Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Viva l'Italia

In this very rare Rossellini film, fortunately presented in the current retrospective, I became more intimately attuned to Rossellini's framing. If you go here you'll see that le Colonel asserts that "the technology allows you to create a very busy, detailed, turbulent mural representing the trenches at the Somme, and it allows you just as easily to introduce a clean blue bunny rabbit or a gnome or a fairy into that hyperrealistic environment, the big, busy, dense, swooping film image with disconcertingly uniform and crisp focus." Everything becomes allegory.

With Viva l'Italia, a commemorative film of the 1860 Garibaldi exploits, there are several battle or reconnaissance scenes that take advantage of the mountains of Sicilia or southern Italy, presenting huge vistas where large-scale combat sometimes takes place. These battle scenes are superb, and the reason why is not because they're "exciting" or "psychologically-resonant" (codewords for, this film presents battle as riveting!) but because they foreground the limitations of the frame in the process of presenting their images. The difference between Viva l'Italia and something like The Lord of the Rings is that the CGI battles in those Peter Jackson films suggest clarity and predetermination. You--"we"--know that the camera is going where it has been deemed to go, to capture the appropriate action. It's taking something huge and violent and chaotic, making it clear and readable and even fun. But we never know when or where something--a crowd of soldier's, a main character, a building in the foreground, a lake in the distance--will break Rossellini's shots and basically reconstitute the nature of the entire shot itself, which may have started tight and close but ended long, wide, striated. This is part of his engagement with that amorphous thing, 'realism.' It's not about naive indexicality of the image, it's about the demonstration of material largeness and the inadequacies (as well as attempts) of the camera to capture it all ...

4 comments:

phyrephox said...

Really interesting take on this movie. I was at this screening too and was constantly flummoxed at what the movie was really about, and I think your read is a key to what Rossellini was going for. I remember a specific shot of the first large battle that panned across the hillside, capturing an engagement...but then the pan kept going and one saw that there were more Bourbon troops on the edge the hill (are they going to flank Garibalid), and then the camera panned down and Rossellini reveals another detachment of the rebels waiting below for them, and at the moment of the reveal the two forces head for each other.

With the way Rossellini generally avoids direct continuity, explanation, and exposition, one never knows where the camera will go. The film proceeds as if nudged by fate or destiny (there definitely is an inevitability in Garibaldi's success, even more so since we never really understand why he is successful), but what is shown as going on inside the film's forward propulsion is never really what I expected, as if Rossellini inserted his camera into history and let it wander around.

Zach Campbell said...

Yeah, it's an off-putting film because it demands a knowledge of history where we (when viewing a historical prestige picture, especially) are more used to exposition and psychology. I don't think it needs historical knowledge (my understanding of 1860 is pretty sketchy), but if you're wondering what all these maneuvers--military or political--are for, then history will provide it, and not the script. I'd suggest that Rossellini's aesthetic here, and it's a strange film because it seems so unlike the picture of the director I feel we've come to accept in film culture, seems to want to embrace a presentation of historical events as something a camera can only strive to capture. Like you say, "as if Rossellini inserted his camera into history and let it wander around." The--well, a--point is that no matter how big the vistas get, we're not getting the whole picture, and the shots are constantly designed and orchestrated with this subtle message in mind.

tom said...

I've not seen this yet, but the effect you describe of the camera, loose, wandering, never giving you the sense that you encompass the totality, seems very much descriptive of Paisà.

Zach Campbell said...

Tom, yes--Rossellini has a whole project for realism, something that film theorists and historians have been able to return to as an object never totally solved or defined. I hope to tackle these questions about Rossellini and his engagement with this thing 'realism' a bit more in the near future.