By Tag Gallagher.

Illustrated. 802 pp. New York:

Da Capo Press. Paper, $24.50.

In the preface to his biography of the Italian film director Roberto Rossellini, Tag Gallagher describes how, as a penniless young film buff, he slept outdoors in the rain and on any available floor over the course of three nights so that he could see Rossellini’s three-part television movie, ”The Age of the Medici.” Gallagher’s extreme, even obsessive dedication to his subject informs much of ”The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini.” He appears to have tracked down almost anyone connected to Rossellini — every friend, relative, former girlfriend and professional collaborator. The result is an 802-page biography that is both exhaustive and exhausting.

On the positive side, we do generally learn a good deal about the circumstances under which Rossellini made his films. This is particularly useful in the long chapters Gallagher devotes to ”Rome, Open City” and ”Paisan,” which changed film history and virtually founded the genre of Italian Neorealism. These chapters are examples of how biography can contribute something important to one’s understanding of major works of art.

At the same time, Gallagher’s passionate attachment to his research occasionally makes the book prolix and indiscriminate. He appears to have fallen in love with his own research to a point where he is unwilling to part with even the smallest detail. We learn, for example, what the Rossellini family valet did during World War I, as well as what Rossellini ate when filming in India.

Although Gallagher, the author of ”John Ford: The Man and His Films,” is a worshipful partisan of Rossellini the filmmaker, he is fairly candid and detached about Rossellini’s faults as a man. The portrait that emerges from these pages is of a charming and talented rogue who seduced producers and actresses, borrowed money shamelessly without the least intention of repaying it, left his servants unpaid on the theory that they should have felt lucky to work for such a great man. Although he talked endlessly about his position as a ”moral” filmmaker, in his own life he behaved with colossal selfishness toward the women he kept seducing and the children he kept producing.

Rossellini’s early life gave few signs of artistic promise. Born in 1906, the son of a wealthy Roman building contractor, he was an indifferent student who grew into a spoiled playboy. Rossellini liked fast cars, fast women and cocaine and spent his way through a substantial inheritance. When he ran out of money in the mid-1930’s, he wandered almost accidentally into the Italian film industry on the strength of friendships and his appealing personality. Rossellini, like many in Italian film under Fascism, worked under the patronage of Vittorio Mussolini, Il Duce’s oldest son, who had a passion for movies and the company of intellectuals. Although Rossellini made a few movies that could be described as Fascist propaganda, Vittorio Mussolini created an atmosphere of comparative tolerance and openness, light-years from the ideological ferocity that led to Leni Riefenstahl’s ”Triumph of the Will.”

None of his early work, however, provides any genuine anticipation of the extraordinary breakthrough Rossellini achieved in 1945, with the making of ”Open City.” The experience of the war, and especially the 10 long months in which the Germans occupied Rome, appeared to have been the turning point in his life and career. The German occupation — during which Rome became a theater of mass arrests and narrow escapes, of desperate anti-Fascist resistance and bloody Nazi reprisals — brought out previously unsuspected depths in Rossellini. He and some of his filmmaker friends, in particular the scriptwriter Sergio Amidei, conceived the idea of making a film about the German occupation as they waited for the Allies to arrive in Rome.

Almost as soon as the German troops left, Rossellini sprang into action. Collecting anecdotes and stories they had heard during and after the occupation, he and Amidei created a fictional film filled with real incidents and real people. Shot while the war was still raging in the north of Italy, with numerous scenes in the recently evacuated streets of Rome, the movie captures the pain, anger and humiliation of the occupied city in an extremely palpable way. At one point, Gallagher writes, a crowd of onlookers had to be restrained from attacking extras dressed in German uniforms.

THE sense of authenticity in ”Open City” electrified moviegoers around the world and made Rossellini an international celebrity. It remains quite justly his most important and popular film, and its success gave him the money and freedom he craved to take his innovations much further. As Gallagher points out, ”Open City” was more innovative in its subject matter than in its technique. It worked within the confines of a highly detailed script and, while using some nonactors, is dominated by the powerful presence of Anna Magnani and Aldo Fabrizi, who were established stars of Italian film. In ”Paisan,” Rossellini worked with only a loose script, which he and the young Federico Fellini kept altering as they traveled up the Italian peninsula to create a series of six vignettes that reproduce the movement of the Allied troops up the boot of the peninsula.

Rossellini always insisted that ”Paisan” (as well as some of his later films) was vastly superior to ”Open City,” and, indeed, the film has brilliant sections (especially the final one, ”The Po Valley”). But it also demonstrates some of the flaws that plague many of his later movies. A number of the nonactors turn in stilted performances that feel much more ”acted” than those of the professional actors, and often the rapidly improvised script — particularly the parts in English — is remarkably thin and wooden. It is hard not to agree with Luchino Visconti, who called ”Paisan” ”a rather discontinuous film” that ”can’t stand comparison to ‘Rome, Open City’ as a whole.” Nonetheless, ”Paisan” remains one of the fundamental films of the immediate postwar period.

These early films attracted the attention of Hollywood and, in particular, the screen diva Ingrid Bergman, who was tired of formulaic studio movies and begged Rossellini to cast her in one of his films. Their collaboration produced a romance that scandalized the entertainment world, and also the exceedingly tedious ”Stromboli.”

Gallagher argues that Rossellini’s own personal chaos was an important part of his creative process. Others see it as having had a negative impact on most of his later films. Having achieved artistic stardom, he became increasingly contemptuous of conventional preparation and bored by technical details. Bergman’s co-star in ”Voyage in Italy,” George Sanders, found Rossellini capricious and exasperating. ”The story of the film was never understood at any time, by anyone, least of all by the audience when the picture was released,” Sanders remarked.

And yet, while much of the film is excruciatingly dull, Rossellini’s depiction of postwar marital ennui anticipates both the films of the French New Wave and of Michelangelo Antonioni. Godard acknowledged that ”Voyage in Italy” taught him that ”all you need to make a movie is a man, a woman and a car.” What followed was ”Breathless.”

While popular with a small coterie of cineastes, virtually all of Rossellini’s films after ”Paisan” were commercial as well as critical failures, which Rossellini and Gallagher attribute to the stupidity and insensitivity of the public and critics. But there is a certain self-serving arrogance in Rossellini’s disdain of the films’ reception, and that arrogance may be part of the problem in the films themselves. Rossellini — who died in 1977 — continued to make films in countries and languages he did not know well (German, English, Hindi), believing he could simply parachute into a place and start filming. The result was a series of movies that are plotless, poorly written and tendentious.

Ultimately, the biography and the critical discussion of Rossellini’s films do come together. Although Gallagher himself might not agree, one begins to see some of Rossellini’s spoiled boyhood in the self-indulgence that overtook many of his films. By contrast, some of Rossellini’s best later work occurred when he was forced to accept greater restrictions than he liked, as in ”General Della Rovere” and ”The Rise of Louis XIV,” where he joined projects that already had tightly written and well-researched scripts. Even as big a fan as Gallagher acknowledges that from time to time, Rossellini the filmmaker needed to be saved from Rossellini the man.

– February 7, 1999

As published in The New York Times


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