Paisà/Paisan (1946 Italy 115 mins)

Prod Co: Organizzazione Film Internazionali/Foreign Film Production, Inc. Prod: Mario Conti, Rod E. Geiger Dir: Roberto Rossellini Scr: Sergio Amidei, Federico Fellini, Roberto Rossellini Phot: Otello Martelli Ed: Eraldo Da Roma Music: Renzo Rossellini

Cast: Carmela Sazio, Robert Van Loon, Dots M. Johnson, Alfonsino, Gar Moore, Maria Michi, Harriet White, Renzo Avanzo, Bill Tubbs, Dale Edmunds, Cigolani

Beautiful Shots! That is the one thing that makes me sick!”

– Roberto Rossellini (1)

Paisà/Paisan is both one of the defining films of the neo-realist movement and regarded by some as Roberto Rossellini’s last “true” neo-realist work. As David Forgacs puts it, from the moment of his very next film, Germania anno zero/Germany, Year Zero (1947),

the critics who had lauded Rossellini in 1945-6 [for Roma, cittá aperta and Paisà] as the standard-bearer of a new realist aesthetic and a new kind of committed cinema now saw him as guilty of “involution”, a turning inward, away from a social aesthetic into a rather dubious sort of spiritualism(2)

As a result, the critical history of Paisà tends to be criss-crossed by two intersecting perspectives: one which approaches it as a neo-realist film, and another that responds to it as a Rossellini film. From the first perspective, the film prompts us to ask what neo-realism is, or more precisely, what constitutes the realism of neo-realism? As such, it raises both ontological and political questions regarding the nature of cinema and its relation to the real world, as well as the people in it. The second approach invokes a classically auteurist perspective on questions of continuity and change within Rossellini’s body of work – where and how does the neo-realist “phase” represented by the post-war trilogy of Roma, cittá aperta/Rome, Open City (1945), Paisà, and Germania anno zero relate to what came before, and prefigure what was to come after? These two perspectives do not sit easily together. The features that allow us to identify the continuity and unity of artistic vision linking Paisà to Rossellini’s other work are sometimes at odds with those features that many critics (especially those on the Italian left) valued most and identified specifically as neo-realist in the film itself. To sum this up rather schematically, the tension lies between a perspective that values the cinematic representation of a socio-economic reality – one that that shows, that demonstrates the poverty and suffering of Italy and the Italian people throughout the liberation and post-war period – and a conception of the diversity and complexity of Rossellini’s output as somehow unified by an image of him as a fundamentally spiritual, mystical, or perhaps even metaphysical filmmaker.

There is no single or universally agreed definition of neo-realism. To describe it as a movement or a style is to impose a unity and coherence that is as much an artefact of the writing that surrounds the films as it is the result of a genuine program on the part of the filmmakers gathered together under its banner. It tends to be characterised in terms of a loosely grouped set of aesthetic and narrative strategies: a documentary-style roughness that tends to prefer wider shots over close-ups, and longer shots over short ones; a preference for location-based shooting. The films often rely on semi-improvisatory scripting, production and acting styles that are able to respond to and evoke the contingencies of reality and the moment, and use a mix of professional and non-professional actors. Finally, there is a tendency towards episodic and open-ended narratives. The degree to which the actual films reflect this mix varies significantly. In some respects, it is only a minor exaggeration to suggest that the high production values and relative narrative coherence of a neo-realist “superproduction” (3) like Vittorio De Sica’s Ladri di biciclette/Bicycle Thieves (1948) can seem as far away from a film like Paisà as the former is from Classical Hollywood cinema. Students of mine seeing De Sica’s film for the first time often make the point that the film’s style only seems different in degree, and not kind, from their experience of Hollywood. The same students tend to find Paisà a much more challenging viewing experience.

Paisà itself pushes the episodic tendencies of neo-realism to a logical conclusion, to the point that André Bazin compares it favourably to a collection of short stories (4). It consists of six distinct episodes, each set during the Allied liberation of Italy during World War II and ordered chronologically from the first landings in 1943 to just before the end of the Italian campaign in 1944. These segments are linked together by documentary footage from the campaign (often in such a way that the transition between the documentary and fictional footage is blurred), but the stories themselves are largely fictional (5) and narratively independent of each other. Stylistically, the film corresponds very closely to the “catechism” of neo-realism described above, and is indeed one of its paradigmatic expressions. It is also fair to say that these characteristics are sometimes overstated in critical responses to the film. Despite the fact that performers like Carmela Sazio in the first episode, and Cigiolani in the last are authentically non-professional actors, Rossellini’s claim that “Paisan is a film without actors in the proper sense of the word” (6) is clearly an exaggeration. Many of the American performers we see throughout the film were professional though largely unknown actors, and Federico Fellini (who worked as one of the film’s scriptwriters and assistant directors) has claimed that Rossellini was at one point hoping to attract Gregory Peck, Lana Turner and Paul Robeson to the film (7). Both studio work and “Hollywood style” flashbacks are deployed in the Rome episode, locations are “cheated” at several points (8), and for every moment of the film’s documentary verism there is another that smacks openly of melodrama. What this suggests to me is that although the “catechism” of neo-realism certainly plays a significant part in Rossellini’s approach to Paisà, none of these stylistic elements or devices are in themselves fundamental to it, and that the essence of his realism (neo or otherwise) lies elsewhere.

