Friday, October 15, 2010

An Italian looks at WWII

Have you ever heard the expression "I can't say enough about x person or x thing"? Well, this is a case in point. Except that I can't say enough bad things about Roberto Rossellini's Paisa'.

The movie is part of a three-film Criterion collection, called The War Trilogy, somewhat pretentiously. The two other films are Rome: Open City and Germany, Year Zero. Both of which I had already seen. So I saw Paisa' last night, and I'm still angry. Seldom have I witnessed such bad faith in cinema, a medium I love and consider an art to all effects.

The film is a neo-Realist treatment of the Allies' advance up the Italian peninsula, from debarking in Sicily in 1943, on through Rome and central Italy, ending up along the Po river in the North. One word describes it all: anti-Americanism. With a dash of anti-British sentiment for good measure- to the extent that he considers the British at all, almost as if they had nothing to do with the liberation of Italy, as opposed to the uniformly heroic/modest/effective/salt of the earth partisans.

The story is told in six episodes. In two of the six episodes, one third of the movie, there are two GI protagonists who are so drunk that they literally fail to recognize Italians they previously had extensive dealings with. Besides drunkenness, the GIs are ungrateful to the helpful and cooperative populace (what happened to all the Fascists?) as in episode I, prejudiced and dismissive (calling the Italians Eye-ties and Paisan), corrupters of women (in six months, Roman women go from being sweet and innocent to being seasoned whores), coarse, loutish, and none too bright.

The only American who is positively portrayed is a Catholic chaplain who is being hosted in a monastery, where the monks are in crisis about the presence of two heathens in their midst, namely, a Protestant and a Jew. Especially (you guessed it) the Jew. The good(?) brothers decide to fast at their common meal for the salvation of the souls of the two heathens. The finale of the episode, which left me incredulous, has the Chaplain thanking the brothers for their lessons in serenity and peace and all that good stuff. Hell, I could be serene and peaceful if I lived in a monastery, too. How convenient for a bunch of males to live in a monastery in times of war. And how absolutely distasteful that Rossellini presents these anti-Semitic monks (and by extension, the Catholic Church) in an angelic light, exactly one year after Nazi-Fascism practically destroyed European Jewry. With the non-intervention of Pope Pius XII.

And what did the Brits do as the battle was raging? According to the middle episode, they sat on a hill with their binoculars observing Florence from a distance and chatting about its monuments in a snotty voice, as if they were tourists, while the Fascists and heroic partisans fought it out. Read: it was really the partisans who liberated Italy. Many, many Italians still believe this pathetic lie to this day.

And as if that slap in the face to perfidious Albion wasn't enough, a later episode has an American OSS man bark: "these people [the Italians] aren't fighting to defend the British Empire, they're fighting for their lives." Yes, folks, the Brits fought WWII as an imperialist war to defend their empire. And they never had to fight for their lives. Unless we wish to remember Hitler's Blitz in 1940-1941, when the Italians were still squarely behind Il Duce because they thought he might still win. Oh, and while we're at it, have we forgotten Mussolini and his (attempts at) empire and war-mongering? And make no mistake: most Italians were solidly behind Mussolini, just as most Germans were behind Hitler, his ally.

After I saw this incredibly dishonest and opportunistic film, which attempts to suck in spectators by its pseudo-realism and sentimentality, I looked at the director's bio. How did he get started in film? Why, he was a friend of Mussolini's son, Vittorio Mussolini. And he made Fascist propaganda movies. Plus ca change, Roberto.

(In the photo, a dumb, drunken, selfish, big GI with a clever, sober and noble little Italian)