Saturday 30 September 2023

Australian Film Criticism - Russell Edwards proposes a book on THE FILMS OF PETER WEIR and calls for contributions

Peter Weir

Over several decades, Peter Weir has directed critically acclaimed and popular 
films that frequently portray protagonists on the threshold of an unexplored environment that dazzles and confounds. Yet despite his global profile, Weir’s work remains relatively understudied. Only a handful of books have exclusively addressed his career in toto and only one scholarly volume has been published since his most recent film was released over a decade ago. In a career that can be categorized as having two distinct phases (Australian trailblazer and Hollywood maverick), many of Weir’s films are distinguished by their financial success. 

This run of box office accomplishments was established in Australia with Picnic at

Hanging Rock (1975) and was repeated at the international level several times

during Weir’s extended American excursion with films including Witness (1985);

Dead Poets Society (1989); The Truman Show (1999); and Master and

Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003). Working across a range of genres

from early engagement with low-budget horror (Homesdale, 1971, The Cars that

Ate Paris, 1974) and documentary (Whatever Happened to Green Valley?, 1973)

to the epic sweep of his prison escape adventure, The Way Back (2010), there is

throughout Weir’s diverse oeuvre a tangible sense of thematic connection and

authorial voice across his eclectic choices.

Lesser known Peter Weir
Judy Morris, Ivor Kants, The Plumber

This proposed ReFocus edited collection will consider papers on the films of Peter

Weir. Some of the themes that authors can consider are:

• Weir and literary adaptation

• Post-colonialism

• Cross-cultural (mis)communication

• Weir and the Australian Wave

• Weir and Hollywood

• Australian Identity in the international context

• Australians in Hollywood

• Auteurism

• Representation of Women

• Genre

• The Hollywood star in Weir’s films

• Ensemble casts

• Television work

• First nations representation

• Mise-en-scène

• Ecology and environment


• Additional approaches are welcome.

If you have any questions regarding the topics, please feel free to discuss with the

editor. The suggested themes are not exhaustive.

Contact Email:

Deadline for abstracts: March 31st 2024

Proposals of approximately 200-500 words are invited for the proposed project

to be submitted to Edinburgh University Press as part of the Refocus Series on

International Directors. Series editors are Drs. Robert Singer, Stefanie Van de Peer,

and Gary D. Rhodes. The deadline for abstract submission is March 31st, 2024.

Please send your proposals, accompanied by a 100-150 word author “bio”, to

Russell Edwards via Upon approval, accepted

contributors are expected to submit their full chapters of approximately 6,000 to

8,000 words for the refereed anthology, referenced in Chicago endnote style, by

December 31st, 2024.

Sunday 24 September 2023

STAR-CROSSED: JEAN SEBERG AND ROMAIN GARY - A Chapter from John Baxter's new book OF LOVE AND PARIS ... Historic, romantic and obsessive liaisons

Editor's Note: John Baxter is an Australian-born, writer, film-maker, critic and biographer. His published books range across fiction, biography, history and, on many occasions, volumes devoted to his adopted city Paris, where he has lived since 1989. OF LOVE AND PARIS is published by Museyon in New York. The book has an introduction followed by 32 chapters devoted to what the author  describes as 'some of the ways men and women have used their lives to define and enlarge the concept of Love. That all did so, at least in part, in Paris was no coincidence."_ Australian readers may obtain a copy from the online bookseller BOOKTOPIA



    Twenty-year-old actress Jean Seberg met author and diplomat Romain Gary in 1961. Twenty-four years her senior, he was the French Consul in Los Angeles. Within a few months, they were sharing an apartment on the Ile St Louis in Paris, where Seberg, after a false start in Hollywood, had just enjoyed her first success in Jean-Luc Godard’s À Bout de Souffle/Breathless. Her portrayal of the free-living American girl who sells copies of the Herald Tribune on the Champs-Élysées and becomes involved with gangster fantasist Jean-Paul Belmondo made her an icon overnight, inspiring François Truffaut to call her “the best actress in Europe.” 


    But Seberg’s confidence never recovered from her experience with the tyrannical Otto Preminger, who directed her first two films, Saint Joan and Bonjour Tristesse. Subsequent roles exploited her gamine charm but exposed a meagre talent.“I am the greatest example of a very real fact,” she confessed, “that all the publicity in the world will not make you a movie star if you are not also an actress.”

    Romain Gary, loud, bearded and glowering, trailing a reputation as resistance fighter and novelist, re-made himself repeatedly,  playing what one critic called a "picaresque game of multiple identities.” Writing at various times as Fosco Sinibaldi and Chatan Bogat, and claiming to be the son of Russian actor Ivan Mosjoukine, he was actually born Roman Kacew in Lithuania. “Fluent in six languages,” wrote cultural critic Adam Gopnik, “he passed punningly from one to the other in a dazzling display of instinctive interlineation.” 

