Director Roberto Rossellini (1906-1977) was responsible for revitalizing Italian cinema after World War II with his neo-realist films, especially Roma, Citta Aperta ( Rome, Open City; 1945). After a long, somewhat uneven career in cinema, Rossellini spent his last creative years working in television, one of the first important film directors to do so.
Rossellini was born on May 8, 1906, in Rome, Italy, into a wealthy family. His father was an architect. Rossellini and his siblings, including brother Renzo who later became a composer and scored many of his brother's films, were raised by nannies. Rossellini was primarily educated by tutors and did not attend university. As a young man, he became interested in film and contributed pieces to Cinema, a film magazine.
Rossellini began working in the film industry in 1934, learning every aspect from screenwriting to editing and dubbing. He soon began making his own films, spending a year, 1937-38, writing and directing the amateur production, Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune. The film was subsequently banned by Italian censors when Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, controlled the government. Rossellini got his first screen credit on a propaganda film, Luciano Serra, Pilota (1938), that was produced by the dictator's son, Vittorio Mussolini. Rossellini wrote the film and directed some of its sequences.
By 1940, Rossellini was working in the government-sanctioned film industry as a technical director. On the side, however, he shot footage of Italian resistance fighters for his own purposes. Rossellini directed three key films in the early 1940s, ostensibly under the authority of the Fascist government. Thus, these early works were labeled Fascist in sympathies. The first, Rossellini's true directorial debut was La Nave Bianca ( The White Ship; 1941). The movie began as a documentary project, but developed into a fiction film with amateur actors, a hallmark of Rossellini's later work. La Nave Bianca transcends politics and ideology to portray sailors and hospital workers as sympathetic. Completing this trilogy of war films was Un pilota ritorna ( A Pilot Returns; 1942) and L'umomo della croce ( The Man of the Cross; 1943).
Established International Reputation
In 1945, Rossellini made what was arguably his most important film and the epitome of neo-realism, Roma, Citta Aperta ( Rome, Open City ). He had begun writing the film when the Nazis occupied Italy in 1943. To finish, he had to sell some of his own belongings so that he could buy short ends of film stock. Rossellini again used amateur performers, as well as real locations and a crude documentary-like black and white photography. All of these elements defined neo-realism as a film movement, and Roma, Citta Aperta reignited the lagging Italian film industry. The film was not popular in Italy at the time, though it was in the United States and France. To get Roma, Citta Aperta to the U.S., Rossellini was forced to sell it for next to nothing to an American soldier. The soldier took it home and sold it to Joseph Bustyn. It was then shown in New York City for the next two years.
On the basis of Roma, Citta Aperta, Hollywood producer David O. Selznick offered Rossellini a contract to direct seven films in 1946. Rossellini rejected the offer, preferring to work in Italy. Ironically, while his next films were neo-realistic, they were criticized for incorporating Hollywood-type narratives and a melodramatic plot. These films were also about World War II and its effect on Italy, as was Roma, Citta Aperta. The first was Paisa ( Paisan; 1946), a film which many critics believe to be one of his best. Comprised of six distinct episodes, it depicts the Allied capture of the whole of Italy from the Germans, including many moments of human kindness.
The last of this wartime trilogy, Germania, anno zero ( Germany, Year Zero; (1947), was also powerful. As was done for the other two films, Rossellini co-wrote the script. In Germania, anno zero, he explores how the Nazi doctrines corrupt a child's mind. The film also condemns social institutions like the Catholic Church for their failure to act in opposition to this authority.
Not all of Rossellini's films in this time period were about war. In 1947, he made L'Amore, a film in two contrasting parts starring his then-lover, actress Anna Magnani. The first part was entitled "The Human Voice," a monologue in which a woman tries to maintain a phone conversation with an obviously disinterested lover. "The Miracle," concerns an unsophisticated peasant woman who becomes pregnant by a man who she is convinced is St. Joseph. She believes she is carrying the son of God. As with many of Rossellini's films, L'Amore is an exploration of the concepts of truth and humanity. In 1947, Rossellini temporarily left Italy to finish post-production on these and other of his World War II-era films.
Became Involved with Ingrid Bergman
In 1948, Rossellini received a letter that would change his life. Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman, whose career had been faltering after the end of a contract with David O. Selznick, wrote the Italian director that she wanted to be in one of his films. Rossellini was writing a script at the time with Anna Magnani in mind, but rewrote it for Bergman. The script was for the film Stromboli (1949). During the filming, Rossellini and Bergman began having an affair and Bergman became pregnant. At the time, Rossellini was still married to Marcella De Marquis, with whom he had two sons, Renzino and Romano (who later died). He was also involved with Magnani. Bergman was married to Petter Lindstrom, with whom she had a daughter, Pia. Rossellini had his first marriage annulled, and Bergman divorced her spouse after the birth of their son, Roberto Guisto Guiseppe, in 1950. Two years later, they had twin daughters, Isabella Fiorella Elettra Giovanna (who became an actress and model) and Isotta Ingrid Frieda Giuliana.
