Always a Window: Tag Gallagher’s Rossellini

Adrian Martin

Uploaded 1 March 2000

Tag Gallagher,
The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini. New York: Da Capo Press, 1998.
ISBN 030608730.
US$24.50 (paper)
It is difficult to be “with” Rossellini but it is even harder to be “without” him.
Don Ranvaud [1]

Human beings are always uneasy.
Roberto Rossellini [2]

Until the publication of this magnificent and extraordinary book, those interested in the films of Roberto Rossellini – even passionately so – have had to approach his work encumbered by a large number of thick, heavy, murky preconceptions. Rossellini the neo-realist, Rossellini the liberal humanist or Christian Democrat, Rossellini of the Bazinian long takes, Rossellini the classical narrative filmmaker in disguise, Rossellini the Roman sensualist (discoursing on the difference between tightly “sewn” and loosely “draped” civilisations), Catholic-mystic Rossellini (man of flowers), televisual Rossellini (man of learning), entertainment Rossellini (man of the people), Matisse Rossellini (Cahiers du cinéma’s father of modernism), Rossellini the zoom-lens inventor, Rossellini the Brechtian or anti-Brechtian… Ingrid Bergman and Rossellini, the fools for love.

What did any of these reductive, often mutually exclusive labels, these sweeping, crushing terms actually ever mean? When did they ever help us get any closer to the richness of Paisà (1946), Voyage in Italy (1953), India Matri Bhumi (1959) or La prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV (1966)?

Compare this to Tag Gallagher’s synoptic untangling, late in his book, of the diverse “phases” of Rossellini’s artistic and social sensibility:

Rossellini had started life as a typical product of his background – an ill-defined Crocean Catholic liberal, with a vague faith in human impulse to be sincere, and thus good, at moments of love and danger …

On [his son] Romano’s death, Roberto came to believe this impulse has its source in God. He became an Augustinian, a medievalist, convinced of the corruptness of our nature and our lack of freedom, of our inability to unite mind and heart, scientific knowledge, and feeling – and thus achieve freedom – without a process of healing that only God can give…

During the period following India, Rossellini’s public pose became more Pelagian (i.e., anti-Augustinian), modernist, and Marxist. He began, in other words, to acknowledge the point of view of those who had most strongly attacked his earlier films. (633)

Such were the stages of Rossellini’s publicly expressed “ideology”. But Gallagher always goes deeper than this filmmaker’s carefully adopted, often blatantly revisionist postures (“defending him”, Gallagher suggests in the Preface, “often entails attacking his words”). The critic/biographer perceives a unity in this singular life, work, journey:

Rossellini, whatever his public prattle, never accepted the Marx-Pelagian-Freud-Fascist notion that individual ills are basically society’s ills, to be cured by proper legislation and will. His notion of “grace” became more humanist and Crocean, perhaps atheistic; but he remained Augustinian. (Preface)

What does it mean, in relation to our better appreciation of the films in question, to assert that Rossellini “remained Augustinian”? That the ideas of freedom, heart, unity, healing and faith are the most central, the deepest, the most synthetic and cohering ones we can explore across the entire span of his cinema? Gallagher’s case convinced me – won me, in fact – in illuminating passages like this, on Acts of the Apostles (1968):

Were someone today to tell us that God has spoken to him, with an actual voice (the way God does on Rossellini’s soundtrack), how many of us would believe him? If he said it with the physicality and insistence and single-mindedness of Rossellini’s Paul, how many of us would think him crazy? Great conviction is dismissed in our day as delusion, or resented as intrusive, or feared as the fuel of Hitlers and rock stars. Nonetheless Paul convinced much of the world for two millennia that God spoke to him, and on his conviction Western civilization was refounded. (588)

Conviction, pressed by the body, passed through the heart, the kind of conviction that unites minds in a common cause, cements friendships or ignites love: conviction as a mutual intoxication, as a madness. “I am always for the crazy people”, Rossellini often said. And this book is also, in its fiercely intelligent way, a crazy, impassioned, relentless epic which is out to convince, to draw us into an ecstatic and transformative relationship with Rossellini’s movies. For this reader, it amply succeeded in its mission.