    At the fall of France in 1940 he left the diplomatic service to join Charles de Gaulle’s  exile government in London, and flew in bombers with the Free French. While in Britain, he changed his surname to Gary. “ ‘Gari’  in Russian means ‘burn!’,”  he explained. “I want to test myself, a trial by fire.” After the war he resumed his career as a novelist. His 1956 Les Racines du Ciel/The Roots of Heaven articulated a compulsion to live always on his own terms. Its main character, confined in a German prison camp, hallucinates about the elephant as a symbol of freedom and, on his release, devotes himself to saving them from extinction. “Think about elephants riding free through Africa,” he says.  “Hundreds and hundreds of wonderful animals that no walls nor barbed wire can contain, crossing vast spaces and crushing everything in their path, with nothing able to stop them. What freedom!”  The Roots of Heaven was awarded France’s most prestigious literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, which no writer can win more than once, a rule Gary took as a challenge. In 1975, when Émile Ajar won for La Vie Avant Soi/The Life Ahead, Gary revealed with glee that the book was his, and the man giving interviews as Ajar his cousin.

            In Paris, Gary held court in fashionable Brasserie Lipp and was a familiar face on television, often in spirited defence of President de Gaulle, whom he continued to admire once he became president. When the Quai d’Orsay handed him the plum posting to Los Angeles, perhaps in recognition of that support, his wife, writer Lesley Blanch, declined to join him, so Gary, abandoning both her and his “official mistress,” British novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, went alone. Once installed in the consulate, with his secretary as paramour, he rented a separate apartment as a writing retreat and love nest for his many affairs, culminating in that with Seberg.

            Gary and Seberg became a golden couple. They dined with the Kennedys and lunched with de Gaulle. Seberg used her celebrity to campaign for social causes. On a flight from Paris to Los Angeles in 1968, she met Allan Donaldson who, as Hakim Jamal, led the Organization of African-American Unity, a splinter group of the Black Panthers. As they parted, Seberg created a furore by giving the Panthers’ raised-fist salute in full view of the press. In 1969 she hosted a Hollywood fund-raiser for the group, attended by Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave, Paul Newman and other engagé personalities. She and Donaldson also became lovers.        



    Dissatisfied with the films made from his books, Gary decided to direct one himself, and shot Birds in Peru  with Seberg in the starring role (above). “Oh yes, she has a lovely face,” critic Roger Ebert wrote of her less-than-inspired performance. “We see it for minutes on end in Birds in Peru. Looking up at us, down at us, away, in profile, turning toward, blank, fearful, seductive, nihilistic. It would almost seem that the face was Romain Gary's reason for making the movie.”  While on location, Seberg began an affair with Carlos Navarra, described as “a Third World adventurer”. Shortly after, on the musical Paint Your Wagon,  she also shared the bed of co-star Clint Eastwood. Furious and humiliated at this news, Gary challenged Eastwood to a duel and booked a flight to the film’s location in Baker, Oregon. The actor fled back to Los Angeles and Gary sued for divorce. 

            Seberg became pregnant by Navarra following Paint Your Wagon. Meanwhile, her political activism attracted the attention of the FBI which targeted her in a smear campaign, leaking news of her pregnancy to the Los Angeles Times and implying that a Black Panther was the father. Seberg attempted suicide, inducing the premature birth of a daughter, who died two days later. Gary loyally announced the child was his, and arranged for the body to be displayed in an open coffin, showing she was white.

             Seberg would never recover from the death of her child. Abusing alcohol and amphetamines, she suffered periods of depression, and made a number of suicide attempts, often on the anniversary of her daughter’s death. In response, Gary wrote Chien Blanc/White Dog, parodying Hollywood personalities who embraced fashionable political causes and attacking the cynical activists who exploited them. 

            In 1972, Seberg married Dennis Berry, film-maker and son of blacklisted director John Berry, with whom she became further involved in radical politics. François Truffaut tried to cast her to type as the troubled English actress in La Nuit Americain/Day For Night, his celebration of film-making, but she ignored his approaches, and the role went to Jacqueline Bisset. Her downward spiral continued. She started divorce proceedings against Berry but before they were complete entered a bigamous marriage with Ahmed Hasni, described as “an Algerian mythomaniac linked to drug trafficking.” 

