Roberto Rossellini’s Generale della Rovere, 1959, while not properly part of his great WW II trilogy which defined the emerging Italian neo-realism (Rome, Open City, 1945, Paisan, 1946 and Germany Year Zero, 1948) continues and extends his use of the war time experience.
When the body contends with the soul for survival, which will win?
Filmed primarily on Rome’s Cine Città rather than in street locations as were the others, and using a more professional cast of actors than the nonprofessionals of the earlier trilogy, it nevertheless uses black and white shots of street corners, cafes and Nazi offices to explore choices and survival in occupied Genoa.
Bardone, played by Vittorio De Sica is handsome and graying, an irascible gambler and hustler in Genoa in 1943. The Allies have landed in Naples but Rome and Genoa are still Nazi controlled. He has maintained himself by keeping up affable relations with the occupying Germans and carrying bribes between Italians, frantic to keep sons and husbands off the work trains carrying them to Germany, and the German military bureaucrats with the appropriate files and lists. He also has a gambling obsession, and not a lucky one. Attempting to turn bribe money into better money, he inevitably loses, forcing him rush out to hustle another mark to make up for the losses in the preceding.
The film opens with brief scenes of uniformed Italians singing a fascist song and women in a small piazza thankful that the overcast will prevent bombing raids for the day. We don’t have specific details yet but the general tone is set. Into this walks a somewhat furtive man in a black hat and trench coat. A graffitti on a wall “We will win” tells us there is opposition to the earlier fascist sequence. We don’t yet know why the man is in a hurry, why he looks worried.
Suddenly he, and we, are startled by the sound of a gunshot. It turns out to be a tire blowing out; a jeep with Nazi soldiers. After some loud commands from the soldiers, the officer, Colonel Mueller [Hannes Messemer], intervenes. Bardone turns on the charm and the two men understand each other; two gentlemen with similar courtesies. Bardone directs them to a tire repair shop; more pleasantries are exchanged, Bardone throws a casual Nazi salute. We don’t know him yet and are suspicious of his friendliness to a Nazi; where is this story going? We soon learn that it is through such connections that he makes his living. The Colonel and Bardone have begun a dance to take us through the film; who is leading and who is being led?
This is followed by a scene between Bardone and his mistress, which at first suggests he is able to keep her in comfortable conditions, even though it is war time. The electricity is out, however, and we learn his true situation. He has lost yesterday’s bribe money before getting it to the right hands and needs her to pawn some of her jewelry to help him through his “temporary” set back. She icily suggests he pawn the emerald setting he gave her, which he knew when he gave it was a fake. We have the measure of the man in a wonderful two, short scenes.
The middle of the film follows him through more of his dealings and cons and pleadings. On the one hand he is a decent man concerned with the situation of others, with a genuine feeling of wanting to help them. On the other, he is unable to escape his need to be a “player,” to be a man of status and respect. Revealing scenes in a bordello, where he is old friends (of course) with the madam and one of the girls, add color and texture to his character. He is trying to peddle the fake emerald– but not to friends. Partisan fighting enters the story. The allies are coming up the Italian boot and irregulars are operating in Nazi occupied northern Italy. An important General, Della Rovere, is killed during an attempt to capture him, to the great displeasure of Colonel Mueller and his superiors. A group of partisans are arrested. Among them is a renowned leader, The Wolf, whom the Germans would dearly like to identify, execute and dishearten the partisans. Mueler concocts a plan to send Bardone into the prison, falsely identified as the dead General, at first to keep news of the General’s death quiet, but quickly converted to a scheme to discover which of the imprisoned guerrillas is The Wolf.
The emotional tension begins to build. Will Bardone/Della Rovere, who is being very well treated in the prison, betray a fellow countryman and keep his benefits, or will he keep his silence and possibly face execution? For a movie set prison, it is pretty convincing: rows of cells, doors slamming. Nazi oversight and torture to get information are juxtaposed to Italian conviviality in the cells and between prisoners and Italian guards; the moral dimensions of his choice are drawn in black and white. Though there are scenes that veer towards war-time propaganda characterization of the inevitability of good (our side) overcoming evil (their side) the opposition is nevertheless effective. The closing scene, decision made, is a stark reminder of the choices forced in war time.
A good score by Rossellini’s younger brother, Renzo, who also contributed to Open City and Paisan, adds to the emotional effects on the viewers — drum beat danger, ominous clarinet warnings, tension-building string staccato.
Though it is nice to see General Della Rovere in the context of Rossellini’s earlier War Trilogy, it stands on its own quite well, a good way to ask ourselves: faced with backing down or facing up, how do we ourselves fare?