The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini is both a biography and a critical appreciation of the films. Gallagher is a brilliant critic, whose work – like that of Bill Krohn – is better known to those European cinephiles who read it in translation, or find it in catalogues or special publications that rarely make their way to bookshops in English-speaking film cultures. His reflections on Rossellini overlap on many points with his previous book, on John Ford (who makes a mysterious appearance here during Rossellini’s years in anarchic charge of a film school: “He’d tell them to watch Ford; they’d learn everything” [609]), and his essays on King Vidor (proposed as an important influence on Rossellini), Jean Renoir, Douglas Sirk and – another sensualist Augustinian of an especially tortured kind – Abel Ferrara. [3]

Gallagher is a fine writer with a very distinctive voice. He is a virtuosic rationalist, who questions and thinks through any proposition on (or by) Rossellini, no matter where it comes from, no matter its agenda or motivation. He is after the truth, but he recognises that truth is not something external and abstract but subjective, engorged with emotion – “truth is personal, stupefying and personal” as the poet René Char said [4]  – which is exactly the kind of truth and revelation he sees so vividly enacted in Rossellini’s movies. But not merely personal or “involuted” revelation, as the leftist intellectuals of Rossellini’s time liked to say, not a dead end: the blaze of truth in Rossellini is something that serves ultimately to connect people, to spread the word, to create fragile communities built on passion and driven, idealistic faith.

Truth, and reality. Gallagher helpfully distinguishes between a mode of utopian thinking about art – extremely popular in film studies, including some of its most progressive manifestations – that has its origin in Sartre’s existentialism, and the kind of “new reality” that Rossellini, via the influence of Benedetto Croce, envisaged and always pursued:

Art, Rossellini and [Leon Battista] Alberti claim, is a “science”, a way of knowing things; it constructs a substitute world in order to reach the “real” through fantasy, that is, through our imagination, which may be mathematical, artistic, or whatever.

Art, others claim, is a way of remaking the world; it constructs a substitute world so we can live there, a fantasy “real” to substitute for the really real. For Sartre, art is a way of escaping the fact that the world we live in is not our own and will eventually crush us, in death; we escape into our imagination, where we are free. Gloomy Sartre lives in the future. (644-5)

But Rossellini’s art, though fully imaginative, fully “fantasy'”, fully creative (and never simply “documentary”) is of the here and now. “Neo-realism”, as Gallagher argues at length, was not a style, not a movement, it was an attitude that belonged essentially to Rossellini, and him alone: the attitude that a new world can be made, or found, around us, that we make the world over through the force of our passion and conviction. “Art is a window, not a playhouse” (645), Gallagher concludes. And what this modest window lets us see, if we know how to look, respond and feel, is the truth of Rossellini’s long-held conviction that “from a very humble position [anyone] can … revise the whole conception of the universe” (588).

When Rossellini recreated objects and inventions for his history films, it was in order to enter into what he called “the fantasy of things” (637). Fellini recognised during the making of Paisà that Rossellini’s personalised style was about the creation of “emotive facts… feeling… point of view” (202), and that filmmaking could be a process of “looking at thing[s] with love… with that communion that is established from one moment to another between a face and me, an object and me” (194). Things are indeed everywhere in this book, a motif of life and rich, reciprocal inter-relationship. Gallagher tells us that some of his interviewees complained: “‘These are my things‘… as though in the very act of speaking they would be giving away parts of their selves” (Preface). And later he expands on Rossellini’s joy and pride in the notion (expressed during the making of India Matri Bhumi) that cinema can film “ten things at once”:

The “ten things” are the people and the “things around” that “have a meaning” – the land beneath your feet, your house, the elephant you wash, the trees, the sounds you hear, your clothes you feel, the straw basket of stone you carry, the lake you have made. The “ten things” are the formal elements of film. (491)


A few years back, the Australian writer Humphrey McQueen reflected on the experience of writing a biography of the painter Tom Roberts. Was it necessary, was it right, he wondered, to include intimate details of his subject’s hitherto carefully concealed erotic proclivities? (On balance, McQueen decided, it was necessary.) I doubt whether Gallagher suffered similar doubts and anxieties while writing The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini. It appears (and this is possibly a mistaken impression) that just about every fact, story or speculation about Rossellini that the author could find has been included in these 802 pages.

