Wednesday 29 November 2023

Sixty Years of International Art Cinema 1960-2020 the Sixties part 6 (20)- A Postscript - Roberto Rossellini in Australia - Bruce Hodsdon's series continues

Ingrid Bergman, Roberto Rossellini

The growth in the use of 16mm film during war, gathered momentum in the post-war years. A film collection was established at the National Library in 1946 to lend documentaries on 16mm produced by the National Film Board (later the Commonwealth Film Unit and then Film Australia).  Within a few years the nucleus of a film study collection of about 100 classic (feature) films, biased towards key silent features, was supplied by the British Film Archive on 16mm c1950 and made available for loan by the National Library to the rapidly growing number of film societies especially in Victoria*. 

While 16mm was never accepted by the industry as of sufficient standard for theatrical exhibition, beginning in the late forties the local offices of major Hollywood and British overseas based distributors began to make 16mm prints of English language feature films available for hire in Australia for non-commercial screening (home, club, and educational ). These were generally American and British mainstream titles. The release prints of features were made from laboratory generated reduction (from 35mm) negatives producing release prints of good image resolution and with adequate sound for amplification, for projection to audiences in semi-theatrical conditions.

Late 40s to mid 50s: the war trilogy  Rossellini’s trilogy marked the seemingly spontaneous arrival of an aesthetic radicalism subsequently identified politically as a ‘neo realism’ in the context of a culture eager to throw off the legacy of Fascism, ”not just its pomp and propaganda but its conformism and narrow cast of mind” (Nowell-Smith,  Making Waves 29). This was the context continuing through the 50s and 60s of increased cultural awareness of the overall problem of availability of sub-titled viewing prints on 16mm (other than of French and German features - see below) from other European countries, Asia and Latin America, none more so than of the Italian art cinema. 


My first contact with Rossellini’s cinema was a history teacher in class referring to the impact made on him by Rome Open City. The full trilogy came into Australian theatrical distribution through the first post-war decade beginning with a successful season of Open City at the Savoy, then Sydney's only cinema for the ongoing release of 'foreign films'. It began as Adyar Hall in 1924, was renamed the ‘New Savoy’ and equipped as a 450 seat cinema in 1939. It opened with a season of La Kermesse héroique  and continued as an ‘arthouse’ until its closure when the building was set for demolition in 1973. The Savoy was located in discreet isolation from the many, mainly first run, cinemas concentrated in the heart of the CBD. Open City was subsequently followed at the Savoy by Paisan. 

 Germany Year Zero, considered ‘too grim’ by exhibitors for a commercial run, premiered in 1954 at the first Sydney and the third Melbourne Film Festivals.  Thereafter Sydney University Film Group screened Germany Year Zero in collaboration with the newly formed Sydney Foreign Film Society (later the Continental Film Society).  By the early 50s “there were sufficient foreign films available to permit a single revival screening each month.” In 1952 the inaugural screening of the SFFS was Open City. 


The Sydney University Film Group’s ‘First Term Circular 1954’  to coincide with a screening of Open City, in a short note anticipates later analyses of ‘Rossellinian realism’ - see 6 (19) - in comparing Rossellini’s “off-the-cuff filming methods,” shooting in rough final shot sequence without a set script, then employing non-conventional editing in a “sort of visual short hand.” Rossellini does not decide on the next shot until the current one is completed thus “feeling his way” from shot to shot instead instead of following a pre-planned shot breakdown.   

Anna Magnani, Federico Fellini, The Miracle


The release of The Miracle (1948) attracted strident attacks in Europe, Latin America and the US where the Catholic Church and its arm, the Legion of Decency, demanded its banning, ultimately unsuccessfully, for “Communist inspired” blasphemy, despite claims made for Rossellini’s standing as “a good Catholic.”  Protest centred on the readily recognisable iconography of Christ’s Nativity, a birth scene in a cave reduced to a binary either as “properly” respectful or blasphemous parody. 

