Saturday, May 14, 2011

Il Generale Della Rovere (1959) - #463

"You Italians don't like this war much."
"We don't like wars in general."

As the first nation of World War II's Axis powers to capitulate to the onslaught of the Allied forces, Italy found itself a nation divided in 1943. The once proud domain of Mussolini was now reduced to a war-torn buffer zone, occupied in the northern half by the German army while US and British soldiers fought their way inexorably up from the southern end of the peninsula. The resulting intensity of conflict set up a vexing dilemma for Italian citizens: should they align themselves with the Germans currently in control, submitting to the demands of conscription to defend a collapsing regime or risk siding with the partisan insurgents who were intent on sabotaging the Nazis' last gasp efforts to prop up the Third Reich in the hope that a free and self-respecting Italy would rise up from the rubble?

Younger men probably had the worst of it, since they were in their prime fighting years, but Il Generale Della Rovere focuses mainly on the effects that wartime ethical pressures put on a distinctly older man, a suave con artist by the name of Emanuele Bardone. To his newer acquaintances, he preferred to pass himself off as Colonel Grimaldi, a well-connected conveyor of favors who knew how to skirt around the edges of officially sanctioned practices when it came to dealing with the Occupation bureaucrats who routinely rounded up and imprisoned men they suspected were involved in supporting the partisans.  Using his handsome looks, ingratiating banter and an impeccably deferential courtesy above and beyond what was expected, Bardone sought and earned the trust of women anxious to learn the whereabouts of their husbands and sons, and also willing to put a lot of cash in his hand to secure the next update, smuggle a basket of salami or simply pass a message along to their missing loved one. Occasionally his efforts might actually help secure someone's release, achieving just enough good to sustain Bardone's credibility and perhaps soothe his conscience. But for the most part, Bardone's enterprise merely kept him one step ahead of the financial and ethical ruin that was eagerly chasing him down.

That wrenching, existential confrontation that faced Bardone and his neighbors on a daily basis in Nazi-controlled Italy - how to respond to the temptations of corruption and complicity with a depraved but dangerous authority system - is what draws us into the world of Il Generale Della Rovere, and Vittorio de Sica (director of The Children Are Watching Us, Bicycle Thieves, Umberto D and Terminal Station, actor in The Earrings of Madame de...) is the compelling personality who makes it come alive. We first see him meandering through the bombed out debris fields that used to be the streets of a major Italian city. I think it was Milan, but I'm not sure. He's just on the safe side of the imposed curfew, returning home in the early morning after a night wasted on gambling, with unsatisfying results. Along the way, he's hailed down by a chauffeur who's escorting a real colonel, a Nazi, after their car suffers a flat tire due to insurgent booby traps. Quickly sizing up an opportunity to score some points with a man who exudes power and control, Bardone reveals his equivocating nature over the course of a few minutes small talk. He and the sophisticated, multilingual, utterly ruthless Colonel Muller are destined to see each other again, and this pivotal early scene charts the course of their relationship, as Bardone's mealy-mouthed but pleasant servility in the face of power offers an obvious advantage to Muller that he's quick to pick up on and file away for future reference when the time is ripe to exploit it. My hunch is that a fair number of WWII survivors in the European audiences who first saw Il General Della Rovere probably squirmed in their seats just a bit as they recalled their own reconciliatory gestures toward fascist authoritarians long since vanquished but still formidable in their heyday. (No subtitles on this clip, and there's an annoying overdub, but tune into the voice tones and body language, you'll understand what's going down.)

