Review: Paisá

I think the first thing I’ll say about Paisá, the second in Roberto Rossellini’s ‘War Trilogy’, is how grateful I am at having had the opportunity to see it in the UK, and on the big screen at that! It is a film to be watched and revisited, not necessarily because it is an outright masterpiece of cinema, but because it is an important, beautifully crafted work that includes moments of harrowing potency.

Paisá is not a narrative film in the conventional sense; it is divided into six segments, all showing different aspects of Italian life during the Allied recovery of Italy in the Second World War, via a series of short narratives. Almost inevitably, some segments are more effective than others, but the film’s structure, although it may seem distorted, is actually meticulously thought through: introducing each chapter is a short, documentary style interlude, often using authentic footage of Italy at war, and slowly shifting along with the American victories as they make their way up north.

I think 5 of the 6 segments are actually very strong; however, there is a segment in a monastery exploring the relationship between the devout monks and three American soldiers of different religions that is perhaps a little overlong and oddly less moving than the other chapters. They vary from a short, suspenseful narrative involving a man and a woman trying desperately to cross a war torn city to find their family and lover (respectively) to a tragic romance between an American soldier and an Italian girl.

Rossellini does not use melodrama or soul bearing dialogue to stress his points, favouring instead a detached, observant approach to his filming. What makes the shocking moments in the film so harrowing isn’t the explicit nature of the violence or even the diffusing of tension; it is his magnificent use of patent anti-climax and his insistence, above all, on realism.

Sifting through a little bit of messy editing, there are some breathtaking pieces of cinematography to behold here, particularly in the final short narrative: the image of a young child wailing, surrounded by dead bodies as the sun slowly rises over the river after a night of slaughter, and the horribly chilly, detached final scene, in which ambushed American soldiers are thrown into the river with their hands tied behind their backs, the camera zooming in as the bodies plop like sacks of flour into the water, are etched on my memory.

I cannot comment on the acting or the editing in great detail, simply because the print I saw was a) slightly shorter than the full length version and b) because it is often the case with prints of old foreign films like this that the subtitles are inadequate, the dubbing and sound direction is wrong, and the cuts made to the film render the editing choppy in places, when in fact, in the original, these messy transitions between scenes do not exist. I cannot say for sure – the acting may really be horrific in the original print (for in the one I saw, even for an old film, the acting is jaw droppingly wooden in places). What I can say is that this is an important film, badly in need of restoration and re release. I can only hope!

Review by LiveWire Young Film Critic, James Martin (October ’11)