(episode four: written by federico fellini)
Although I saw Roberto Rossellini’s 1946 film “Paisan” from the beginning, I felt like I had been thrown into the middle of a war. No sooner had a story about an Italian girl guiding some American soldiers through a minefield begun, was I thrown into a street where a kid steals the boots off a drunk soldier. I had no idea the picture was an episodic affair, with six short tales representing the progress of allied forces through Italy. It seemed instead to be a peripheral look at war through a choppy narrative that was missing the connective scenes that would make sense of it all. And this misreading of the film was the thing that drew me into it.
Although the episodes in themselves were so trivial as to be anecdotal, the film became deeper and more complex as each new story unfolded. The ambiguity of sides, the communication and failure of communication between people who spoke different languages, soldiers who had been so changed by six months of war that they no longer recognized their lovers, strangers willing to give their lives to recover and bury corpses lost in the swamps of the Po River. Paisa. Paisan. Partisans. The Leonard Cohen song running through my head. “An old woman gave us shelter / Kept us hidden in the garret / Then the soldiers came / She died without a whisper.” Although that song was more appropriate to “Escape By Night” which Rossellini directed fourteen years later, the more explicit film is anticipated here, with the partisans drowned in the river on the eve of the war’s end.
The strangest aspect of the film was the portrayal of the American soldiers. They were nothing like the soldiers in American war pictures. Even though they were played by Americans, the dubbing gave them an “off” quality, as did their non-professionalism. These men were American non-actors who spoke with the hollow voices of dubbing professionals, and had little notion of how to embody Hollywood soldier stereotypes. The result was they seemed to be real people with voices no longer their own, stolen by the trauma of battle.
Unlike the linear narrative of Samuel Fuller’s “The Big Red One,” which follows the trajectory of the European campaign from Africa to Germany, “Paisan” limits itself to personal stories in various Italian locales. Its fragmentation forces the viewer to imagine the larger picture outside of the scattered memoirs. There are no major battles to give exact historical co-ordinates for each segment, just a vague sense of Northward movement.
The war ends suddenly, right in the middle of an execution. The movie is over, but we the audience are, like the surviving soldiers, still shaken. None of us really knows where we have been, what we have experienced. The soldiers have communicated without knowing the language in a land where it is difficult to know who is friend and who is enemy. We have empathized with them but they are still unknown to us. We will forget about the war in the same way that a soldier forgets about the girl who was his lover and he now recognizes only as another whore, crumpling the paper on which she has written her address and tossing it into a ditch, assuming it is just the address of a whorehouse, and not the home of a woman he has loved.