Bardone's pose as a crafty and resourceful insider eventually proves to be an unsustainable illusion, but we get to see him exercise those talents for the first hour of the film, and it's quite a remarkable demonstration in the art of being a scoundrel. Returning home to his dingy apartment, he 'fesses up to his bleached blonde girlfriend, a supposedly "serious actress" who's been forced onto the cabaret circuit (and who knows where else?) due to the hard times all around, that he's blown his wad of cash at the card table and needs to pawn her best jewelry in order to make a critical payment to a Nazi official that he's been bribing with regularity. She's had enough of this routine and gives him the cold shoulder, sending him back out onto the streets looking for any sort of a lead that could bail him out of his latest jam. Almost miraculously, he finds one, a wealthy woman with a missing husband who suspects his motives but has the lira on hand to take a chance that perhaps he can assist in her predicament. Bardone's relief in finding her (and the money she entrusts him with) is palpable, the exuberance of a man who's gotten good at this game after presumably years of practice, but still has to beat down the internalized anxiety that maybe, just maybe, the jig is finally up this time.

And so it turns out, as Bardone's deceit is brought to the surface and he winds up a criminal in the hands of Colonel Muller. The local Nazi boss has his own problems to deal with, as his plans to snare his counterpart leaders of the insurgents in his area are complicated by the unexpected killing of Il Generale Della Rovere. Muller's plans were to hold the rebel general hostage and extract concessions from the militants but now that he's dead, he has to resort to Plan B. And that's where Bardone's shifty chameleon-like nature presents an opportunity for both the colonel and the old scammer himself. Bardone's regal demeanor and experience at handling a false identity inspires Muller to propose that he pose as General Della Rovere in a prison full of partisans who might be willing to divulge valuable intelligence to an authority figure they trusted based on his reputation. Bardone recognizes this is his only possible vehicle for escape from the harsher penalties that he knows Muller is capable of dishing out, so he readily complies with the scheme.

That fateful decision, based on the loathsome self-serving hypocrisy that he's become so accustomed to, ultimately proves to be the key to Bardone's redemption. His latest fraud brings him into contact with men of humble valor, whose sense of duty and willingness to forsake their own comforts for the sake of a better future reveal to him, at last, the depths to which his moral strength had sunk.  Over the course of Il Generale Della Rovere's second half, the story takes a more conventional turn, transforming the charmingly cynical manipulator Bardone into a stalwart, even noble martyr whose last words strike all the right patriotic notes. For that reason, some critics consider this film "lesser Rossellini," since the great director was rarely one to spoon feed his messages so conveniently or lead his viewers to such easy resolutions. And Rossellini himself can be counted among his critics apparently, since he considered the film kind of an annoyance in later years. The remarkable thing about it is that besides his landmark Neorealist masterpiece Rome Open City, Il Generale Della Rovere was his most commercially successful film, a real crowd pleaser that won major awards at the Venice Film Festival and elsewhere following its release.

Though my exposure and study of Rossellini have been limited to seeing only his War Trilogy, The Flowers of Saint Francis and Descartes, from his Eclipse Series set of made-for-TV films, I can't say I detect any note of compromise that leaves me feeling disappointed at all, and I'm glad he made this film. There's enough cinematic flourish to remind you that an auteur is at work here, with jarring but compelling interweaving of grainy stock wartime archival footage with studio-built set pieces, and even some rear-projection screen segments featuring Bardone that might be a distraction to some, but I just enjoy those touches of artifice and resourcefulness in older films. Il Generale Della Rovere is a project that came together and was completed quite quickly, almost as if Rossellini was giving in a bit to demands that he make a commercial and popularly accessible feature before embarking on his more individualistic quest to blaze a new trail of possibilities in his later historically-based dramas.

Il Generale Della Rovere also fits in well with that subset of Criterion films that revolve around a key personality to show how the conflagration of World War II affected not merely an individual, but by extension, a whole nation. Films like Ashes and Diamonds (Poland), The Human Condition and The Burmese Harp (Japan), Hiroshima mon amour (France), The Cranes are Flying (Soviet Union) and the next film I'll review here, Fires on the Plain (Japan again) all look back on the war from that decade-plus point of view to reflect the ambivalence and agony that so many people had to go through as their societies were torn to shreds, yet they somehow had to find a way to survive as people of integrity, purpose and worthy of respect, even if their physical lives could not outlast the war itself.

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