We learn in great detail about Rossellini’s tricky ways with money (borrowing, scams, unpaid debts, tax evasion); his relentless sexual adventuring (he “liked sex in foursome” [548], for instance) right to the end of his life; the many friends and collaborators he seduced professionally and then brutally dumped; the lying and manipulating; the neglect of his children (as his father had neglected him); his habit of passing off other people’s ideas and contributions as his own; his chameleon (or eel) like ability to alter his ideological proclamations to ride the winds of change and fashion; his recurring headaches; his renowned laziness on the film set and especially later, in post-production; his reckless love of car racing; his youthful dependence on drugs; and much, much more. All his life, he was a kind of escape artist, for whom flight enabled a tenacious survival; when once quizzed by a lover about how he legally manoeuvred between marriages, affairs and divorces, he replied: “We always keep a window open” (494).

Two splendid quotations perceptively gathered by Gallagher sketch out Rossellini’s likely “design for living”. The first is from Baldassare Castiglione:

“To behave with decorum, to win the favour of one’s superiors and the friendship of one’s equals, to defend one’s honour and make oneself respected without being hated, to inspire admiration but not envy, to maintain a certain splendor, to know the arts of living, to converse with wit and facility, to be in one’s proper place in war, in a salon, in a lady’s boudoir, and in a council chamber, to live in the world and at the same time to have a private, withdrawn life.” (78-9)

The second is from Thornton Wilder, a listing of the “six attributes of the adventurer”:
“A memory for names and faces, with the aptitude of altering [one’s] own; the gift of tongues; inexhaustible invention; secrecy; the talent for falling into conversation with strangers; and that freedom from conscience that springs from a contempt for the dozing rich he preyed upon.” (570)

For his part, Gallagher’s only explicit reflection on writing biography comes on the second page of his preface: “Gerald Mast told me when I began this book fifteen years ago that biography is fiction. I did not believe him then; I do now”. Another, implicit comment is perhaps detectable in this quotation from Simone Weil: “To write the lives of the great in separating them from their works necessarily ends by above all stressing their pettiness, because it is in their work that they have put the best of themselves” (396). So, why so much “juicy detail” in this particular biographical fiction?

First reason. Because it is all part of what made up the man, and his impulses. A friend of mine who perused the book suspected that he would henceforth like Rossellini “more as a filmmaker than as a person”, and I sympathise with his reaction; nonetheless, as Gallagher points out in no uncertain terms in response to a comment by Peter Brunette: “A moral attitude consists of more than likes and dislikes” (548). The concept of a “moral attitude”, which Gallagher derives from Rossellini’s art, is an entire attitude towards life, history, and the things of the world. Reality – however complexly we decide to define that term – must be embraced, seen whole, experienced fully, before it can be sifted and analysed. So The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini is in some sense a “tell all” book but – unlike many, maybe most biographies – it is never superior, prurient or judgmental.

Second reason. More than with many, more conventional or more placid directors, the conditions that Rossellini created in shooting, the way everything was determined by the vagaries and whims of his mercurial personality, had an absolutely defining effect on the aesthetic of his films. One sometimes suspects (as some of his more jaundiced collaborators suggest) that his “artistic method” was an after-effect of his lazy, penny-pinching, thrill-seeking ways. And if it was, so what, if Voyage in Italy is the result?