            In 1979, Seberg went to Guyana to shoot La Légion saute sur Kolwezi but was too strung out to work and had to be replaced by Mimsy Farmer. It was the last hope of reviving her film career. On her return to Paris, she once more attempted suicide, this time by throwing herself in front of a Metro train. In August of that year, Hasni reported that she had wandered away from their home, drugged and dazed by the heat, carrying a bottle of water, and naked except for a blanket. Police found her nearby ten days later, dead from an amphetamine overdose in the back of her car. 

            Her death left Romain Gary profoundly depressed. The following December, he lunched with his publisher, then returned to the apartment on rue du Bac he had shared with Seberg, and shot himself. His suicide note, headed "For the press",  began “D-Day. Nothing to do with Jean Seberg. Devotees of the broken heart are requested to look elsewhere...So why?... I have at last said all I have to say.” Few were convinced.  “Both died by their own hands,” wrote Adam Gopnik of this star-crossed couple, “though in a way each died by the other’s.”

Saturday 23 September 2023

Streaming on SBS On Demand - DARK WINDS (Series One created by Graham Roland, Showrunner: Vince Calandra, Director: Chris Eyre)

Tony Hillerman wrote eighteen novels featuring one or both of the Navajo policemen Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. I confess to having read just one. Hillerman's is one  of those dozens of regional voices in American fiction writing authentic tales of people way outside what was the first mainstream of crime fiction in New York and Los Angeles or just anonymous 'big cities". My own favourite is Carl Hiaasen  who writes very funny crime stories about crime and corruption in Florida. 

Hillerman died in 2008 and since then his daughter Anne (so Wikipedia tells me) has continued to issue novels devoted to the two policemen. She has brought to the front and centre Jim Chee's wife, Officer Bernadette Manuelito. In the TV series Dark Winds Jim and Bernadette meet for the first time and romance ensues despite her prickly solitary character. "Never had a man in your trailer huh?". She prefers to devote her attention to her horses, one of which eventually plays a key role in the final scenes of the series. I'm digressing.

Joe Leaphorn (Zahn McClarnon)

There are two key violent events in Dark Winds. At the opening there is a violent bank robbery involving a helicopter and the shooting deaths of three armed guards by masked men. Then an old Native American appears at the door of a motel room seeking treatment from what used to be called at least a medicine woman. He's let in by the woman's grand daughter. Not much later the police are called to investigate the death of the old man and the grand daughter. The twoi stories intertwine throughout and Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn of the Navajo Tribal Police is on the case. His assistant is Bernadette Manuelito and shortly thereafter they are joined by fresh faced young policeman Jim Chee. Lurking around the edges is FBI Agent Whitover played as a cop in a suit by Noah Emmerich, last seen playing an FBI Agent in six seasons or so of The Americans. 

Jim Chee (Kiowa Gordon)

Whitover's base of operations is a hotel resort on the edge of Monument Valley and early on we get a bit of cinephilia when we learn its the place where the movie stars stayed when John Ford came out there to make his Cavalry Trilogy among others. There's a bit more when we see a moment from Hawks' Red River on a small black and white TV.

A tug of war between police agencies starts. Joe is the entree into the Native American community and its exotic customs and spiritual beliefs. This is dealt with quite extensively. As well there's a lot of back story to explain his various relationships. Chief among that element is the loss of Joe's son in what is regarded as a mining accident, at least at first. Whitover is concerned to catch the bank robbers. Joe wants to find out who murdered the old man and literally scared the granddaughter to death. Each has their reasons though Whitover's  main motivation takes until ep six to be revealed.

Bernadette Manuelito (Jessica Matten)

The most poignant moment comes at the end of ep four. Joe sits alone at his dining table. He's alienated from his wife, his two assistants, Whitover, the local native American community...everybody....a  man whose heritage, morality, desire to do his job and the circumstances of his marriage and his wife's care for another young woman have all combined into solitary despair.

Dark Winds Is played by, written by and filmed by Native Americans we are told...and its very very good indeed. It has an authentic feel rarely achieved and you have to give credit to those who got it done so well. Credit also to SBS on Demand for buying it, though you could say that about dozens of their programs when you think about it....

Next up Series Two.

Wednesday 20 September 2023

Streaming on Amazon Prime - Peter Hourigan recommends GREEK SALAD and runs through the careers of its showrunner Cédric Klapisch and lead actor Romain Duris

A new series on Amazon Prime has brought me as much pleasure as much else I’ve watched recently – it even had me doing something I’ve never done before. I watched it a second time within a few weeks.

Greek Salad was created by Cédric Klapisch who also directed several of the eight episodes. Klapisch’s wife, Lola Doillon, also directed several episodes and was a major writer for the series.  Klapisch is a director with a solid career, many successful films, with prizes and nominations from many major Film Festivals. Yet, he doesn’t seem to have quite become a “name director”, the kind who attracts scholarly monographs from academic writers. 

