Roberto Rossellini’s Il Generale della Rovere isn’t too far from his 1945 film Rome: Open City. It would also make a great companion piece with The Conformist. There are one or two SPOILERS below.
Vittorio De Sica – probably best known in the US as director of The Bicycle Thieves, though he started his career as a mostly-comic actor – plays Barbone, a con-man in war-time, Fascist Italy, who is forced into impersonating General della Rovere in order to glean information from other prisoners of the Gestapo.
Like Rossellini’s war trilogy, Il Generale paints a sometimes-sympathetic portrait of the enemy. Gestapo agent Colonel Muller (Hannes Messemer) is devious and antagonistic, but he shows glimpses of humanity. According to Tag Gallagher in the special features on the Criterion edition, Il Generale was responsible for beginning a wave of films that would actually target Italians and Fascist war crimes, as opposed to looking the other way and leaning only on the Germans.
One of the reasons why Rossellini’s films are frequently affecting is because they feel personal. The nuances of characters – where they drink coffee, what they wear, how they interact – feel lived-in and autobiographical. No surprise then, that the man would put himself in the background of his own film, as a crying man who has presumably lost someone in the war. There he is in the trenchcoat in background, holding the tissue. That’s De Sica in the black suit. Two Italian neo-realist giants in the same frame:
Rossellini also uses a lot of rear projection of rubble and destruction, probably in part to save on cost of building sets, but also possibly as a way to merge the documentary and the fiction:
Those elements that are constructed sets are quite impressive. Here is the prison where della Rovere and others are held. It’s a massive structure, imposing and gorgeously designed:
Rossellini’s camera technique isn’t too far from what I know of it in the war trilogy and other films that he made into the 1950s. There’s one beautiful moment towards the end of Il Generale. Bardone/della Rovere is in holding with a number of other suspected resistance members. A Gestapo member comes in and begins reading off names-
-and Rossellini cuts to one rather long take, consisting of whip pans and a few small dolly moves as the camera goes from one face to the next, keeping the reader off-screen for the remainder of the roll call. Here’s part of that shot:
I like this for a few reasons. Firstly, it really emphasizes the men. It’s a role call of martyrs and heroes. We get a face to each name and are allowed to see their reaction as they are called to what many suspect might be death. Secondly, the camerawork itself is impressive. What I found myself thinking most is, ‘how is that camera operator able to remember who is who?’ All told there are ten people called. That’s a lot of whip pans to remember. Thirdly, I really like the speed of the camera movement. It’s not a slow, drudging march from name to name and face to face. It’s fast. Though (as in my first point) this might be a slideshow of heroes, it certainly is not a sugar-coated scene of slow looks and lingering close-ups. Each man gets his name, his face, and that’s that.
Here’s a look at the last frame of Il Generale:
Aside from this simply being a pretty shot – the mist, the men slumped as though crucified, the lone man without a post on the end (frame right), the colonel (Muller) looking towards camera as though he either can’t bear to look or doesn’t need to look – it also reminds me of this:
That’s one of the final shots from Rome: Open City (I pulled this one off the internet, so apologies if it’s not an exact frame). In Il Generale one of our main characters isn’t a priest, but a priest is present at the execution and there is at least one mention of priests as resistance members. There’s a really similar attitude to these two shots, though in the former we’re placed above and on the opposite side of those being executed and here we’re placed right with him/them. The shot from Il Generale has a feeling of closure and removal. And it should – it’s truly the final shot of the film and, though there is some optimism (Barbone regains his dignity), it’s not a happy ending. Though the ending to Rome also isn’t a happy one by any stretch, the final shot proves to be more optimistic than this one. It’s as though Rossellini felt it appropriate to put us in the position of being shot at since he knew that there was still one more hopeful frame to come.