Rossellini’s way with actors, for instance, and the very particular kinds of performances he elicited, relate to so many, contradictory aspects of his personality: manipulation, generosity, terrorism, haste, openness, love of pure “behaviour”, the creation of “inner drama” from the incongruency of a person in relation to his/her role or environment. During the reading of this book, I took a second to check the taping of Era notte a Roma (1960) off television. I came in on a scene involving three nuns, a man, and an older woman. The narrative content of the scene was mysterious to me, but an aspect of its staging or mise en scène was immediately striking, even disconcerting: the actors were moving in a funny way. Cramped quite closely in a small, cave-like space, they weren’t exactly standing still: they shuffled uneasily on their feet, rocked a little bit, looked a bit unsure as to what words or gestures they were meant to produce next. The old woman starts the scene at the back, trying to look through or past the nuns, then suddenly she makes a little dash for it, around to the side of the ensemble – and one of the nuns looks at her as if surprised to see her in this new spot. Thanks to Gallagher’s research, I now understand that the unusual, artificial “realism” of this scene – and its tentative, sketch-like quality – has everything to do with the way in which Rossellini kept his actors off-guard, by swift blocking, few takes, and last-second feeding of lines.

Third reason. There is a level at which every Rossellini film, it seems, is secretly autobiographical. Whether the hero – and there is always a hero in Rossellini, in a frankly mythic, virtually Messianic sense – is rich or poor, a pilot or a saint, a woman trapped inside a marriage or an inventor trying to crack the laws of the universe, all of them are Rossellini. Just as he transmuted history into fable and myth, he “worked through” the headlong chaos of his own life in these displaced, extravagant anecdotes of himself and his path through decades, political regimes, love matches and belief systems.

Fourth and most important reason. Empathy is a key theme in Rossellini’s cinema – not wishy-washy, comfort-zone Christian sympathy, but full-on, Franciscan empathy. On several occasions this book quotes the advice of Croce – a long unfashionable thinker whom Gallagher judges (persuasively, in my view) to have been a central, formative influence on Rossellini’s sensibility:

“Do you wish to understand the true history of a neolithic Ligurian or Sicilian? Try, if you can, to become a neolithic Ligurian or Sicilian in your mind … Do you wish to understand the true history of a blade of grass? Try to become a blade of grass.” (31)

This is the attitude which Gallagher has adopted, whole heartedly, in the research and writing of his book. In a way, he tries to become Rossellini, and he seeks that moment of empathetic contact with the distant, foreign people, places, times and cultures in which he moved. Such empathy is like the great moment of the kiss between leper and saint in Francesco giullare di Dio (1950), according to Gallagher via Alain Bandelier:

It can’t be described. We need to glimpse in shadow these two men joining, led by some force; to see with Francis a face ravaged by leprosy like the landscape by night; to hear through the thick silence the tinkling bell come nearer, as though from another world; to hear Francis’s cry embracing the earth, our earth, a cry thrown up from within the depths of man and the depths of God, the groan of the Spirit joining itself to our spirit, making our immense question into an infinite Word. We need, with Francis, to kiss the face of this man who no longer has a face and adore there the face of God, that face which one cannot see without dying. (350)


Like Truffaut by Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana [5] The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini starts with a birth and ends with a funeral – and the suddenness of the ending, at least, mimics many a film by Rossellini or his imitators. Gallagher closes his biographical narrative, quite reasonably, at this point, but also leaves open a little window: “His adventures were over. Or were they?” (688). With a book already so large, full and generous in its impulses (like its subject), it is surely churlish to remark upon what gets left out as a result of the birth-to-death structure. Perhaps what follows are more like notes for possible future work, ways of extending, paying homage to and creating a dialogue with Gallagher’s enormous achievement.