But Klapisch has had name recognition for me since I saw his second feature Le Péril Jeune (1993) on SBS quite some years ago. That title makes you think “Yellow peril” (peril jaune) but is in fact the Young Peril (“péril jeune). Just as one of its English titles Good Old Daze  has that double meaning when you hear it said. Péril Jeune featured a 20 year old Romain Duris, who Klapisch discovered in a queue somewhere. Duris has now appeared in many subsequent Klapisch films, often as an erstwhile stand-in for the director himself. 

Romain Duris (3rd from left), Le Péril Jeune

In Le Péril Jeune, Duris plays Tomas. At school, he is rebellious and hedonistic. But several years have passed since his group left school. Now,  it’s his death from a drug overdose that has brought together four of his friends from school to support Sophie who is expecting Tomas’ baby. Their memories of those school days become the film we’re watching. The standout impression is the strength of the friendship that was forged with Tomas and his schoolmates – and Sophie. The group has the warmth and intensity of a family; and it is this ability to create family groups in his films that is a strength of Klapisch’s work. And Tomas was the catalyst. 

In 2002, Klapisch made L’Auberge Espagnole (The Spanish Apartment). This is built around  Xavier, Duris again, a French economics graduate who has gone to Barcelona to study on an Erasmus scholarship. He finishes up flatsharing with a group of other Erasmus scholars, from  a range of West European countries. 

Romain Duris, Cecile de France, The Spanish Apartment

The film has a strong sense of warmth in the relationships between all young people in this  group welds into a family over the course of the year. But it is not a sentimentally portrayed group. There is conflict, friendship, petty disagreements, and mutual support. It feels like this family could last for years, but the reality is that at the end of the year it must dissolve, and they’ll all go on to their own paths in different countries. Although it does look like Xavier and Martine will be getting back together, a relationship disrupted when Tomas took up the Barcelona scholarship.

A few years later, we meet up with Tomas again in Russian Dolls (2005) and some of the friends from the apartment, when they gather in Russia for the wedding of William,  whose sister Wendy was one of those flatsharing students.  Now, the story gets complicated with sisters, flatmates, friends, but  in Klapisch’s world there’s that creation of the kind of circles we know in real life, where people we meet in one circle, may become part of our life in other circles, and circles overlap with circles, like a crazy geometric painting. 

Romain Duris, Audrey Tautou
Russian Dolls

And this continues with Chinese Puzzle, (2013). Duris is again at the centre as Xavier. And there are more characters carried over from the earlier two films. All we need to worry about at the moment is that Xavier’s relationship history has been quite colourful. His original relationship with Martine sometimes becomes rekindled. Now there are two children, Tom and Mia. Tomas is the father, Wendy (yes, from the Spanish Apartment days) is their mother, though Tom and Wendy are no longer a couple, just sometimes fractious friends.  We don’t see much of Tom and Mia. They’re only kids after all, and the adults around them are probably more focused on their own issues. 

A lot of this film takes place in New York, and we’re in a rich, multi-cultural environment around Chinatown.  Don’t worry if my attempts to trace the family relationships over those three films is not very coherent. But we’re now going to meet Tom and Mia as young adults. Now they are characters in their own right and  I’ve shared enough with you as background.

Wikipedia gives us a neat recap to set the situation: 

Siblings Tom and Mia, the children of Xavier and Wendy from L'Auberge Espagnole, move to Athens after inheriting an apartment from their recently-deceased grandfather. Tom intends to sell the apartment and use the proceeds to fund a startup company, but the anti-capitalist Mia has other plans in mind.

Greek Salad  starts with a funeral, and if you’ve seen the earlier films, you will recognise some of the family/families. But essentially, we’re meeting Tom, an independent, international young man with family in France and England, living in New York and looking to start his own Startup company with his trophy girlfriend. Mia has not come to her grandfather’s funeral, staying behind in Athens where everyone believes she’s studying on an Erasmus scholarship like her father had done in Barcelona. 

But when we meet her, she’s quit her studies, and is working with an NGO that’s trying to assist refugees and asylum seekers. And working out of semi-derelict buildings and sometimes squats. The siblings have been left a building in their grandfather’s will and they’re reunited when Tom goes to Athens for inheritance formalities.

