(Don't be scared off by the drab cover art. The film is lighter, more fun and engaging than this serious-looking cover belies.)
Roberto Rossellini can be newly appreciated these days thanks to the appearance of a wide variety of his films on DVD—including several that I think were not available on VHS. He seems to have lagged behind other major directors in getting his work represented on DVD—and still many of his most significant works are not available. I find myself in the position of having neglected him in favor of other directors, such as those of the Nouvelle Vague and the other Italian directors.
One of the films that I can now evaluate is Il generale della Rovere from 1959. This film makes me question what is it that defines art? Because when I compare it to other films by Rossellini, it is much less "overtly artistic", and far more of a traditional narrative. Certainly there can be traditional narratives that are great works of art, but what is it that gives them that special ingredient that rises to the level of art? I am not attempting to answer the question here, just raising it, but I think it has something to do with the high level of craftsmanship of the writer and director primarily, and then I would compare it to what makes great novels rise to the level of art, even when they are traditional narratives, such as Madame Bovary or The Red and the Black. There is a long history of artists reaching a level of communication and beauty in their artistry in every medium, and why should cinema be any different? But it is interesting when you watch a director who is usually more overtly artistic make a film that is a traditional mainstream narrative.
I think here Rossellini shows, to my surprise and confusion, that he can ably direct a normal studio film. I just kept wondering why he was doing it. (You can find the backstory on how he came to direct the film elsewhere.) The subject matter is certainly above average, and from what I've read, was breaking some new ground in terms of representations of World War II subject matter for Italian audiences. It almost rises to the level of art, but I think because Rossellini is so comfortable in a different type of filmmaking (looser in his earlier days, more experimentally minimalist in his later days), the film does not rise to the high level of art one expects, as if he can't quite reach those heights when taking an approach to the medium that is not in his blood.
It should not be a surprise that he can direct a traditional studio narrative, since he directed several before, including Dov'è la Libertà...? in 1954. And if The White Ship, from 1942, is any indication, he was as much of a studio-trained insider as any of the other Italian directors of his generation. (This is another reason I find myself asking, since he already does know how to direct a traditional studio picture, why he made this film.) As studio-type pictures go, I enjoyed Rossellini's Dov'è la Libertà...? more than Il generale. For characters heading towards the gallows, Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux was far more moving. Chaplin from '47 is surely a far leap from an Italian film from '59, but certain parts where Verdoux is in his cell with his white hair and de Sica is in his cell with his white hair made it hard to suppress comparisons, despite the ridiculously different aims and subjects of the films! But they do both share what is intended as a powerfully moving ending in the same dramatic setting of a prison execution. Perhaps if I had not seen Verdoux, which I considered greatly moving, I would have been more moved by Il generale's ending. Il generale is also similar to other films that I had seen prior, such as Kurosawa's Kagemusha (1980), which was made later, but which I had seen first. (Credit to Isabella Rossellini for pointing out that connection in a video interview.)
I suppose by saying "less overtly artistic," I am comparing Il generale to Viaggio in Italia (1954) most of all. Unlike Godard, Rossellini doesn't call attention to the medium of film itself, so I think I was wrong when I said that earlier. But Viaggio in Italia has a very different feeling to it, one that dispenses with normal plot machinations in favor of the philosophical journey the characters are undergoing, and into which the inquisitive viewer gets deeply drawn and (hopefully) reciprocates with his or her own contemplation on the ideas presented and discussed by the characters. Il generale has entirely traditional plot machinations (not that Rossellini hasn't done this before more than once), but that doesn't mean I can just toss it away as worthless. What is it that can make it great cinema?
If it is reaching heights of poetry that make great cinema—even a dark poetry as is often the case with Rossellini—then Il generale is a lighter success than usual for him. Its ending is moving and perhaps poetic (or maybe one would just call it political or philosophical), but the ending of Germany Year Zero (1948) reaches a height that moves at least this viewer far more deeply. There's something about not fully understanding why a character does something (such as suicide to end that film) that begs to put it in the category of poetry, whereas a moving success of solid storytelling and performance seems to fit into a category more akin to that of great traditional literature or the dramatic arts. I think the difference is made when we fully understand the reasons for the character's heartbreaking demise all along, and we are gut-wrenchingly following them on their journey Those who are more artistically-minded instead tend to praise those films with a poetic angle, where things are only understood either through deeper contemplation, or from a realization of a non-literal reason, or a subtextual reason.
De Sica's own Umberto D. (1952)—let's categorize it as a traditional narrative—moves the viewer to tears with its bittersweet ending. But when a traditional narrative film is able to elicit an extreme height of emotion ,as Umberto does (sometimes this is subjective based on the viewer's state of mind upon entering the cinema), the intellectual/poetic viewer and the traditional narrative/dramatic emotional viewer may meet and enjoy the film at the same level. Perhaps the poetic-minded viewer feels the nuance of emotion has culminated to such a high level that it achieves poetry, and the dramatic emotional viewer is moved emotionally to the heights they demand in what they consider the greatest cinema. (There are probably stronger examples than Umberto D. but I'm blanking now in my haste to write.) But what if, even in Umberto D., there is something in the subtext that elicits that emotion from the poetic/intellectual viewer? I haven't seen it recently enough, so I wonder, because it is a slower film that I think allows time for contemplation of more subtextual issues than the normal traditional narrative film. Perhaps these two types of viewers are enthusiasts of the arts for different reasons, and never do meet. That might explain why some people can sit through the most horrible Hollywood weepy trash and think it is brilliant while others find it false and manipulative because there is no subtlety—only the overt contrived dramatic/emotional machinations draped over a paint-by-numbers traditional plot.
Back to this movie, one of the reasons Il generale della Rovere is worth watching and is an artistic success (if not a staggering one) is because of the very solid treatment of the lead character played by Vittorio de Sica. Both he, the writers, and the director have created a very compelling character, one whose progress we become deeply interested in, and whose transformation at the end is invigorating. We are so deeply pulled into this character's world and he is such a realistic concoction that our interest is completely captured. A comparison to Umberto D. in that regard is not unfounded. After this, I look forward to the drier experimental historical films of Rossellini (experimental in their matter-of-factness of presentation I have heard?) which luckily are also available on DVD, even if his other great works such as Viaggio in Italia, Paisan, Europa '51 and many others still aren't.