromboli is an agonising study of Ingrid Bergman’s Karin, an individual forced to sacrifice her pride to seek revelation and learn to find herself once more.
Europe ’51 (Roberto Rossellini, 1952)
Working with Ingrid Bergman once more whilst in the midst of an affair, Roberto Rossellini’s Europe ‘51 depicts the life of a modern-day saint, played by Bergman, in post-war Italy and the consequences that such a life would bring.
It follows Bergman as Irene Girard, a wealthy woman who becomes dedicated to humanitarian endeavours after her young son commits suicide. Thought to be based on the times of philosopher Simone Weil, Rosselini’s film takes the morphing zeitgeist of the 1950s spiked with revolution and changing lifestyles and applies it to the very being of Europe ’51. Trying her hand at multiple industries, Irene’s story leads to a moving climatic resolution described by film historian David Thomson as “genuine social realism”.
The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (Roberto Rossellini, 1966)
In 1962, Roberto Rossellini announced at a press conference in a bookshop in Rome that “cinema was dead”, explaining that “there’s a crisis not just in film but culture as a whole.”
As a result of this Rossellini moved to TV, in search of, as he stated “mankind’s path in search of truth,” making The Taking of Power by Louis XIV as his first television feature film. Unlike any of Rosselini’s previous films in narrative, yet retaining his stark, realistic style utilising non-professional actors, the film tracks a young king Louis XIV asserting his power on the aristocracy after the death of Cardinal Mazarin. Taking place almost entirely in the vicinity of Sun King’s court, Rosselini’s film is an intriguing and redemptive film, filling in an overshadowed yet powerful section of French history.