This week the Criterion Collection releases the Roberto Rossellini War Trilogy on DVD, filling an important gap in DVD libraries everywhere. The first and third movies in the trilogy, Open City (1945) and Germany Year Zero (1948), were available in shoddy editions that did not do justice to the films, and the second, Paisan (1946), has been on the hard-to-find list for some time. These movies are notable for establishing the "Italian Neorealism" movement that cropped up just after WWII. Italy was devastated, and several young filmmakers realized that making glossy entertainments felt false under the circumstances. So they grabbed some cameras, some short ends and some inexperienced actors and hit the streets.
The odd thing about Open City is how much of it takes place indoors, and how much it resembles a standard-issue melodrama. But it still contains moments of genuine invention and power -- especially the performance of Anna Magnani -- and it's hard to deny the dangerous and challenging spirit in which it was made. Open City is generally considered one of the greatest films ever made, and Criterion adds it and the other two to an impressive list of Rossellini titles they have released: The Flowers of St. Francis (1950), Il generale della Rovere (1959), The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (1966), and the "History Films" box set, including Blaise Pascal (1972), The Age of the Medici (1973) and Cartesius (1974). Additionally, Lionsgate released a two-disc set not too long ago that included Where is Freedom? (1954) and Escape By Night (1960).
The excellent New Yorker critic Richard Brody writes about the War Trilogy DVD set this week, but also added a second blog entry that asks an interesting question. We already have a prestigious collection of Rossellini films on DVD, but where is the meat of his filmography: the five features (and one short) he made with Ingrid Bergman? Apparently, after having seen some of the "War Trilogy," Bergman wrote to Rossellini and asked to work with him. They were both already married, and their subsequent romance caused an international scandal, made even worse when Bergman began bearing Rossellini's children. (Their most famous offspring is, of course, the actress Isabella Rossellini.)
The five features are Stromboli (1950), Europa '51 (1952), Voyage in Italy (1953), Joan of Arc at the Stake (1954) and La Paura (1954), plus a segment entitled "Ingrid Bergman" included in the omnibus film Siamo donne (1953). The latest critical mood is that Voyage in Italy (which co-stars George Sanders) is an even greater film than Open City, and that the body of work as a whole represents the apex of Rossellini's career. Not to mention that Bergman's face on the DVD box cover is far more marketable than words like "war trilogy" and "history films." A brave and wise distributor could ostensibly make more money on a Rossellini/Bergman box set than any of the other releases combined. Once that's done, then newfound fans might begin to crop up and work their way back through the rest of the films.