 Anna Magnani plays a disturbed goatherd who is made pregnant by a passing wanderer whom she believes to be St Joseph, played by the co-scriptwriter, Federico Fellini. Reference to The Miracle being “instantly banned in Argentina and Australia” (Brunette 97), if accurate, means that the ban was subsequently lifted, the film in some locations re-titled The Wanderer. Running  43 mins, The Miracle  was given its Australian premiere over 3 nights (on a double bill with a different feature each night) by Sydney University Film Group in 1954. The Group’s circular makes no reference to a previous banning, only to the high film rental, describing it as Rossellini’s “most beautiful film dedicated to the art of Anna Magnani.”

When the 5 year license on each of the war trilogy (and of The Miracle) expired it would not have been renewed and the 35mm prints were most likely destroyed, as required by the licensor. 

George Sanders, Ingrid Bergman, Voyage to Italy

949-54  The ‘Bergman era ‘  My  awareness of a film director, beyond a name on the credits, was initiated by the Sunday press with an account of the Rossellini-Bergman ‘scandal’, when their films were reviled by the critics and rejected by the public. Stromboli,  was the first and the only one of the five Rossellini-Bergman features to be then released internationally by Howard Hughes’s RKO, in a form that was a travesty of the original - severely re-edited with re-recorded inappropriate voice-over ending.

1959-62Rossellini’s ‘return to commercial cinema’.  I don’t remember any of Rossellini’s films being screened over the three years of my membership,1960-62, of the Melbourne University Film Society where I first engaged with cinema history on the screen and in print. After the war trilogy, his films, with one exception, were no longer available for screening on 35mm (or 16mm) unlike those, for example, of Antonioni, Fellini and Visconti and other select major European filmmakers such as Ingmar Bergman and Luis Bunuel whose current films went into theatrical release on 35mm if selectively with little distributor regard for the auteur’s career chronology.

Hans Messemer, Vittorio De Sica, Generale Della Rovere

My first viewing of a Rossellini film was General Della Rovere (1959) at the Savoy in the early 60s, his second and final commercial success, a film that brought him little personal satisfaction, finding himself reinstated as “a national asset.”  As Gallagher points out, he had spent the previous decade trying to escape such type casting. Its thematic basis was in a true story that unfolded in Nazi occupied Rome.  Unlike Open City, it was fully staged in the studio and came to the Savoy with the endorsement of the Venice Film Festival’s jury and mainstream European critical and commercial success, stirring memories of Open City, more than a decade earlier.  Rossellini nevertheless withheld his doubts about the cinema’s future, holding in abeyance his germinating vision of television’s untapped potential for public pedagogy. 

Vanina Vanini (1961) is based on Stendahl’s novel Chroniques Italiennes ; it was Rossellini’s original  intention to title the film in the singular form, Chronique Italienne. Set in a period in which the Risorgimento was ignited, it provided inspiration for what Rossellini initially based on “historical research.” Thematically, but not stylistically, a companion to Viva l’Italia which brought him satisfaction, which Rossellini counted  among his personal favourites as a ‘de-dramatisation’ of a childhood hero Giuseppe Garibaldi, “as a visionary who turns his private illumination into a new reality” (Gallagher 528).                          

The producer set about cutting, without consultation, what the director saw as the film’s justification; on its release Rossellini denounced Vanina Vanini as a travesty. Attacked by the Italian critical establishment, it had its defenders in Paris and London who found sufficient of Rossellini’s original intentions and those of his collaborator, writer Jean Gruault, still intact. 

Distributed internationally by Columbia Pictures, after perfunctory screenings in Sydney and Melbourne, the single print languished on the shelf. Sydney University Film Group managed two screenings before, the print of Vanina Vanini was junked, the international screening rights still current, in order to re-use the reels and cans.

