Paisan (1946) Directed by Roberto Rossellini. Maria Michi, Carmela Sazio, Gar Moore (115 min).
Paisan (Paisà) portrays the American invasion of Italy during WWII through a blend of fact and fiction. Italians watched American GIs descend on them like visitors from another planet and Rossellini wanted to capture his country’s experience while it was still fresh. “Paisan is considered to be Rossellini’s most important film, and in a way it is the most impressive film of the entire neo-realist movement” (Liehm).
The original concept for Paisan, Seven from the US, was by American GI and film producer Rod Geiger. He envisioned a diary of the invasion from the American point of view, to counteract the racism Americans felt for Italians during the war, and to attract American actors and American money to the production. When director Roberto Rossellini became involved creatively, the film’s perspective shifted to that of the Italian population. Italy had been a German ally, but declared war on Germany in 1943. Skeptical Americans continued to treat Italian citizens as the enemy. Although the naiveté of American soldiers often caused personal disaster for individual Italians, the implication was that Italy, with their aid, would be reborn from the ashes of WWII.
Paisan consists of six episodes in six locations, presented like a collection of short stories, following the American army’s route through Italy from south to north. Each story is introduced as if it were a segment in a theatrical newsreel, with a map and voice-over narration, a convention familiar to audiences in the days before television news. These brief historical and geographical introductions convey vital WWII history to modern viewers. The first episode follows a group of ragtag American soldiers as they make tentative contact with Sicilian villagers, in the second an African American MP has his shoes stolen by a little boy and in the third a GI tells a prostitute the story of a fresh young girl he met as Rome was being liberated, not knowing the weary tramp is the same girl six months later. In the last three tales an American nurse searches for a former lover in the embattled ruins of Florence, three Army chaplains take refuge in a monastery and partisans and soldiers struggle desperately for control of the Po River towards the end of the Italian campaign.
Rossellini’s Open City (Rome-Città Aperta, 1945) created the aesthetic that was dubbed “neo-realism” (new realism). This technique blurred the line between documentary fact and fiction by using scripted stories in real locations. Sergio Amidei, who co-scripted Open City and Paisan said, “The force of the new Italian cinema was this: the euphoria of the truth” (Gallagher). The audience should feel prompted to ask, “Is this fiction or a documentary?” Open City was filmed when Rome was still warm, so to speak, from the Nazi Occupation, and became Europe’s first post-war masterpiece. The motion picture studios, as well as most of the city, had been bombed, and the country was on the verge of social and economic collapse. Open City was made with an emphasis on recreating real incidents in the exact locations where they occurred. Film stock was scrounged. All sound and dialogue had to be dubbed in later, and there were no daily rushes. The style, the opposite of a slick studio production, was raw by definition. This was one of major reasons that Open City and Paisan were condemned by many Italian critics, another was that it portrayed Italy’s misery for the world to see.
Neo-realism was considered by many critics to be the vanguard of an important cinematic revolution untainted by the escapism of Hollywood-style films. Rossellini greatly admired American director King Vidor, particularly his film The Crowd, and modern American authors like Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck and William Faulkner. Rossellini and his fellow director Vittorio de Sica were criticized later in their careers as betraying the ground-breaking movement they founded when they turned to less bleak subjects. Neo-realism seems particularly suited war and post-war subjects, as evidenced by subsequent films in this style like The Battle of Algiers and recent cinema from Iran and Afghanistan.
Rossellini was the eldest son of wealthy parents, a dilettante playboy and cinephile. Before his break-through film, Open City, he made several documentaries for the Fascists, in part because he knew one of Italian Dictator Benito Mussolini’s sons socially. For some, the fact that Rossellini was now making films celebrating the Resistance was an insult to those who had more vehemently opposed the Fascist regime.
Federico Fellini was one of Rossellini’s script writers. Working on Pasian was instrumental in his decision to direct movies himself, and he considered the older director a mentor. He said, “After the war, our subjects were ready-made. They were probably of a very simple kind: survival, war, peace. These problems were preordained. They stood out a mile” (Liehm). Fellini added, “Following Rossellini around when he was shooting Pasian provided me with the sudden joyous revelation that you could make a film with the same freedom, the same lightness of spirit, with which you might draw or write, enjoying it and suffering with it day by day, hour by hour without agonizing too much about the final result” (Gallagher). His perspective balanced Rossellini’s, for example, in the monastery story it was his idea to add the irony of the Protestant and Jewish army chaplains accompanying the Catholic priest as they seek refuge with the monks.
The Americans in Paisan were all professional actors, mostly from off-Broadway. The Italians in many cases were not only non-professionals, they came from such remote parts of the country that they scarcely had an idea what they were doing, for example, the 15 year old girl who plays Carmela in the first episode, and some of the monks in the monastery. Integrating these varying skill levels into an organic cinematic whole was a challenge for the director. The Naples episode was largely improvised after Rossellini and Fellini saw the cave of Mergellina where so many war refugees had fled after the American bombings of the city, and noted the easy byplay between black actor Dotts Johnson and little Alfonsino Bovino. That episode’s take on race relations in America and in the army were certainly radical for any film of its day, Italian or American. The Florence section reproduced the battle of August 8, 1944, after the Germans had blown up all the bridges across the Arno River. In the Po River section that concludes the film, former partisans (resistance fighters) played themselves, reenacting incidents from their lives.
Paisan emphasizes the fear of both the people of Italy, the paisans, (which is a corruption of paesano, meaning alternately countrymen, neighbor, kinsman or friend, and is how the GIs addressed the Italians) and the soldiers who were coming to liberate them. One Italian character says, “All men with guns are alike” and there does seem little reason to trust yet another invading army. Americans and Italians were enemies at the beginning of WWII, and trust is hard won on both sides, although the GIs do indeed carry welcome gifts of cigarettes and Hershey bars. The language barrier automatically created misunderstandings, although many GIs were first generation Americans whose families emigrated from Italy and spoke Italian.
This video creates a cine-club experience, with its imperfect transfer of a murky 16mm print, in which not all the dialogue is translated and some of the subtitles are illegible. In fact, this contributes to the sense of disorientation that the invading American army must have had, where people talked to one another, but only a certain percentage of the conversation could be understood.
In director Martin Scorcese’s documentary My Voyage to Italy, he says Paisan is the first Italian movie he ever saw. “I saw them as a child in the late 1940s on television, with my family around me. Everyone agrees that Rossellini accomplished something extraordinary with Open City and Paisan, and I know he did from first hand experience: I will never forget my grandparents crying as they watched these movies. Rossellini brought the plight of his country alive in these movies, he gave us both the tragedy of the war and the spiritual fortitude of the Italian People. It was an indelible achievement.” (introduction to Forgacs, et al.)
(Sources include: Adventures of Roberto Rossellini by Tag Gallagher, Film in Italy from 1942 to Present by Mira Liehm, Films of Roberto Rossellini by Peter Bondanella, Roberto Rossellini, Magician of the Real, edited by David Forgacs, Sarah Lutton and Geo. Nowell-Smith, Videohound’s World Cinema by Elliot Wilhelm)