Paisa poster

Roberto Rossellini’s hugely respected Paisà – which was nominated for an oscar for its five scriptwriters – fits neatly into several different categories of film that were prevalent at the time: anthology, neo-realism and war movie.

In the first episode, ‘Sicilia’, a patrol of American soldiers, taking part in the Allied landing on Sicily, stumble across a small village in the midst of the fighting. While the others head off to chase Germans, one of them, Joe (Robert Van Loon), is left behind to secure some tactically important mines. He’s kept reluctant company by Carmela (Carmela Sazio), but unfortunately she doesn’t speak any English and he doesn’t speak any Italian. Gradually, however, they begin to start understanding one another… but the Germans are still in the area and looking for somewhere to hide out. This is a rather confusing episode which is packed full of characters; too many, perhaps, to work as well as it could.

Mooving North, the second story is set in Naples, which acted as an important supply station for the American forces. A drunken military policeman (Dots Johnson) is tricked out of his clothes by an orphan boy (Alfonsino Pesca). When he finally captures him, he comes to find out more about how the numerous orphans in the city are living, and begins to understand why they’re driven to break the law. This is a huge improvement over the first story, with great use made of the authentically war-wrecked settings, and the limited number of characters means that they’re able to be fleshed out a bit more. This scores points for the playing of blues singer Johndon and Pesca, both of whom are very good. As a sidenote, neo-realism seemed to particularly suit children, who often come off as more natural than their adult co-stars (as opposed to in standard Italian cinema, where they general come off as stilted and frankly unbearable).

Further north, American soldiers arrive into a surprisingly well-preserved Rome. Francesca (Maria Michi) works as a prostitute, making a good living off the rich American troops. While trying to escape from some policemen, she enlists the rather unwilling help of Brad (Gar Moore), a tipsy GI who’s become disillusioned by searching for a young girl he met and fell in love with when he first arrived in the city… Francesca. This is another good one, and it again benefits from some good performances and a well constructed, rather sad storyline.

English chapsIn Florence, an American nurse (Harriet White) treats a wounded Italian. They speak of Wolf, the shadowy head of the partisans, and she seems strangely interested in finding out what’s happened to him. She eventually meets up with Massimo (Renzo Avanzo), who apparently knows his whereabouts, and the two of them begin a dangerous trek across the city to find him. This is one of the two episodes that portrays a place where fighting is actually taking place, but it’s still very much in the background, although I was very much taken with two English chaps who are as interested in doing a spot of sightseeing as engaging in any kind of combat. It also has a vaguely thrilling story, with the characters being in very real, immediate danger, and as a result it’s possibly the most effective of the stories.

In Appenino Emiliano, philosophical Catholic Chaplin Bill Martin (William Tubbs) arrives at a monastery with a couple of companions – a protestant and a jew – to spend the night. The monks, though, have very little food to share with them, but fortunately Martin has a backpack full of tinned provisions. Although it’s picaresque rather than slapstick, this actually reminded me a little of a silly 70s comedy, the kind of thing that could easily have starred Pupo De Luca as a randy monk. It definitely has a different, more light-hearted feel than the other stories. But monks are by their very nature comical, so I suppose that’s inevitable.

Porto Talle, meanwhile, is still under German occupation. Dale (Dale Edmonds), an OSS agent, is working with the parisans to undermine their authority. This is the most action packed of all the episodes, but somehow it just doesn’t work. Again, this is partly because of under defined characterisation and a rather chaotic story.

As with a lot of the neo-realist canon, sometimes the deliberate ‘realism’ actually ends up being rather unrealistic, especially the use of non-professional actors; sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. Unfortunately the anthology format doesn’t help this, as it does require a degree of extra skill to build up authentic characters in such limited nuggets of time. As a result, it’s possibly unsurprising that the best episodes are the ones that feature the more accomplished perfomers – Johnson, White, Moore, Tubbs – all of whom went on to work in other films. The least effective, Sicily and Porto Talle, on the other hand, are most definitely not helped by some highly stilted acting.

And, also in common with several other examples of its type, Paisà has rather dated over the past sixty years. In some ways this good – films were made differently back then – but on other ways it can feel rather too melodramatic and deliberate for contemporary tastes. But then again, I suppose it doesn’t compare unfavourably to Battleground, a US production along similar lines which won several Oscars that year.

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