It was with some difficulty I watched Rossellini’s “Paisa”. The DVD I had found was Italian and so were the only subtitles on the DVD. I did find an English subtitle file, but it worked horrendously poorly. If it at all showed any English titles it was for a different part of the film. Now, the film features Americans speaking English, Germans speaking German and a whole bunch of Italians speaking Italian. I understand English and German but not Italian so I basically had a very parallel experience to the Americans (and Germans) in the film who also have no clue what the Italians are up to. Later I read up on the film to find out what actually happened and of course I had misunderstood a whole bunch of plot elements, but the core of it, its fundamental message got through to me no problem.
“Paisa” is not a typical film. It is episodic with six separate stories. There are no recurrent characters and the six stories have very little in common except that they take place during the Italian campaign in WWII. As such the closest comparison I can think of is Jim Jarmusch’s “Night on Earth”. Or maybe “Decalogue”.
Each of the stories has a theme or a drama that touches upon central themes of war. Not war as a tactical war, but war as experienced by people. Rossellini continued his style from “Roma Citta Aperta”, the neorealist style, which translates to make the film look and feel authentic. You get the probably correct feeling that many of the actors are just the locals that happen to be there and the sets are actual locations. The acting of course suffers for the extensive use of amateurs, but the reward in authenticity is considerable. You have no doubt that all these stories are plausible and for that they work so much stronger.
The first story takes place in Sicily during the landing of American troops. The theme is misunderstanding. The locals in the church vs. the American soldiers. The soldier Joe and the Italian girl Carmela. The German soldiers and Carmela. Then to top it off the American soldiers mistake the dead body of Joe for an Italian. While not the strongest episode, it did feel very real as I was so much party to the incomprehension.
The second episode is in Naples. A discontent soldier is on a bender and befriends a little Italian boy who seems to take care of him, only to mug him when he falls asleep. The soldier turns out to be an MP who is mighty pissed at being mugged. He eventually finds the boy, but also learns of the poverty that is reality for many of the civilians. He is shaken by the experience and flees without his boots. This one made an impact on me because of the heartbreak at seeing children grow up under such conditions. As much as the soldier might not hark from a fancy background this is far beyond his previous experience and he therefore represents us there among the poor of Naples. Poor boys.
Third episode is in Rome. Again there is misunderstanding, but here the theme is harsh realities. A soldier on a bender (again) is picked up by a prostitute. He is not interested in her but relates the story of his true love, an Italian girl he met when he first came to Rome. He never found her again and is clearly in a bad state because of it. When he sobers up he leaves town not knowing that the prostitute actually was the girl he loved. The girl he loved was a happy innocent beauty, not the hardened and hardly innocent prostitute and he never recognized her.
For the fourth episode in Florence I actually had subtitles. Half a minute offset, but I got the essence of what was going on. An American-Italian nurse and a local man cross from the Allied south side of the Arno river to the German occupied north side to find a rebel leader and the man’s family. Their expedition is quite an adventure, but ultimately in vain. The interesting part here for me is not so much their story but the scenery. I have been to Florence a few times and I recognize several of the places even before they mention them. The park of Palazzo Pitti, the Uffizi and the cathedral. Only they never looked like this. There is something very unsettling about seeing familiar places ravaged by war.
Then for the fifth episode I lost subtitles again and I was back at guessing. Three chaplains arrive at a Tuscan monastery and, it would seem, want to set up camp. The monks are very accommodating and certainly appreciate all the food and chocolate the American churchmen are bringing. But then the shocking truth is revealed: Only one of the three is catholic. The other two are protestant and jewish. Oh, dear me. This sends the monks into turmoil. What exactly happened then was unclear to me, but it left the Americans dumbstruck. According to the source I read the monks had decided to fast until the two infidels had been converted. This story struck me as somewhat bizarre. In this tough period, full of horrors as evident in the other episodes, these monks receive their rescuers with ingratitude because they belong to different religions. Oh dear, how narrow can you be.
The last episode is straight forward and tough. A bunch of partisans are hiding out in the Po delta together with some OSS operatives. They are behind enemy lines and it is dangerous. Suddenly the Germans are upon them, they are captured and summarily killed. That is simple enough. If you play war you risk dying. The one scene though that touched me and made me cry was when the partisans returned to the lone house where they had found shelter and now found the family dead, shot by the Germans, except for a toddler who was frantically crying for its parents. That was the single strongest scene in the film and I was crying. Horrible. I want to help that child. The partisan may be playing at war, but this child and its family had no part in that, yet had to suffer its consequences.
I do not know if I liked “Paisa”. It was hard to follow for me and strangely disjointed. As a film it hardly followed any conventions, but I will remember the individual scenes, although I may want to forget them. This is more heavy handed than “Roma, Citta Aperta”, the message is driven in hard, but the authenticity also makes it seen necessary. I can imagine this film would have a special status in Italy.