Now, the series can unfold its stories. And I’m not going to go through it. That’s for you to enjoy. But I must comment on some of the things I loved about this. One is Klapisch’s ability to create credible worlds for his characters. One aspect of this is the geography., It’s certainly not limited to his native France. (His filmography includes Paris (2008) and Back to Burgundy (2017). And you’ll have noticed the pattern in the earlier films centred around Duris’ character Xavier – Spanish Apartment, ­Russian Dolls, Chinese Puzzle (though here the main setting is New York.)

Tom (Aliocha Schneider) and Mia (Megan Northam) and refugees and
students with whom they share an abandoned apartment building in Athens

Now we’re in Athens. But in Klapisch’s hands, it is not just an exotic location. Of course, it’s Athens and it’s a city of ancient monuments. They’re there, and acknowledged, but as background. Hey, here’s the view of the Acropolis from our balcony – yes, there it is, between those two building in front of us. and it really is a complete city. 

Much of the action takes place down at ground level, areas where the tourists don’t usually go. Here are the streets with all the graffiti, and buildings left derelict apart from the squatters. The bars where students find work. The storylines explore not only interesting family relationships – and they’re inevitably interesting, with that family that’s had Tomas as its father figure over about twenty years. The position of refugees is a crucial element, and we get a glimpse of the enormous variety of people who become refugees.  These are not deadening statistics of people drowning, but real people worried about where their mother is, or concern over the genital mutilation a young woman may face if she’s forced back home.

Tom and Maria with their parents Xavier (Romain Duris)
 and Wendy (Kelly Reilly)

I enjoyed spending time with these wonderful young people. I was interested and involved in the social issues it featured. 









Monday 18 September 2023

Sixty Years of International Art Cinema 1960-2020 the Sixties part 6 (18), Italy Part 2 Roberto Rossellini: In search of the real - Bruce Hodsdon's series continues.

The first of the four phases of Rossellini’s evolving fusion of fiction and non-fiction,1941-75, was initially populist and nationalist in tone. His first features as director, La nave bianca/The White Ship (1941), then Un Pilota Ritorna/The Pilot Returns (1942) and L’uomo croce/ The Man with a Cross (1942) are now recognised as the first steps on Rossellini’s path to neorealism’s internationally acclaimed breakthroughs.

The Pilot Returns

Rossellini denied he was part of any ‘movement’, finding it difficult to understand the claim since for him each film “possesses its own realism” which he saw as nothing more (or less) than a moral position. Asking the question ‘where is liberty? for Rossellini is “a central theme which lies in recognising the nature of one’s imprisonment. Each ideology has good and bad but limits your liberty… perfect in conformity there is no heroism.” (interview Cahiers du Cinema  no. 183 October 1966).

Pierre Leprohon in summarising the postwar period suggests that neorealism was prefigured by Alessandro Blassetti in the mid thirties with his historical feature, 1860, and brought into existence by Visconti with Ossessione. “But it was Rossellini who thrust it into the limelight, thus giving it the magnificent impetus that was to carry it on for several years” (93).

Michelangelo Antonioni, writing in the leftist journal Cinema, noted a choral (coralità) quality/theme i.e. preference given to portraying the group collective over the individual, grounded in history. It is present in some films in the Fascist period, including Rossellini’s first features, lending a documentary quality that is also evident in Open City and Paisà.  After disintegration of community in the aftermath of war shown in Germany Year Zero (1947), coralità is welcomed back by Rossellini in Francesco giullare di Dio (1950).  In the first of the Bergman cycle, Stromboli (1949), it is necessarily rendered unavailable by the overriding commitment to melodrama after being brought briefly to the fore in the famous tuna fishing sequence in documentary mode, the abstract beauty of the rhythms in the fishing community’s earning of their livelihood. Any potential for coralità is negated by the shocked revulsion shown by Karen (Bergman), in cut-in close-ups, at the reality of the killing.


Anna Magnani, Aldo Fabrizi, Rome Open City

The religiosity controversially apparent in StromboliThe Miracle and Francesco giullare di Dio, is linked to Rossellini’s passionately humanistic concern with notions of liberty which escapes easy definition and has often placed him ahead of his critics. His commitment in his narratives, to observing (the urge to document) rather than telling (the urge to closure) was initially almost universally dismissed other than on the pages of ‘Cahiers du Cinema’. 

Gilberto Perez in ‘Eloquent Screen’ identifies Rossellini’s film realism as “not a realism of meaning but of reticence, of deference to reality, of refusal to manipulate it into sense.” Perez continues, “meaning is an idea, a generality attached to things. If a novelist’s realism moves from the particular to the general in pursuit of meaning, Rossellini’s deference to things in their particularity is a photographer’s realism. It’s not that Rossellini lets things speak for themselves - things never do - but he lets them be silent.” (224). 

