Friday, March 20, 2015

The Unreachable Solace

It's hard enough for human beings to empathise with one another, add to this war and three separate languages and miscommunication becomes more divisive, more destructive. Roberto Rossellini's 1946 film Paisan (Paisa) shows a variety of ways in which this fundamentally human flaw manifests in Italy towards the end of World War II. An anthology film utilising recently shelled locations and the Italian Neorealist style, the insightful argument presented by the stories is augmented by the sense of immediate reality.

Each of the six stories illustrates clashes of culture and perspective even more than language difficulties. As was frequently the practice of Neorealist filmmakers, Rossellini employed non-professional actors on occasion and this pays off rather well with a teenage girl named Carmela Sazio, playing a character also named Carmela. She's sullen, dark eyed, and inexpressive to a degree an actor would find difficult to achieve. An actor builds a career learning how to communicate to the audience without even looking like they're communicating, Carmela is a wall of teenage insecurity dealing with a group of tired and on edge American soldiers who are only slightly more willing to connect than she is.

A lack of willingness to understand turns out to be one of the biggest stumbling blocks, illustrated perhaps most dramatically in the third story where a drunken American soldier (Gar Moore) is taken to a brothel by a prostitute (Maria Michi) where instead of having sex with her he expresses disgust that there are so many women like her in Rome now and laments losing track of the innocent young woman he met the day he and his comrades liberated the city--never suspecting the young woman and the prostitute are one and the same person. Maybe the most interesting thing about this story is that it illustrates a separation between heterosexual men and women created by the man's preconceptions. That the sexually innocent woman and the sexually experienced woman cannot be the same and cannot have the same value. There's a communication barrier here that's more fundamental than anything created by war or language.

Another story involving a drunk American soldier features another remarkable performance possibly due to the actor being non-professional but also possibly due to the film being Italian--it involves an Italian orphan named Pasquale (Alfonsino Pasca) believing he can purchase the soldier, Joe (Dots Johnson), because he's black. Joe stumbles after the kid, not knowing enough Italian to know why the kid's taken his hand, into a puppet theatre where white puppets in medieval garb are fending off Moors--the drunken Joe immediately starts cheering for the Moor and climbs up on stage to beat the white puppets.

One could say that Joe's childish behaviour reflects prejudice on the part of the filmmakers but a scene that follows, where Joe and Pascale sit talking on a pile of rubble, shows Johnson give a remarkably naturalistic performance. In Hollywood films, black actors were conditioned to perform in ways that reflected prejudices regarding dialect and physical mannerisms--there's none of that in Johnson's performance. He acts like he might have come from a movie made to-day.

The film also contains a vignette in a Catholic monastery where monks are confounded by three American army chaplains who are close friends despite the fact that one's Catholic, one's Protestant, and one's Jewish. Anther story follows a British woman desperately trying to find her Italian lover who's become a resistance leader--all the film's stories show people in dire need, desperately requiring the aid of other people, paradoxically frustrated in their endeavours by human nature.

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