Il Generale Della Rovere Review

Il Generale Della Rovere is based on a true story. During the Italian Occupation in World War II, Giovanni Bertont had made a living by swindling relatives of families of people arrested by the Germans, by pretending to sell information to them. Bertont was then himself arrested and imprisoned. In return for his life, the Gestapo coerce him to impersonate General Della Rovere, a partisan leader who had in reality just been shot, in order to discover the identity of another partisan leader.

The scriptwriter Sergio Amidei read this story in a four-page article by Indro Montanelli, and brought it to Roberto Rossellini's attention. By this time, Rossellini's reputation was at a low ebb. His neorealist classics of the 1940s seemed far away. His affair with Ingrid Bergman (while both were married to others), later marriage, had caused a scandal, as had his later affair (which also resulted in marriage) to Indian screenwriter Sonali Das Gupta. He approached Il Generale Della Rovere as a more commercial project than he had taken on before. The film was shot in thirty-three days, and edited in ten, coming in under budget. It won the Golden Lion at the 1959 Venice Film Festival and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Screenplay (by Amidei, Diego Fabbri and Montanelli) and was a box office success.

In the central role, renamed Victorio Emmanuele Bardone for the film, Rossellini cast Vittorio De Sica. The first choice had been Lino Ventura, but although he was a star in France (the film was a French-Italian coproduction) he was unknown in Italy. De Sica, born in 1901 and five years older than Rossellini, was himself a director of neorealist classics (beginning with Bicycle Thieves) but had been at least as well known to the general public as an actor from the 1930s onwards, gives a shabby elegance to the role. Some aspects of De Sica's personality, for example his love of gambling, are incorporated into the character. In the film's first half, before he is arrested, Bardone is established as a petty conman, but De Sica gives him a charm and charisma so that you can see how he would get away with this. (As an actor, De Sica had often played a ladies' man, and even in middle age with grey hair you can see that attractiveness.). In the second half, almost all set in Milan's San Vittore Prison, his collaboration with the Gestapo is the making of him, and his redemption is based on a falsehood. The SS Colonel who initiates the deception, Müller (Hannes Messemer) is humanised more than the “enemy” in war films often is. Il Generale Della Rovere is inextricably ironic, and shot through with shades of grey – quite something for subject matter only a decade and a half old at the time of the film's making, and certainly still fresh in many people's minds.

Although it uses archive footage, Rossellini's treatment is a long way from the neorealism of, say, Rome Open City. Most of the film was shot on studio sets at Cinecitta and he had a professional actor (De Sica) in the lead. Rossellini shoots many scenes in single takes, and also made use of a zoom lens, which he operated via remote control, a device of his own invention. It's a lengthy film, but not an overlong one.

Where Il Generale Della Rovere stands in Rossellini's career is a matter of continuing debate. For some, it goes against the principles of his earlier work – the real locations and non-professional cast of his early “trilogy” Rome Open City, Paisà and Germany Year Zero. Others find it hollow compared to Voyage in Italy, which he made with Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders, and which was immediately hailed as a masterpiece by many critics (and I wouldn't disagree). But in its own right, Il Generale Della Rovere is an engaging film – particularly for those with a good sense of irony – and a fascinating stage in the development of a major director, with a compelling performance in the lead role by De Sica. So full marks to Arrow for making it available on DVD.

The Disc

Arrow's release of Il Generale Della Rovere is a dual-layered DVD encoded for Region 2 only. This is the 138-minute (133:46 with PAL speed-up) version of the film that played at the Venice Film Festival. For general release, Il Generale Della Rovere was cut by six minutes, and that was the version (131:27 to be precise) passed by the BBFC with an A certificate in 1961. Some “moderate violence” (such as the aftermath of torture) gives the film a 12 certificate by the standards of a half-century later.

As you watch the film, you may notice something odd: it is spread over two titles (3 and 5), running 69:09 and 64:37. There's a short pause in between – rather like the layer changes of old – and your player's timer resets to zero and starts again.

The DVD transfer is in 4:3, without anamorphic enhancement. Academy Ratio had pretty much gone from the American commercial cinema by 1959, but while Europe was certainly using wider ratios by then (for example, the previous year's Lift to the Scaffold, in 1.66:1), films in Academy Ratio were still being made. (Another example from 1959 is Hiroshima mon amour.) The IMDB says that Il Generale Della Rovere is in 1.66:1, but I'm not convinced. You could probably show the film in that ratio without much damage, but 1.37:1 seems correct to these eyes. It's certainly a very good transfer: sharp, with good blacks and the greyscale so important to a black and white film is in place. Grain looks natural and filmlike.

The soundtrack is mono. Like almost all Italian films of the time, Il Generale Della Rovere was postsynchronised, so there are minor lipsynch issues here and there. But the soundtrack itself sounds fine, with dialogue (mostly Italian, some German) and music and sound effects well balanced. English subtitles are optional.

The on-disc extras comprise two interviews. The first is with the director's son Renzo Rossellini (30:27), who (aged eighteen) served as his father's assistant, wrote the music score and who also shot some second-unit work. The interview is conducted by Adriano Apra, but his questions are edited out. Text questions are followed by Rossellini talking to camera. He goes through the production from its inception to its reception at Venice, describing his father's approach to screenwriting (essentially a dialogue between the contrasting personalities of Amidei and Fabbri) and to shooting, including the input of DP Carlo Carlini. Apra himself talks to camera for the second interview (37:15), going into considerable detail about the differences between the Venice cut of the film included on this DVD and the six-minutes-shorter release cut, showing the relevant sequences of each version.

Also included is a twenty-eight page booklet. This contains a five-page essay by Tag Gallagher, which describes the circumstances of the film's making, though ultimately he rates it as a lesser work. “Il Generale Della Rovere. Commercial Success and a Reconstruction of Neorealism” by Peter Bondanella, on the other hand, sees the film as pivotal in its introduction of irony and tragicomic elements into material previously dealt with in high seriousness, and as an example followed by a later generation of Italian filmmakers. Finally, there is an interview with Rossellini by Jean Douchet from 1959. The booklet also contains a number of stills.

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