Rome Open City

The challenge of establishing overall coherence in Rossellini’s career starts with the first film of his ‘breakthrough’ war trilogy, Rome Open City (1946). It is regarded, not inappropriately, as one the most  important films in Italian cinema history, based on “a whole mythology of originality and difference,” to quote Peter Brunette (41), making it as he admits, “an extremely difficult film to write about.” Rather than being seen, as it was initially, as “a direct challenge to the conventional cinema of the time…it is,’ as Brunette identifies, “in fact one of Rossellini’s least typical, most conventional films,” which is not to deny its power as a founding text of neo-realism. Brunette found that  “when it is looked at more closely, what is striking is its overwhelming similarity to previous cinema (imbued with ‘Hollywood realism’), at least in terms of its narrative and dramatic structures. Unlike his earlier ‘fascist war trilogy’ beginning with La nave bianca (1941) in which Brunette notes that the use of documentary elements breaks up the narrative flow, in Rome Open City “all the elements of mise-en-scene…and everything else, however “realistic,” are rigorously enlisted in the service of the linear narrative.” It is the change to something radically different in Paisà and in turn in Germany Year Zero that is more characteristic of Rossellini’s oeuvre placing Rome Open City in this context “as the enigma” (43).*

Peter Bondanella sees the contrasting modes in Open City as “working the melodramatic plot to overwhelm the viewer with a sense of tragedy [moving] freely from moments of documentary realism to others of dramatic intensity.”  Paisà for Bondanella “reflects to a far greater extent, the conventions of the newsreel documentary even though it goes beyond the mere statement of facts or depiction of events.” Its episodic six part structure presents a step-by-step narrative of the American invasion of Sicily. 

Rome Open City

Paisà/paisan is a colloquial form of paesano - countryman, neighbour, even friend, which was typically used by Italians and American soldiers as a friendly greeting. “The Implications of its deeper meanings provide the basis for Rossellini’s exploration of Italian-American encounters” (42). 

In Rome Open City Rossellini offered a tight, suspenseful narrative using parallel montage to affirm the ‘national’ vision of the Resistance and the suffering of the Italian people. Paisà while retaining the latter and its attribution to the war, assumes the difficult task of dealing with the Allied invasion with the Allies as  both invaders and liberators and the Italians both passive victims and active participants; in Open City the Germans are unambiguously the ‘unexplained evil’ cause of the suffering. Rossellini and Fellini (co-scriptwriter with Sergio Amedei on both films), spent six months travelling the length and breadth of Italy in preparation for the filming of Paisà.  Archived early treatments reveal how the dramaturgy changed during the course of filming in response to more ambiguous found realities (see Christopher Wagstaff’s essay “Rossellini and Neo-Realism” in David Forgacs et al eds.).

Peter Brunette sees Paisà returning to the non-classical experimental elements (long takes, non-narrative, purposely temps mort (dead time), and the aleatory in general) already existing in the unconventional narratives of Rossellini’s three features he directed during the Fascist period. 

Paisà “embodies a cinematic practice that can be seen as the model for the vast majority of his later films” (essay in ‘The Cinematic Text’ ed. R Barton Palmer 119). Brunette explores Rossellini’s search in Paisà, on both thematic and formal levels, for discontinuous elements to move against this search for ‘wholeness’ in the narrative that was realised in Rome Open City.  Brunette concludes that “it is the presence of these ‘experimental’ features in this and later films, in fact, which assured that Rossellini was never again, after Rome Open City to have a popular [cinema] audience” (ibid). The contrast is confirmed in his late 50s ‘return to cinema’ with General Della Rovere. To gain financial backing for a return to the themes of Rome Open City and Paisà, after a series of box office failures, he was obliged to make a constructed, professional film in a studio, something he was not comfortable in doing although it garnered a rare box office success.

Germany Year Zero 

Rossellini’s restless search for “a different kind of cinematic language that would depart from programmatic neo-realism demanded by some Italian and French critics” (Bondanella  ‘Films of Rossellini’ 15), is evident in Germany Year Zero (1947). Made little more than a year after the tragic, untimely death of Rossellini’s favourite son, Romano, to whom it is dedicated, features a traumatised young boy filmed amidst the rubble of bombed out Berlin. The theme of the post-war loss of faith is described by Bondanella as “hovering between objective documentary and the depiction of a moralistic horror story” (ibid 51). Rossellini began filming Germany Year Zero with the story unfinished. Like Godard he rejected working with a finished script most often starting with an outline supplemented with notes written (sometimes on a matchbox)   

The filming of Germany Year Zero was interrupted to make two shorter films placed together for release as L’amore (1948), showcases for Anna Magnani. One is adapted from a one-act Cocteau play, La Voix humaine, in an experiment with psychological introspection (foreshadowing the Bergman series) in long takes and The Miracle scripted by Fellini - a confused and somewhat disturbed goatherd claiming the Virgin Birth after being impregnated by a passing tramp (played by Fellini) who persuades her he is Saint Joseph. Although condemned by the Church for blasphemy Rossellini subsequently described The Miracle as “an absolutely Catholic work…filmed during a time of the absolute loss of faith,” a faith that Rossellini seeks to re-discover in Stromboli.

