Christmas Lockdown in the Eternal City

An alternate release poster for the Roberto Rossellini film ERA NOTTE A ROMA (1960)

Available for years in inferior public domain prints and poor video transfers, Robert Rossellini’s influential WW2 trilogy [Rome Open City (1945), Paisan (1946) and German Year Zero (1949)], which firmly established him as the “father of Neorealism”, finally received 4K high-definition digital transfers from The Criterion Collection in 2017. Linked thematically to this trilogy, however, is a later Rossellini film, Era Notte a Roma [English title, Escape by Night aka Blackout in Rome,1960), which, unfortunately, has never enjoyed the reputation or respect of this seminal trilogy. I first saw a 16mm print of the film from Films Inc. years ago when it still licensed titles from The Audio Brandon Collection. I had a chance to revisit Era Notte a Roma again recently on DVD and am still baffled by the movie’s low profile since its original release.

The Italian film poster for ERA NOTTE A ROMA aka Escape by Night (1960)

In some ways, Era Notte a Roma could be classified as a Christmas film since it takes place a few days before December 25th and juxtaposes such virtues as faith, hope, charity, and all the human generosity we associate with the hallowed holiday against death, destruction and despair. While the film is too grounded in reality to be an allegory, it does weave a complex web of human interactions and emotions which becomes much richer as it progresses and breaks out of its seemingly conventional narrative structure.

Three anti-German allies who have escaped the Nazis find refuge briefly in the Eternal City in Roberto Rossellini’s ERA NOTTE A ROMA (1960). The actors are (left to right) Leo Genn, Sergei Bondarchuk and Peter Baldwin).

Set toward the end of the Allied Campaign in Italy prior to battle of Anzio, the movie is told as one complete flashback by the narrator, Major Pembleton (Leo Genn), a British major, who has escaped from a German concentration camp with a wounded American soldier, Peter Bradley (Peter Baldwin), and Russian officer Fyodor Nazukov (Sergei Bondarchuk). The three men are hiding out in a rural village when a trio of nuns from Rome arrive to bargain with the villagers for food, wine and supplies. The nuns turn out to be black marketeers and one of them, Esperia (Giovanna Ralli), agrees to smuggle the escaped prisoners to Rome in exchange for better exchange rates on her goods.

Esperia (Giovanni Ralli, left) and Teresa (Laura Betti) are black marketeers disguised as nuns in Roberto Rossellini’s ERA NOTTE A ROMA (1960).

Once they get to the city, Esperia plans to let them stay in her attic for one night and then send them out on the streets to fend for themselves. But her scheme is foiled due to complications: the American has a serious leg injury and can’t be moved without endangering his life so a local doctor, Dr. Costanzi (Enrico Maria Salerno), who is also a secret Resistance worker, is called in to treat Bradley. While the soldier recovers and his companions get restless, the risks increase for Esperia and her fiance Renato (Renato Salvatori), both of whom realize they will face the firing squad if the Germans discover them. And there are numerous threats to their safety from the suspicious doorman to Tarcisio (George Petrarca), a crippled ex-priest turned Nazi informer, to careless actions by the three escaped prisoners and their hosts.

Tarcisio (George Petraca) is a treacherous presence at the residence of Esperia (Giovanni Ralli) in the WW2 drama ERA NOTTE A ROMA (1960).

Yet this is all just the first half of Era Notte a Roma which bears some similarities to the highly dramatic setup of The Diary of Anne Frank where all of the principal characters are shut up in claustrophobic conditions for an undetermined period of time with the threat of capture always in the air. Adding additional frustration to the situation is a language barrier where neither the escaped men or their hosts can communicate effectively, except through gestures or pathetic attempts at each other’s language. The second half of the movie, when the trio goes their separate ways, alternates the focus between Esperia and Major Pembleton, who remains in hiding in Rome.

British actor Leo Genn (left) visits a priest and decides to remain hiding in the Eternal City after his fellow allies flee in the WW2 drama ERA NOTTE A ROMA (1960).

