Roberto Rossellini’s classic movie, starring Vittorio De Sica, about the transformation of a con man into a brave if ever-human twentieth century martyr to totalitarianism, is timeless.
Can we become better than we almost always are? Are we always likely merely to adapt selfishly to anything, from terror to mere anarchy? If the centre fails to hold, must we nevertheless regress to something like reptilian survivors? Harry Lime in The Third Man? Virtually everyone in Stalin’s political circle?
Rossellini’s and story author Indro Montanelli’s answer is that heroism can and will appear, most inspiringly in times of tyranny.
De Sica, our hero, plays effortlessly amoral Victorio Emanuele Bardone, a handsome and remarkably cunning and sly embezzler in World War Two in Genoa, a gambler, a bigamist, and seemingly a heartless fraud in all seasons and on all occasions. As the film begins, Bardone preys on the families of captives of the Gestapo, calling himself “Colonel Grimaldi” and claiming a phony “influence” with Nazi officers by which, for a handsome fee, he emptily promises those he cruelly dupes that he will secure the release of the beloved prisoners. A real colonel, SS officer Mueller, arrests Bardone and, sizing him up as a con artist, offers him a deal with the Devil: enter a Gestapo prison posing as a partisan leader, General Della Rovere, unknown to the prisoners to have been killed days before by a German checkpoint sentry, and discover by gaining the prisoners’ confidence which of them is another, almost equally sought, partisan leader so that he may be isolated and tortured into revelations about the Italian Resistance highly valuable to the besieged Wehrmacht, now being bombed daily by allied planes and expecting American ground forces to attack soon.
I’ll not say more about the drama. But I will say that Rossellini is a master director and that De Sica is a great actor. IL Generale Della Rovere, done in haunting black and white, has a compelling unity in its dramatic unfolding. In its taut suspense and depth, it reminds of masterpieces like Roshomon and Rififi and Shadow of a Doubt. Consider how Rossellini begins Il Generale Della Rovere. Imagine you want at once to convey the terror in Nazi-occupied places: what might you first show out of the many cues to come throughout the movie such as Nazi salutes and uniforms, prisons, bombing raids, food and goods shortages, mazes of checkpoints, Wermacht troop patrols, drawn curtains at midday, and so on? The answer: Rossellini early zooms on the glaring Nazi posters in public places threatening execution on the spot for anyone found carrying a weapon and other direly threatening prohibitions spelled out in a terrible and frightening bold font–the dreadfully explicit warnings framing the fearsome atmospherics in the Occupied Place, warnings that immediately take your eye, mind and feelings from all else and plunge you into the center of the dread Occupation.
Just about everything large and small, general and detailed, in IL Generale Della Rovere, is of such mastery.
An essential movie. Cinema at its best.