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Perhaps the oddest film in one of Italian cinema's most storied careers, The Machine That Kills Bad People (1952, La macchina ammazzacattivi) belongs to the longstanding European tradition of morality tales in which the devil insinuates himself into society, exploiting the inherent flaws in the people on earth to teach a valuable lesson to members of the audience. This tactic was popular for several decades on movie screens as well, with entries ranging from France (Marcel Carn's Les visiteurs du soir, 1942) to Italy (Ettore Scola's The Devil in Love, 1966).
Sandwiched somewhere in between is this atypical 1952 film by Roberto Rossellini, a director primarily known at the time for his sober dramas like Rome, Open City (1945) and The Flowers of St. Francis (1950). Released during the director's much-publicized marriage to Ingrid Bergman but shot much earlier, The Machine That Kills Bad People leaps into the realms of both fantasy and comedy with a tale about Celestino (Gennaro Pisano), a photographer in a small Sicilian seaside village where greed, apathy, and exploitation run amok. One evening an elderly stranger claiming to be St. Andrea, the town's patron saint, gives Celestino the power to kill evildoers with his camera, an ability he claims is mandated by God. However, it appears the benefactor might be from another, decidedly more southern realm as Celestino's gift for snuffing out "bad people" (who expire in the positions captured by his camera) begins to run rampant, soon aiming at the poor people Celestino once championed.
A man who had seen quite a bit of humanity at both its lowest and highest points during World War II in Italy, Roberto Rossellini is still largely thought of as a neorealist filmmaker due to his first three narrative films and his initial background in documentaries. However, he also branched out into other areas including period pieces, thrillers, and television biographies. However, the combination of genres here may have been too much for him, as the filmmaker essentially abandoned the project before completion in 1948, leaving it to be completed without his participation and released four years later. For decades the film languished as an obscure footnote in the director's career, resurfacing very rarely and even being considered lost until its festival revivals in 2011 and 2012.
Seen today, the film's placement in Rossellini's career is a bit revelatory; it was the first film he shot after the completion of his famed neorealist trilogy, with Germany Year Zero (1948) forming the final chapter. In fact, after working on this film in 1948 he wouldn't complete another entire feature by himself until two years later with the release of the far more famous The Flowers of St. Francis and Stromboli (1950), both of which are far more straightforward dramatic pieces. In fact, Rossellini never explored his affinity for outright comedy so completely again; however, he shows as much skill for it here as many of his contemporaries like Vittorio De Sica and manages to include a consistent helping of social commentary aimed at both Italian citizens, officials, and even American tourists in one of the most outlandish highlights.
Having proven his propensity for working with professional actors as well as amateur ones, Rossellini moved on from this film to his more renowned collaborations with Bergman and the aforementioned historical films, all of which are considered important cycles in his career.
Interestingly, Rossellini never again returned so forcefully to the idea of the camera - be it for still photography or shooting motion pictures - as a potent social force, with its ability to "kill" in many ways prefiguring the "mondo" reality craze that would sweep through Italy in the following two decades thanks to Mondo Cane (1962) and its progeny. This film may have been too minor to be considered influential, but despite its lighthearted and fantastic aspects, one can find traces of its themes in later films ranging from Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960) to Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up (1966), Paolo Cavara's The Wild Eye (1967), and numerous films by Brian De Palma, among others. Rossellini's supernatural farce isn't as significant as some of those, of course, but it would make an oddly appropriate double feature with any of them.
by Nathaniel Thompson