Le Petit Soldat (1963)

“Photography is truth, and cinema is truth 24 times a second.”

Although Le Petit Soldat was released in 1963 — no thanks to the censors — it was actually filmed in 1960. This context is all-important because Jean-Luc Godard is still fresh off the sensibilities of Breathless, and they pervade this film as well.

Its plot follows the aftermath of a professor killed in a terrorist attack and a young journalist in Geneva, who is enlisted by French intelligence to assassinate a man named Palivoda. This is in the age of the Algerian War; the young man, Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor), has avoided the draft, and the man he’s assigned to kill is a National Liberation Front sympathizer.

If it’s not apparent already, the groundwork has been set for a political spy thriller. While balking at murdering the man in a drive by, Bruno simultaneously falls in love with Veronica (Anna Karina), a dark-haired beauty in a trench coat. His friends bet him he’ll fall in love the first time he sees her on the street. He sheepishly shells over the money after only a brief introduction. He’s instantly smitten.

Le Petit Soldat is such a literary film thanks in part to its voiceover. Bruno, as Godard’s stand-in and cinematic conduit, references a myriad of things. He asks rhetorically about Veronica, “Were her eyes Velasquez gray or Renoir gray?”

It’s as if Godard is contemplating the muse in his own art. Still, he continues with a steady stream of namedrops including painters, authors, and composers. Van Gogh and Gauguin. Then, Beethoven and Mozart. Anna Karina prancing around to Joseph Haydn is definitely its own mood.

It occurs to me this is a distillation of Godard as a filmmaker. It’s a visual style wedded with these deeply mined traditions of literature and art.  Both cutting edge and steeped in the culture of the past before thenceforward going off and creating its own unique vocabulary.

Godard gleefully inserts himself all over the movie on multiple occasions where we see him in the flesh. It’s a spy movie as only he can conceive it totally deconstructed and aware of itself while simultaneously taking most of the thrills out of the genre.

Soldat remains a precursor to Alphaville by effectively turning the contemporary world around him into the environment for his latest genre picture. Whereas Breathless‘s jazz-infused contemporary aesthetic is accentuated by the black and white streets of France, here they are repurposed. Though it’s as much a film about driving around the city philosophizing as it is about any specific dramatic action.

Because Francois Truffaut, while not always disciplined, could spin stories with a narrative arc and genuine emotion. Godard is at his best as a philosopher and cinema iconoclast where his style doesn’t totally get bogged down by ideas, and he uses the medium in ways that would become the new standard. Or at least his own standard, before he decided to upend them again.

But in order to make the case for Anna Karina as more than Godard’s Pygmalion, it’s necessary to consider her screen image in depth. Whatever Godard gave to Anna Karina in terms of iconography or legacy, Karina gave that much back, and they will be inextricably linked for all times. Because if there was ever a reason to fall in love with her, it’s right there in Le Petit Soldat.

His alter ego riffs about God and politics, political left and right, quotes Lenin, and unravels his entire worldview (ie. about a man who loves ideas, not territories). When he asks his girl why she loves him, she shrugs her shoulders and says I don’t know. I don’t think she’s dumb, but whereas here we have one character who is in their head, she seems to be a creature who is real and present in the moment. She has a heart.

Whatever the digressions and despite the perplexing way Bruno interrogates her during their impromptu photoshoot, she is undeniable. If cinema is truth 24 frames a second, she somehow makes Godard’s cinema more accessible and real — she takes his theorizing on truth and gives it a pulse.

The movie is still a thriller, and it follows its own version of narrative beats. Bruno is framed, he continually has second thoughts about his assignment; he gets the gun, but things always get in his way. His heart is not in it — killing a man mercilessly — because this is not who he is.

Instead, he wishes to run away to Brazil with his girl. He’s locked away and tortured as a double agent for his troubles. These sequences are simplistic — contained in a hotel bathroom — and yet as they light matches near his fingertips and dunk him for minutes on end in the water, there’s a definite heartless menace about it.

We have the political bent of Godard’s cinema detected early on before his other overt efforts later in the 60s. It comes in the guise of his story as it unpacks current events, ideologies, and even controversy around torture.

True to form, he has the audacity to cram the final act of an entire movie into one minute of celluloid. He shows us some things and just as easily explains away the rest with voiceover.

It feels like he leaves just as he emerged. He’s totally singular. At times, maddening and bombastic, and yet always prepared with his own take and alternative approaches to convention. Godard will always challenge the viewer and make you reconsider how much you appreciate cinema even as he continually helps to redefine how we conceive things.

1960 or 63. It makes no difference. Le Petit Soldat has a young man’s malaise acting as a film for the coagulating disillusionment of the ’60s. This isn’t your father’s war nor one of his films — not the “cinema du papa” as Truffaut put it. If Godard’s style was coming into its own, with Karina cast front and center, then the propagation of his ideas is equally evident. Cinema would not be the same without his distinct point of view.

3.5/5 Stars

Note: This review was written before the passing of Jean-Luc Godard on September 13, 2022.

Bitter Rice (1949)

Doris Dowling has a name that sticks out in the opening credits for the very reason she was an American actress and she offered up a particularly memorable role as Alan Ladd’s vitriolic wife in The Blue Dahlia. Here she’s an Italian playing the moll of a two-bit hoodlum wanted by the police.

Bitter Rice opens with a curious kind of introduction. A man stares straight at the camera, breaking the unwritten contours of the fourth wall while providing some explanation of how rice harvesting is a bumper crop not only in China and India but in Northern Italy as well. A moment later, the camera pulls away revealing this presentation is all part of Radio Turin and suddenly the circumstances of the film are instantly placed in a palpable setting.

The lithe even upbeat nature of the picture allows us to fall into the world almost immediately. We have a milieu of migrant workers crossed with bustling train stations, lovers, policemen, and wanted fugitives all playing out in front of us as we try to take in the stimuli and come to grips with everything. The wanted man, named Walter (Vittorio Gassman), tries to mask himself by dancing with a pretty young field worker (Silvana Mangano). She gladly flaunts her dancing in exchange for attention as she’s accompanied by her portable gramophone.