If the second half of Era Notte a Roma lacks the suspense and emotional power of the first half, it also departs from the formulaic expectations of a war drama or man-on-the-run thriller and becomes something more moving and tragic by its fade out. Cliches and stereotypes are constantly being served up and exploded in ways that make you constantly re-evaluate each scene or human interaction. Identities shift also constantly: nuns can be black market traffickers, escaped prisoners can pass as priests in a Vatican seminary, acknowledged Fascist sympathizers can be underground allies of the enemy and vice versa.

Esperia (Giovanni Ralli, center) works in the black market but poses as a nun to acquire goods in the 1960 WW2 drama ERA NOTTE A ROMA, directed by Roberto Rossellini.

Rossellini’s film is no paean to the Resistance either which often seems ineffective and powerless against the Nazis’ control of the city. If the Italians are not always depicted in a very favorable light – most of them seem completely mercenary in their behavior and are constantly bickering and in disagreement with each other – a few of them, such as Esperia, become inadvertent heroes due to their own stubborn behavior. In the end it is Esperia who suffers the most and pays the highest price for her actions – all of which could have been avoided if she had not been so enterprising in her black market activities.

Fyodor (Sergei Bondarchuk, left), Michael (Leo Genn), Renato (Renato Salvatori) and Esperia (Giovanni Ralli) are fearful of being discovering by Nazi soldiers in ERA NOTTE A ROMA (1960).

Even the German officer, Colonel Von Kleist (Hannes Messemer), who regularly patrols the neighborhood with his armed men, is not your typical Nazi villain. Instead, he is depicted as a homesick aesthete who feels a class bond with the aristocratic Italian family who live next door to Esperia and appears to prefer their company to that of his fellow officers. For me, Era Notte a Roma is a moving summation of various themes Rossellini had expressed through his cinema prior to this – “moral fortitude and religious faith in Rome Open City, language and communication in Paisan, innocence and guilt in Germany Year Zero; courage in General Della Rovere” as cited by the Audio Brandon Films 16mm International Cinema catalog.

Renato (Renato Salvatori) comforts his girlfriend Esperia (Giovanni Ralli) for hiding escaped allied soldiers from the Nazis in ERA NOTTE A ROMA (1960).

This 1960 movie was made during a transitory time in Rossellini’s career. He had left Ingrid Bergman and recently returned to Italy after a brief interlude in India involving another romantic scandal with a married woman (who later became his third wife) while working on one of his lesser-known projects, the documentary India: Matri Bhumi (1959). He had also just completed Generale Della Rovere, which was a critical and commercial success in Italy and seemed to confirm that the public still wanted to see movies about the Occupation period. Era Notte a Roma continued that theme and was, in some ways, a purely commercial consideration for Rossellini. In comparision to the stark, documentary-like style of Rome Open City or Paisan with their casts of mostly non-professional actors, this film featured a prominent international cast and a dramatic structure that felt more scripted and less raw than his war trilogy.

Renato (Renato Salvatori, second from right) has some bad news for the escaped allies he is hiding with his girlfriend Esperia (Giovanni Ralli) in ERA NOTTE A ROMA (1960).

Despite the fact that Era Notte a Roma won a special jury prize at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (in the Czech Republic) and that Giovanna Ralli received the Best Actress award at the San Francisco International Film Festival, the film was not well received by many Italian critics at the time. Many dismissed it as an opportunistic and unoriginal attempt to recapture the acclaim and success of Rome Open City by returning to the same subject. The film critic of Cinema Nuova, a communist newspaper, wrote “The populist solidarity that chorally animated Roma citta aperta has been transformed into pop cliché.” Another reviewer called it “mere retrogression,” adding “Dignified and clean, of course, but devoid of insight, atmosphere and inspiration, Era Notte a Roma is the film of a fine craftsman, a good technician, not of an artist.” Even recent assessments of the 134 minute version on DVD (it was first released in the U.S. in an 82 minute version) haven’t touted the movie as much more than a minor work for Rossellini despite some fine attributes.

Black marketeers disguised as nuns – Esperia (Giovanni Ralli, second from left) and Teresa (Laura Betti) – worry about their illegal operation in Roberto Rossellini’s ERA NOTTE A ROMA (1960).

