Saturday 3 March 2007

Paisan (1946)

Paisan begins like a war documentary, with an American narration over an animated map, and it carries on like an American film with soldiers arriving in an Italian village. Soon though we hear the locals speak in Italian and one of the soldiers translate, and we realise that it's really an Italian film and a notable one at that. The screenplay was Oscar nominated for the six writers, one per sequence, and they include names like Federico Fellini and director Roberto Rossellini, hardly minor names.

What it shows is the other side of war, the story of people rather than grand beliefs, and how we don't really understand each other. The first section is all about misunderstanding. An Italian girl guides a group of American soldiers out of her village, but ends up dead and unfairly unmourned. What must be half of the piece is taken up with a conversation between one soldier and the girl, with the soldier speaking English and the girl speaking Italian. They understand almost nothing of what each other say, but find a bond, and when the GI is shot by the Germans, she revenges him. But when the American's colleagues check out the shooting they believe her to have done it. It's a tragedy wrapped up in a very small parcel but it's probably a decent microcosm of the war as a whole. The Americans, Italians and Germans are just people and none of them really have much of a clue about what the others are on about.

The second deals with a black American military policeman who doesn't want to go home and an Italian kid who steals to survive. The MP berates the kid, who is stealing from the back of a military truck, ad asks him why he has to steal. Of course the kid doesn't understand a word of it. When the MP realises that it's the same kid that stole his shoes while he slept, he tells him to take him to his home to talk to his family, only to discover that his parents are dead and he lives in some sort of overcrowded quarry or mine. His driving away symbolises the advent of understanding.

There's understanding later on in the other four stories, and hope and humanity too, along with tragedy on a personal level and a whole range of other emotions that fit a country so recently at war. There are points where people of different nationalities are able to communicate with each other, but plenty more where that is merely a sad wish. In and amongst the war films where the good guys heroically kill the bad guys, here that's far from the point. The point is that people die, whichever side they happen to be on, and people lose their families and homes and lives. It's a very potent film, deliberately raw and unpolished but all the more real for that.

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