Germany Year Zero 

Another film, in Italy mostly misunderstood and maligned in equal measure by critics and the public, in the making, offered for Rossellini ‘a clear and precise model’ of self- sustaining spirituality in Francesco giullare di Dio/ Francis God’s Jester  (1950), Stromboli (1949), Europe 51 (1952) and Voyage to Italy (1953), the latter two both now widely recognised as the peak achievements of the then highly controversial five films made with Ingrid Bergman. 

Francesco giullare di Dio

Anecdotal and often broadly comic, Francesco, based on a surviving 14th century manuscript, The Little Flowers of Saint Francis of Assisi, epitomises Rossellini’s anti-formalist style well described by Fred Camper as seeming “open and innocent” (“The Little Black Book of the Movies’). Camper notes that Rossellini’s compositions are always constructed to point to the space beyond the borders [of the frame] with a world-embracing hugeness shared by some of his key characters,” here foreshadowing his later deployment of the zoom shot.  

As Bondanella notes, Rossellini was never a practicing Catholic, but he was inspired by the ethical teachings of the church and was fascinated by religious sentiment which he viewed as too often ignored in the materialistic world he inhabited (ibid 17) and in which, it should be said, he participated, eg in his love of fast cars.

Francesco giullare di Dio

While Rossellini has often been identified among the precursors of modern cinema by virtue of neo-realism being recognised as one of its primary sources, Kovács makes the important point that despite becoming an example for many modern directors he never became a modernist filmmaker himself (261). Rossellini dismissed modern art as “superficial, unjust and inconsequential” in its generalising of a negative attitude towards the world while life, he said, is much more diverse than this attitude suggests (ibid). Yet, as Kovács further suggests there is ambiguity in his fervent rejection of modernism which has the same root as realism in the shared “essentially moralistic, even religious approach to art.” In the four films linked together in the previous paragraph Rossellini “created a form that showed a certain way of transcending neorealism” (ibid). Yet he never took the further step.

As Kovács explains, Rossellini was first of all concerned with the morality of art rather than style or narration. However at the beginning of the 1950s he started to make films focusing on personal relationships or on moral questions separated from history and society. His neorealist style became quite ambiguous as was already evident in Germany Year Zero where he used the rubble of bombed out Berlin to act as a psychological expression of the critically conflicted young boy’s state of mind. What Rossellini sought to do was “transcend neorealism as a political project and arrive at something like spiritual neorealism.” (ibid 262). The introduction of an abstract expressionist effect in this way, in principle is in contradiction with the neorealist ethos apparent in the obvious clash between the exteriors of the actual bombed city and the expressive stylisation of interiors filmed in studio sets. 

The war did, however, provide a stable moral standpoint. “Morality, so to speak, was encoded in the environment. Outside the realm of war, embedding of the character in the environment did not invoke unequivocal associations anymore” (264). In social or other terms, an environment had to be shown that would incite the positive moral reactions that Rossellini sought, requiring him “to  develop a certain psychological characterisation of the landscape. By the early 50s the neorealist landscape “became withdrawn into the background, or it became a projection or metaphor of the personal situation of the characters” (Gian Piero Brunetta quoted by Kovács ibid).  Kovács points out that “Rossellini’s essentialist and moral approach” in his ‘trilogy of loneliness’ 1949-53 - stories depicting the lonely individual’s consolation and reintegration into her environment - did not allow him to take the phenomenological approach of recognising a lack of moral contact between environment and characters that was Antonioni’s starting point.

Voyage to Italy 

Voyage to Italy is centred on the estranged relationship between an English couple that is both  seemingly confirmed and challenged through their contact with the foreign environment of Naples.  Kovács concludes “it was in Voyage that [Rossellini] went the farthest into the phenomenological description of estrangement so the last minute step back from the brink was quite shocking. This film provoked argument and embarrassment with its “miracle” ending “ (ibid), that with the passing of time has received wide critical endorsement.