In the aftermath of a chase, Francessca (Dowling) disappears into the crowd of workers to lay low with their cache while her boyfriend flees in order to stay out of the clutches of the police. If it’s not apparent already, a passing street vendor lets us know some priceless jewels were stolen from The Grand Hotel.

If it’s not apparent already, this opening gambit has the kind of thrust we might expect from Hollywood, not a backcountry Italian film, and it’s evident Giuseppe De Santis is well aware of the mechanisms of a thriller. However, he also allows his picture to sink back into rhythms that one would feel much more accustomed to with neorealism and a movie set in the province of Vercelli.

Suddenly a tale of illegals and registered workers is given a new context but timeless relevance to this very day. Francesca does not have a license, but she befriends the saucy young dancer, Silvana, who does her best to assuage the foremen and get her new companion on the ever-crucial list of approval. Her chances are tenuous at best, but Francesca, like so many others, has no other choice.

I couldn’t help thinking, with her chewing gum and sizzling hot music, Silvana is bred out of the same world that supplied movie posters of Gilda in Bicycle Thieves. It’s this influx of American product in its many modes — a new form of cultural dominance — steamrolling the former fascism into submission to good ol’ American capitalism.

The way she flaunts herself and becomes the focal point of the picture, I couldn’t help but compare her to Virginia Mayo in some of her saucier roles like Best Years of Our Lives or White Heat — down to the gum chewing. If it were an American film, Bitter Rice would fit somewhere within the landscape of The Grapes of Wrath or maybe Border Incident.

There’s little doubt it has a kind of collective political philosophy to present — its own vein of social commentary — and it delivers it not only through narrative, but visual depictions of the life these people are subjected to.

In one breathless comment, Silvana tells a soldier (Raf Vallone) posted nearby, “In North America everything is electric!” He’s informed enough to know “even the chair is electric…” As a side note, the Italian constitution completely abolished the death penalty for all common and civil crimes starting in 1948. Already it presents a kind of ideological chafing that must be contended with.

Upon their arrival, the rice workers receive a hero’s welcome, and we are reminded this is a yearly ritual with its own unique patterns. There’s something marvelous about taking part in these seemingly familiar habits even as we see them for the first time as an audience.

The packing of mattresses with straw, the throwing of hats to all the field hands who catch them out of the air en masse. It’s strangely riveting. Or there are the mating customs played out year after year with men yelling over the wall to the fair maidens below, searching for former flings and future partners.

We come to realize it’s built on its own kind of ecosystem. You have the foreman’s, the lines of workers bent over in the muck and the mire every which way, and they sing their river ballads to pass news along the line.

With the jewels to get between them, Francesca and Silvana find themselves positioned among the two factions of documented and undocumented workers. It’s not a simple task, and then Walter turns up again. He can only bring trouble.

Like their opening foray, there’s something about the dance scene between Silvana and Walter burning with a palpable sensuality. But what it also does quite effectively is pluck the film out of its neorealist roots and make it even momentarily something more. It’s like a precursor to the passionate sashaying in Picnic. It feels like very much a Hollywood creation and yet it’s simply De Santis’s version of it.

Likewise, the film is not totally averse to forging its own version of a love triangle (or diamond) with Francesca and Silvana finding themselves attracted and repelled by the conman Walter and another character, the soldier Marco. These see-sawing relational dynamics are the fodder for unadulterated melodrama exemplified by violent pursuits in the pouring rain, passionate embraces in mountains of rice, and a great deal more.

While the rest of the harvesters get overtaken with merriment in the wake of a wedding and subsequent beauty contest, there’s something much more catastrophic going on in the background. Silvana becomes the self-destructive queen of it all.

By the end, I stand totally astounded. Bitter Rice jumps off the deep end going from Italian Neorealism toward gut-busting, blistering drama with the dark tinges of noir. This is what it borrows from Hollywood quite effectively, reminiscent of a picture like Border Incident or even Cape Fear. In tight quarters, violence becomes especially animalistic. When a beast feels cornered, he must lash out.

Also, I still am fascinated to know why Doris Dowling was cast in a film that was otherwise completely Italian, and yet there’s something rather ironic and bewitching in her and Magnano becoming cultural foils for one another. It becomes a far more complicated portrait of the corrupting forces of greed and capitalism.

Dowling, as the quintessential, steadfast Italian girl, and the Italian actress as a poisoned vessel of sensual pop culture materialism. What’s more, it leaves a truly incisive impression and that’s most important of all. You won’t soon forget a film like this, and it just might have the power to captivate viewers on both sides of the globe with its pulpy sensibilities.

4.5/5 Stars

Ossessione (1943)

You half expect cinema to have remained dormant in wartorn Europe during the 1940s. That’s part of what makes Ossessione such a fascinating curio within this context. In fact, the film almost never made it out of the decade alive. One can only imagine how unpopular the picture might have been with the reigning government.

It doesn’t exactly preach good old-fashioned fascist values and Mussolini looked to exterminate the picture completely. Legend has it that Visconti, who had also joined the communist party, managed to salvage a copy so that his film debut could live on and he got out of the war as well with a sprawling career still to be determined ahead of him.

I learned only very recently that Visconti started out as an assistant on the films of Jean Renoir of all people. Not only does that seem like the most propitious of apprenticeships, but it’s also easy to trace the lineage of the Italian from the Poetic Realism of the French Master that would eventually coalesce into Italian Neorealism.

The films of Renoir and Michel Carne are fully present in this early work with the opening images of a train evoking something like Le Bete Humaine or Toni. Gino Costa (Massimo Girotti ) is the kind of working-class hero you’d expect in one of those earlier pictures or even some of John Ford’s work.

He’s an itinerant bum who used to be a soldier and then a mechanic in a former life. Now he’s hitched a ride on a truck bed only to be dumped outside a roadside tavern. And Visconti proceeds to introduce his primary couple through the visual synecdoche of two pairs of legs.

Finally, we see their faces together. They’re in a kitchen. Although Anna Magnani was originally meant to have the role, Clara Calamai channels the sultry come-hither coquettishness quite well even when it’s impossible to unsee the platinum blonde of Lana Turner in the part. But they have their own instant spark, like flint — burning with a consuming passion tantamount to spontaneous combustion.