Despite their subsequent marriage, the affair was a huge international scandal and caused the professional reputations of both Rossellini and Bergman to suffer. The press constantly harassed the couple. Bergman was essentially ostracized by Hollywood for seven years, and denounced as "evil" on the floor of the United States Senate. Although she starred in six Rossellini films, none were financial successes and most had questionable artistic merit, according to critics. Stromboli was arguably the best. Backed by funds provided by Howard Hughes and RKO Studios, Stromboli portrayed Bergman as a Lithuanian refugee who marries an Italian fisherman only as a convenience. The film explores her reaction to living in a harsh environment, a volcanic island off the coast of Sicily, including the physical and psychological cruelties of the backwards community.
Other Rossellini/Bergman collaborations included Europa '51 ( The Greatest Love; 1952). In this film, which was co-written by Rossellini, Bergman played a superficial mother who feels intense contrition after her child commits suicide. After she finds comfort in helping the poor and ill, her husband incarcerates her in an asylum. Panned at the time of its release, Viaggio in Italia ( Voyage in Italy; 1953) became a cult film years after its release. Some regarded it as the embodiment of Rossellini's filmmaking methodology. The simple plot gave Rossellini an opportunity to use much documentary footage of Italy. In Viaggio in Italia, Bergman plays an English woman who go to Naples to sell a home as her marriage is at an end. Rossellini used the film to question the meaning of life. Some believe that Bergman's performance represented a repressed wife trying to come to terms with the horror of emptiness.
Bergman played a similar role in Rossellini's La paura (1954) ( Fear or Angst; 1954). Her character is a German wife, who is miserable and has affairs. She leaves her husband. At the time of its release, this film was not considered to be an artistic success. In retrospect, opinions have improved. In all of these films, Rossellini looked inside his characters, at their spiritual lives. Many also used elements of expressionism. Despite his box office failures and Bergman's floundering career, Rossellini would not let his wife make movies with anyone else until 1955. By 1956, they had separated. The marriage was annulled a year later.
One reason for the failure of Rossellini's marriage to Bergman was that he continued to see other women, including Indian screenwriter Somali Das Gupta. The couple, who had a common law marriage, produced a child, Paola Raffaella Maria. This relationship caused another scandal. In 1958, Rossellini made a documentary about her native country entitled India. The film was not well received at the box office, but was given some critical acclaim.
Rossellini's last successful film was General Della Rovere (1959). He would later regret having made the film, despite the fact that it boosted his sagging reputation and won several awards. It used many of the same ideas as his successful neo-realist films. The story was set during World War II and focused on the Italian Resistance. Rossellini did the same with Era Notte A Roma (1960), though with limited interest from audiences and critics alike.
After several more films, including two about the history of Italy, Viva l'Italia (1960) and Vanina Vanini (1961), Rossellini essentially ended his film career. By the mid-1960s, he had become a living legend in the minds of critics and filmmakers alike. Rossellini did not make a specifically commercial film for the rest of his life. Television became his preferred medium, using it to explore science and history. He made several miniseries such as L'Ete del Ferro ( The Age of Iron 1964) and Atti Degli Apostoli ( The Acts of the Apostles or The Deeds of the Apostles; 1968). The latter was a six-hour production using locations in Tunis to delineate the story of Jesus Christ.
By the 1970s, Rossellini made biographies of historical figures for Italian television, including Agostino di Ippona ( Saint Augustine of Hippo; 1970), Socrate ( Socrates; 1970), Pascal (1971), and Descartes, (1974). In these biographies, Rossellini attempted to make these distant figures seem more accessible. Rossellini made his last fiction film in 1974, Anno Uno ( Year One ). His last commercial film was 1977's Il Messia ( The Messiah ). Like his classic neo-realist films, Il Messia used amateur performers. Rossellini was planning a film on philosopher and theorist, Karl Marx, when he suffered a heart attack, and died in Rome on June 4, 1977.
Further Reading on Roberto Rossellini
Cassell Companion to Cinema, Cassell, 1997.
Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, edited by Richard Roud, The Viking Press, 1980.
International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers-2: Directors, third edition, edited by Laurie Collier Hillstrom, St. James Press, 1997.
Thomson, David, A Biographical Dictionary of Film, third edition, Alfred A. Knopf. 1994.
The New York Times, September 13, 1987.
People Weekly, January 13, 1986; January 20, 1986.
Variety, June 8, 1977.