Some might conclude, from this book, that Rossellini was a person who ‘used up’ a lot of people; he seduced them into giving up just about everything to work with him, but when circumstances changed he swiftly dumped one lot of comrades and moved on to another. Sometimes there would be emotional “reunions”, but then the whole treacherous process could very well simply repeat itself. Rossellini, however, was no cynical opportunist following a career plan; Gallagher urges us to see that every creative relationship for Rossellini was carried out as some sort of impulsive, passionate romance – and when that busted up, the artistic “adventure” was necessarily over. Nonetheless, the fact that many people really only existed for Rossellini while they were his collaborator-confidants causes a similar occlusion in Gallagher’s necessarily headlong arrangement of his vast mosaic of characters, events, places and changes. He usually tells how someone’s career and destiny panned out post Rossellini; but not always. I found myself wanting to know, for instance, Roswitha Schmidt’s story after her break with the director; I wished for a fuller sketch of brother Renzo Rossellini’s musical career.

The history of film theory and criticism in relation to Rossellini has more to it than Gallagher chooses to cover. Contemporaneous Italian reviews and commentaries on his films are cited in great and illuminating detail. So, too are the writings of the Cahiers group in the ’50s, which stand up well in Gallagher’s retrospective appreciation. Bazin is afforded the respect he deserves, but his colleague Amédée Ayfre emerges as a virtually forgotten critical hero of the period: Gallagher made me want to devour all his work. The counter-offensive to the Cahiers line in France – especially that pushed by the Surrealists and leftists at Positif, maintained for well over two decades and really only “officially” reversed with the coverage of a 1988 Rossellini retrospective – is scarcely mentioned, beyond a reference in the notes to Marcel Oms’ “infamous anti-Rossellini diatribe” of 1958, “Rossellini: from fascism to Christian Democracy” [6] . But how could the blistering “In praise of André Bazin” by Gérard Gozlan, a masterpiece of angry, French critique which was partly translated into English in the ’60s, be overlooked, with lines like this on the Cahiers critics’ response to Europa ’51 (1952): “Just as the best Indian is a dead Indian, the best woman is a dead woman”?[7]

The annals of Rossellini criticism after his death form quite a labyrinth of words, polemics and theories. Gallagher does not beat this labyrinth, although he testily alludes to some of its monuments (such as the arguments as to whether or not Rossellini can be considered Brechtian). Theoretically engaged or “revisionist” discussions of Rossellini by Martin Walsh, Sam Rohdie and Paul Willemen go uncited; the significance of the director for Screen in the early days of its ’70s intellectual revolution is not canvassed (although it did fall within Rossellini’s lifetime); Gilles Deleuze’s eccentric regrouping of “neo-realist” concepts in his two cinema books (more dreamy than polemical, and thus quite interesting), and the inspiration for a new sketch of cinema history that he draws from Rossellini’s classics, do not capture Gallagher’s attention.

It has become de rigueur these days to place any piece of cinema history (a genre like film noir or melodrama, a director’s oeuvre, a style or mode) alongside the history of criticism devoted to it – with these two histories in a semi-autonomous, detachable relationship (see for example the “Chronicle” in the BFI booklet Roberto Rossellini). Theory doesn’t have to address specific films in depth; and criticism need not refer “truthfully” (or even well) to its objects, since (according to a cliché of fairly recent invention) it “invents” or constructs them for its own purposes. The analysis of contexts around films became (at least for a time in the ’80s) an end in itself.

At the start of this review I quoted Don Ranvaud’s admission, in 1981, that one cannot “be without” Rossellini – an allusion to a famous line from from Bertolucci’s Prima della rivoluzione (1964), “One cannot live without Rossellini!”, cited by every film buff since, except Gallagher.

But why is Ranvaud so captured by Rossellini – because (as we might reasonably expect) the films are so great, rich, splendid and powerful? Nope, because they are “a constant source of debate, of argument about the nature of the cinema”, because there is a “problem ‘Rossellini'” that demands further problematisation – and because it is possible to pursue a “levering on the uses made of Rossellini in particular cultural contexts and at particular points in time”. [8]  Such grey, programmatic statements constitute in fact a familiar rationalisation within film studies of love that dare not speak its name. A wilfully closed-minded literalness sometimes accompanies such “programs”, as in Willemen’s more recent musing that “moments of excess” are interesting in Rossellini’s cinema because “that is what [Cahiers critics] latch onto” – but, by the same token, what’s going on at such moments is “certainly not what they say it is, a religious experience”. [9]

