I have a fondness for anthology films. The idea of watching a film that comprises short, not necessarily related segments appeals to me, and I suppose I like the idea of binging on what is effectively a series of short films. Yet, on the other hand, many anthology films do not have much of a lasting impact. Anthology films which are a result of a variety of different directors contributing a short film each are often entertaining but ultimately breezy and forgettable, a few interesting pieces of work lost amidst the noise of various artistic voices.
An anthology film from a single director has the opportunity to be much more thematically and structurally coherent, but that too can often feel like a medley of scenes which said director was never able to find a home for. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth and Coffee and Cigarettes are both really good films that fit this description. They are movies akin to the famous medley on the second side of The Beatles’ Abbey Road – a home for melodies and ideas that were never able to find one. But then again, they lack a certain thematic (and I hate to use this word) ‘wholeness’. They are good films, but they lack the structural brilliance to get them over that boundary into the grasp of brilliance.
Roberto Rossellini’s Paisan on the other hand has a thematic and structural idea in place from the very beginning. It sets out knowing exactly what it wants to do, and it achieves it with flying colours. It is comprised of six episodes, each taking place in a different time and place during the Allied invasion of Italy. All these episodes revolve on some level around communication: communication between the American soldiers and the Italian natives. During the early episodes the two groups find it difficult to communicate; as the film goes on they find it becomes easier and easier, albeit with some caveats along the way.
Not all six of the episodes are successful in and of themselves. The fourth episode in particular stuck out for me as being quite dull at the time of viewing. It is set in Florence, and tells the story of an Italian civilian and an American nurse who try to sneak into the Nazi-occupied area of the city. The nurse speaks fairly good Italian at this point in the war, and she desires to sneak in to see Lupo one last time, a Resistance leader and her lover, whilst the Florentine civilian simply wants to see his family. Whilst this sequence is aesthetically beautiful, the vast majority of it comprises of little more than the two running around the empty, half-ruined streets of Florence. It felt a lazy and simplistic episode in comparison to the brilliant trio of episodes that had preceded it which had combined so many ideas and moments of clarity so brilliantly. Yet it was only after Paisan had finished and I began to think about the film that I realised what role this episode plays in the overall structure. It is the first episode in which communication between Italians and Americans has become adequate; however it still results in tragedy because both sides are thinking selfishly and not quite of the collective good.
I also had initial misgivings about the final episode too. The final section is arguably the simplest and the most brutally downbeat. It consists simply of a group of American soldiers and Italian Resistance fighters trying to survive on the big wide marshes of the Po river. Even at this point, with communication between the two sides almost completely synchronised, the film finishes on an utterly depressing note that betrays some of the more hopeful moments that occur earlier on. Yet, there is a resolve beneath this downbeat ending that suggests a brighter future, because it is through communication that the two sides have managed to fight their way up so far up the Italian peninsula. Perhaps this is Rossellini’s point: all the tragedy and horrors of war will crumble in the face of genuine understanding and care between various peoples.
As depressing as the final images of Paisan may be, it is the earlier images that really sting. In the first episode American soldiers arrive on a Sicilian coastal town and find that they have next to no way of communicating with the locals. One woman leads them through a minefield but later they suspect it was her that killed one of their own GIs: a cruel misunderstanding when Rossellini reveals the truth behind the incident. In the second sequence a drunk Afro-American military policeman has his boots stolen by a small child. When he bumps into the boy again he chases him and forces him to give him back his boots. The MP arrives in the grotto where the child lives and finds living conditions just as bad, if not worse than those he knows from the Southern US states. Though he understands almost no Italian, he figures from the child’s gesticulations what has happened to his parents, and he simply runs away from the horrors of the situation, unwilling to face up to them. It is these images – cynical, downbeat and terrifying – that truly hit home the horrors of war. When we reach the conclusion of the film, though the images themselves are no less depressing, we have at least obtained some level of understanding between our various peoples, and it is this which is our weapon against fascism and oppression.
Paisan is an astounding film, easily one of the greatest moments of inspiration to have risen from the Italian Neorealists. It may not be as famous as Bicycle Thieves or even Roberto Rossellini’s breakthrough film Rome, Open City, but it is a film with much more breadth and ambition than either of these films, and it matches that ambition with consummate ease. Even the occasionally completely flat acting from some of the amateur cast does little to break down the brilliance and sadness of this film.