If you’re well aware of the story already, she is a young woman married to a chubby misogynist named Bragana (Juan da Landa), who thinks he’s more than deserving of the marital comforts afforded by such a wife. He calls on her to rub him down after a long day, and she can’t bear to touch him. She has designs for someone else.

While her husband goes off with the local priest to do some duck hunting, in an early example of a bike-and-talk, Giovanna is quick to stoke the flames of romance with her much more desirable confidante. Visconti’s unauthorized rendition is purportedly more faithful to its source material although it’s hardly as streamlined as MGM’s later adaptation, essentially leaving more space for narrative asides.

When Giovanna clings to the security of her current life, Gino sets off on his own alone soon falling in with a hospitable street salesman, “The Spaniard,” who entertains the crowds. In what can only be expressed as noir sentiment, the tides of the narrative bring the couple together quite by chance.

Bragana is pleased to see their old friend and Gino gets pulled back into the whirlpool taking in some opera at a local tavern. This more than anything betrays Visconti’s affections for the stage.

Consequently, it’s also a film where arguably the biggest moments play out off-screen. I’m thinking of the illicit couples’ first rendezvous and then the fatal accident altering the course of the entire picture. Not all of this is due to content concerns either, but it does highlight how Visconti and his scripting compatriots, Mario Alicata, Giuseppe De Santis, and Gianni Puccini, conceived the story.

It offers another kind of dissonance because we don’t get to see what actually happened even if we’re well aware of their mutual intentions. We must wait for events to play out to see how the canker and unrest reveal themselves in due time. The most explicit response comes when Gino peels off  somebandages and then a violent struggle over a trinket ends in a passionate kiss. This might be the movie summed up in visual terms.

They must reckon with an unsettling state of limbo: freedom that feels more like purgatory as they stew in their infidelities. A man of the cloth suggests that they part ways because people do talk about their situation, real or imagined, and of course, it is very real.

Instead of detonating the story to be a full-blown melodrama like The Postman Always Rings Twice, Ossessione maintains these high levels of human intimacies. Gino reunites with his old pal again beyond delighted to see a familiar face, and yet it ends in fisticuffs because his fellow traveler is able to put words to everything he’s currently tormented by.

Then there’s a demure “ballerina.” Gino meets her knitting on a park bench, and they share an ice cream. I had to acclimate myself, thinking only momentarily that she was Giovana, but the emotions in the scene are enough to give this away. Because being around her Gino feels different; it’s as if, ironically, her purity is able to cover all his sins or at the very least help him forget them.

But the digressions only aid in leading him back to Giovana. If they aren’t totally a destructive pair, frolicking on the beach together, having rekindled their chemistry, then there’s some kind of fatalism that needs to be satiated.

In passing, Ossessione might earn the labels of Italian neorealism for its striking, ever austere imagery emblematic of the post-war working class. But it’s also often designated as film-noir for its sordid details and futile finale. However, I can’t stop but marvel at how Visconti was able to make the picture to begin with. Even after its initial release, it was hit with so many roadblocks of censorship and copyright problems only to gain a second life.

What an auspicious way to start a career, especially under such tumultuous circumstances. Much of the finest pieces of art are born out of the burnishing fires of the furnace and, for that matter, a certain level of creative obsession.

4/5 Stars

Il Generale Della Rovere (1959)

It occurs to me, like with Jean-Pierre Melville (and so many others), that the landscape and context of the war years left such a lasting impact on Robert Rossellini, and they are made manifest in his films. Although it’s shot over a decade later, there’s still a lived-in quality, committed to a kind of authenticity.

Whereas others, namely Americans, experienced the war and then returned home (albeit with PTSD), for these men war was a stipulation of everyday life. It was the water they drank and the bread they ate, suffusing into all aspects of society.

Vittorio De Sica is called upon to play a far different kind of gambler than he was in The Gold of Naples. His blustering lunatic is displaced by a miserable loser stumbling and bumbling his way through a mediocre existence.

Emmanuele Bardone, like everyone else, is getting trampled on by this war, just trying to survive. His debts pile up, no thanks to his rampant gambling habits. He pleads with his girlfriend, a fair-weather beauty (Sandra Milo), who has had just about enough of the meager life he can offer her on his half-baked promises. It’s to no avail. She’s not intent on bailing him out again.

Thus, he must find other means to scrounge up the funds to pay off a German Sergeant Major. They’re buddy-buddy — gambling acquaintances — but it doesn’t keep them from attempting to stab each other in the back. It’s one of those uneasy partnerships engendered by the war. Because Bardone is such a man: feckless, unctuous, self-serving. He’s always looking to get ahead, whether by courting Nazis or fellow Italians frantic to track down missing relatives at any cost…specifically well-off Italians.

Physically, Vittorio De Sica strikes me as a man whose stature and features are impressive, quite effortlessly handsome. Yet, he’s capable of bringing something out of them, wringing the comedy and the tragedy with the body God has given him.

I don’t know why exactly, but I want to compare him to Cary Grant — a man who doesn’t take himself too seriously — so whether debonair or a bit of a cad, we still find it within our hearts to root for him.

He vows to help a rich widow and her daughter-in-law in what feels like just another confidence game preying on their desperation. His gambling gets interrupted by air raids, and he crawls back into the life of one of his other girlfriends (Giovanna Ralli).

Something else happens that he knows absolutely nothing about, but it changes the course of the entire picture. A famed dissident is accidentally shot dead at a roadblock, but a cover-up ensues. The capture of Generale Della Rovere is spread around town despite a botched assignment within the Nazi ranks. Now they must find a man to fill his place: Bardone is fingered for it, and he has no bargaining power in this economy.

We’re privy to the Nazi’s intricate filing systems and notecard records helping to mechanize their ruthless war machine, but they’re also more than prepared to play spy and counterspy with a sorry drifter’s carcass.

Narrative-wise it feels like the story can easily be split into two distinct segments. Because it takes a good hour before De Sica is actually cast as the Generale and suddenly the stakes of his new life are raised.

This film was one of Rossellini’s more profitable efforts and with it came an actual high-concept idea. But this never feels like what the director is truly interested in. He skirts around the “plot” as much as possible to make this story about a character and a world.