Gallagher, I presume, would have little patience for such attitudes. His book is fiercely dedicated to the work of criticism – with a couple of lively interludes devoted to ‘some theory’ that mainly decry the wrong-headness and reductiveness of much of what passes for recent theory, with its tidy labels (“neo-realist”), periodizations (“Renaissance perspective” and its legacy) and ideological biases (against “reassuring”, bourgeois, character-driven narrative, for “distance”, analysis, subversion and critique). Criticism for Gallagher entails lively, subtle evaluation – he does not hesitate to identify which, for him, are the richest Rossellini films, or compare the parts that don’t work to those that do in any particular film – with the crucial twist that he tolerates, even respects the margin for experiment, error, and failure that was implicit in the director’s methods, aesthetics and personal impulses.

Gallagher’s verdict on 20th century “grand theory” becomes evident in the disparaging account of a positivism that had its roots in the economic, sociological and psychoanalytic theories of Freud, Jung, Durkheim, Lévi-Strauss and Saussure, and faced its nemesis in the anti-positivist, phenomenological push led by Weil, Bergson and Merleau-Ponty, among others. Rossellini’s art in part drew from, and also gave to, this latter tendency, with its insistence on “not facts but vast vivid experience”, a form of knowledge that needs “intuition, faith, love, and sexuality” (270). Of course, Rossellini, as Gallagher argues and demonstrates, didn’t strictly need even the infusion of phenomenological theory that his experiences in France gave him; it was already part of that Italian, Crocean air he breathed from birth.

Gallagher does not mention that, in a later incarnation, positivism would transmute into the structuralism which set the agenda for so much university-led cinema study. The closest he himself comes to structuralist method is in his proposal of a “master plot” underlying virtually every Rossellini film – searching characters reach a womb-like chamber, where impulse leads to a discovery of truth that puts the seer beyond the pale of society (187) – and what one Jesuit critic called the “three great recurring metaphors”, abundantly evident in these films, of chasm, labyrinth and mountain (249). And there is a jolly chart (of which Deleuze would have been proud) broadly comparing the Lang-Eisenstein-Hitchcock-De Sica side and the Murnau-Ford-Sternberg-Rossellini side of the “‘realist-expressionist’ school” (299-300). But Gallagher’s own critical style and insight go far beyond such preliminary grids and distinctions. Listen to him on Voyage in Italy:

… almost everything that Katherine and Alex do in the opening scenes traces increasing dissolution of selfhood. Their switching seats should mark mutual support. But supports are in jeopardy, falling away. Her horror at insect blood marks her vulnerability to life; his horror at the speeder marks his. Countless imponderables – awkward intonations, blurted phrases, hesitations, uncertainties in carriage and gesture – lead us everywhere to sense their growing awareness that they don’t know what to do next – with each other, with themselves, in all the tiny small things of life that ground existence. (406-7)

Another aspect of the book which sometimes leaves one wanting more is the ongoing comparison of Rossellini with other filmmakers – or, more broadly, the (large) question of Rossellini’s cinematic legacy. Gallagher, staying essentially within the limits of the director’s life-span, offers many brief, tantalising notes of comparison. Among his Italian contemporaries: the sharp differences between Rossellini and Visconti, Antonioni or De Sica; and on the other hand, the surprising similarities between Rossellini and Fellini (one of the passing virtues of the book is to offer a substantially different portrait of Fellini as man and artist than most texts on Italian cinema). In his “French” period, the years of Cahiers du cinéma‘s accolades and then the rise of the nouvelle vague, the palpably Rossellinian elements in Rivette, Rohmer, Truffaut and Godard (often via the crucial mediating link of screenwriter Jean Gruault) are perceptively brought out. (In the case of Godard, Gallagher cannot resist quoting some of this filmmaker’s own “blarney” apropos Rossellini’s role in his career, and clearly enjoys informing us that probably the sole Godard film Rossellini saw – Vivre sa vie [1962] – offended him greatly for its “Antonioni-ism”.)

