Posted by morlockjeff on January 2, 2010
Roberto Rossellini cinephiles can rejoice in the good news that his influential war trilogy – ROME OPEN CITY , PAISAN  and 1948’s GERMANY YEAR ZERO (the films that established him as “the Father of Italian Neorealism) – are due for release this month as a DVD box set from The Criterion Collection. Available for years in inferior public domain prints and poor video transfers, these films will finally receive the restored, high-definition digital transfers they deserve. Linked thematically to this trilogy, however, is a latter Rossellini film, ERA NOTTE A ROMA [1960, aka ESCAPE BY NIGHT], which, unfortunately, has never enjoyed the reputation or respect of this seminal trilogy. This past week I had the opportunity to revisit it again (I first saw a 16mm print of it from Films Inc.) and I am still baffled by the movie’s low profile since its original release and its 2008 re-release on DVD from Lionsgate as part of the Roberto Rossellini 2-Disc Collector’s Edition (which also includes DOV’E LA LIBERTA…? (1954, aka WHERE IS FREEDOM?).
In some ways, it’s an ideal Christmas film as it takes place a few days before December 25th and juxtaposes such virtues as faith, hope, charity, and all the human generosity we associate with the hallowed holiday against death, destruction and despair. While the film is too grounded in reality to be an allegory, it does weave a complex web of human interactions and emotions which becomes much richer as it progresses and breaks out of its seemingly conventional narrative structure. Set toward the end of the Allied Campaign in Italy prior to battle of Anzio, the movie is told as one complete flashback by the narrator, Major Pembleton (Leo Genn), a British major, who has escaped from a German concentration camp with a wounded American soldier, Peter Bradley (Peter Baldwin), and Russian officer Fyodor Nazukov (Sergei Bondarchuk). The three men are hiding out in a rural village when a trio of nuns from Rome arrive to bargain with the villagers for food, wine and supplies. The nuns turn out to be black marketeers and one of them, Esperia (Giovanna Ralli), agrees to smuggle the escaped prisoners to Rome in exchange for better exchange rates on her goods. Once they get to the city, Esperia plans to let them stay in her attic for one night and then send them out on the streets to fend for themselves. But her scheme is foiled due to complications: the American has a serious leg injury and can’t be moved without endangering his life so a local doctor, Dr. Costanzi (Enrico Maria Salerno), who is also a secret Resistance worker, is called in to treat Bradley. While the soldier recovers and his companions get restless, the risks increase for Esperia and her finance Renator (Renato Salvatori), both of whom realize they will face the firing squad if the Germans discover them. And there are numerous threats to their safety from the suspicious doorman to Tarcisio (George Petrarca), a crippled ex-priest turned Nazi informer, to careless actions by the three escaped prisoners and their hosts.
Yet this is all just the first half of ERA NOTTE A ROMA which bears some similarities to the melodramatic setup of THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK where all of the principal characters are often shut up in claustrophobic conditions for an undetermined period of time with the threat of capture always in the air. Adding additional frustration to the situation is a language barrier where neither the escaped men or their hosts can communicate effectively, except through gestures or pathetic attempts at each other’s language. The second half of the movie, however, when the trio goes their separate ways, alternates the focus between Esperia and Major Pembleton, who remains in hiding in Rome. If the second half of ERA NOTTE A ROMA lacks the suspense and emotional power of the first half, it also departs from the formulaic expections of a war drama or man-on-the-run thriller and becomes something more moving and tragic by its fadeout. Cliches and stereotypes are constantly being served up and exploded in ways that make you constantly re-evaluate each scene or human interaction. Identities shift constantly: nuns can be black market traffickers, escaped prisoners can pass as priests in a Vatican seminary, acknowledged Fascist sympathizers can be underground allies of the enemy and vice versa.
ROMA is no paean to the Resistance either which often seems ineffective and powerless against the Nazis’ control of the city. And if the Italians are not depicted in a very favorable light – most of them seem completely mercenary in their behavior and are constantly bickering and in disagreement with each other – some of them, such as Esperia, become inadvertent heroes due to their own stubborn behavior. In the end it is Esperia who suffers the most and pays the highest price for her actions – all of which could have been avoided if she had not been so enterprising in her black market activities. Even the German officer, Colonel Von Kleist (Hannes Messemer), who regularly patrols the neighborhood with his armed men, is not your typical Nazi villain. Instead he’s depicted as a homesick aesthete who feels a class bond with the aristocratic Italian family who live next door to Esperia and appears to prefer their company to that of his fellow officers. For me, ERA NOTTE A ROMA is a moving summation of every theme Rossellini had expressed through his cinema prior to this – “moral fortitude and religious faith in ROME OPEN CITY, language and communication in PAISAN, innocence and guilt in GERMANY YEAR ZERO; courage in GENERAL DELLA ROVERE…” (from Audio Brandon Films 16mm International Cinema catalog).
