Histories of Cinema
November 16, friday
19:00. Introduction by Santos Zunzunegui
20:00. Paisà (Roberto Rossellini, Italy, 1946, 134 min.)
An American patrol arrives in a small town. The retreating Germans have planted land mines. The only way to get out of there is to follow a lava path along the coast. A young woman named Carmela (Carmela Sazio) agrees to guide the Americans past the minefield. Along the way they reach a Norman tower. While his partners leave to explore, Joe (Robert van Loon) stays with Carmela in the tower. The soldier confesses to the young woman, who cannot understand him, speaking of his fear and desire to return to his people. The American soldier is hit by a shot from a German sniper. The Germans burst into the tower and discover Carmela. Under the pretext of fetching water for the soldiers, Carmela returns to the hidden Joe and finds him dead, so that she immediately grabs his rifle and starts shooting at the Germans. The American patrol, upon returning, will discover the rifle and Joe’s body. The leader of the squad will pass sentence: “That lousy Italian woman …” Meanwhile, Carmela’s body lies at the foot of the cliff where it has been thrown by the Germans.
In a city devastated by the war we follow the footsteps of little Alfonsino who, with an old trick (“The police are coming!”) manages to steal from a completely drunk African-American soldier (Dots M. Johnson). After a series of misadventures the soldier will end up falling asleep among the rubble of a ruined building. Upon awakening, he discovers that the urchin has taken his boots.
The next morning the soldier carries out his military police duties. And he catches his little friend in the process of robbing a military supply truck. Having caught him, he demands the return of his boots and tells the boy to take him home. The boy takes the soldier to the place where he lives, in the caves of Margellina, where hundreds of people displaced by the war survive in subhuman conditions. When he asks the boy where his parents are, the answer is shocking: “They are both dead. Bang, bang! You understand?” The soldier finds the situation unbearable and flees in his jeep.
“Six months later.” We are in a crowded bar packed full of young Italians and American soldiers drinking non-stop. For no good reason, a fight begins between two women. Just as they come to blows, the military police arrive. Our protagonist (who we will later discover is called Francesca, played by Maria Michi) manages to avoid detention by taking refuge in a cinema. At the exit she will run into an American soldier (Gar Moore) who is in a drunken state, and will end up dragging him back to the house where she rents a room to make money as a prostitute. Once he is in the house, the soldier begins to remember his arrival in Rome after breaking through the German lines. (“All the girls were laughing, happy (...) You should have seen one that I met. Her name was Francesca.”) This leads to flashback: The soldier leaves his tank asking for water to quench his thirst. A young woman leads him to her home and gives him water to wash. The young woman babbles some words in English with the help of a small manual. The American responds with a demonstration of his rudimentary Italian vocabulary. Called by his companions, the soldier tells the young woman that he has to leave. On the stairs they tell each other their names: Fred and Francesca. We return to the present. Francesca listens to the words of the half-asleep soldier: “Six months. I never stopped thinking about her.” While he is dozing, the soldier reveals that he returned to Rome and searched “high and low” without finding her. At that moment, Francesca understands who the soldier is. She had not recognised him. When the soldier finally falls asleep, Francesca leaves the room and the apartment but not without first giving the Madame of the house a piece of paper with her address on it, to be given to the soldier when he wakes up.
The next morning, next to the Colosseum, a group of American soldiers wait for the military trucks that will take them back to the front. Fred pulls out a piece of paper from one of his pockets. Asked by a partner about its contents, he will say that it is “the address of a whore”, while throwing it to the ground.
Ten thirty at night. Francesca waits in vain at the door of her house in the rain.