Brunette is in broad agreement with Wood’s assessment that Rossellini’s work is “strongly personal without ever being introspective … acts of exploration outwards from a defined centre of identity” (898). Brunette finds Wood’s drawing of exact analogies between the situations of characters in these films with Ingrid Bergman’s personal life, including the breakdown of their marriage and the depictions in Voyage to Italy and La Paura/Fear (1954), as “too conjectural and reductive.” However, given Rossellini’s “very personal but influential blending of fiction and documentary,” Brunette finds Wood’s description of “the autobiographical dynamic in Voyage to Italy suggestive.”  The description of tensions between the couple (Bergman and George Sanders) in Voyage can be related to the interplay between realism (in the way it’s played out on the screen) and reality (the off screen tensions between Bergman and Rossellini). That interplay Brunette suggests, can also can be traced in other Rossellini films, especially with Anna Magnani in Una voce mana (1947-8) (ibid 156). 

In comparison with the essay-like style of Journey to Italy, the last film of the cycle with Bergman, Fear, also centred on the theme of the couple, is transposed into an expressionist style “reminiscent of Lang and Hitchcock” (Adriano Aprà, Forgacs  ed. 126).

Rossellini hit rock bottom financially in the mid 50s with the box office failure and critical rejection of the Bergman series. The significant exception was Andre Bazin and the then incipient New Wave: filmmakers writing in Cahiers du Cinema who were then alone in recognising the thematic and stylistic consistency of the series with Rossellini’s initially acclaimed neo-realism. In 1958 Cahiers voted Voyage to Italy among the 12 greatest films ever made’. Nowell-Smith suggests that their rescue operation led to the creation of “an apolitical Rossellini.” 


The Miracle 

In the context of the extensive critical reappraisal beginning (in English) in the 80s of Rossellini’s complete oeuvre, from the second and third phases (the first being the films in the Fascist period), I suggest the key defining films in the second (1946-54) are PaisáFrancesco, Stromboli (Rossellini’s original cut)and Voyage to Italy, the ‘second line’ of this phase being Rome Open City, Germany Year Zero, L’amore Due Storie/Two Love Stories (The Miracle plus The Human Voice), and Europe 51. The defining, also transitional, films of the third phase - Rossellini’s ‘return to commercial cinema’ (1958-62) - are the documentary feature India, and Viva Italia.  The ‘second line’ of this phase are, Era notte a RomaGeneral della Rovere and Vanina Vanini. At various times Rossellini’s own nomination as ‘important’ for him: Paisá, Voyage to Italy and Louis XIV, with Francesco guillare di Dio, and Viva l’Italia added as ‘personal favourites’ made clear from the accounts of their making in Tag Gallagher’s biography.

 * On its initial release in Italy, Open City was a flop. The critics disliked it and the public stayed away. The same thing happened on its initial release in the US. It was not successful as the Italian entry in the Cannes Film Festival.  The breakthrough was two months later when its release in Paris was greeted with rave reviews and equally strong box office returns opening the path to re-release in the US and Italy and international success (Brunette 51).

A second part on Rossellini will follow

Previous entries in this series can be found if you click the following links


Sixty Years of International Art Cinema: 1960-2020 - Tables and Directors Lists to Accompany Bruce Hodsdon's Series


Notes on canons, methods, national cinemas and more


Part One - Introduction

Part Two - Defining Art Cinema

Part Three - From Classicism to Modernism

Part Four - Authorship and Narrative

Part Five - International Film Guide Directors of the Year, The Sight and Sound World Poll, Art-Horror

Part Six (1) - The Sixties, the United States and Orson Welles

Part Six (2) - Hitchcock, Romero and Art Horror

Part Six (3) - New York Film-makers - Elia Kazan & Shirley Clarke  

Part Six (4) - New York Film-makers - Stanley Kubrick Creator of Forms

Part Six (5) ‘New Hollywood’ (1) - Arthur Penn, Warren Beatty, Pauline Kael and BONNIE AND CLYDE

Part Six (6) Francis Ford Coppola: Standing at the crossroads of art and industry

Part 6(7) Altman

6(8) Great Britain - Joseph Losey, Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, Richard Lester, Peter Watkins, Barney Platts-Mills

6(9) France - Part One The New Wave and The Cahiers du Cinema Group

6(10) France - Part Two - The Left Bank/Rive Gauche Group and an Independent

6(11) France - Part Three - Young Godard

6(12) France - Part Four - Godard:Visionary and Rebel

6 (13) France Part 5 Godard with Gorin, Miéville : Searching for an activist voice

6(14) France Part 6 - Creator of Forms - Bresson 

6 (15) France Part 6 - Creator of Forms - Jacques Tati

 6 (16) - Part 6 - Creator of Forms - Carl Th Dreyer

6 (17) - Italy and Luchino Visconti