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.