For nearly 15 years after his 1945 masterpiece Open City became a critical and commercial phenomenon, director Roberto Rossellini never stopped making great movies, including his related neorealist classics Paisan and Germany Year Zero, and the Ingrid Bergman vehicles Stromboli, Europa ’51, and Journey To Italy. Trouble is, audiences and critics unfairly abandoned him—his affair with Bergman was even denounced on the floor of the U.S. Congress—and by 1959, he was still searching haplessly for redemption. Re-teaming with Open City screenwriter Sergio Amidei, Rossellini cannily seized upon a perfect moment in Italian history to make Il Generale Della Rovere, which went on to win the Golden Lion at Venice and become his second (and only) major success after Open City. With his countrymen finally coming to terms with Italy’s role in World War II, and the German occupation in particular, Rossellini captured the zeitgeist by telling the story of an apolitical swindler turned unlikely nationalist—and in doing so, celebrated the awakened conscience of a nation.
Completely shot and edited within a three-month period, Il Generale Della Rovere isn’t among the most innovative or expressive works of Rossellini’s career, but its unfussy conventionality keeps the focus on a flawed figure who gains in complexity and depth as the film goes on. Though remembered primarily as the famed director of neorealist staples like The Bicycle Thief and Umberto D., Vittorio De Sica logged more time as an actor than a filmmaker. His performance as a wartime opportunist turned principled martyr oozes populist charisma as he plays a kind of middleman between the Italians and the Nazis. His scheme is to support his gambling debts by bilking money from his fellow Genoans by promising to track down missing family members held by the Gestapo. When the Nazis find out about his operation and arrest him, they make him a deal in lieu of a long prison sentence or execution: De Sica will impersonate General Della Rovere, a dead Resistance leader, to get information from fellow inmates with partisan ties.
De Sica’s slow transformation into a man of conscience is deftly handled, leading to a climactic moment that’s an unabashed—some might say shameless—appeal to Italian pride. In the special features on the new DVD, Rossellini’s daughter Isabella (who was 7 when it was filmed) comes up with the perfect analogy in comparing Il Generale Della Rovere to Akira Kurosawa’s 1980 epic Kagemusha. Both film are about fools and impostors who eventually become the role they’ve been forced to play; in the end, the line separating De Sica’s character and the spirit of the real Della Rovere is obliterated.
Key features: New interviews with Isabella, Renzo, Ingrid Rossellini, and the Italian critic Adriano Aprá join the 15-minute visual essay “The Choice,” which provides some much-needed historical context.