When he is finally in prison, all the rebels and convicted patriots pledge their services through cell windows and the surrounding walls. They believe him to be who he says he is…meanwhile, Bardone maintains his pact with Colonel Muller to coax out the Generale’s contact on the inside. He’s met with a crisis calling for some self-examination.

Aside from De Sica, Hannes Messemer has to be the other obvious standout as the German SS man. He’s hard and difficult to like, especially when wearing a Nazi uniform in wartime. However, he’s not a cartoon and even momentarily there are these ever so faint flashes of nobility. He cannot be pinned down; his duty as a military officer trumps everything, and yet the contours of his person make us grapple with more than we are used to in a Nazi.

Because as much as we don’t want to admit it, every Nazi was a human being. He is another soldier, driven by duty, perhaps an ideology, and yet still complicit in these grievous sins against humanity.

There’s also what feels like a level of moralizing to the picture. Because we have this space created. It is now the 1950s. Suddenly Rossellini is out from under the complete specter of the war, and he’s able to make his hapless vagabond into an unsolicited hero. A cynic could brand it as little better than a post-war potboiler.

And yet as he tramps out into the snowy prison yard, there’s a steely conviction about him for the first time in the movie. It takes the obvious arc of this character and imbues it with something fleetingly profound. Surely this is the sensibility of Rossellini.

I recall Lino Ventura in Army of Shadows, Marlene Dietrich in Dishonored, and now  Vittorio De Sica. They all share something in common. They were valiant heroes to the end and sometimes their heroism is unwonted. It doesn’t matter so much the road you’ve taken as long as you make it there in the end. There was never any doubt.

4/5 Stars

Europa ’51 (1952)

Europa ’51 is one of those films butchered by time and yet eventually, it was stitched back together to resemble how it was intended to be viewed by its director. Its serpentine history to restoration hints at its subversive elements, although on the surface, it seems like a fairly common breed of drama about a middle-class family.

It reminds me somewhat of De Sica’s The Children are Watching Us purely because it provides a striking reminder neorealism is not only an exploration of those in abject poverty. It can be about those who have a relational or familial deficit too.

In this case, we begin with the one and only Ingrid Bergman. She returns home to the bustling preparation for a dinner party. A strike is tying up the local roads, and it’s only a minor inconvenience. The same might be said of her misanthropic son.

She hardly has time or patience for his concerns because there’s so much to do. She treats him with the kind of shortness and insensitivity you can hardly begrudge parents. It feels like a momentary lapse in priorities more than a callous act of neglect. Soon enough she’s with her husband and guests — one of them brings the conversation to politics and “leftists” — and it’s easy to leave childish trivialities behind.

Then, a catastrophic event shocks her, and the dormant maternal side reveals itself — one of warmth and affection. She racked with the kind of guilt you can never hope to placate. With the movie being so weepy at such an early juncture, there’s a question of where it might go, but Bergman remains the driving force. She goes searching for something…

On her pilgrimage, one of the people she finds is Giulietta Masina, playing a mother to all with a generous spirit and a heart of gold. She’s taken on far too many children, only some of them her own, but she loves them dearly, fussing over them and getting so much joy in providing for them. There’s a frantic charm to her as she busies herself and makes the household run in spite of her meager means. It’s appealing to Irene.

Meanwhile, her husband (Alexander Knox) remains mostly unfeeling, blowing his top when he perceives another man in her life. He fails to recognize this is the only man who has extended her any human kindness and understanding. For this and other sins, she winds up in a psych ward. Remember, we are trading in melodrama.

Irene comforts her tearful housekeeper with a newfound poise. She receives a visitation from the ward’s priest, and they share their mutual philosophies. Experience has led her to discover her own distinctive on what life is about: Love for ourselves feels too narrow; she feels compelled to reach out to others. Love has no limits. Evil is born from the fact we never give all our love to those who need it most.

Irene avoids questions from the priest about a God and his grace stating we must be filled with love for all so that all might be saved through love. The words ringing with the most resonancy go like this, “I came to earth not to lose sinners but to win them — the miracle of Christianity.”

Suddenly, I liked the movie more and more as Bergman’s developing character is revealed, and I learned Rosselini envisioned her out of the tenets of St. Francis of Assisi.

For the majority of my life, I’ve lived in a western, predominantly Christian society, where these core truths pervade the mindset in thought and word, if not entirely in our deeds. There continues to be a shift; many more people are unaffiliated with organized religion or don’t identify with a specific faith. Much of this makes sense as hypocrisy becomes more and more visible in the social media landscape.

I’m left curious. Instead of being swayed by the political or social movements of the day and age or their specific tribes and subcultures, either to fit in or to rage against the status quo, what if people decided to stand out in a far more radical way?

What if they actually took to heart the teaching to love their neighbors and God with all their heart, mind, and strength. Bergman feels a bit crazy, she is countercultural, and impossible to categorize: an exceptional anomaly.

She would play Joan of Arc later, but this is her first foray into the part of a modern-day saint who eschews and then slides beyond the conventions of her age. These kinds of characters fascinate me namely because they challenge my own convictions and hypocrisies.  “How many men condemned by their society and burned at the stake in their day were right?” It’s a sobering question…

3.5/5 Stars

Stromboli (1950)

“I was found of them that sought me not; I was made manifest unto them that asked not after me.” – Romans 10:20 (taken from Isaiah)

Isabella Rosselini gave an interview where she posited her father was not so much a neorealist but a maker of “probable films.” In other words, they were built out of reality and its probable outcomes while never having the pretense of a true documentary. They were invented yet plausible.

Stromboli is not a type of food but a remote Sicilian island. Rossellini conceived the film thanks to two auspicious events. First, came the famed letter from Ingrid Bergman acknowledging her desire to work with the Italian filmmaker. Then, there was a drive from Rome to Naples past a refugee camp where a blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman made eyes at all the passersby. I have no way to substantiate this anecdote, but it all seems to gel with the movie we have before us.

As in an earlier picture like Paisan, Rossellini is content to live in the linguistic ambiguities of the moment, and it makes for something striking and different. We’re constantly trying to make sense of the world and navigate it as if it were real life.

Ingrid Bergman’s part is shaded by her roles in Casablanca and Notorious just as Rossellini has the likes of Rome, Open City and Paisan behind him. The war years left such an impression on that entire generation and the cinema was equally marked.