Indeed, the stylistic characterisation of neo-realism is only one part of the story and can be at least partly accounted for in pragmatic terms. With the bombing of the Cinecittà studios and the collapse of the Italian economy, film production studios, facilities, funds, equipment and stock simply became hard to come by. From this perspective, the semi-documentary aesthetic strategies of neo-realism are at least partly a practical response to the collapse of the Italian studio system – films could simply no longer be made as they had been. The other side of the neo-realist equation lies in the moral and political charge it gives to these aesthetic strategies. The relation between art and reality implied in the term “neo-realism” necessarily carries with it a such a charge, since any art that lays claim to the reality of the world also lays claim also to the reality of suffering in that world. In the context of mid- to late 1940s Italy, that suffering, and the politics that surrounded it, were tied intimately to the economic, social and moral turmoil left in the aftermath of decades of fascism, the destruction and confusion of the war and of the liberation. For many Italian critics of the time (especially those from the left,) neo-realism had a specific political and moral task in revealing the suffering of the country itself in all its complexity (implied by its status as one of the longest standing fascist regimes, which nevertheless also overthrew fascism from within, and that was both the enemy of the allies and was liberated by them). The films’ focus on the suffering of the people in the present – what Bazin calls neo-realism’s “revolutionary humanism” – was seen as marking a genuine break with the lies and delusions of the past. In other words, the realism of neo-realism – its reflection of the suffering of the present – also became tied to the rejection of the fascist politics of the past that had led to that present. This conflation of the moral and the political with the stylistic and narrative strategies of the films has given the critical discussion of them a (for want of a better word) partisan charge that has sometimes muddied the critical waters surrounding Paisà and its place within Rossellini’s filmography. Paisà’s impersonal, almost sociological analysis of the political conflicts, betrayals and suffering on all sides of the liberation does indeed mark such a break (9). However, it is precisely on these terms that Rossellini’s later work comes to be criticised, for abandoning neo-realism’s proper socio-political task for the “involution”, individualism and spiritualism of his later work. In other words, his work ceases to fulfill the moral calling implicit in neo-realism when it turns from the analysis of the forces of reality that cause the individual to suffer to the suffering of the individual in the face of the reality of the world.

In 1955, André Bazin, the great French critic and supporter of neo-realism wrote a letter to the Italian leftist critic Guido Aristarco, referring to the latter’s criticisms of Rossellini, that expressed his concern that

the severity displayed by Cinema Nuovo [the film journal Aristarco wrote for and founded] towards certain tendencies which you describe as involutions of neo-realism makes me fear that you are hacking away without realising it, at the richest and most alive part of your cinema[…] neo-realism is opposed to the realist aesthetics that preceded it, and specifically naturalism and verism, in that its realism is directed not at the choice of subject matter but at the process of awareness. If you like, what is realist in Paisà is the Italian resistance; but what is neo-realist is Rossellini’s mise en scène and his elliptical and at the same time synthesising presentation of events. (10)

In other words, the realism of neo-realism does not lie in is capacity to represent the real, to represent it on screen transparently and recognisably – that would be mere naturalism and verism, in other words, precisely the illusionism that neo-realism turns against. At stake here is the question of what realism should or can be within the cinema.

One of the things that can surprise the viewer who has read about but not seen Paisà before (and the reason students often find it more challenging than the more classical unities of Ladri di biciclette), is how patchy, clunky and occasionally downright grating in look, style and performance it can seem. The editing is often abrupt and jagged, the acting uneven, and the mix of performance styles amongst various actors sometimes abrasive (which is itself partly a function of the mix of professionals and non-professionals.) The tone of the episodes themselves varies from tragic to comedic to melodramatic, from sentimentality to brutality. Causality and consequence are sketchy at best, and other than the historical timeline the film occupies, there is little to give the film narrative or thematic coherence or unity. Indeed, for a work vaunted for its “(neo-)realism”, much of Paisà’s aesthetic surface seems to drive the viewer away from an immersion in its world. In other words, whatever the film’s realism consists of, it is emphatically not a form of naturalism or illusionism. It seems to me that what Bazin is trying to point Aristarco towards is the recognition that realism in art (and in cinema) can never be based on its capacity to represent reality directly, and that the more it appears to do so, the greater the falsity, the illusion, its verism entails. True realism would lie not so much in what there is of reality there on screen (“the Italian resistance”), but rather in the nature of the relationship it offers to the world it presents before us (“Rossellini’s mise en scène and his elliptical and at the same time synthesising presentation of events”).

