Film of the Week: Paisan

Here, Rossellini provides a multifaceted outlook of World War II on Italy and its subsequent aftereffects. We have the tragedy of orphaned children, lost lovers, and lost comrades. We also have the joy that can be brought by the spontaneity of the everyday as in the relationship between Joe and Pasquale in episode two. Rossellini’s camera which captures the streets in their entirety suggests that the stories which we see unfolding are just one of many. The background actors are comprised of people with their own unfolding narratives evinced by their actions or at times just a few lines—episode four’s dying soldier who worries that his family will never know what became of him and uses his last breath to reveal not only the fate of Lupo but also what seemed to be their own close friendship: “You’ll never yell at me again. We’re in the same boat now!” The camera too also shows us what becomes of a city and its inhabitants under the dire stress of war.  Rooftops become the favored way for traversal due to the danger of crossfire down below. Doors have been blown away and so now keys are useless. Rest is no longer found in just beds but virtually wherever one can find a place to sleep, including a mound of rubble or the outskirts of a marsh.  The battle between the Axis and the Allies fundamentally changes the semiotics of the city, thus leading to new ways of living. It is this discovery which shocks the Joe of episode two who flees in response to the horror. And speaking of horrors, it is how Rossellini renders the Axis powers nearly invisible that make them so terrifying. Enemy soldiers are present throughout the film and on camera certainly, but it’s their unseen yet hinted presence that raises anxiety. Think of the snipers, guards on patrol around the corner, or even the cause for the abandoned streets. Rossellini’s Nazis are ruthless, killing POWS, threatening to rape Carmela, and keeping Italy within a grip of fear. It is not that Paisan is without humor or joy, but that Rossellini’s use of multiple episodes allows him to look at the war from all angles.

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