Academic journal article CineAction

Rewriting Realism: (Ingrid) Bergman and (Roberto) Rossellini in Europe 1949-1955

Academic journal article CineAction

Rewriting Realism: (Ingrid) Bergman and (Roberto) Rossellini in Europe 1949-1955

Article excerpt

"If there is a modern cinema, this is it."

Jacques Rivette, "Letter on Rossellini," Cabiers du Cinema 46, April 1955.

In 1955, Andre Bazin wrote "In Defense of Rossellini," (1) in the form of an open letter to Guido Aristarco, then editor-in-chief of the Italian film journal, Cinema Nuovo. The Italian critics had noted, with disappointment, a "regression" in Rossellini's work, beginning with Germania Anno Zero and intensifying in the collaborations with Ingrid Bergman. This was not the neorealism they championed, for which post-war Italian cinema became renowned. These films were distinctly different from the widely acclaimed Roma Citta Aperta or Paisa. In part, this seemed attributable to a change in attitude. Whereas these later films continue to foreground the deep sense of mourning and loss weighing on Europe, still traumatised by the massive devastation of the war, their focus is on the "completely new terms" (2) which defined reconstruction. How to begin again, year 0, and reinvigorate the present with meaning and authenticity, became a central thematic concern. This seemed to leave behind the emphasis on `dialectical film-making,' of the documentation (and hence protest) of contemporary poverty and misery. Rossellini openly claimed that his conception of neorealism was "primarily a moral position which gives a perspective on the world. It then becomes an aesthetic position, but its basis is moral." (3) This emphasis on morality subsequently crystallized as Rossellini's Christian humanism or Catholicism, labels often attributed to Bazin. The belief in historical truth and in the possibility of a fundamental spirituality that could be found in the material world, discredited Rossellini in the eyes of his contemporaries (and sparked the call to his defense by the Cabiers critics) and has become completely untenable in the 90's, following the developments in cultural theory over the last twenty-five years. Recent theory has made it impossible to speak of recognizing and identifying reality or truth because language and dominant ideological systems forever lock one's perceptions of these notions within prisms which reflect, inevitably, cultural and national interpretation. This position has contributed greatly to the demise of cultural criticism or artistic practice linked directly to active political engagment. At best one is left with deconstructing layers of meaning, foregrounding the construction of the real, or parody, signalling a cynical awareness of mythified speech.

Rossellini's art is very different - it acknowledges that reality is knowable, and it asks that one assemble the fragments of `essential' reality offered (which includes the outer, concrete world and the inner reality of the "imagination" (4) - the realm of fantasy, needs and desires), thus demanding the spectator's involvement as do other modernist works. As Bazin noted, "The neorealist film has a meaning but it is a posteriori, to the extent that it permits our awareness to move from one fact to another, from one fragment of reality to the next, whereas in the classical artistic composition the meaning is eastablished a priori..." (5) It is also rooted in commitment, in values that include a belief in social betterment, in moral responsibility in the imperative of personal accountability. The films explore the premise that active rethinking and investigation can open up new directions. The spiritual values discovered by the Bergman protagonist (be it through natural beauty, the physical sensuality of the body, the awe-inspiring surroundings - "terra di dio" - or human generosity and mutual respect) lend the films a sense of oprimism and possibility, even in their bleakest moments. The films are life-affirming, ultimately, and refreshingly bereft of smug cynicism or absolute despair. This affirmation does not contradict the film's lucid presentation of current social problems. The 50's were bleak `leaden' times, marked by McCarthyism and the Cold War. …

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