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Film Review by Dean Duncan Jun 3, 2015

It appears that I missed the point on this the first time I saw it, back in graduate school. Or maybe I keyed on just one or two components of what now turns out to be a real vastitude. So I missed the point. Either way, how wrong can you be!

Talk about gestalt! Taken individually the six episodes that comprise Rossellini’s anthology film are good in all sorts of ways. At first, on the Sicilian seaside, you notice the non, or rather, native-actors. They are raw and authentic and, given Hollywood conventions, off-putting. You are, of course, struck by the bitter irony of the situation, which is deftly carried into the second sequence. Rossellini is kindly, critically exposing American audiences to the nature of their assumptions, assumptions about Italians and about the world generally. Assumptions about themselves too—the Studios weren’t close to doing this kind of thing with a black actor, and either were the independents. It’s kind of scandalous. But the point at the end is that nothing is more scandalous than poverty, a glancing but true glimpse of which reveals to this bitter black man how much he has, and how wrongly he has judged.

Paisan is very much concerned with the nature and insufficiency of our judgments. As the film moves north and as points and perceptions start to accumulate, the episodes continue to question the difference between seeming and being in all sorts of provocative, humbling, and insightful ways. The third episode is so affecting, so effective. Really, what is the difference between that first angelic, virginal vision, and the fallen woman that the same soldier later so crassly rejects? She’s the same person, of course, unbeknownst to him. Actually, she’s on par with Dostoevski’s Sonya, except that she lacks a Marmeladov, a Katerina Ivanovna, a Raskolnikov to understand and appreciate who she really is, and what she has really sacrificed. Maybe that’s not quite right; the viewer knows, and feels. Here sermonic motivation and modernist method combine to perfect effect.

In the fourth episode we see how individual desires and affections come second to the needs of the collective or the community, or that at least in times of war they’re going to come second, no matter what we might say to the contrary. Or, since the man the nurse is looking for dies and we’re starting to feel the weight and anxious truth of these modernist ellipses—no figurative establishing shots, no omniscience behind these characters’ striving—individual desires and affections may in fact be meaningless, at least for the time being. Paisan is a film about a great victory, and a great liberation, but as it approaches that end the costs keep agonizingly mounting.

The fifth episode looks like a hayseed comedy, though the joke turns out to be on the sophisticated we. These priests are dumb and intolerant and wrongheaded like Rossellini’s St. Francis will be in his milestone 1950 feature, The Flowers of St. Francis. They’re dumb and intolerant and wrongheaded like holy fools are anywhere. This should give us all pause, especially as we fight our sectarian battles. If they are so lacking then why is their presumptuous error so very sweet and moving?

The last episode is terrible, and very moving. Not incidentally, it’s also very excitingly assembled. I am pausing. Is that true? It might be that the last episode is pretty well the same as the first one, which struck us these two hours ago as being so sloppy. Maybe the Hitchcock-urgency of the conclusion is actually an emblem of our having been converted!

This last story ends in terrible loss, in a terrible, arbitrary fatefulness. Then a little title tells us what followed. The enemy was defeated, it says, and the decencies prevailed. The chronicle makes it clear, but those actually passing through the valley of the shadow never quite know, do they? Did we prevail? Did it mean anything?

Yes, thanks to God, and to all his creatures besides. In the end Rossellini’s discrete little episodes coalesce into a morally comprehensive totality, a real compendium of cinematic and, more importantly, ethical possibility. Humbling unto the very depths, stratospherically exhilarating.