Monday, November 03, 2008

The Rossellini Corrective

The work of Roberto Rossellini has been vastly underrepresented not only on DVD but going back years into the VHS market. While many important filmmakers are unjustly relegated to obscurity on DVD, Rossellini perhaps ranks among the most notable when you consider the quantity and significance of his output, as well as his influence upon the original Cahiers du cinéma writers.

Since the early days of DVD here in the U.S., only Rome: Open City (1943), in what I remember as a fairly poor DVD, and much later, the in-and-out-of-print Germany Year Zero (1948) (it's out of print now, although Netflix seems to have it) have been available. These are landmarks from his first prominent period as a leading filmmaker of the Italian Neorealist movement. Then came the first baby step in expanding beyond these two meager releases when Criterion released the transcendent The Flowers of St. Francis (1950). Now it seems a corrective to Rossellini's DVD availability is finally coming to fruition.

First up, from the previously spotlighted Lionsgate, is Roberto Rossellini: Director's Series, which packages together Dov'è la libertà...? (Where Is Freedom?) (1954) and Era notte a Roma (Escape by Night) (1960). The quality of the set gets a less than enthusiastic review from DVD Beaver here, but I am still encouraged that these films are seeing the light of day at all. (Let me know if there was a prior VHS release I missed.)

Far more significant is the commitment Criterion is making with their upcoming releases of The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (1966) and, via their Eclipse label, a box set of The Age of the Medici (1973), Blaise Pascal (1972), and Cartesius (1974). You can find the Eclipse set here. What's especially noteworthy is these are from his potentially unmarketable educational television films period. The only place I've ever seen a copy of any of these films is at the heroic Cinefile Video in West Los Angeles, in VHS versions of questionable origin (I'm not sure if they were even unsubtitled).

It's quite a different proposition from releasing his more marketable works starring Ingrid Bergman (Stromboli (1950), Europa '51 (1952), Viaggio in Italia (1954)), or any of his other late '40s, early '50s work. At least those were available on VHS, but these TV films have not been available anywhere in the U.S. (with the exception of Louis XIV), and we're not just getting one but four complete films. Add to that the two Lionsgate films, and you have a fairly dramatic corrective to the previous unavailability of the film work of Roberto Rossellini.

I personally have had great curiosity about this exact period of Rossellini's work since reading the perhaps unhinged enthusiasm from Godard and the Cahiers du Cinéma critics in the '60s*. I can't write here anything to support the actual value or quality of these films myself, since I have not been allowed to see them until now. I will be diving in with enthusiasm as these sets are released. Come on, doesn't "Rossellini's dry, educational television period" spell excitement to you?! I know it does for me! (Difficult cinema is the greatest cinema!)

Now all we need to do is get all his more traditional landmarks released on DVD! In addition to the Bergman films and late-1940s Neorealist classics, the modernist landmark Viaggio in Italia (Voyage to Italy) (1954) desperately needs to be made available on DVD in the U.S. I am lucky enough to have a U.K. release and a region-free DVD player, but this film is as significant as any major Godard work or Last Year at Marienbad, and I'm probably understating its importance since it predates them. Hopefully the sales of these radically different TV films won't be so low as to sour future distributors on the prospect of releasing his more well-known international film classics. But for now I am thankful, and we should all get educated and watch these films.

*If my memory serves. They seemed to rave about all his different periods, so I may have mixed them up. In a quick search I did find Rossellini speaking highly of his goals in television in the translated pages of Cahiers du cinéma.

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