Allegedly, Rossellini was quite happy with his work on the film which surprises me because he detested overt sentiment and went to extremes to avoid it in his work, always striving toward objective depictions of human truth. Yet there are many emotional scenes in Era Notte a Roma that border on the sentimental but have an almost glowing spiritual quality that recalls the compassion and humanity of Renoir’s Rules of the Game or Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria. Although the movie was scripted by Rossellini and numerous writers with Catholic or Communist sensibilities, I would not classify it as a political film though, if anything, it is clearly anti-Fascist. The real themes that emerge are survival, personal ethics, and friendships that are forged in desperate circumstances and become intimate and intense in a short-lived capsule of time.

An alternate film poster for ERA NOTTE A ROMA (1960).

In one of the most moving sequences, Fyodor struggles to express himself at a Christmas dinner in Esperia’s attic despite the fact that his comrades can only guess what his Russian speech means though the viewer is given the aid of subtitles: “I haven’t been able to express what I feel for you. I know very little of you and you know little of me. My country is far, far away. You don’t know my country. I suffer because I’m far from my country and from my family….there is so much I’d like to say my friends. We speak different languages but we understand each other. There is death, war, destruction all around us. We never wanted this war. They came to us with war. It brought with it so much suffering, so much sorrow, so much blood…but the sorrows of war have brought us together. We have become friends. I will always remember this. But I just can’t sit here any longer. I have to go out there and fight and chase them away from our sacred land, every last one of them. It’s better to perish than to sit here idle…” At which point, overcome with emotion, Fyodor rushes to the window but is coaxed back to the table for a toast. Fyodor, in fact, is one of the more unpredictable and intriguing characters in the storyline and, as played by the great Sergei Bondarchuk, a celebrated Russian actor and director (War and Peace [1965-66], Waterloo [1970]), is as volatile and temperamental as his Italian hosts Esperia and Renato. That’s one reason why he seems to develop such a strong emotional bond with them and, by the end of his stay, he is even conversing in broken Italian with them.

A Yuletide celebration for three escaped Allied soldiers and their hosts offers momentary relief from their precarious situation in the WW2 drama ERA NOTTE A ROMA (1960).

Giovanna Ralli, who never successfully made the transition to American films unlike fellow actresses Sophia Loren or Gina Lollobrigida despite a few English-language films (What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? [1966], The Caper of the Golden Bulls [1967], Deadfall [1968]), is outstanding in the demanding central role of Esperia. She has the smoldering sensuality of Silvana Mangano but also the dramatic range and intensity of Anna Magnani. Some of her scenes demonstrate a light, comic flair as when she misinterprets some of the words or actions of her international house guests. In other moments, Esperia achieves an operatic emotionalism such as the devastating final shot in which she breaks down in despair as the Allies enter Rome victoriously. Freedom is finally at hand let she has lost everything that mattered by this point.

Michael Caine and Giovanna Ralli star in the 1968 diamond heist thriller DEADFALL.

Many other cast members in Era Notte a Roma will be familiar to you as well. Leo Genn, cast as Major Pembleton, was a prolific English character actor that graced many Hollywood films (The Snake Pit [1948], The Miniver Story [1950], Quo Vadis [1951], for which he received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination) and starred in several memorable British movies as well (Pygmalion [1938], Green for Danger [1946]). Peter Baldwin, who plays the wounded American soldier, toiled in bit parts in movies such as The Space Children (1958) and I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) before finding his niche as a television director, helming episodes of everything from The Andy Griffith Show to The Brady Bunch to Sabrina, the Teenage Witch.

Leo Genn plays a British officer who escapes from a Germany prisoner of war camp and hides in Rome in ERA NOTTE A ROMA (1960), directed by Roberto Rossellini.

Renato Salvatori started out as a young leading man in Italian films and then started to play more thuggish types and heavies in his latter career starting with his doomed boxer in Luchino Viscounti’s Rocco and His Brothers [1960], his brutal assassin in Z [1969] or his unsympathetic working-class husband in A Brief Vacation [1973].  If you also look closely in the early scenes, you’ll see Laura Betti, a familiar presence in the films of Mario Bava, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Bernardo Bertolucci, as one of the fake nuns accompanying Esperia on her rural village excursion.