She plays Karin, the aforementioned woman who woos the man on the other side of the barbed wire. They have little in common. They can hardly communicate with one another; she’s trying to get her Visa to immigrate to Argentina, and her secondary option is to marry this lovestruck P.O.W. It seems like she has no choice but to accept.

The foundation of their marriage is built on sand instead of hearty bedrock, but it’s hardly the only one you could imagine during the war years.  A certain level of convenience outweighed many other cares. And so they set out on a life together back in his rural hometown.

Not only is Karin an obvious outsider, but she’s also unnerved by the new environment — it’s a humble fishing village — lorded over by an active volcano! What a strange and otherworldly film it is as we are whisked away with Bergman to a land that we do not know using a language that we do not speak. It’s at both times mesmerizing — a world full of curiosities — and perplexing.

Bergman notes it’s a “Ghost Island.” For Antonio (Mario Vitale), it’s all he’s ever known as home and so immediately we have a blatant disconnect. His wife tries to reach out and grab hold of anything reassuring.

It feels less like Rossellini is trying to shoehorn the film into English and more so that he is building a story out of what he has at his disposal. Where language comes in bits and pieces. Shared spaces must be navigated in ways where people can meet in the middle and English is the language of mediation. You never know who knows what or how they learned it. I had this experience on many occasions, and it never ceases to fascinate me. Isn’t it true so many people have intriguing histories if you only get to know them?

Stromboli showcases Bergman at her most disdainful, telling her husband how very different they are — born of separate classes — and she is a “civilized” person. Granted, most of her criticism is out of fear. Whether or not all the words are clear, he understands the emotions behind them, and they wound his pride as he looks to find work to eke by a living to support her. She spends her first days moping around the house and bawling her eyes out, always reacting to the circumstances around her. It’s rarely the other way around.

One man who becomes a kind of confidante is the local Father (Renzo Cesana) simply because he speaks English immaculately. He recounts to her how those who have gone away help those who have stayed behind. He’s an amicable figure, exhorting Karin to be patient.

But the relationship changes as she becomes more standoffish and unadorned in a way you would have never witnessed under the watchful eye of Classical Hollywood. And although she seems to find solace in his company, it crosses a line, and he becomes uneasy. He cannot provide the kind of comfort she requires even as she cries out, “”Your God won’t help!”

If it’s not entirely a movie about self-reflexivity, then at least you have the parallelism between real life and dramatized events. Rossellini and Bergman stirred controversy because although both were married, they set off on an affair together. It became the topic of scandal and derision across the U.S.

Similarly, the women of the town become scandalized by her immodesty in herself and perhaps her interior decorating. She hangs out with women of ill-repute and other men without the presence of her husband. It’s yet another injury to Ingrid’s image, both real and imagined.

But with the rougher edges of human drama, there’s something pensive and even gorgeous about all the fishing sequences. They loom some kind of unknown danger or foreboding. Maybe this is my own projection. Because like Bergman’s character, when I look at this life I see the perceived ugliness. There’s no better indication than the moment he shows her why he bought a ferret: so it might catch rabbits for them.

For her, this is violent and repulsive. For these people, it is their way of life and their individual comfort. It’s what they know most intimately. After all, didn’t God provide people the earth and the sea so they could seek sustenance from them?

The climactic moment when the fishermen bring up the nets has something so satisfying about it even as there is a kind of real thrill in the air pulsing through all the men on screen. Water spraying everywhere, yells, and hands busying themselves with spears to bring in their catch.

This is only topped by a volcanic eruption in full force. Bergman vs. a Volcano is not something I ever thought I’d see, and yet here it is. She flees and seeks refuge up in the hills, totally crushed by her own fear and doubt. And then in a moment, she wakes up and this desolate world around her almost feels like a visitation from God — the beauty — the mystery, it’s all there finally speaking to her.

Rosselini isn’t a deeply pious filmmaker; nor did he seem ardently religious, but in pictures like The Flowers of St. Francis and Stromboli, he does show a fascination with faith and humanity’s relationship with a God. Here it’s not so much meditative as it is a struggle. Karin, like Job before her, cries out to God in anguish on innumerable occasions.

Could it be the passing birds overhead are a reminder? That God through his common grace watches over the birds of the air and all the more so his other creatures. Or is this all wishful thinking with the volcanic deathtrap soon to be overtaken by hellfire and brimstone?  Where is God and if He is there, why does He hide his face? These are the existential questions percolating in the human heart, and Karin feels the full brunt of their weight as she lashes out into the void.

The movie cuts out before we get a response. Going back to the opening quote, is this Rossellini reaching for an answer?

“I was found of them that sought me not; I was made manifest unto them that asked not after me.” Of course, the director leads us to a state of existential dissonance between what we read and what we witness. Meanwhile, he alighted on a tumultuous road with his greatest muse.

4/5 Stars

The Hired Hand (1971)

It’s true that Peter Fonda comes out of a western tradition of sorts, which is merely an indication of his family’s presence in the film industry. Obviously, one of his father’s identifying genres was the western, and he worked with some of the greats from John Ford to Sergio Leone.

Films like My Darling Clementine have become the bar with which to evaluate future generations. Then, Peter’s older sister, Jane, of course, tried her hand with the wildly popular Cat Ballou. It’s not high art, but there’s a great deal to appreciate between her gallivanting around and the drunken histrionics of Lee Marvin.

However, with The Hired Hand, Peter starred and directed a western of a very different breed. There’s a hallucinatory quality to the movie suggesting it’s not too far removed from Monte Hellman’s acid westerns of a few years prior. It’s composed mostly of images swimming in the restless score of Bruce Langhorne.

We already have Warren Oates and Peter Fonda, and it’s obvious the genre is funneled through the vision of the counter-culture that brought us pictures like Easy Rider and even Two-Lane Blacktop. In some of his earliest feature film work, Vilmos Zsigmond provides a casual, unsentimental sense of the landscape fitting the overall canvass developed by both the editing and score.

In their passing dreams, floating just out of reach, the California coast acts as a kind of far-off oasis for the three drifters staked out by a river bed. I couldn’t help thinking of generations before. Peter’s father as Tom Joad headed to California and faced his own brand of disillusionment with the dream packaged for him. Expectations didn’t meet reality.

