Rossellini’s reputation has ebbed and flowed more perhaps than that of any other leading director. In part this has been because of the nexus between politics and film criticism in Italy, in part because of changes in fashion and taste, in part because of the personal scandals which have punctuated Rossellini’s career. Nevertheless, looked back on now, from the near peak of his achievement, The Seizure of Power by Louis XIV, his work shows a remarkable consistency, thematically and stylistically. He has persevered on his own path; sporadically this has criss-crossed with the stampede of popular and critical taste.
Rossellini’s themes are fundamentally Italian, indeed Southern Italian. The humus from which his themes spring is that of traditional Catholic (superstitious and semi-pagan) Southern Italy about to be sucked into the vortex of Northern Europe, with its entirely different kind of civilization, cultural and social. Thus we find at the centre of his work the antagonistic couplets North v. South, cynicism v. innocence, positivism v. spirituality, etc. His Bergman cycle, for instance, is dominated by the theme of the Northern woman coming south and undergoing a spiritual crisis, from which she emerges with a kind of religious faith. It would be misleading to call this faith Catholic: in many ways, with its emphasis on acceptance, it is Oriental (Buddhist or Hindu) and, of course, this becomes explicitly apparent in his film India. In terms of Christianity, Rossellini’s vision of sainthood is close to the Dostoyevskian holy fool, to Simone Weil (whose influence Rossellini acknowledges) or to a kind of legendary Franciscanism, alluded to in several films, including of course his version of The Little Flowers.
This emphasis on naïve faith and acceptance naturally goes hand in hand with an unabashed populism: in The Miracle or The Machine for Exterminating the Wicked this takes the form of an extreme indulgence in Southern Italian superstition, to the point of centring films around ‘miraculous’, supernatural events, which Rossellini justifies as part and parcel of popular culture. In Europa 51 there is a clear distinction drawn between the ‘human’ slum-dwellers and the ‘inhuman’ bourgeois and bureaucrats: priest and Paese Sera journalist occupy an uneasy middle position. Again, Rossellini’s resistance films are populist in tone, with the same curious tensions between priest and Communist. This populism has led to political difficulties for Rossellini: he has often succeeded in disgruntling both the Communist Party and the Catholic Church. (In Vanina Vanini, for instance, Rossellini actually used both Marxists and priests as script-writers, so that the tension between
Catholic and carbonaro in the film was actually thrown back into the script-writing, with predictable results.) In fact, Rossellini is scarcely interested in politics, but he has a troubled consciousness (which would now be called Johannine) of the overlap of church and party in much popular (peasant and petit bourgeois) culture, which is uneasily reflected in his films.
The counterpart of Rossellini’s populism is an intense patriotism and also a concern with heroism: not as a psychological, so much as a socio-political category. His patriotism is the natural result of his confidence in Italy and expresses itself in his constant return to first the Resistance, then the Risorgimento. (Rossellini’s retreat backwards into history, following that eastwards to India, springs from his disenchantment with the cynicism of modern Europe: a search for the pure well of life, in fact.) In Viva l’Italia it is clearly linked with the theme of heroism: Garibaldi is the popular hero (in the same way that St. Francis is the popular saint). The two films have the same oleographic quality. Rossellini’s approach is to bathe Garibaldi in a charismatic aura, while at the same time stressing his ‘human’ weaknesses and foibles, such as his gout. With this kind of concept of the hero, it is not hard to make the transition from Garibaldi to Louis XIV.
I have sketched Rossellini’s themes first because it is important to point out that his work has this thematic consistency, in view of the rhetoric about ‘realism’ with which critics have always surrounded his films. It is easy to see what ‘realism’ means when applied to Rossellini: it means the absence, to an unusual degree, of professional actors, stage sets, make-up, a pre-arranged shooting script, etc. It means a grainy, rather rough-and-ready look, reminiscent of newsreels, far from Hollywood ‘quality’. But this is a question of method and style: it in no way means any greater quotient of truth or reality as regards the thematic content of the film. This is not to say that form and content are unrelated: the ideology of ‘acceptance’ and ‘patience’ which relates to Rossellini’s views of sainthood, also relates to his methods of work, to the concept of the camera which records (accepts the given, eliminating directorial intervention) and follows (patiently waiting the moment of revelation). Similarly his episodic method of construction (Paisa, The Little Flowers, India, etc) springs from a dislike of ‘artificial’ plots, which parallels his dislike of the ‘artificiality’ of modern European society.
In some ways, Rossellini’s ‘realism’ is a correct, more honest concept than others: the natural concomitant of the non-intervention of the director is the non-intervention politically of man in the natural course of history (or, as in India, in the natural cycle of life and death). The left-wing ideology of ‘realism’ has great difficulty in overcoming the inconsistency of an approach that both stays at the level of phenomenal forms and also demands the revelation of an esoteric (essential) meaning: the traditional marxist attack (derived from Taine and Belinsky) adumbrates a theory of types, as distinct from contingent phenomena, but this has obvious drawbacks: it easily falls into schematism or even sentimental idealization.