Always go beyond – Interview with Roberto Rossellini

The impossible interviews

You are considered the father of Italian Neorealism. What is the origin of Neorealism?
Neorealism was born, unconsciously, as vernacular cinema; it later became fully self-aware of the human and social problems in the war and post-war periods.

So what is the real Neorealism?
I have always pushed myself to say that, for me, Neorealism was just a moral position.

What kind of moral position?
The moral position consisted in looking at things objectively and putting together their compounding elements, without any judgment.

Is it possible to avoid judgment?
Facts themselves express their own judgment. As I instinctively hate any kind of oppression, this was the starting point. Then these things gradually grew in me and became very clear. I mean, what I did instinctively before, it then became part of my consciousness.

So, basically, when you become aware, it isn’t possible to avoid judgment, like a judgment coming from the story you chose to tell, and from the thesis you are supporting.
The living subject of a realist film is the world, not the story or its chronicle. There are no pre-existing theses because they come out spontaneously. Realist cinema doesn’t love the superfluous and the spectacular but, on the contrary, it rejects them, it goes straight to the point. It doesn’t stop to the surface but it searches through the soul. It refuses lures and formula formats, and it looks for the reasons each one of us have. In short, it’s a kind of film that raises problems and meditates on them.

You have mentioned realist films. What do you mean by realism?
I’m a film director, not an aesthete, and I don’t know if I could explain precisely what realism is. Anyway, I can say how I feel it, and what my idea of realism is.

In other words?
Maybe someone else could explain it better than me. Realism it’s a greater curiosity about individuals, a need, typical of the contemporary man, to portrait facts as they really are, to become aware of reality unpityingly and concretely, according to today’s peculiar interests in scientific and statistical results. It’s also a sincere need to describe men in a humble way, without having to invent the extraordinary. It’s the awareness of getting the extraordinary using research. Finally, it’s a desire to make ourselves clear, and not to ignore reality, whatever it is.

So is realism purely a search for reality?
In my opinion, realism is nothing but the artistic form of truth. Once we recreate the truth, then we can express it.

To reach full expression in a movie, I assume you also need technical research, in order to make what you want to describe more effective.
I always do technical research, because I try – I am a worker – to create a tool as functional as possible, like a pencil. In order to do that, I have to get rid of my schemes and the productive requirements, get rid of the capital.

How did you manage, if you actually did, to free yourself from the capital and reach the “pencil-state”?
This is the plain truth: the cinema’s ritual was celebrated in the temple that was the film studio. Studios were handled by studio owners, who used to charge whatever they wanted for the use. So, considering that everybody was an absolutely-perfect-photography and deep-focus maniac and so on, I rejected it all. To me the most important thing was to say what I really wanted to say.

How do you work in order to express what you want to say?
How do I work? How can we know how we work? It is sure that, when I commence a new film, I start from an idea without knowing where it will lead. What I’m interested in, about the world, is mankind and the adventure of life, unique for everyone. I’m first of all an individualist. All human beings are unique in their kind, even though they all look similar.

So is this perspective on human beings that makes you a realist director?
It’s because I’m not afraid of the truth and I’m curious about human beings that I may give the impression to be a great realist.

Are you really a realist or do you just seem like one?
I am a realist, if realism means to let the individuals who’re in front of the camera create their own account. From the first shot, I stay behind my characters and let the camera follow them.

So you don’t plan in advance how the acting performance will affect the final editing?
I never plan, I know what I want to say and I look for the straightest way to say it. Racking your brain is useless: to have clear ideas is enough. Images follows automatically. Nowadays lies spread extraordinarily, in cinema more than elsewhere. But lies assume the existence of truth.

Why do you think that lies spread more easily in cinema than elsewhere?
Because of the big trouble of images, the dark rooms and so on. It’s so… seductive, and so easy to mistake it for a dream that becomes another way to escape reality.
But if we want to live in the context of our current problems, that are, in my opinion, the essence of everything, as they promote the spread of knowledge, we need to forget all this.

Besides, seduction is a weapon the director can use to please everyone, from the public to the producer.
If one is so vain to long for everyone’s approval, well, he has to give up his personal opinions. He has to support someone else’s ideas. He may please many people, but he doesn’t say what he wants to say. We need to run the risk and say what we want to say, as honestly as possible, as thoroughly as possible. We shouldn’t accept compromise, but we should pursuit our goal whatever the cost, even if it costs fights and arguments, bad moods, insults and whatever.

Do you think cinema will end up becoming sterile because it doesn’t dare too much, and it isn’t honest enough?
I think that all media that spread culture have become sterile, because we have completely given up the research on human beings as they really are.

What do you mean?
We started creating stereotyped human beings, substitutes for love, death, sex, and moral. We deal with unrealistic problems, because we live in an optimistic society. Addressing man’s unrealistic issues – and forgetting the real ones – is today’s aim.

What are, in your opinion, the real problems of mankind?
The real problems of mankind? First of all we need to know human beings as they really are and, with an act of deep humility, try to approach and see them objectively, with no prejudice or moral discussion, at least in the beginning. Human beings can be extraordinarily gifted, and in proportion to their genius, on the other hand, they can make mistakes as relevant as their achievements. This is, in my opinion, the real human tragedy.

Could you please clarify this issue?
There are two inclinations in people: the concrete and the fantastic. Today’s tendency is to savagely suppress the fantastic. Actually, the world is more and more torn between two groups of people: those who want to kill fantasy and those who want to save it; those who want to live and those who want to die.