Peter Fonda is besieged by the discontentment and malaise of his generation, but if we recall The Grapes of Wrath maybe this youthful sense of Sehnsucht, while morphing and evolving, is not totally lost or forgotten. It’s only reimagined in new forms and under new banners.

After days without bathing and nights without a warm bed, they roll into a town. But it’s not much better than the backcountry they’ve been frequenting. At any rate, it’s hardly the picture of civilization.

The film remains mostly a sullen affair plagued by death, but not just physical death, the death of joy or adulation in any sort of quality life. It starts grappling with the life of a drifter — the camaraderie of saddle buddies — and the solace of a settled home life. Because Harry Coilings didn’t always live this peripatetic existence. Once he was married. Funny how he never mentioned it before to his companions, but then again, the overwhelming emptiness in his heart has made him crave something different. So he and Arch pay a visit to his former missus.

Warren Oates has gained some welcomed acclaim since his death as a kind of cult favorite, but in The Hired Hand there’s something especially welcomed about him. He’s congenial and faithful, a source of affability in a movie that is mostly lacking in any kind of generosity toward its audience. Fonda gives us nothing. Verna Bloom has nothing to give because her character has learned to insulate herself. And there’s really no one else to offer any kind of condolence.

The film’s barely a meditation on marriage. There’s hardly time to build this into something substantive nor entirely profound, but we do have a sense of this male camaraderie. And suddenly it gives the movie a central question. Fonda must reconcile this relationship, one that has stayed with him for years on the lonely roads, with that of a distant wife who never expected him to show his face again. Whether he totally acknowledges them, they are both of great importance to him.

At first, I mistook the finale — a giant bloody shootout — for a pointless exercise. What good does it do? Very little aside from bludgeoning us with a bleak view of the world. However, it does speak to a man’s vow of friendship. While other elements of this western are irrevocably different from the past, there’s some small amount of stability in such a simple trait as this. Is this stupid courage like the screenwriter Bill Goldman enthused about? Probably.

It’s also a glimmer of something laudable speaking to the exact same listless despondency an entire generation was looking to grapple with from Easy Rider to Five Easy Pieces. This alone doesn’t make it a superior western, simply by having a muddied, unadorned sense of the world. But Peter follows in the footsteps of his dad and sister to leave his own impression on a deeply American genre.

3/5 Stars

Cowboy (1958)

In Cowboy, Delmer Daves and Glenn Ford continue their fruitful partnership by examining the life of a different sort of cattleman. The movie opens on a grand mid-century establishment soon to be frequented by a  cowboy named Reece. Everything is colorful and ornate in the Spanish style with gaudy curtains and wood interiors.

Thus, it begins as a hotel drama that switches out a sulking Garbo and destructive John Barrymore for a gang of cowhands and a hotel clerk’s romance. The movie would not be the same without Jack Lemmon. He is Frank Harris, a lowly clerk with the unenviable task of moving some guests to make way for Mr. Reece. It runs deeper still. He’s fallen in love with the gorgeous daughter (Ann Kashfi) though her father dismisses the young man’s affirmations of love.

Soon enough, they will return to their native Mexico, and Maria will be a distant memory to the impressionable boy. Before he can sort out his feelings, Reece’s contingent comes pouring in and takes over the hotel.

The whole movie is built out of these two men coming together and what a glorious juxtaposition of characters it is. The dreamy-eyed idiot and a veteran cowboy, pragmatic and hard-bitten. Ford and Lemmon have been created on their most fundamental level to chafe with one another. Still, the tinge of comedy is not entirely imperceptible in the setup.

In their introduction, you have Lemmon sidling up to Reece’s bath to get in with his gang while Ford shoots stray cockroaches with some relish. Equally important is how real life intersects with film fiction because Glenn Ford built a storied career in westerns, even if you only count his films with Delmer Daves. Lemmon was always the common, everyman schmuck. Now he’s a tenderfoot barely prepared to place his backside on a horse.

Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo explores a modern mode of western calling for a different brand of star. Lemmon could easily be built into the City Slicker archetype, lovelorn and ready to prove himself. The first time Harris gets tossed from his horse it feels like a kind of initiation. He’s begrudgingly allowed to ride along, but there’s not going to be any concessions for him. He better toughen up or get out.

As their journey together begins, Daves does remind us about the austere beauty out on the range. It’s a tough life certainly, there is no Sabbath; you must learn to sleep in the saddle and pick yourself up when you fall. And yet there’s a newfound appreciation watching the cowboys at work against nature’s grandeur all around them. It feels like a noble profession out on the land using your heads and working hard each and every day.

Brian Donlevy was a minor icon of the 1940s, once he overcame his relegation as a tough guy, but almost 20 years later, there’s a modicum amount of joy seeing him still up to the task at hand along with such disparate figures as Dick York and Richard Jaeckel, each prone to their own sins, whether drink or violence.

It becomes apparent as a long-form almost classical tale, Cowboy can easily be compared with other cattle movies a la Red River. Because while we have Jack Lemmon and Ford’s not totally averse to humor, there must be hardship and conflict stirred up. They take up the mantles of John Wayne and Montgomery Clift, vying for control as they exorcise personal demons and hone in on their priorities.

Later there’s a strangely poignant funeral sequence after one of the trailhands (Strother Mother) is killed in a rattlesnake attack instigated by a practical joke. These unfortunate circumstances lend a troubling undercurrent to the sober congregation. It’s Frank’s first lesson in the cruelty of the trail.

In another moment, one of their group is drinking it up at a Mexican Cantina and is obviously about to be jumped by some jealous locals. Harris is intent to help him, but they live by the credo: if a man’s old enough to get himself into trouble, then a man’s old enough to get himself out of trouble. There’s no sentimentality or loyalty as far as they are concerned. You do your work and look out for your own hide.

These events are not completely isolated, but they put the newest trailhand over the edge. We know he’s naive about what it takes to survive out on the road, but he also highlights the callous code these men are willing to live by. He barks at Reece, “I thought I would be living with men, not a pack of animals.” It changes him thereafter. He won’t allow it to affect him anymore.