Sandra Milo, Vanina Vanini

In 1962 Rossellini stood in a bookshop in Rome and announced to reporters, “Il cinema e mort,” a view repeated by Jean-Luc Godard five decades later coinciding with the screening of his Film Socialisme (2011). Godard added auteurs and auteurism to the death list stating that “with mobile phones everyone’s an auteur.”  Rossellini was also about to attempt, on the small screen, to consciously extinguish his own claim to the role of auteur.

The arrival of VHS tape in the early 80s seemed to offer promise of more consistent sound and image  than 16mm, not requiring a publicly funded centralised library for acquisition and distribution to tertiary film courses and film societies to defray the high costs of 16mm print acquisition.* Rights assigned to video cassettes were limited to home use although this was de facto extended to cover classroom but not film society screenings without specific non-commercial rights clearance . Blowing up the image on video for projection to larger groups produced visual quality inferior to 16mm copies made from release prints which were subject to generational loss of image resolution. Laser disk had potential but the range of classic titles was limited - few if any of the key Rossellini films were available - and by the millennium, the laser format, together with VHS, had been made redundant by the digital disk 

1983-96:  Rossellini retrospectives.   The newly formed National Film Theatre of Australia (NFTA), at the commencement of screenings in 1968, had a Rossellini season on the agenda where it stayed unrealised during the NFTA’s 13 year screening history, permanently deferred by other more readily mounted and hence more viable screening opportunities.  Limited funding was already stretched for a national screening program.

The long postponed Rossellini retrospective finally arrived following the establishment of the multicultural broadcasting service (SBS) in 1980.  The then recently retired director of the Sydney Film Festival and film critic, David Stratton, was given a free hand, beginning in 1982, to select features for acquisition and presentation by him in the “Movie of the Week.”  This was extended to a parallel weekly series of “Cinema Classics” in 1983, including director mini-retrospectives work of great directors - Kurosawa, Eisenstein, Carné, Bergman, Bunuel, Ozu et al including Rossellini which (based on recollection) began with his first feature, La Nave Bianca/ The White Ship (1941), followed by the war trilogy, L’Amore (The Human Voice and The Miracle) and films from the five made with Ingrid Bergman - Stromboli and Journey to Italy. Importantly, for each of the movies presented on SBS an expert subtitling team prepared a new translation most often improving on quality of sub-titles that appeared on the theatrically released prints and in a number of cases English subtitles on foreign language classics for the first time.  

There were no other Rossellini feature films** available in the country on 16 or 35mm through the 60s and 70s the only option, even with rights clearances, seemingly being imported sub-standard 16mm prints.  An ex-tv 16mm copy of Viva l’Italia in colour had a film society screening in Sydney edited to about less than half its original length with only the well-staged battle scenes more or less fully intact.     

By c1990, the National Film Study Lending Collection (FSLC) see footnote) had some of the ‘essential’ Rossellini titles on 16mm, generally offering less than hoped for image quality. Missing were Europe 51Francesco, India, and Viva l’Italia; - Louis XIV was available in the French Embassy collection. (French and German features were well served by quality 16mm prints, the former distributed through the French Embassy and German features imported by the Goethe Institute were distributed by the FSLC).

A further decade elapsed until the first theatrical Rossellini retrospective, a selection of 11 features was mounted by the Sydney Film Festival in 1996 - 11 titles, including nine imported 35mm prints; for the first time in Australia, theatrical screenings of key features, The Flowers of St Francis, Rossellini’s original cut of Stromboli, Voyage to Italy, Viva l’Italia and the poetic documentary feature India Mahri Butri.

Rossellini began his post-war film career with the major international critical and popular success of Rome Open City making him something of a celebrity. It was a breakthrough film for Italian cinema on Australian screens carrying with it the phenomenon of neo-realism. Its success virtually ensured an Australian release for the following films in the trilogy. Open City was, as is noted above, in many ways Rossellini’s least typical film, Paisá being a far more original contribution to neorealism and the third film, Germany Year Zero, a departure from “programmatic realism” in Rossellini’s search for a new cinematic language. Following the release of The Miracle (1948) as a short feature, it was more than a decade during which Rossellini made 9 features, before another, General Della Rovere (1959), was taken up for Australian distribution.