Renato Salvatori and Giovanna Ralli play Italians who offer a hiding place to anti-Nazi soldiers in the WW2 drama ERA NOTTE A ROMA (1960).

Era Notte a Roma was shot on a tight 45-day schedule at Cinecitta Studios except for some exterior location shooting and stock war footage at the beginning and end of the film. The production was mostly a family affair with Roberto’s brother Renzo providing the music score, his son Renzino and nephew Franco serving as assistant directors and his mother Elettra, sister Marcella and other relations tending to production details. Despite a completed script, Rossellini liked to improvise or change things at the last minute. Gianni Amico, one of the producers, arrived one day to find Rossellini dictating new dialogue to his assistants. “I was astounded,” Amico said, “because it had been a very elaborate script, for which an absolutely absurd figure for the time had been paid! Seeing my perplexity, Rossellini said to me, ‘Amico, we had them write it, now do we actually want to use it, too?’ It was a perfect reply, summing up a whole way of putting oneself face to face with cinema. For me it was a total and complete demythification.”

Peter (Peter Baldwin, left), Michael (Leo Genn, center) and Renato (Renato Salvatori) share a brief moment of togetherness in ERA NOTTE A ROMA (1960).

Clearly Rossellini intended Era Notte a Roma as a showcase role for Giovanna Ralli but he also used the project to experiment with a new technical innovation, the Pancinor. This was a mechanism that produced the visual effect of a tracking shot without the camera actually moving and had been used by Orson Welles as early as 1946 for his film The Stranger. According to production notes that were attributed to either Roberto or Renzino, “The Pancinor is like a camera suspended in air. It’s like having the camera in your hand. The director can put the accents where he wants, during the shooting of a scene. And this way we eliminate the rigidity of cutting and speed up the rhythm…Cuts make dialogue stiff; the actor has to stop all the time and then assume a new attitude. Now instead, the director can steal expressions on the actors, without their being aware of it, while the dialogue continues.”

Michael (Leo Genn) comforts Esperia (Giovanna Ralli) during a stressful situation in Roberto Rossellini’s ERA NOTTE A ROMA (1960).

Rossellini’s use of the Pancinor in the film is often so subtle you wouldn’t ordinarily notice it in comparison to more attention-getting pans or zoom shots in contemporary cinema. Yet there are several scenes where his use of it creates an intimacy with the actor or directs your attention inconspicuously to a private moment that reveals more than words can say. One of the more memorable moments occurs when Fyodor climbs out onto the tile roof overlooking St. Peter’s Basilica and sadly sings a few lines of a Russian folk song, full of guilt that his recent carelessness in chasing a runaway turkey into the courtyard below has exposed him and his comrades to the eyes of a prying neighbor. The camera pushes in slowly to capture Fyodor alone and isolated in his sorrow which he has been unable to adequately express to his companions.

A scene from Roberto Rossellini’s ERA NOTTE A ROMA (1960), an often overlooked WW2 drama from the renowned Italian director.

Another key moment occurs when Fyodor prepares to leave his hideaway and let fate take its course but first insists that everyone join him in a circle. Esperia, Renato, Peter and Pemberton take their seats expecting Fyodor to make another speech or perhaps say a prayer. Instead, he simply looks at them, taking it all in one last time as the camera moves from face to face, capturing a wealth of conflicting emotions. It’s an eloquent and beautiful sequence.

Esperia (Giovanna Ralli) hopes her prayers will be answered in the 1960 Italian drama ERA NOTTE A ROMA.

In November 2008, Lionsgate released Roberto Rossellini’s 2-disc Collector’s Edition on DVD which contains Era Notte a Roma and Dov’e La Liberta…? aka Where is Freedom? The print quality of both film are acceptable though the image is often soft, lacks contrast and shows signs of damage here and there. Both movies could certainly use the Criterion Collection treatment but I’m simply grateful that Era Notte a Roma is even available for viewing. If you’re an admirer of Rossellini and haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.

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