And what is your position?
I try to react against the weakness that makes human beings volunteer prisoners -not to say victims-  due to their cowardice or unawareness, of their desire to be in harmony with everything and everyone. Because of our idolatry of rules, we keep living in fear of becoming the exception, as we are accustomed to identify those we’re talking about with those we’re criticizing.

What do you mean by idolatry of rules?
It’s a fact that today people want to feel free to believe in an imposed truth: nobody looks for his own truth any more. This seems exceedingly paradoxical to me. You just need to point a finger to someone’s nose and say, “this is the truth”, and he will become perfectly happy. He just wants to believe it and he will follow you, would do anything to believe this truth. But he has never made the slightest effort to discover it.

Could you give an example of this inclination of today’s man?
The abstract art. It has become mainstream. I understand the value of an abstract artist, but not that abstract art has become mainstream. Because it is really the least understandable of all arts. Such things never happen without a reason.

What is the reason?
The reason is that we try to forget human beings as much as possible. In today’s society and in the whole wide world, people have been turned into small pieces of a huge, massive machinery. People have become slaves. The entire human history is made of these transitions from slavery to freedom. There have always been times when slavery won, until freedom prevailed again. This happened very rarely, or for a short time, because once freedom was reached, slavery was immediately rebuilt. In today’s world a new kind of slavery has been created.

What is the modern world’s slavery?
The slavery of ideas. This has been accomplished through the media, from detective stories to radio broadcastings, movies and so on. Plus, techniques extremely improved and knowledge, that can be very deep within a specific field, in order to be socially effective prevents people from gaining further knowledge. Someone, I don’t remember who, once said, “we live in the century of the Barbarian vertical invasion”, to indicate a deep knowledge about a specific area and extreme ignorance about everything else.

Is it the same for cinema?
I came to cinema imbued with all its myth, from which I tried to get out. Since I started making movies, I always heard that we have to make them for audiences with the average mind of a twelve-year old kid. It’s a fact that cinema (generally speaking, it’s the same for all mass-oriented radio, television, and show business products) somehow addles adults’ brain but, on the contrary, largely enhances the children’ development. This is the source of the lack of balance in the modern world: the impossibility to understand each other.

They usually say that, to understand each other, we have to be willing. But in your previous statements, I perceive the need of a fight, a struggle to reach a wider vision on things and human beings…
Human beings should fight but have a deep sense of pity for everyone, themselves, other people, they should do it with love but still keep fighting. I’m not talking about armed fight, but a fight for thinking and, above all, about setting examples. This is too embarrassing and requires too many efforts… When we talk about freedom, the first thing we add is, “Freedom, of course, but within limits”. Instead, we reject abstract freedom because it’s a dream too beautiful to be true.

How can we achieve this freedom?
It happens gradually. People set themselves free little by little, because reasons mature step by step.
Now, one of the things that I’m concerned about the most, in my movies, is honesty, so I try not to be suggestive, remove all the evocative aspects of images, and just stick to reality.

If this was unusual in post war cinema, it would be even more unusual today, when we are so used to special effects…
Breaking a habit is always really hard. It’s not easy to free ourselves, because of the power of suggestion, of fear, or because we are so shallow that we prefer to stick to pre-existing patterns. It’s because we don’t know what to do. So the only way is to do, in order to discover.

Is this your rule? To do in order to discover?
What I’m interested in is to be as honest as possible, to be as self-consistent as possible: that’s the thing. This is the most important point: always go beyond.



Roberto Rossellini’s answers are taken from:
REGENT Roger, Quand je commence à divenir intelligent, je suis foutou, L’Écran Français, 21 Nov. 1948.
ROSSELLINI Roberto and VERDONE Mario, Colloquio sul neorealismo, Bianco e Nero”, 2, 1952.
HELL Henri, Je ne suis pas le père du néo-réalisme, Arts, 16 Jun. 1954.
SCHERER Maurice and TRUFFAUT François, Entretien avec Roberto Rossellini, Cahiers du Cinéma, 37, 1954.
GODARD Jean-Luc, Un cinéaste, c’est aussi un missionarie, Arts, 1 Apr. 1959.
HOVEYDA Fereydoun and RIVETTE Jacques, Entretien avec Roberto Rossellini, Cahiers du Cinéma, 94, 1959.
APRÀ Adriano and PONZI Maurizio, Intervista con Roberto Rossellini, Filmcritica, 156/157, 1965.
AAVV, Dibattito su Rossellini, edited by MENON Gianni, Partisan, 1969.
BALDELLI Pio, Roberto Rossellini. Samonà e Savelli, 1972.


Translation by Irene Greguoli (edited by Sara Di Girolamo)


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Heiko H. Caimi
Heiko H. Caimi, born in 1968, is a writer, screenwriter, poet and teacher of fiction writing. He has collaborated as an author with publishers Mondadori, Tranchida, Abrigliasciolta and others. He has taught at the Egea bookshop of Bocconi University in Milan and several other schools, libraries and associations in Italy and Switzerland. Since 2013 he has been editorial director of the literature magazine Inkroci. He is one of the founders and organizers of the traveling literary festival Libri in Movimento. He collaborates with the news magazine "InPrimis" keeping the column "Pages in a minute" and with the blog of the writer Barbara Garlaschelli "Sdiario". He published the novel "I predestinati" (The Predestined, Prospero, 2019) and edited the anthology of short stories "Oltre il confine. Storie di migrazione" (Over the border. Migration stories, Prospero, 2019).