Cowboy hints at Jack Lemmon’s substantial chops as an actor. And I use the term in the sense it is often used. Sometimes comedy is not considered true “acting” to the same degree as drama, but it seems comedic actors are capable of some of the best drama. Perhaps they can see one in the other or vice versa.

Because the movie begins as a kind of comedy on the range. At least this is what it hints at and what we know Lemmon can offer. And then it builds into a story with greater ferocity and also emotional depth. It’s not just about a jilted romance, but a disillusionment in this admiration he had for a certain brand of masculinity. There’s something inwardly thrilling in this transformation even as we see the change projected over Lemmon’s character.

With grit and determination, Harris gets below the border to see his girl once more, but he’s been made callous and her circumstances are different. It feels like a betrayal. In these specific scenes, Dalton Trumbo, who was currently an exile in Mexico due to the Blacklist, calls upon a locale not far removed from him or even his earlier bullfighting effort, The Brave One. Also, he would go into a further deconstruction of the cowboy archetype in Lonely Are The Brave only a few years later. It’s difficult not to view these films across the same continuum.

True, it is a tale about cowboys — their lifestyle, whether real or imagined — and both the toxicity and mythos that comes with such a life. I couldn’t help thinking, like The Magnificent Seven, it fashions itself into something greater — a broader exploration of morality. Masculinity in the West takes on many facets be it survival, gunplay, or getting the girl, but it’s movies like these making it about a kind of stalwart integrity.

Like The Magnificent Seven, it starts out as a mission — representing a job with specific utility — and becomes a parable of doing right by your fellow man. Lemmon must mature and Ford must soften until they both settle on a newfound prerogative. The movie reverts back to the cycles these men know best, and yet not without changing them.

Cowboy is easily the most unheralded picture in Delmer Daves’s western trilogy with Glenn Ford, but it’s held together by some more stunning imagery and two truly complementary performances. Now as they lounge side by side in their bathwater picking off cockroaches, there’s a mutual respect between them along with a newfound parity.

3.5/5 Stars

Germany Year Zero (1948)

Roberto Rossellini famously dedicated Germany Year Zero to the memory of his son Romano. After such personal forays into Italy’s own tumultuous relationship with the war years in Rome Open City and then the interwoven portraiture of Paisan, the final picture in the trilogy feels a bit like an outlier.

And yet in connecting his own recent tragedy with the hopelessness of the German experience, it does feel like he’s alighted on something that feels personal and honest. At the very least providing emotional truth if not always point-for-point docudrama.

The premise is very simple even childishly so staying with the neorealist attitude. Edmund (Edmund Moeschke) is a little boy scrounging around for work, sustenance, and anything else that might be of use to his family in the rubble of the bombed-out nation. It begins feeling out the world, not settling in on one story as much as the mood and milieu of the times. Because it is a very particular moment.

There’s a sense that the film is on the ground floor of something. Since The Thousand Year Reich terminated prematurely, it becomes an unprecedented moment in history — a time to rebuild and put their world back together again — although the day-to-day struggle remains real. You get bits and pieces in The Third Man or The Search and A Foreign Affair, but Germany Year Zero feels like a different perspective on the same events. 

It’s an important film for the sake of challenging our perceptions. Not exactly in the same way as Jean Pierre Melville’s Le Silence de la Mer, and yet it’s about empathy and upending our assumptions. We see the common markers of humanity laid before us.

Edmund returns home to his family in an apartment complex running perilously over on their bills. His older brother Karl-Heinz (Franz-Otto Krüger) is fraught with turmoil over turning himself into the authorities due to his military past. His invalid father (Ernst Pittschau) is a principled man, but in such dire times, his weakness feels like a familial curse. Eva (Ingetraud Hinze) becomes the maternal figure in the house, and after caring for her father, she spends the nights accompanying foreigners for the evening…

With the spiking black market prices, the Kohler’s are just trying to eke by a living. This is not the way people were meant to live, and it’s a misnomer that the war has a finite end. The repercussions of WWII on Germany continue long after the surrender sounded.

The viewpoint of a boy is, in one sense, youthful and resilient but also impressionable and malleable, shaped by all the people and things he comes in contact with. These are the most formative days of his life thus far.

Edmund takes up the company of other street vultures as they scavenge for survival, some stolen potatoes here, some fake soap there for duping unsuspecting victims. Kohler is callow, but he soon learns this pack mentality through how his friends model certain behaviors.

His former teacher has a charming manner and a dubious reputation, while he uses his former pupils to peddle goods on the black market, espousing a philosophy of survival of the fittest. He’s either a closeted supporter of the Führer and if not him, then Friedrich Nietzsche. It’s this kind of pernicious ideology leading to ungodly Holocaust.

Edmund returns home to the scolding of his sister and with his father’s health being far worse. He’s vitamin deficient and needs a hospital though they’re overflowing as is. The elder Mr. Kohler bemoans the fact that like many in his generation, he wasn’t bolder — seeing the calamity of Hitler, and doing something to stem the tide (“We saw the disaster coming and did nothing to prevent it”).

Germany Year Zero also exhibits a cynical side and not just in the satirical way of Billy Wilder. This feels like real tragedy before us without the happy ignorance of glutted Allies come to vindicate the Germans from their sinful past. There’s no comparison between their lives. It seems indecent to even try and equate the two.

Some might note that the film is not true neorealism, with interiors shot outside of Germany, nor can you very easily call it purely “Italian” neorealism for obvious geographical reasons. Somehow this rarely pulls us out of the experience.

There’s this underlying sense that very little performance is going on in Germany Year Zero. Because these are not actors. They are merely people, and there is a confident sense that almost every strewn rock or portrait of degradation is not set dressing, but something with a natural story all its own we may never know.

We get one final glimpse of the rubble-filled streets, a train cutting through the foreground as a woman’s form kneels in front of the desolate backdrop of total annihilation. It feels like a canvas — the woman an image of the Pieta — with Rossellini crying out into the bleakness of the world. Suddenly, we realize why this movie was dedicated to his son.

It’s no wonder Germany Year Zero was hardly a popular attraction in its day; it’s not a crowd-pleaser. But with the gracious gift of time, we can look at it as a crucial counterpoint. For those back home in the U.S., these were the best years, full of prosperity and endless possibility. At ground zero, it felt very much like the pit of despair, and there were no easy fixes. They have to rebuild from the bottom up. One must beg the question, does mass catastrophe occur at the end or at the beginning of an era? Perhaps it’s both.