The Boboli Gardens, south of the Arno, where a field hospital is located, and where some partisans arrive with their wounded. Harriet (Harriet White), an English nurse who has been living in Florence, questions one of them about the situation in the city and asks if he knows anything about a friend of hers, the painter Guido Lombardi. “Who doesn’t know him,” replies the partisan. Lombardi has become “Lupo”, one of the leaders of the Resistance and seems to have been wounded. Harriet tries to find any way to cross the river and get into the area of the city occupied by the Germans. At the door of the Palazzo Pitti, she will meet an old acquaintance, Massimo (Renzo Avanzo), who also desperately seeks to rejoin his family, trapped in the part of the city under German control. There is only one way to cross to the other side of the Arno, through the passageway that leads to the Uffizi Gallery. Harriet and Massimo embark on an adventure that will take them to a Florence that looks like something out of a bad dream of De Chirico (the images of the Germans in the Piazza della Signoria and next to the baptistery of the cathedral have a spectral quality) and in which, in the middle of desolate streets, the partisans and fascist snipers confront each other with brutal cruelty. They manage to reach a house where, from the roof, they can follow the course of the confrontations, and from there they go to the area of San Jacopino now controlled by the partisans. Massimo, taking advantage of a moment of carelessness by the partisans that he knows, sets out in the direction of his home. In the exchange of shots that results from this act, a partisan is shot. Harriet and another partisan manage to drag the fallen man to a doorway. While a group of the Resistance ruthlessly executes two fascist snipers, the injured man gives Harriet the devastating news that puts an end to her search: Lupo is dead.
The noise of distant combat is incapable of disturbing the tranquillity of a monastery located in the mountains of Romagna. Until one day three American military chaplains arrive at the monastery. The monks welcome them in a hospitable way and prepare to share with them their simple cells and their meagre provisions. The father superior announces to the community that the Americans will be his guests at dinner that evening. A small miracle takes place and some villagers give chickens to the monastery so that they can improve on the sparse menu originally planned.
But the peace of the monastery is suddenly disturbed: only one of the chaplains, Father Martin (Bill Tubs), is Catholic. His two companions are a Protestant and a Jew. The father superior, on discovering the news, makes Father Martin aware of his concern that the other two soldiers may die in the conflict while they continue to “cling to their error”.
Dinner time arrives. After the required prayers the guests take their place at the head of the table. The brother cook brings the dishes to the American chaplains who observe that the monks are not being served. In response to Father Martin’s question, the father superior of the monastery informs him that the community has decided to fast so that the light can descend on the two misguided souls that Divine Providence has led to his refuge. Interrupting the gesture of putting the first spoonful of food in his mouth, Father Martin thanks the monks for the great gift they have granted him, allowing him to rediscover the serenity he had lost amidst the horrors of war.
6-The Po Estuary
A partisan, braving the German shooting, rescues the corpse of one of his companions from the waters of the Po. Three members of the OSS (American Office of Strategic Services) and a group of partisans fight isolated from their troops, short of ammunition and without food. They request assistance by radio and are notified that at night supplies will be dropped by parachute. Meanwhile, one of the American soldiers, Dale (Dale Edmonds) and a partisan approach one of the houses nestled in the estuary to ask for food.
The overnight parachute drop fails and, in addition, the Germans massacre the inhabitants of the Maddalena house. The only remaining option is to try to escape from the German siege. After picking up two British pilots from a downed plane, the fighters try to reach the sea but are intercepted by the Germans, surrounded and, finally, after a one-sided combat and with their ammunition exhausted, they are captured by their enemies.
As they are driven to the Maddalena house, the Americans are treated as prisoners of war. Not so the partisans, who to the Germans are mere bandits and not therefore covered by the Geneva Convention. Lying outside the house, they await death while they lament the fact that no one will know what has happened to them.
First light of dawn. Bound hand and foot, the partisans are thrown into the river from the side of a barge. Outraged by the brutality of the act, Dale tries to intervene and is shot by the German bullets.
Over the image of the waters disturbed by the falling bodies of the executed partisans, the voice of the narrator that has introduced each of the episodes pronounces the last words: “This happened in the winter of 1944. By the beginning of spring the war was over.” Slowly but steadily, the waves created by the bodies falling into the water begin to subside.