Roberto Rossellini’s Paisà (Paisan) is the follow-up to his wildly successful 1945 film Roma, Città Aperta (Rome, Open City).
Roma, Città Aperta is one of the most famous examples of Italian neorealist cinema, and is better known than Paisà, but I think that Paisà stands head and shoulders above Roma, Città Aperta as an artistic achievement. It’s a sprawling, chaotic picture of life in Italy during the last days of World War II. The title of the film comes from the word that American soldiers called Italians — “paisan,” or “buddy” — and over the course of six vignettes the film explores a variety of Italian characters’ attempts to communicate with and understand their occupiers.
Rod Geiger, the American G.I. who carried Roma, Città Aperta back to the United States, worked closely with Rossellini on Paisà, and is listed in the credits as a producer. Most of the Americans in the film were played by off-Broadway actors cast by Geiger’s father, who ran a theater in New York. Depictions of foreigners and foreign cultures in movies are tricky to get right. Usually there are at least a few things that just don’t ring true, but there were times while I was watching Paisà that I forgot that I was watching a “foreign” film featuring American characters. The American actors play their parts in a naturalistic, unaffected fashion, and their dialogue often seem ad-libbed. There are even aspects of the film that ring more true than anything coming out of Hollywood at the time, like an extremely drunk African-American soldier (played by Dots Johnson) who is full of anger and resentment.
Many writers contributed to the film, including Klaus Mann (the son of Thomas Mann), who wrote a treatment. A few of the six episodes that comprise the film function as parables, and have endings that border on being trite, but the overall effect of Paisà is an overwhelming panorama of violence, yearning, friendship, misunderstanding, and horror.
The film is a journey from the south of Italy to the north, and the segments take place in Sicily, Naples, Rome, Florence, a monastery in the Apennine mountains, and in a partison hideout in Porto Tolle. Unlike the American characters, the Italians mostly play themselves. The Sicilians are all played by Sicilian non-actors. The partisans in Porto Tolle are played by real partisans. A street urchin in Naples named Pasquale is played by a real street urchin named Alfonsino Pasca. The monks in the Apennines were really monks, but they were dubbed by different actors, since their accents would have made it clear that they were from the south of Naples, not to the north.
Most of the segments of Paisà end tragically, with characters the audience has grown to care about killed in combat. The deaths are senseless and sudden, and the feeling that no one is safe makes Paisà one of the most affecting and least cliched war films I’ve ever seen.