4/5 Stars

Paisan (1946)

“Paisan” feels like a ubiquitous term. At the very least, it seems to have entered into a shared vernacular most Americans understand. And of course, this is part of the reason Roberto Rosselini’s follow-up to Rome Open City employs the word.

His newfound audience would be able to appreciate its very simple meaning with some amount of recognition. But it hardly seems like a ploy because it illustrates the core themes of the picture. And this is not done through an epic narrative stretched out over a couple hours time. It is built out of these mini-scenarios coming to represent a breadth of WWII experience between Italians and Americans.

We open in 1943 in Sicily with a group of American soldiers making their way through the villages for recon. As has a habit of happening in these cross-cultural pictures, the English language sounds like tin to the ear, but when they meet our first Italian characters and the dialogue is interspersed, we immediately get something richer and more intriguing because we have both languages dancing off one another and fighting for some primacy over the scenes.

Much of the movie is negotiated in these spaces in-between what is understood and what must be inferred and left only to the imagination. The benefit of subtitles gives us a privileged position, but not all of these characters have the same luxury.

Even when one soldier is called upon to keep watch over their guide in the caves — a young Italian girl looking for her family — we settle on something so basic. It’s their lack of communication and it can invoke fear and conflict, but it can also remind us of our most basic commonalities.

Conversation about cows and milk progress as the soldier reminisces about his family back home in photos. This pleasant interchange is really only a momentary flame, quickly snuffed out. Because we are reminded there is a war at hand and conflict comes from the outside and kills their moment together.

Before we are left to dwell too much on the present, we march ever onward toward Naples. Here is a tale we might see from De Sica and later in Germany Year Zero. It’s a story of youthful vagrants — one named Pasquale — who lives on the streets buzzing around G.I.s like a misquito looking to suck them dry out of pure necessity. It’s an extraordinary scene to watch the young boy latch onto a drunken black MP (Dots Johnson).

Their saga drags them all across town and, again, they hold two-sided conversations that are totally at odds with one another. As they sit on a pile of rumble together, it strikes me how this little boy sees the man for what he has. Yes, he’s black, but he’s American, and what a privilege that is. He runs off with his boots with a kind of fatalistic inevitability and that could be the end of it.

Instead, they meet again in another chance encounter. The soldier seeks restitution and yet Joe’s attempt to get back his stolen property feels almost inconsequential when he recognizes the desolation around him. This disparity is especially complicated when you put it next to the hypocrisy of racial discrimination back home.

He represents wealth and prosperity and still must feel some relegation to second-class citizenship in his own right. In 1946 Harry Truman had yet to integrate the military and, at best, even this felt like a symbolic victory at best.

The way Paisan links together these individual studies in character and relationship means the movie offers up this extraordinary breadth while still maintaining a hypersensitive level of intimacy. Because it takes a single interaction between disparate people and allows them to play out in such a way they come to represent something so much broader.

Later, it’s June, 1944. There’s a voice in the darkness shouting about American cigarettes ready to smoke. Glen Miller’s “In The Mood” is instant shorthand, and it coincides with a dance hall packed with folks. This is a new Rome from the one in Rosselini’s original film, until the military police soon shake up the joint and send the locals into a tizzy.

A fugitive in furs (Maria Michi) evades the authorities and picks up a soldier boy (Gar Moore) on the street over cigarettes. Remember, this is the era of Now Voyager and Bogey and Bacall. They are the cultural tastemakers. It’s a portrait of how even a short span of time — 6 months — can change people drastically, where the hopeful optimism and jubilation of the liberation can quickly be displaced with rowdy opportunism and disillusionment. And with it, a final reunion is precluded in a turn of events that might as well be anticipating the wistful fates of Jacques Demy over 15 years later.

The movie continues in Florence along the Arno River. Here a young Allied nurse (Harriet Medin), who knows the area intimately from time abroad, sets off on a singular mission to find an artisan friend, who is currently in the midst of the local skirmishes. The streets are full of firefights playing out in unsentimental terms.

In one way it feels ludicrous watching this woman and a fellow searcher streaking through the treacherous zones of no-man’s-land, and yet we cannot turn away. In a Hitchcock movie, we might term the arbitrary goal they are pursuing the Macguffin. It makes no difference.

I’ve come to realize that Italian Neorealism has come to signify a kind of emotional truth paired with authentic visuals. It’s not documentary, but it takes the layers and contours of the real world to tell what feels like mini tragedies wrapped up in these individual segments.

Paisan keeps on offering up these nuggets that intrigue me. I think of the next story, which feels like a more peaceful, mundane tale about three American chaplains who rest at the local monastery. There’s so much benevolence even as we are reminded the vocation they follow is unified the world over.

One of the visitors tells his peer, “I think one can really be at peace with the Lord without removing themselves from the world. After all, it was created for us. The world is our parish.” These words feel like they come straight from Martin Luther, a man who looked to democratize the Christian faith and break any vocational dichotomies.

Sure enough, he’s a Protestant and another man is a Jew. This revelation causes a wave of worry to come over the local Holy Men. Surely these guests are lost. They have not found the path because their beliefs are marred by inaccuracies and flaws (possibly even heresy). Rather than digging into this spiritual discourse, it settles for a kind of moral stability, not quite an inclusive gospel but certainly a call for tolerance and appreciation across the religious ranks.

In the final chapter, Italian Partisans and American OSS fight a desperate guerilla war against the impending Germans. It’s not a chapter of history we consider in detail, but we are placed in the moment so we forcibly comprehend the exhausting futility of their tactical battles. They live day to day constantly striving to stay out of reach of a tireless enemy. The only thing keeping them alive is their fierce camaraderie. They fight for something larger than themselves.

The ending of Paisan is matter-of-fact even as the imagery is bleak, and it feels like a callback to the opening story. We are reminded of the utter inhumanity of war, but Paisan was obviously meant to be used as a tool of mutual healing between the U.S. and Italy. Because it’s the humanity bleeding out of the movie coming to the fore, more than any amount of tragedy.

4.5/5 Stars