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Posts Tagged ‘Roberto Rossellini’

Roberto Rossellini’s General Della Rovere (1959)

Wednesday, October 21st, 2015

And as long as I’m in a De Sica mood, here he is in Rossellini’s masterpiece General Della Rovere.

Vittorio De Sica wasn’t only a director; he was comfortable on both sides of the camera, and did some of his very best work as the lead actor in Roberto Rossellini’s tragic drama of the Italian Resistance during World War II, General Della Rovere.

Shot in a mere 33 days, and edited in 10 days after that in order to make the deadline for the Cannes Film Festival that year, Rossellini’s film is audacious on any number of levels – from the gradual shifting of the lead character’s complete selfishness to resolute heroism; the stunning use of actual newsreel stock footage of the war, used here both as establishing material, as well as an occasional backdrop for an actor performing in front of a rear-projection screen, in a completely self-referential fashion; to Rossellini’s revolutionary use of the zoom lens in a manner which anticipates his later historical films – and won the Golden Lion at the Festival.

As DVD Beaver notes, “Roberto Rossellini’s first box-office success after a string of commercial failures, notably with Ingrid Bergman, was also a return to the themes of the film that brought him international fame, Rome, Open City and his other neorealist classics. In a magnetic performance, Vittorio De Sica is Emanuele Bardone, an opportunistic rascal in wartime Genoa, conning his fellow Italians and exploiting their tragedies by promising to help find their missing loved ones in exchange for money. But when the Nazis force him to impersonate a dead partisan general in prison to extract information from fellow inmates, Bardone finds himself wrestling with his conscience for the first time.

Based on an article by the Italian journalist Indro Montanelli, Rossellini casts Vittorio De Sica as confidence trickster Emanuele Bardone who helps to save Italians arrested by the Gestapo or at least pretending to do so in exchange for money or gifts from their family. When he attempts to save a man already executed he is turned over by the man s wife and is given the choice of execution or carrying out a confidence trick for the Germans; to assume the identity of the General Della Rovere. Turning on his country to save his skin Bardone enters prison to seek out the identity of the partisan commander, Fabrizio.”

I watched this film again a few days ago, a film I have known and loved for more than four decades, and once again, it simply knocked me to the floor. In addition to De Sica’s indelible and letter-perfect performance in the lead, there is the equally masterful performance of Hannes Messemer as SS Col. Müller, who attempts to use Bardone’s skills as a con man to get information from the members of the resistance. But as the film moves inexorably towards its tragic yet transcendent finish, it’s clear that Bardone’s transformation from scam artist to patriot can lead to only one conclusion, and one of the most powerful endings in the history of cinema. Simply put, this is a must see film.

Fortunately available on several DVD formats, General Della Rovere is simply essential cinema.

Blaise Pascal (1972)

Thursday, March 15th, 2012

Yesterday I saw again Roberto Rossellini’s remarkable 1972 film Blaise Pascal, starring Pierre Arditi in the title role, and once again, I was stunned by the sheer beauty and depth of the film.

Rossellini was a master throughout his entire career, and his early films are some of the touchstones of 20th century cinema, but in these last, sumptuous historical spectacles, Rossellini seems to be aiming for something deeper, more mystical, more enduring and ultimately life-affirming. Pascal, born into a wealthy and influential family, nevertheless spent most of his life writing, thinking and experimenting, both in spiritual and scientific matters, and literally worked himself to death with his ceaseless quest for new frontiers on both a personal and professional level. Much the same might be said of Rossellini, who never deserted his vocation as a filmmaker, and whose work might roughly be cast into three periods; the initial Neorealist phase, then the middle section, with such masterpieces as Voyage in Italy, and then the final group of films for RAI, which are his most formal and theatrical works, and yet at the same time, reached the widest audience of his career because of their broadcast on television.

For years, these films were unavailable on DVD in any but the most degraded versions; then a few years ago, Criterion’s Eclipse series began issuing these, and other unjustly forgotten films, in minimalist editions which devote themselves entirely to the films in question, with simple liner notes, and no extras, but offering superb transfers of the films themselves, and faithful English subtitles. To celebrate the release of three of the late Rossellini films, Criterion commissioned Tag Gallagher to write an essay on “Rossellini’s History Films—Renaissance and Enlightenment” — you can read it by clicking here.

I remember when I first saw Blaise Pascal at the now-defunct Gallery of Modern Art in New York, where the film ran for only a few days; I immediately phoned up everyone I knew and urged them to see it immediately. For a time after that, 16mm prints were available, but then the film seemed to drift into oblivion. Now it’s back, and you can see it for yourself; a transcendent masterpiece that rewrites the grammar of the cinema with a series of exquisite, lengthy tracking shots, meticulous attention to detail, and gorgeous color cinematography. As Tag Gallagher notes, “Blaise Pascal was financed by French and Italian television, at a cost of $160,000, and was shot in Italy in just seventeen days, with most of the actors speaking French. It was shown on Italian television in two episodes in May 1972. Sixteen million watched it.”

These films are essential viewing; track them down and see them now.

Above: Roberto Rossellini on the set on Blaise Pascal, Rome, 1971, with his first wife, Marcella De Marchis, far right, and Isabella Rossellini, who worked on the film as a production assistant, Rossellini’s daughter by his second wife, Ingrid Bergman.

Click here to read an excellent piece by Manohla Dargis on Rossellini’s work.

Voyage to Italy

Sunday, August 28th, 2011

Roberto Rossellini went through a number of artistic “periods” in his life; his very early work for Mussolini’s propaganda machine at Cinecitta; his Neorealist work with Rome, Open City (1945) and Germany Year Zero (1948); his films with Ingrid Bergman, who collaborated with him on some of his greatest films of the 1950s, including Stomboli (1950) and Voyage to Italy; and his later TV films in the “historical” period, of which my favorite is Blaise Pascal.

All of his work is luminous and revelatory; here’s a brief essay I wrote on Voyage to Italy for Senses of Cinema 51, one of the most unexpected, perhaps, of all his films, for its narrative structure seems to be heading relentlessly in one direction for nearly the entire duration of the film, only to reverse itself with a moment of spiritual triumph in its final moments. It’s a stunning piece of work.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at or

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