Joshua Reviews Roberto Rossellini’s General Della Rovere [Blu-ray Review]

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As we near the conclusion of 2013, and thus begin taking a look at the big names from the year now nearly completed, very few filmmakers have seen a resurgence of interest in their canon as big as we’ve seen this year for director Roberto Rossellini. With various tours of his legendary filmography, and even a much talked about and utterly thrilling box set of three of his greatest films from The Criterion Collection just a few months back, it looks as though the re-evaluation of his canon isn’t quite over yet this year.

Raro Video, taking a title out of the ranks of the previously mentioned Criterion Collection, has released a new Blu-ray of (the now out of print former Criterion title) General Della Rovere, and while the film may be, and rightly so, seen as a second tier picture and a decidedly different change of pace for a director of such brazen neo-realist pictures as Paisan, it is not only a deeply powerful look at a man finding his conscience, but a genuinely powerful piece of craftsmanship from a legendary artist.

General follows a storyline that one finds deeply entrenched within the canon of Rossellini. Ostensibly a film about a man finding freedom through emotional struggle (look at the female version in a film like Europe ’51), but instead of seeing a star like Ingrid Bergman going through an emotional hell to find her soul, it’s world cinema icon Vittorio de Sica. De Sica stars here as our lead, based on a man named Emanuele Bardon, who is ostensibly a black market scoundrel with a penchant for leading on those on the hunt for lost loved ones during WWII, simply for monetary gain. Turned over by his wife and forced to become a spy in a prison for German military man Colonel Mueller, by taking on the name of General della Rovere, only to become friends with the Italian revolutionaries he has been tasked with bringing to “justice.” A breathtaking, if slightly preachy, look at a man discovering his heart and soul, General della Rovere is an award winning drama that is admittedly second tier Rossellini, but stands as a beautifully dense and emotionally powerful piece of pure cinematic drama.

Cinematically, this film is rather stunning. With much of the film’s back half taking place in a breathlessly shot prison, the film’s black and white photography is stunning, stark and ultimately deeply powerful. The prison sequences are spacious and uncompromising, with the negative space in some of these large hallways becoming almost oppressive. The bombed out locales that the film’s beginning sequences call home are equally unforgettable, and there is a fluidity to Rossellini’s camera here (he began testing a new zoom lens he would go on to use in the forthcoming years for much of his TV and documentary work) that turns the film into an expressive bit of drama less interested in evoking realism than it is emotional resonance.

And thankfully, the lead performance it gets out of the legendary Vittorio de Sica is a perfect canvas for this narrative to play out through. Going through a deeply resonant arch similar to those one would find throughout Rossellini’s filmography, de Sica adds a level of gravitas to the performance that turns the picture into something truly powerful. Every bit of growth you see in this character plays out almost entirely on de Sica’s expressive face, and when opposite an actor like Hannes Messemer (who plays Colonel Mueller) de Sica’s lead truly comes alive. Messemer steals every scene he’s a part of here, playing a deliciously evil Nazi leader, and again, a perfect bit of opposition to a man slowly finding the heart he seemed to have had no interest in previously.

And this Blu-ray is rightly breathtaking. With a new HD transfer from a 35mm restoration, the film looks and sounds absolutely superb. The 16:9 Pillarboxed aspect ratio is a tad odd on first glance, but the black and white photography is gorgeous, and the Renzo Rossellini score sounds great.  Supplement wise, the film comes with lengthy interviews with Renzo Rossellini and scholar Adriano Apra, as well as a shorter chat with Aldo Strappini. Toss in a trailer and a visual essay entitled Truth Of Fiction, and you have a release that is oddly dense, and wonderfully put together. The packaging is a bit flimsy, but the booklet include here is interesting, and when compared to the Criterion Collection DVD, it’s up to par. The Tag Gallagher video essay is sadly not found here, but with both the theatrical and director’s cut version of the film, this release is truly something rather superb, and a worthy inclusion in any cinephile’s Blu-ray collection.

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