Roberto Rossellini’s ‘War Trilogy’ eloquence

Even after a painstaking restoration which presents them in the best condition seen for decades, the films in Roberto Rossellini’s “War Trilogy” have at times the battered quality of found footage, an appropriate state given their focus on the physical and social destruction of the Second World War.

In " Rome, Open City” (1945), “Paisan” (1946) and “Germany Year Zero” (1948) -- packaged together and recently released as a new set from the Criterion Collection -- the vacant streets and blasted buildings of post-fascist Europe take center stage, often to the exclusion of the movie’s ostensible protagonists.

In countries where the present is tenuous, the past unbearable and the future impossible, the graceful arc of a traditional narrative is an unattainable luxury. Stories begin by chance and end abruptly, often in violence as brutal as it is unremarkable.

Although “Rome, Open City” is more of a transitional work than the neorealist vanguard it is sometimes hailed as, it contains some of the most beautiful and shocking images in Rossellini’s filmography.

Set after the fall of Mussolini’s government, when the city was under German control, the film stars Aldo Fabrizi and Anna Magnani, both major stars of the comic stage and a far cry from the nonprofessional actors with whom Rossellini populated the trilogy’s other films.

Magnani’s indomitable strength as the fiancée of a hunted resistance fighter and the quiet determination with which Fabrizi plays a priest whose dedication to the cause grows as he witnesses the inhuman cruelty of the occupying Nazis represent a powerfully romanticized vision of Italian anti-fascism.

The opulent decadence of the Nazis is contrasted to Magnani’s earthy endurance as well as the simplicity of the film itself. So thoroughly does Magnani embody certain aspects of the Italian character that it comes as a visceral shock when she is abruptly gunned down in the street. There is no melodrama in the way she drops, face-down, reduced instantly to a lifeless hunk of meat.

Even more than six decades later, the moment is devastating, a clean break with tradition as well as with the more heightened aspects of “Open City” itself.

In “Paisan,” Rossellini severed his ties with heroic narrative altogether, opting for a six-part structure whose discursive short stories are themselves frequently derailed, following subsidiary characters or simply taking in the textures of a ravaged country. The episode in which an American nurse and an Italian partisan attempt to navigate the streets of Florence is effectively no more than an excuse to tour the city’s jagged geography, a device replicated at the end of “Germany Year Zero.”

In a 1970 interview conducted at Rice University and included on the Criterion Collection’s characteristically generous three-disc set, the director expresses an overwhelming preference for the more “pure” “Paisan,” going so far as to profess his “hate” for “Open City” even though the earlier film’s international success established both Rossellini and the Italian cinema as major cultural forces.

“Paisan” is indisputably a more radical, less audience-friendly work; imagine Magnani’s death replicated several times over, without the mitigating force of her powerful charisma.

Although geographically dispersed, the film’s episodes run on parallel tracks, often involving the prickly, double-edged relationships between Italians and American soldiers. Some of the actors playing GIs are painfully amateurish, perhaps because Rossellini lacked an ear for the nuances of the English language, but their stiffness is overwhelmed by the dire beauty of the landscape.

“Germany Year Zero,” with its German-language soundtrack restored, shifts the scene and the point of view, focusing on a young boy (Edmund Meschke), hardly old enough to remember the war, attempting to navigate what remains of his country. Here again, Rossellini links Nazi depravity and sexual perversion, with the boy becoming the target of a pedophile schoolteacher who schools him in the finer points of master-race eugenics.

The Nazis are officially out of power, but the remnants of their toxic ideology are still buried in the rubble, lingering like unexploded ordnance waiting to be struck. The most terse and purely tragic of the war trilogy’s films, “Year Zero” holds out little hope for the future, preoccupied instead with mourning the death of possibility.