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The Italian cinema reached a turning point when Roberto Rossellini made Paisan, his1946 omnibus film about the U.S. invasion of Italy at the end of World WarII. More than any other film, Paisan embodied every element ofneo-realism, the style that would characterize the best of the country'spost-war films. Where Rossellini's first international triumph, OpenCity (1946) had combined its stunning location shots of war-torn Romewith a manipulative and melodramatic plot, Paisan combineddocumentary footage, non-professional actors and a simple screenplay oftenimprovised on the spot. The result was one of the most realistic visions everput on screen in a fiction film. Moreover, with this, his twelfth film,Rossellini finally began to find his footing as a writer-director.
At first, he wasn't even considering directing the film. The project startedout as Seven from the U.S., a tribute to the U.S. Army's role inliberating Italy. The package had been put together by a team of Americanproducers and writers that included Rod E. Geiger, who would stay with thefilm through its release, and Klaus Mann, son of acclaimed novelist ThomasMann. They turned to Rossellini to help bring the production together. Atfirst, he saw himself merely as the producer, with different directors workingon each of the seven planned sequences (there would be six sequences in thefinal film). But as the screenplay took shape, Rossellini and co-writerSergio Amidei began making it more about the Italian reaction to the U.S.invasion. Ultimately, Mann left the production in anger, but later, sowould Amidei, who saw many of his ideas scrapped as Rossellini re-wrote thefilm during nine months of shooting -- six more than had originally beenplanned.
Part of the problem was the difficulty of shooting in post-war Italy. Eventhough Rossellini had his largest budget ever, he still had to scrounge forlocations and equipment. He only survived the frequent power outages ofthe time by discovering a portable generator left behind by the Nazis. Buthe also worked slowly, partly because of illness, partly out of his ownquixotic nature. At one point he was in so much pain that he tied a SanPellegrino bottle filled with warm water to his body. At other times,however, he would leave the crew waiting for hours, only to send word thathe wasn't even in the same city. His illnesses and other absences gavescript writer Federico Fellini his first chance to direct (In addition,Fellini's wife and future star, Giulietta Masina, would make her filmdebut in the picture with an unbilled bit). As production dragged on, thefilm's U.S. backers stopped sending money. Rossellini had to pay his crewon Fridays by borrowing against the projected weekend receipts for OpenCity and then repaying the loans the following Monday.
Geiger had promised Rossellini a cast of American stars, including FrancesFarmer and the great black actor Canada Lee. But when the American castarrived -- on the first passenger boat to travel from the U.S. to Europesince the war had begun -- they were all unknowns. The closest Rossellinigot to any of his promised cast was Dots M. Johnson, cast as the black MPin the Naples sequence, who had understudied for Lee in stock.
Alongside these professional actors, Rossellini cast actual U.S. soldiers,local citizens, resistance fighters and even some German POWs. One of hismost memorable finds was Carmela Sazio, the girl in the Sicilian sequencewho falls for a GI (played by American soldier Robert Van Loon) even thoughneither speaks the other's language. Rossellini discovered the 15-year-oldwhile scouting locations in the most remote parts of Sicily. At first, shedidn't even understand basic hygiene, but she learned by watching the womenon the production crew. She also fell in love, first with Von Loon, whichadded to the emotional authenticity of their scenes, and then withRossellini. She was heartbroken when the company moved on to their nextlocation, writing Rossellini a touching letter he chose not to answer.Years later he would learn that she had become a prostitute.
With the first sequence, Rossellini stayed close to Mann and Amidei'sscript, but as the production moved, he and Fellini began improvising.When Fellini discovered a monastery near the Sicilian location, theyre-wrote the Romagna sequence to incorporate the monks' daily routine.Then Rossellini had the actual monks there play themselves. WhenRossellini discovered a cave inhabited by orphaned children and homelessfamilies near Naples, they re-wrote the Naples sequence completely. TheFlorence sequence, about a nurse in love with a partisan, was given a new plot; it was based on a story Rossellini had heard about a Peruvian woman who relentlessly searchedfor the rebel leader she had fallen in love with only to find he had beenkilled.
After nine months, shooting finally finished, but during post-productionRossellini's son died suddenly while vacationing in Spain. The directorwas so busy dealing with his grief and fighting red tape to bring the boy'sbody back home, that the film sat untouched until just before its openingat the Venice Film Festival. Then Rossellini's brother, Renzo, who hadcomposed the score, rushed through the final post-production work. Thefilm that screened at the festival was half an hour too long (the director would later cut it) and fared poorly with the mainstream critics. Nor did it do well at the Italian box office; local filmgoers were already tired of realistic war stories. In international release,however, the film was a triumph. The French embraced the film, while itbecame one of a string of post-war Italian hits in the U.S. Ultimately itwould win Best Foreign Language Film from the New York Film Critics, BestPicture and Best Director from the National Board of Review and anOscar® nomination for Best Story and Screenplay. Today Paisanis viewed as a classic, one of the triumphs of Italian neo-realism and ofRossellini's directing career.
Producer: Roberto Rossellini, Rod E. Geiger, Mario Conti
Director: Roberto Rossellini
Screenplay: Sergio Amidei, Federico Fellini, Alfred Hayes, MarcelloPagliero, Roberto Rossellini
Story: Victor Haines, Marcello Pagliero, Sergio Amidei, Federico Fellini,Roberto Rossellini, Klaus Mann, Vasco Pratolini
Cinematography: Otello Martelli
Music: Renzo Rossellini
Principal Cast: Carmela Sazio (Carmela), Robert Van Loon (Joe from Jersey), Maria Michi (Francesca), Renzo Avanzo (Renzo), Harriet White (Harriet), Dots M. Johnson (MP), Bill Tubbs (Captain Bill Martin).BW-120m.
by Frank Miller