Rossellini and the Art of Ambiguity

A new and magnificent addition to the Criterion Collection, Roberto Rossellini’s Il Generale Della Rovere (1959) is ostensibly a morality tale, telling of the reformation of a small-time grifter into a hero of the resistance in the latter years of the Second World War. Or is it? The movie does indeed depict a con man’s moral transformation, but the change is an ambiguous one.

Even the beginning of the movie is deceptive. A group of Black Shirts, chanting allegiance to Il Duce, march past a wall of posters proclaiming that deserters will be executed, that anyone caught with firearms will be shot on sight. We’re plunged into an atmosphere of poverty, need, anxiety, fear, the world of Rossellini’s Open City (1945) and Paisan (1946). We see mostly desperate women and hungry children; the men, unless in Fascist uniform or members of the secret police, are too old to fight. One woman thanks God the weather’s too cloudy for the Allied bombers.

Then Vittorio De Sica appears and instantly we understand that we are in a movie. Even as he passes a wall with the chalk inscription Vincere (translated in the subtitles as “We will win”) and hunches his shoulders against the cold, the world of verismo falls away and it’s clear that all we’ve been watching was shot in the back lot of a studio. De Sica plays a civil engineer called Grimaldi, addressed formally as Ingeniero Grimaldi. We learn this in an exchange with S.S. Colonel Mueller (Hannes Messemer), a mannerly Nazi officer, whose tire has been punctured, not for the first time, by nails thrown onto the road by partisans. We also learn from their hugely comical exchange that Grimaldi will say anything to please someone in authority.

Grimaldi is a beleaguered man, beset not only by gambling debts, but also by the promises he’s made his girlfriend Valeria (Sandra Milo). He repeatedly begs Valeria for something, anything, to pawn. You left here last night with a thick roll of bills, she reminds him. He tells her he was unlucky. He needs only 50,000 lire. Why don’t you try pawning this, she says, giving him back a ring with a “rare Indian sapphire.” Both of them know it’s a fake. He takes it anyway. Grimaldi’s the kind of gambler who, when he loses at baccarat – and he almost always loses – invariably doubles down the next time.

Grimaldi would truly like to make good on his promises to Valeria. He would truly like to make good on other, graver promises, the ones made to various citizens of Genoa, men and women desperate for news of relatives arrested by the Nazis. Grimaldi makes money by interceding for them with the authorities, chiefly with Sergent-Major Hageman (Herbert Fischer). Sometimes he succeeds, more often he fails, but he always brings back hopeful news. On one of his visits to Hageman – he tries to get even him to buy the phony ring – he chances to encounter (fatefully as it turns out) a pair of wealthy women, Clara Fassio (Anne Vemon) and her mother-in-law. They’ve come to ask about Clara’s husband, recently arrested. He was never political, says his mother. Hageman says he was one of a band of partisans and is currently in prison. When Clara asks to visit him, Hageman tells her she’ll have to ask the warden. Grimaldi encounters the two women on the street outside. In a coffee shop across the street, he promises them his help.

Next morning a telephone call to Clara inaugurates the end of “Colonel” Grimaldi’s career as a petty criminal. They arrange to meet in the coffee shop where they met before. Grimaldi repeats his promise of help in finding her husband and, as usual, he asks her to wait while he goes to seek information. Unfortunately, he tells her, these things take time. And money no doubt, she says. You’ve no idea how greedy these people are, he replies. She gives him 100,000 lire and he’s off to Hageman’s office. She gets up and makes a phone call. At Gestapo headquarters Grimaldi encounters S.S. Colonel Mueller and resumes the identity of Civil Engineer. (In this farcical scene straight out of Goldoni, Grimaldi adopts identities as swiftly as he shifts political positions.) He returns to Clara with the assurance her husband’s still alive and will soon be free. “My husband is already free, my dear colonel,” she says. “He was shot yesterday.” Immediately, Grimaldi is arrested by the Gestapo.

Questioned by Mueller, Grimaldi’s systematically stripped of every one of his phony identities. Revealed as one Emanuele Bardone, he’s confronted by an assembly of the many poor and desperate people he’s defrauded. He gives an impassioned apologia. Yes, he says in his defense, even after he knew about the trains packed with prisoners, even after he knew about the summary executions, even after he knew about Mauthausen. He misled them all, feeding them hopes and comforts he knew to be false. To Mueller’s astonishment, no one steps forward to denounce “Grimaldi.”

Left alone with Mueller, Bardone learns he can choose to be prosecuted either as a deserter from the army, in which case he’ll be shot, or as a petty criminal, guilty of many frauds. Naturally, he chooses the latter. Ah, but then there’s also a sentence of death for frauds committed in wartime. What to do? Mueller tells him of another way out. Bardone’s all ears.

The rest of the movie’s given over to Bardone’s life in prison. Little by little, he comes to see, in all its horror, the fate of the state he’s serving. And as the false General Della Rovere, he comes to see his own face as well. The movie ends as it began: deceptively, ambiguously.

It’s a noble and fitting conclusion to a masterpiece of tragic art.

One of the interviews (I forget which) included in this superb DVD reveals the delightful fact that, like Rossini, Rossellini did much of his work in bed.

Released on 31 March, 2009
1 Disc SPR: $29.95, Criterion Store price $23.95
Italy; 1959; in Italian with English subtitles; 132 minutes; Black & White; 1.33:1
Format: New, restored high-definition digital transfer
Special features include: New video interviews with Isabella, Renzo, and Ingrid Rossellini, as well as film scholar Adriano Aprà; The Choice, a new visual essay by Tag Gallagher, author of The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini; Original theatrical trailer; PLUS: A booklet featuring a new essay by film critic James Monaco and an excerpt from a 2000 interview with Indro Montanelli, the author of the story that inspired the film.

Ben Sonnenberg is the author of Lost Property: Memoirs & Confessions of a Bad Boy, and the founder/editor of the original Grand Street. He can be reached at




BEN SONNENBERG is the author of Lost Property: Memoirs & Confessions of a Bad Boy, and the founder/editor of Grand Street. He can be reached at