Michelangelo Antonioni, Monica Vitti

The release of Antonioni’s films in Australia, then an art cinema outlier, followed a reverse pattern to those of Rossellini.  From the role of critic, contributor to several screenplays (including for films directed by Rossellini and later, Fellini) and as an assistant director to Marcel Carné on Les Visitors du Soir (1943), Antonioni began his career as a director with short documentaries, 1943-50, which “provide dazzling early evidence of [his] powers.”  Chatman continues, “though they do not experiment with narrative structure, the documentaries evoke an unmistakably Antonionian mood” ( 5). They resemble his later films in various ways, Chatman notes, such as commitment to an “open text” and muted tonality.  Of his first four features Cronaca di un amore (1950) and Le Amiche (1955) are the most interesting in foreshadowing Antonioni’s future development. In the case of the former for various formal subtleties in direction (such as unprecedented use of the long take), designed to enlarge the film noir framework, continued in the latter, also benefiting from a screenplay (co-written by Suso Cecchi D’Amico) based on a novella by the gifted novelist Cesare Pavese. 

None of these early features made prior to the critical breakthrough with L’avventura reached Australian screens in the 50s, least of all through Italian distributors and picture houses serving the substantial Italian community at the peak of then post-war settlement in all capital cities, especially Melbourne. Diane Collins notes not entirely accurately in her history of Australians at the movies, ‘Hollywood Down Under’ (1987) that, “instead of the prestige productions of the Italian film industry which became so familiar to art-house audiences, these ethnic cinemas screened the cheaply made features specially produced by that same industry for small-town and rural audiences - the same films that screened in the migrants’ native villages“ (242). This split in the 50s and 60s between a (more often tertiary educated) middle class art house audience and a ethnic community audience, was based on a fundamental cultural divide not merely on language difference.  Although more pronounced because of the numbers involved, such a divide was not confined only to the screening of Italian films.

In their temperaments and cultural backgrounds, Rossellini and Antonioni would seem to occupy opposite ends of a creators’ spectrum.  Rossellini’s destiny, as Peter Bondanella puts it, seemed more befitting of a playboy than a film director. “There was something of the nonchalance of a non-specialist in his approach to cinema” (‘Films of Rossellini’ 1), for example in his insistence on the spontaneity of filming in single takes without a set script leaving room for sudden revelation.  Antonioni’s interest in writing and modern abstract art (he began painting for relaxation from filmmaking) is reflected in studied materiality, the off centre deployment of spatial compositions in which to frame his characters, not in terms of their subjectivity but as the objective expression by the director of their isolation.   

What was shared was the necessity they both felt to break with those conventions of narrative filmmaking such as imposition of closure and overriding pre-eminence given to the role of plot, seen by Rossellini and Antonioni to be no longer relevant,  

It is now barely two decades since digital technology has made it immeasurably more possible for a cinephile, critic, teacher, researcher and student, to follow the evolution of the work of auteurs relatively free, as in the other arts, of the further imposed imperatives of commercial film distribution and exhibition.

* The National Film Study Lending Collection (FSLC) on 16mm, from the mid 70s located as an entity within the National Film Lending collection (NFLC) of documentaries on 16mm forming film section of the National Library, Canberra, parallel with the National Film Archive. The FSLC was established in 1975 with a separate budget to expand the initial film study collection of classics into a curated collection of international features, shorts, experimental and documentary films on 16mm (and later videotape) to be made available to film societies and educational (tertiary and secondary) institutions. The priority role was to provide film study material on 16mm for then expanding tertiary film study courses. 

***  Three shorts  by Rossellini were in portmanteau films distributed in Australia :  ‘Envy’ in 7 Deadly Sins (1952), the short with Ingrid Bergman in We the Women (1953), and ‘Chastity’ in Rogopag (1962).


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

6(18 - Italy and Roberto Rossellini - Part One

6(19) - Rossellini, INDIA and the new Historical realism

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