tonight at 8 and 10 p.m., M. I. T. Film Society, room 10-250
LIKE most of Roberto Rossellini's films, General della Rovere has the simplest of plots. It's parasitic hero (Vittorio de Sica) takes the money of prisoners' relatives to buy their safety from the Nazis occupying northern Italy. Caught halfway through the film and faced with a death sentence, he accepts a German officer's plan to disguise him as the Resistance hero General della Rovere, whom a German patrol has just shot. In prison he encounters the spirit of the underground he is supposed to penetrate and reveal. Near the end he is given the choice of betraying a Resistance leader trying to contact him, and going to Switzerland with a million lire or dying before a firing ?quad as the General.
The wartime situation allows Rossellini sequences in bombed-out Milan, scenes in prison cells, even montages using newsreels of bombing raids. But it's his visual style more than his settings that makes General della Rovere profoundly realistic. Another director might take the space of a certain scene as a fixed reality, and hold his camera in a long deep-focus shot while dramatic action takes place nearer or farther from the camera. Rossellini's spaces are no less real, but he reveals the truth of a scene by following the characters with his camera, strengthening certain actions by showing them close up and excluding others from the frame. In an early scene de Sica enters Nazi headquarters. The camera tracks after him through a dark archway while a Gestapo motorcycle runs by him from the interior courtyard. Inside, de Sica enters an anteroom to find it full of people waiting to ask for amnesty for prisoners. Instead of holding him in a distant shot which would reveal the entire room, the camera moves in behind de Sica, coming to rest with him and showing perhaps three figures. It then pans left to show another couple, over to a bench where four figures are slumped, to the right where a few more are standing against a wall. For the emotional distance of long-shot Rossellini substitutes a far more powerful medium-shot whose fluidity covers the whole room.
INDEED, Rossellini's camera motions are perfectly responsive to the emotional progress of a scene. They are not invisible-they have too much integrity and power-but they do not impose a certain mood upon any scene. Instead one feels them as an intelligent penetration of the action, moving with one's sympathies. Rossellini's camera does not assume positions according to some formal conception of the space and moral setup in which he is shooting. It follows human actions, emphasizing them without stylizing appearances.
Not that Rossellini does not use his camera to heighten dramatic moments. But his means at such times lead him away from abstract, formal stylization, where another director would change the lighting or choose a portentous camera angle for emotional emphasis. At one point de Sica, fresh from the torture room, is dragged back to his cell by two guards. A fellow prisoner walks by him away from the camera, then turns to stare. The camera zooms with unbelievable rapidity or rather, jolts-into his face, and zooms out to a long shot as the man begins running to cells, banging on their doors, and yelling "they've tortured General della Rovere." As they begin a noisy riot. Rossellini cuts to an agitated close-up pan over the walls. Similarly, a scene in which the prison is airraided begins with a siren and a quick zoom up into windows at the end of the prison hall, and continues in zooming in and out of the hall. Though Rossellini in both cases uses devices which intensify emotion, he becomes in these shots more concrete, more closely engaged with the physical world. In Murnau or Ulmer a shot of plain walls would have cosmic significance. The truths Rossellini pursues are immediate.
Thus he underplays every scene, particularly the heroic ending. The spiritual dimnesion he sees in human nature becomes another fact of the situation. This is only possible in the most integrated of personal styles. Completely responsive to emotional changes, his camera motions are a sufficient dramatic means, so that each film evolves smoothly to its transcendent ending. One can only accept the ending of General della Rovere as one more truth.