“Despite everything, I like you.” The likeable man in question is Victorio Bardone, a two-bit crook offering false hope to desperate people in wartime Rome. He is played with expert handling by Vittorio De Sica, who both acted in and directed important Italian Neo-Realist films. The film, Il Generale della Rovere marked a return to critical and box office success for director Roberto Rossellini.
Originally released in 1959, General della Rovere (or Il Generale Della Rovere in Italian) won the Golden Lion in Venice in that year, and was voted the Best Foreign Film by the New York Film Critics the following year, and is now being re-released on DVD. The film is near the end of the Nazi occupation of Italy during the Second World War. It is a film of two parts, the first section follows the genial Bardone as he swindles and gambles his way across Rome, after the Nazis catch up with his duplicity, the second part follows him in prison with orders to expose a leader of the resistance.
Bardone’s particular swindle is to offer to wangle the release of people who have been arrested by the Germans on behalf of their unfortunate relatives before frittering away the money they have given him to pay off the authorities. There is no doubt that he causes suffering and is a bad egg, but some how De Sica manages to keep our sympathies. His problem is that he is a gambler – something that De Sica knew a lot about as he spent much of his earnings on the gaming tables and claimed “I must act to pay my debts”. It is hard to entirely hate such a weak man, even if he is destructive.
The first half builds up the tension as Bardone does his best to juggle just a few too many balls at one time. Rossellini conjures high emotion as the criminal’s life inevitably heads towards the end of the track. Being the work of a master of Neo-Realism (like De Sica, Rossellini was a key figure in the movement), the background detail is well observed, specifically the privations and fear, injustice and mundane horror of the Nazi rule. Presumably this is helped by the fact that most of the crew had lived through the period.
Inside the gaol, Bardone has to impersonate General della Rovere, a general in the Italian resistance, in order to track down another partisan leader. This also gives him a chance to walk in the shoes of the unfortunates whose relatives he has been exploiting. As he is in kept in solitary confinement with has little opportunity to speak, De Sica must embody the change of heart that his character undergoes with subtle physical changes. The plot thickens when a second leader of the resistance is thrown into the prison.
General della Rovere manages to give us a glimpse of the meaning of moral courage, the meaning of duty and the powers of redemption, while never letting us get bored. De Sica’s magnetic anti-hero makes it difficult to look away and Rossellini’s supple direction never lets the film slack
The handsome Arrow Academy DVD issue of this film is a brand new transfer of the Venice Film Festival version of the film and comes with special filmed interviews with composer Renzo Rossellini and Italian film specialist Adriano Apra. A comprehensive booklet features essays including The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini: His Life and Films by Tag Gallagher and The Films of Roberto Rossellini by Peter Bondanella, as well a contemporary interview with director Roberto Rossellini.