When the Nazi prison commander is telling you you're the scum of the Earth, and everyone's agreeing with him, you've got to wonder just how scummy you really are.
And Emmanuele Bardone (Vittorio de Sica) is pretty scummy. I mean, even the Nazis think he's a spineless dick. Because what's worse - and possibly more dangerous - than explicit malice? Deception. Bardone is a con artist; he exploits the vulnerable. He tells the weeping mothers who come into the Nazi administrative office in Rome that, if they just shell out fifty or a hundred thousand lira (to him), they can get news of their imprisoned sons. While some of the money lines the pockets of corrupt German officials, most of it is just gambled away by Bardone himself.
What's even worse about this already unsavory mess is that Bardone really, sincerely, authentically believes he's a good guy. He doesn't see it as springboarding from one evil (Nazism) to another (his own selfishness) - he sees himself as a guy just trying to get by, as a man who is far too kind to tell the sobbing, weeping families the sordid, unhappy truths of their loved ones: that they're in prison, in a concentration camp, dead.
This painfully self-deluded confession Bardone sweats out in one of Il generale della Rovere's (General Della Rovere) early scenes, when he's outed as a con artist by the crafty Colonel Mueller (Hannes Messemer). Mueller, who is also pretty evil but at least abides by some internal code of honor, decides to use Bardone as a mole. Before being sent to a prison in northern Italy, a sort of way station for Italian political prisoners meant for the concentration camp, Bardone is equipped with a new name - General della Rovere - and a new identity: he is now a legendary resistance fighter. Mueller hopes that Bardone will be able to extract some juicy info from the other, nobly suffering political prisoners, who instinctively trust "General della Rovere" and seek to protect their hero. Bardone is happy to get the perks of being everyone's favorite partisan leader and eager to get out this jail ASAP.
But this is a mess. A frightening, hairy, ugly mess - and Bardone is right in the middle of it. This film - which is not as tight as Roberto Rossellini's masterpiece, Roma, città aperta, but is as gut-wrenching (if not more so!) - is a doozy. If this was 1970s Italian cinema, Bardone would have been played by Giancarlo Giannini and this would have been directed Lina Wertmuller - the whole thing would have been a pitch black comedy in the style of Pasqualino Settebellezze. Indeed, Bardone shares much of Pasqualino's (and other seedy Giancarlo Giannini characters') most notable characteristics: cowardice, vanity, a tendency to stand in bureaucratic lobbies and promise salvation.
But Rossellini - and de Sica - are much more earnest and much less cynical than Wertmuller - who, in cinematic terms, is their descendant. After all, Rossellini and de Sica come from the generation that lived the war. Roma, città aperta was made just months after Rome, actually, was opened up to the world - thanks to the Allied forces liberating it from Nazi occupation. We think that Rossellini and de Sica and the audience of that era just wouldn't have been ready for the shocking, provocative, mind-blowing razor wire satire that Wertmuller would provide their children and grandchildren. The wartime generation needed to believe that Bardone - even scummy, vulnerable, stupid Bardone - would have had an eleventh hour conversion and grow a spine. They needed to see the heroism and nobility of the other prisoners. (Compare these prisoners to Pasqualino's cohort - at least these guys have a code!)
This is not a perfect movie. Roma, città aperta and Pasqualino Settebellezze are, from a technical and artistic standpoint, better films - they're sharper, cleaner, smoother. In this film, we still see the rough edges: Vittoro de Sica's so-so moments of acting, the awkward side swipes, the clunky music. But the story is strong, and it propels the viewer forward, and it makes you care in a deep, intestinal way. Make no mistake: Bardone is an anti-hero, but you care about him - big time. He's conned himself into an impossible corner, and he's miserable, complex, ambiguous and deeply flawed, deeply human. You can't help but feel awful, riding the lows with him. Vittorio de Sica - who, tangentially, was a marvel to see, if only because of how much his son resembles him! - was, in many instances, really beautiful. Not just looks-wise (though he also was that; gosh, that shock of white hair… those eyes!), but also for sheer intensity: the sweat when he's under pressure, the despair when Mueller drags his face through the figurative shit and he has to come to terms with the reality and the horror of Nazi-occupied Italy. Overall, it was a real tour de force. Highly recommended.