The net of Rossellini’s influence of course, spreads far wider than those two circles. Within his lifetime, first of all. A trip to Brazil is mentioned, for instance; but the Rossellinian aspect of cinema novo (in Rocha, Guerra, etc) is not explored, nor (as Willemen has suggested) the filmmaker’s effect on Cuba’s “poor cinema” [10] . The critical admiration of Jean-Marie Straub for Rossellini in the ’50s is mentioned, but not the links between the very particular “history films” he would go on to make with Danièle Huillet and such Rossellini movies as Blaise Pascal (1971) and The Age of the Medici (1972).

And then, beyond Rossellini’s lifetime, a whole new series of “adventures” begins: Gianni Amelio’s tales of journeys, migrations and displacements (Stolen Children [1992], Lamerica [1994]); Nanni Moretti’s use of the island of Stromboli in Caro diario (1994); Kiarostami’s humble, profound masterpieces of the ’90s; the fiercely physical films about daily life, survival, personal impulse and social responsibility made by the Belgian ex-documentarians, the Dardenne brothers (La promesse [1997] and Rosetta [1999]); those French New Wavers whose films become more concentrated, classical, mysterious and serene in the ’80s and ’90s, more finely and fiercely touched with Rossellini-inspired grace – Rohmer’s La rayon vert (1986), Rivette’s La belle noiseuse (1991) – versus the eternal iconoclast, Godard, who fashions a contemporary response to Deutschland im jahre null (1947) in Germany year 90 nine zero (1991) and, in his own, eccentric way, renews Rossellini’s “televisual project” and the “grand plan” to unite art, research, information, science and history, in works from Je vous salue, Marie (1985) to the Historie(s) du cinéma (1989-98).

Given Gallagher’s provocative insistence on the melodramatic dimension of Rossellini – “melodrama is a form of radicalization” (375), he writes of Europa ’51 – I even caught myself dreaming of Almodovar’s recent trilogy (The Flower of My Secret [1995], Live Flesh [1997], All About My Mother [1999]) which, like the films of the Dardennes, so profoundly explores sensuality and contingency, personality and community, error and inspiration, life-in-the-moment and eternal bonds of consequence. And the dream continued. With my head so full of this book, I managed to find powerful and suggestive echoes of Rossellini’s war films in Three Kings (David O. Russell, 1999): sudden death, torture, digitally enabled “frame skipping” (Gallagher credits Rossellini with the manual invention, pre-Welles, of this technique), chaos all around the protagonists, social breakdown and fragmentation, fleeting moments of connection and disconnection between scared citizens of several nations, characters slowly coming to political consciousness and having to make on-the-spot moral decisions and commitments.

Yet perhaps such rampant speculation on the “legacy” – as if Rossellini’s cinema could be historically boxed and then parcelled out like that – misses a key point of Gallagher’s book. He insists, from start to end, on how critics and audiences “miss” Rossellini’s work, fail to connect with it – today as yesterday. It is still a radical challenge to so many of our habits, preconceptions and limits. If we want themes underlined, neatly dramatised and resolved for us; if we can only read character and behaviour through mere words, postures and clichés rather than full-blooded, physical presence; if we cannot grasp the aggressive, inquiring ways of Rossellini’s camera-regard, and feel the relations between people, environments, minds and communities in the cutting and mise en scène – then we will never have any hope of truly receiving the force and meaning of these films. Gallagher himself holds true to the Crocean maxim that he believes so influenced Rossellini: there must be poetry rather than prose, individual discovery rather than rote learning and regurgitation.

Once, forced to sit through a group of Paul Cox films, I reflected that the guy keeps telling the same, classic story, going back to the same, old square one: the hero will journey from blindness to insight, hopelessness to redemption, solitude to the communion provided by love. Cox, I now realise, is an extremely poor cousin of Rossellini. Gallagher is not daunted by the fact that Rossellini’s films – whatever their period, whether they are about war, a woman on an island, or history’s great weirdo-inventors – also, in a broad but unmistakeable sense, tell the same story, tracing a very similar journey.

