Roberto Rossellini’s follow up to the stupendous Rome, Open City was probably always going to be a bit of a letdown. Rossellini mitigates some of that disappointment by changing up the structure and focus, even if war is still the general topic. Paisan, from a word that is used in Italy to address a fellow Italian as a friend, is really six short films that are connected with documentary footage of the Allied invasion and liberation of Italy. The movie follows a roughly sequential timeline from the early landings to the last battles and jumps from small seaside towns to big cities like Rome and Florence. Because each roughly 20-minute-long segment is completely independent from the others, the characters don’t get quite as much time to make as strong an impression as some of those in Rome, Open City did. Rossellini still manages to craft stories and relationships that leave a mark. I couldn’t tell you the names of any of the characters a day later but I can tell you about the wonderfully touching little moments that Rossellini captures them in and his remarkable use of the short story structure to link the segments through thematic and geographic similarity.
Half of the segments are bigger ensemble pieces while the other three are practically two-handers, and even then the first zooms in to focus on an American GI and an Italian woman forced to keep each other company while the rest of the American army men scout ahead on a dangerous path following the Germans’ retreat. The two-handers are more memorable because they allow Rossellini the space to do what he did so well in Rome, Open City: examine how wildly varying individuals respond to extreme circumstances. Take the pair from the second segment, a drunk African American MP is “bought” by a little orphan boy and then dragged around a recently liberated city. At first I was skeeved out by the premise. It’s weird! I soon realized, however, that the MP’s drunkenness was likely some kind of PTSD from the horrors of the battlefield and the orphan boy’s behavior was similarly birthed from a desire for order and control over something in his life. When the MP sobers up the next day he finds the orphan boy and has him take them to his village where the MP sees the conditions the young boy and dozens of others like him were living in. His anger immediately dissipates, replaced by an understanding of how similar their lives have become. In the most powerful scene in the film, earlier in the same segment, the MP anticipates what his homecoming will be like as he drunkenly rambles atop a trash heap. He first imagines a tickertape parade in his honor, then he slowly gets more and more despondent as he foresees his return on a train to his hometown, where he knows he will have to deal with the racism and poverty he momentarily escaped at great cost in the war.
It’s scenes like that where Rossellini makes clear what the title means. He extends paisan’s definition to the Allied forces, mostly, and even performs a few mild critiques of his fellow countrymen in the penultimate segment, another favorite of mine. In that one, three US chaplains visit a monastery and share their chocolate in return for a good meal from the monks there. There’s a sense of geniality that hangs over most of the proceedings, that is until the monks find out that two of the three chaplains aren’t Catholic but rather a Protestant and a Jew. This throws the monastery into minor chaos, and the monks refuse to join the meal they prepared in an attempt to gain heavenly favor in converting the other two Americans to the true path. Echoing Don Pietro Pellegrini from Rome, Open City, the American Catholic chaplain explains, “I’ve never examined their consciences. I’ve never discussed this with them. I’ve never asked them anything because I felt I could never judge them. I know them too well, they’re good friends. Perhaps you here amid this peace, this atmosphere of serene meditation, consider me guilty. I don’t feel guilty. My conscience is clear.” Rossellini shows more understanding that “the paths of God are infinite” than his countrymen do, and in so doing he extends the concept of paisan to those who fight for justice against the forces of evil. He need not judge others so long as they are on the right side of the fight and don’t stray.
I was also thoroughly impressed with the third and fourth segments, the middle third of the movie. In the third, an Italian woman and an American soldier meet just after the liberation of the city they were in happened. They form an intense bond for an evening and then he must go on with his company. But he returns later, looking for her. When he can’t find her, he settles with a woman who also settles for him. Only during his recollection of the first coupling does she realize that she was the woman who he was reminiscing about. The post-war conditions, starvation and depravity, had changed the both of them so much that they couldn’t recognize each other. The fourth episode similarly focuses on a man and a woman, but this time the woman is the American and they both go on a trip into Florence where fighting is still happening in the streets. It’s the most action packed episode but Rossellini also depicts how the lives of the Florentines have and haven’t changed, the British troops’ indifference to anything outside the larger story of the battle and war, and the things that will drive people to risk their lives. While the short film collection structure necessarily prohibits the kind of depth that Rossellini explored in his prior work, it also provides him the opportunity to create a remarkably intimate epic that does double duty as a work of fiction and documentary.