Arrow Video: Viva L'Italia (1961) - Reviewed

One of the founding fathers of the Italian Neorealist movement, son of Angiolo Guiseppe Rossellini who built the very first movie theater in Rome, and father of actress Isabella Rossellini, writer-director Roberto Rossellini remains at the forefront of Italian cinema yet only now are his works resurfacing and garnering the attention they deserved.  With companies like The Criterion Collection bearing the torch as the front runner on releasing Rossellini’s work stateside, Arrow Video has given the beloved film preservation company a run for their money with the release of one of Rossellini’s personal favorite and least seen films in his illustrious career: the Neorealist docu-drama Viva L’Italia

Retitled Garibaldi in some territories, Rossellini was commissioned by the Italian government to direct a biopic of General Guisseppe Garibaldi (Renzo Ricci) whose military campaign, Expedition of the Thousand in 1860, led to the conquering of Sicily and Naples before the country’s unification under the aegis the House of Savoy.  The resulting film is the Italian neorealist equivalent of a sweeping David Lean epic ala Lawrence of Arabia or Doctor Zhivago, where spectacle, grandiosity and scale stretches as far as the camera can see.  Though only composed in 1.66:1 widescreen, there’s a sense of vastness to Viva L’Italia as a piece of purely visual filmmaking not previously seen in Italian cinema or, for that matter, Rossellini’s own oeuvre.

Regarded by Rossellini as his personal favorite film with the most meticulous attention to detail with intensive historical research and aided by a central performance by aged veteran Renzo Ricci (Anna’s father in Antonioni’s classic L’Avventura) as the stoic and steadfast Garibaldi, Viva L’Italia plays less like a standard historical narrative than a documentary captured in the heat of the moment.  With a sweeping, often patriotic score by Renzo Rossellini and lush, precise cinematography by Luciano Trasatti as well as early assistant directorial work by then protégé Ruggero Deodato (director of Cannibal Holocaust), Viva L’Italia is among the grandest of Italian historical epics that tragically remained largely unavailable to international filmgoers for decades. 

Thanks to the studious efforts of Arrow Video, Rossellini’s favorite film and testament to probably the most influential figure in Italian history, Rossellini’s enormous, earthly battlefield can now be seen for the enduring labor of love which coined the fusion between professional narrative storytelling and documentary style Neorealist Italian cinema.  Recently actress and daughter Isabella Rossellini lamented the fact that many of her father’s films remain largely unseen by world cinephiles.  With her father’s most personal film to date finally making it’s long awaited home video debut, it is safe to say that period of filmgoers being in the dark about one of Italy’s greatest auteurs finally seems to be changing for the better.

- Andrew Kotwicki