Gilles Deleuze has said of Bazin that,

Against those who defined Italian neo-realism by its social content, Bazin put forward the fundamental requirement of formal aesthetic criteria. According to him, it was a matter of a new form of reality, said to be dispersive, elliptical, errant or wavering, working in blocs, with deliberately weak connections and floating events. The real was no longer represented or reproduced, but aimed at. (11)

Thus, what characterises neo-realism lies not in what it shows us, but how it shows it, or more precisely, at the level of story it tells us of and about the world and the things within it. In 1948, writing on neo-realism and in response to Paisà in particular, Bazin wrote that the films of neo-realism “never forget that the world is, quite simply, before it is something to be condemned” (12). That is to say, whatever we take or make the world to mean, however we explain or condemn the state of things to ourselves and to each other, before the meanings we attribute to it or the judgments we make about it, the world simply is. A properly human sense of justice requires that the world make sense, that the balance of suffering and joy be at least explicable, if not justifiable; but although we exist in the world, it does not exist for us. The realism Bazin characterises as verism or naturalism makes of the world a story that makes sense, but as he says, “Facts are facts, our imagination makes use of them, but they do not exist inherently for this purpose” (13). To make sense of the world, to tell stories about it that hold it together, is a human necessity, but the facts of the world are neither human nor humane, and constitute nothing but themselves. Thus a true realism in the cinema would consist not of the reproduction of a pre-existing world, but rather the recognition that “the world” itself – understood as something we can grasp or master – is a fiction we impose on and against the real.

This, I think, is the new-realism, the neo-realism Rossellini offers to us in Paisà. Its brusque, stories and their offhand endings, the weakness of its causality and psychology, the incompleteness of its context and consequence, the fragmentary markers of motivation, and the consistent failure of communication (which offers its only thematic unity) are constitutive of both the realism and the humanism conventionally attributed to neo-realism – though not in the form they are usually conceived. Paisà’s realism consists in reflecting the unbridgeable gap between humanity and the real; its humanism in recognising and displaying the suffering this gap condemns humanity to. If, as Rossellini says, he hates “beautiful shots”, it is because they turn the facts of the world into a source of comfort or pleasure or comprehension for us, in a way that denies the impassive fact of the world itself. Returning, finally, to the tension from which I started, between the realism attributed to Paisà and the characterisation of Rossellini-the-auteur as a fundamentally spiritual, mystical, or perhaps even metaphysical filmmaker, I would argue that his realism and his metaphysical tendencies are one and the same. His realism is a properly metaphysical realism (the only plausible realism art can lay claim to) – one in which reality is, and can only be, something we can grasp in a moment of revelation, of suffering, of doubt, when our stories fail us and the world reveals itself to us in the impassive fact of its own existence.

This leads us to the ending of the final episode of Paisà. After betrayal and abandonment, after the slaughter of innocents, after the final loss and surrender to the Nazis, after the partisans and their allied compatriots are killed to the last one, a final “voice of God” narration is heard: “This happened in the winter of 1944. At the beginning of spring, the war was over.”


  1. Roberto Rossellini, “Ten Years of Cinema”, My Method: Writings and Interviews, ed. Adriano Aprà, Marsilio, New York, 1995, p. 63.
  2. David Forgacs, “Introduction: Rossellini and the Critics”, Roberto Rossellini: Magician of the Real, ed. David Forgacs, Sarah Lutton, and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, BFI, London, 2000, p. 3.
  3. The description is Bazin’s. Quoted in Christopher Wagstaff, Italian Neorealist Cinema: An Aesthetic Approach, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2007, p. 331.
  4. André Bazin, “An Aesthetic of Reality: Neorealism”, What Is Cinema? Volume II, trans. Hugh Gray, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1971, p. 34.
  5. However, Rossellini’s fluid and spontaneous approach to scripting and shooting meant that he was able to respond to and incorporate the real experiences of his non-professional actors into the fiction of the film – as for example in the final episode, in relation to Cigolani’s experiences as an actual partisan leader.
  6. Georges Sadoul, “A Great Italian Filmmaker: Roberto Rossellini,” My Method: Writings and Interviews, p. 19.
  7. According to Peter Bondanella, Fellini, who worked on the film, “has often recounted the amusing story of how [co-producer] Rod Geiger promised Rossellini a number of major Hollywood stars, including Gregory Peck, Lana Turner, and Paul Robeson, only to disappoint him when he arrived in Naples with a series of unknowns in tow”. Peter Bonadella, The Films of Roberto Rossellini, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1993, pp. 67-68.
  8. For example the Monks who are located in north-central Italy in the film are in reality from the south. See Peter Brunette, Roberto Rossellini, Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford, 1987, p. 62.
  9. Think, for example, of the treatment of the British officers enjoying the cultural joys of Florence through their binoculars, while the partisans fight it out on the streets with the fascists; or the complexity of the political undercurrents found in the interactions between the newly (and not all happily) liberated Sicilian townsfolk and the recently landed US soldiers.
  10. André Bazin, “Andre Bazin: Defence of Rossellini (1955),” Roberto Rossellini: Magician of the Real, pp. 157-59.
  11. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1989, p. 1.
  12. Bazin, “An Aesthetic of Reality: Neorealism”, p. 21.
  13. Bazin, “An Aesthetic of Reality: Neorealism”, p. 35.

About The Author

Allan James Thomas teaches Documentary Film Theory and Digital Media at RMIT University, and is currently completing a PhD at La Trobe University on the non-significational content of film, focusing mainly on the writing of Gilles Delueze.