The received wisdom on Il Generale della Rovere is that it is one of Roberto Rossellini’s lesser efforts, a conventional work caught between the neorealism of the director’s early films and the artificiality of his later TV productions. Yet this Golden Lion--winning feature—one of Rossellini’s few popular successes—is more than a mere curiosity. The film’s first half follows con man Emanuele Bardone (Vittorio De Sica) as he wanders the ruined edifices of Nazi-occupied Genoa (which Rossellini re-creates by discordantly combining studio sets and stock footage). After one of Bardone’s schemes lands him in jail, he’s blackmailed into impersonating a leader of the Resistance and told to inform on his fellow inmates, though he becomes increasingly averse to the idea the longer he inhabits his new identity.
The casting of De Sica is by itself a subversive play on iconography—the celebrity actor-director as debonair swindler, leeching off a wartime populace’s hopes and fears. Yet Rossellini expands his film’s purview by immersing De Sica in crowds, or zooming away from him during moments of inspirational bluster. Bardone is not a character one identifies with so much as observes from an oft-confounding distance. Even his climactic moral triumph, as Rossellini implies through a sobering final tableau, is built on a foundation of lies. Criterion’s release includes interviews and an essay by film critic James Monaco, though the most notable extra is Rossellini scholar Tag Gallagher’s video “The Choice,” which does a brilliant job of illuminating the film’s history and legacy.
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