ROMA was made during a transitory time in Rossellini’s career. He had left Ingrid Bergman and recently returned to Italy after a brief interlude in India involving another romantic scandal with a married woman (who later became his third wife) while working on one of his lesser-known projects, the documentary India: Matri Bhumi (1959). He had also just completed GENERALE DELLA ROVERE, which was a critical and commercial success in Italy and seemed to confirm that the public still wanted to see movies about the Occupation period. ERA NOTTE A ROMA continued that theme and was, in some ways, a purely commercial consideration for Rossellini. And in comparision to the stark, documentary-like style of ROME OPEN CITY or PAISAN with their casts of mostly non-professional actors, ROMA featured a prominent international cast and a dramatic structure that felt more scripted and conventional than his “War Trilogy.” Despite the fact that this 1960 film won a special jury prize at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (in the Czech Republic) and that Giovanna Ralli received the Best Actress award at the San Francisco International Film Festival, it was not well received by many Italian critics at the time. Many dismissed it as an opportunistic and unoriginal attempt to recapture the acclaim and success of ROME OPEN CITY by returning to the same subject. The film critic of Cinema Nuova, a communist newspaper, wrote “The populist solidarity that chorally animated Roma citta aperta has been transformed into pop cliché.” Another reviewer called it “mere retrogression,” adding “Dignified and clean, of course, but devoid of insight, atmosphere and inspiration, Era Notte a Roma is the film of a fine craftsman, a good technician, not of an artist.” Even recent assessments of the re-released 134 minute version on DVD (it was first released in the U.S. in an 82 minute version) haven’t touted the movie as much more than a minor work for Rossellini despite some fine attributes.
Allegedly, Rossellini was quite happy with his work on ERA NOTTE A ROMA which surprises me because he detested overt sentiment and went to extremes to avoid it in his work, always striving toward objective depictions of human truth. Yet there are many emotional scenes in ROMA that border on the sentimental but have an almost glowing spiritual quality that recalls the compassion and humanity of Renoir’s RULES OF THE GAME or Fellini’s NIGHTS OF CABIRIA. Although ROMA was scripted by Rossellini and numerous writers with Catholic or Communist sensibilities, I would not classify it as a political film though, if anything, it is clearly anti-Fascist. The real themes that emerge are survival, personal ethics, and friendships that are forged in desperate circumstances and become intimate and intense in a short lived capsule of time. In one of the most moving sequences, Fyodor struggles to express himself at a Christmas dinner in Esperia’s attic despite the fact that his comrades can only guess what his Russian speech means though the viewer is given the aid of subtitles: “I haven’t been able to express what I feel for you. I know very little of you and you know little of me. My country is far, far away. You don’t know my country. I suffer because I’m far from my country and from my family….there is so much I’d like to say my friends. We speak different languages but we understand each other. There is death, war, destruction all around us. We never wanted this war. They came to us with war. It brought with it so much suffering, so much sorrow, so much blood…but the sorrows of war have brought us together. We have become friends. I will always remember this. But I just can’t sit here any longer. I have to go out there and fight and chase them away from our sacred land, every last one of them. It’s better to perish than to sit here idle…” At which point, overcome with emotion, Fyodor rushes to the window but is coaxed back to the table for a toast. Fyodor, in fact, is one of the more unpredictable and intriguing characters in the storyline and as played by the great Sergei Bondarchuk, a celebrated Russian actor and director (War and Peace [1965-66], Waterloo ), is as volatile and temperamental as his Italian hosts Esperia and Renato and one reason he seems to develop such a strong emotional bond with them. By the end of his stay, he is even conversing in broken Italian with them.
Giovanna Ralli, who never successfully made the transition to American films unlike fellow actresses Sophia Loren or Gina Lollobrigida despite a few English-language films (What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? , The Caper of the Golden Bulls , Deadfall ), is outstanding in the demanding central role of Esperia. She has the smoldering sensuality of Silvana Mangano but also the dramatic range and intensity of Anna Magnani. Some of her scenes demonstrate a light, comic flair as when she misinterprets some of the words or actions of her international houseguests while others achieve an operatic emotionalism such as the devastating final shot in which Esperia breaks down in despair as the Allies enter Rome victoriously. Freedom is finally at hand let she has lost everything that mattered by this point.
