STUDIO: Lions Gate
MSRP: $29.98
RATED: Not rated
RUNNING TIME: 225 minutes
• “Also from Lions Gate” trailers
• Scene selection and subtitles, oh yeah.

He was Ingrid Bergman’s lover, Isabella Rossellini’s father, and an inspiration to directors from Truffaut to Scorsese. In the 40’s and 50’s, the great Italian filmmaker Roberto Rossellini (“Bob Ross” for short) pioneered a new way of shooting, in real locations with real (non-actor) people, that laid the groundwork for future movements such as the French New Wave. This release collects two of his later, heretofore hardest-to-find films on two DVDs, and one of them is really good.

Dov’è la libertà…? (1954)

The Pitch

Life is a lot like prison, but with the added elements of women, freedom, and other treacheries.

The Humans

Totò. Vera Molinar. Nita Dover. Franca Faldini. Giacomo Rondinella.

The Nutshell

Salvatore Loiacono (Totò) is imprisoned for murder, and he’s never been happier. His small cellblock is populated with honorable, amiable men who help each other out at every opportunity. Loiacono, a barber, enjoys a never-ending supply of customers, and while they sit in his chair or wait in line the comrades help each other write letters and plan lives. Unfortunately, all this good behavior contributes to Loiacono’s early release, into a world that’s passed him by, a world that’s already driven him to murder once. This time he’s better equipped to see how bad things really are.

Amy Acker defends her new hairstyle.

The Lowdown

Totò was known chiefly for his comedic acting, and while he often stops to make little jokes in this film, there’s nothing halting the character’s descent into despair. As with Bill Murray or Jim Carrey after him, the comic makes a strong transition into a sullen role, and his flashes of wacky exuberance only highlight his otherwise encompassing sadness. Strangely enough, Libertà was made in a joyous period of the actor’s life; later that year he would lose his infant son and almost lose his wife (Faldini, who appears in this film) in childbirth, but during filming the man was in love, with no worries.

The entire idea of the story is about as pessimistic as you can get. The world is shit, sure, but it’s worse than that. For one thing, people who were great in prison immediately revert to degeneracy once released. Loiacono meets an old friend and does his business a favor before realizing that business is money laundering. Those who never went to prison are even worse, especially the women, who seemed so perfect in Loiacono’s imagination yet in practice prove as petty as anyone. Finally, to get back to the one good place he’s ever known, Loiacono has to do something criminal.

San Francisco, Summer 2008…
Ghost of DJ Skribble Future: “I’m just saying, perhaps a change would do you good, Mr. Phoenix.”

The film’s biggest problem is its unnecessary flashback structure. Loiacono’s final, desperate move is to return to his cell and hope no one notices, and the movie begins with him on trial for this crime. The judge asks him to explain why he wanted back in, and Loiacono’s testimony acts as a framing device for the various episodes. Unfortunately, that means every time we see something happen, we then jump to the “present” and join the court in hearing what happened and what it means. Perhaps Rossellini thought this would prevent the story from being overwhelmingly sad – we know Loiacono at least survives – but it ends up making things too obvious. (Although there is one funny payoff, at the end, to a running joke involving the public defender assigned to the case.)

Aside from those complaints, I really liked this movie. At first it seems like a half-hearted attempt at comedy from a story that should be much darker, but by the end the combination works. The humor allows the story to go over-the-top when it needs to make a point, and the movie doesn’t waste these moments. There’s really no better way to show how hopeless society is than in a joke; you’re allowed to be completely ruthless, as long as you do it with a smile.

Dov’è la libertà…?: 8.8 out of 10

Era notte a Roma (1960)

The Pitch

In Esperia’s house, hiding from Nazi troops is an activity that brings out solidarity and brotherhood in everyone. Even the weird Russian guy.

The Humans

Leo Genn. Giovanna Ralli. Sergei Bondarchuk. Peter Baldwin. Renato Balducci.

The Nutshell

An American (Baldwin), an Englishman (Genn), and a Russian (Bondarchuk) met in a prisoner-of-war camp, from which they escaped together and now make their way across Italy, surviving on the hospitality of peasants who probably don’t even support their side and who definitely would be killed for harboring them. Things slow down when the guys temporarily settle in the attic of Esperia (Ralli), a black market entrepreneur who poses as a nun to get around checkpoints and curfews. Esperia, her fiancé – Renato (Balducci), a resistance bomb-maker with a Ricky Ricardo temperament –  and the three soldiers warm up to each other and become a makeshift family, before the inevitable happens and they all have to run from Nazis.

Question: Why are these men so excited?
Answer: They thought they were signing up for Era notte a Roma Maffia.

The Lowdown

It’s cool to see a movie where almost every character speaks a different language. Italian and German fill the streets of occupied Rome, to which our three protagonists add Russian, American English, British English, and butchered Italian. The Brit, Michael, even tries Latin, in hopes of finding a better means of communication. It doesn’t work, but as the film goes on he makes convenient strides toward speaking better Italian. Peter, the American, talks mostly through Michael, and poor Russian Fyodor may as well be a deaf-mute.

Fyodor gets the short shrift in other ways, as well – as do most of the characters, while the film makes it way to focusing almost solely on Michael and Esperia. That’s a shame, because although those two characters are serviceably written and performed, it’s the outsiders who bring life to the proceedings. Peter, the young American pilot, is the only one without crucial survival skills for their escape, but he’s such a naturally funny person, which is just what this group – not to mention the audience – needs. Various evil collaborators from the village begin to show entertaining personalities before getting dispatched in one way or another. (One of these dispatchments, I have to admit, is hilariously entertaining, like a similar piece of violence in a Martin McDonagh play.)

Overall – and bear in mind that I don’t know what I’m talking about here – Roma feels like a good film hampered by a shoehorned love story, probably rewritten either on set or in the editing room. There are wonky scene transitions and plot elements that go nowhere, and even though each of these scenes or elements is solid by itself, they add up to create a sloppy, overlong second half that probably ends how it shouldn’t. Like I said, everything is good, especially the supporting actors, but while watching the film you’ll spend a fair chunk of the time noticing things that could have been better.

Era notte a Roma: 6.8 out of 10

“…and that’s what the Harlot Gremlin did unto Robert Picardo in the men’s room. Keep the effect of this good lesson as watchman to your hearts, dear Sisters.”

The Package

I love it when the cardboard sleeve is different from the DVD case within and therefore slightly better than useless. Here, the outer covering contains an image of Rossellini, synopses of the two films, and info on running time, etc., while the actual case just shows some screengrabs. It’s all very classy and nice in black-and-white, but who cares.

When it comes to special features, the set has what we in the business call “not a son of a fucking thing.” There’s scene selection and subtitles, but they are not special. There are some trailers, but goddammit. Big disappointment in the extras area. It’s not as though you can get the films elsewhere with anything more, however.

Overall: 7.9 out of 10