What is special about Rossellini’s films, though, is their vivid temporality: in a sense, everybody and everything in them is in that liminal, suspended state in between the past and future, darkness and light, ignorance and insight. His films are fantastically full of a pregnant tension – a sense that something will soon break, that something must give. The weight of the world upon his characters is enormously oppressive, often resolutely miserable; but the promise of a new world, here and now – a world remade through the ecstatic, impulsive force of will, or the world as it is finally seen, discovered in its beauty and richness – is intoxicating, invigorating. No journey ever really seems to reach its definitive end in Rossellini – just as it never clearly started; journeys are spurred into motion at some incalculable point by the encounters arranged by chance and coincidence.

Rossellini’s films, at their best, occur in this saturated, voluptuous present tense in which everything is always on the point of transforming itself. And as such, they grab us here and now, in our present tense of viewing, no matter our socio-political or historical context. The “miracles” that Rossellini shows are scarcely mystical (he refused to include the depiction of miracles in Acts of the Apostles), and the “grace” they bestow is not exactly in the hands of a God who alights when and where he wills it (which is the kind of line critics like to lazily indulge in relation to other religious cinéastes, like Bresson, von Trier or Dreyer). We can hardly know – and the characters seem to hardly know – when the miracle has actually occurred in Voyage in Italyor Stromboli, let alone be able to instantly comprehend or absorb its dimensions, implications and consequences.

Maybe this is the authentically Rossellinian aspect of some great, contemporary films: when they build to that strange, mysterious instant which leaves both the characters and us stunned, reeling – transformed but not yet able to articulate the structure and sense of that transformation. It is enough to live this miracle, however confusedly, enough to feel the power of the wave, to know at last that you, and the world around you, has begun to change. Rossellini’s cinema is about the moment of revitalisation, on every conceivable level, personal as well as social. That moment of potential rebirth – and the need for it – will never be over for any of us living creatures.


[1] Don Ranvaud (ed.), Roberto Rossellini, BFI Dossier Number 8, (London: British Film Institute, 1981), 1.
[2] In Ranvaud, 29.
[3] Tag Gallagher, John Ford: The Man and his Films (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986); on Vidor, see “Hollywood directors, 1932-55”, Trafic 14-17 (1996); “Jean Renoir: the dancers and the dance”, Film Comment 32, no. 1 (1996): 64-6, 72-6; “White melodrama: Douglas Sirk 1897-1997”, Film Comment, November 1998, translated in Cinémathèque 13, spring 1998, Giovanni Spagnoletti (ed.), Lo specchio della vita (Turin: Lindau),1999 and Filmhäftet 109 (2000); “Abel Ferrara”, Rotterdam International Film Festival, catalogue (1992). One hopes that these and other essays by Gallagher which have yet to appear in English – such as his studies of Ulmer and McCarey – will soon be collected into a book.
[4] René Char, “The journey is done”, Yale French Studies 31 (1964): 126.
[5] Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana, Truffaut (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999).
[6] Marcel Oms, “Rossellini: du fascisme à la democratie chrétienne”, Positif 28 (1958): 12-16.
[7] Gérard Gozlan, “In praise of André Bazin”, in Peter Graham (ed.), The New Wave (London: British Film Institute, 1968), 52-71, 114-135.
[8] Ranvaud, 2.
[9] Paul Willemen, Looks and Frictions (London: British Film Institute, 1994), 238.
[10] Paul Willeman, “Introduction” in Ranvaud, 4.

About the Author

Adrian Martin

About the Author

Adrian Martin

Adrian Martin is an Australian-born film and arts critic living in Malgrat, Spain. He is the author of nine books since 1994, and thousands of articles and reviews since 1978. His website of writings is all posts by Adrian Martin →