Many other cast members in ROMA will be familiar to you as well. Leo Genn, cast as Major Pembleton, was a prolific English character actor that graced many Hollywood films (The Snake Pit , The Miniver Story , Quo Vadis , for which he received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination) and starred in several memorable British movies as well (Pygmalion , Green for Danger ). Peter Baldwin, who plays the wounded American soldier, toiled in bit parts in movies such as The Space Children (1958) and I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) before finding his niche as a television director, helming episodes of everything from The Andy Griffith Show to Mary Tyler Moore to The Brady Bunch to Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. Renato Salvatori started out as a young leading man in Italian films and then started to play more thuggish types and heavies in his latter career starting with his doomed boxer in Luchino Viscounti’s Rocco and His Brothers  , his brutal assassin in Z  or his unsympathetic working class husband in A Brief Vacation . If you also look closely in the early scenes, Laura Betti, a familiar presence in the films of Mario Bava, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Bernardo Bertolucci, plays one of the “fake” nuns accompanying Esperia on her rural village excursion.
ERA NOTTE A ROMA was shot on a tight 45 day schedule at Cinecitta Studios except for some exterior location shooting and stock war footage at the beginning and end of the film. The production was mostly a family affair with Roberto’s brother Renzo providing the music score, his son Renzino and nephew Franco serving as assistant directors and his mother Elettra, sister Marcella and other relations tending to production details. Despite a completed script, Rossellini liked to improvise or change things at the last minute. Gianni Amico, one of the producers, arrived one day to find Rossellini dictating new dialogue to his assistants. “I was astounded,” Amico said, “because it had been a very elaborate script, for which an absolutely absurd figure for the time had been paid! Seeing my perplexity, Rossellini said to me, ‘Amico, we had them write it, now do we actually want to use it, too?’ It was a perfect reply, summing up a whole way of putting oneself face to face with cinema. For me it was a total and complete demythification.” Clearly Rossellini intended ROMA as a showcase role for Giovanna Ralli but he also used the project to experiment with a new technical innovation, the Pancinor. This was a mechanism that produced the visual effect of a tracking shot without the camera actually moving and had been used by Orson Welles as early as 1946 for his film THE STRANGER. According to production notes that were attributed to either Roberto or Renzino, “The Pancinor is like a camera suspended in air. It’s like having the camera in your hand. The director can put the accents where he wants, during the shooting of a scene. And this way we eliminate the rigidity of cutting and speed up the rhythm…Cuts make dialogue stiff; the actor has to stop all the time and then assume a new attitude. Now instead, the director can steal expressions on the actors, without their being aware of it, while the dialogue continues.”
Rossellini’s use of the Pancinor in ROMA is often so subtle you wouldn’t ordinarily notice it in comparison to more attention-getting pans or zoom shots in contemporary cinema. Yet there are several scenes where his use of it creates an intimacy with the actor or directs your attention inconspicuously to a private moment that reveals more than words can say. One of the more memorable moments occurs when Fyodor climbs out onto the tile roof overlooking St. Peter’s Basilica and sadly sings a few lines of a Russian folk song, full of guilt that his recent carelessness in chasing a runaway turkey into the courtyard below has exposed him and his comrades to the eyes of a prying neighbor. The camera pushes in slowly to capture Fyodor alone and isolated in his sorrow which he has been unable to adequately express to his companions. Another key moment occurs when Fyodor prepares to leave his hideaway and let fate take its course but first insists that everyone join him in a circle. Esperia, Renato, Peter and Pemberton take their seats expecting Fyodor to make another speech or perhaps say a prayer. Instead he simply looks at them, taking it all in one last time as the camera moves from face to face, capturing a wealth of conflicting emotions. It’s an eloquent and beautiful sequence.
The print quality of ERA NOTTE A ROMA is acceptable though the image is often soft, lacks contrast and shows signs of damage here and there. It certainly could use the Criterion Collection treatment but I’m simply grateful that it is even available for viewing. If you’re an admirer of Rossellini and haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.
The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini by Tag Gallagher (Da Capo Press)
Roberto Rossellini: A Guide to References and Resources by Patrizio Rossi (G.K Hall)
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