Filmed in 1941, using (to surprisingly good dramatic effect) filmed achives dating from 9-7-1940 (Battle of Punta Stilo) and 27-11-1940 (Battle of Cape Teulada), "The White Ship" is in no way a criticism of Mussolini's policies. How could it? If it had tried to be, it would never have existed! But can it be qualified as pure propaganda, in the manner of "Vecchia Guarda" (1934) or "Luciano Serra pilota" (1938)" for instance?
The answer to this tricky question is... yes and no!
Yes, on the one hand, because Rossellini is clearly on the Italian side : Mussolini's war is a just war. The opening is telltale in this respect: a mighty battleship is given to our admiration and the martial music that accompanies those glorious shots leaves no doubt about who the victors should be, who the victors will be. But shortly after this embarrassing introduction the tone changes significantly. And we are soon led to think that no, this not a propaganda work, at least that there is more to it than just political brainwashing. For what is Rossellini obviously interested in? Showing how mighty the Italian Navy is? The first Eisenstein-like shots already described naturally give this impression but as the film unfurls, what does the director show us ? A semi-victory won at the cost of many casualties and destructions. And does he present his characters in a heroic light, like so many American or Soviet films? Not at all, the sailors on board are ordinary young men with ordinary feelings: they long for home, think of the girl they left behind, try to raise each other's spirits during moments of relaxation... And when Rossellini's camera shows them in the throes of battle, it does not hide the fact that many get killed or severely burned. Not very effective in terms of propaganda, is it?
Another option that goes against the notion of successful agitprop is the director's obvious privileging the human factor over metaphor or allegory. The officers are little seen and are reduced to the status of men trying to carry out their task as competently as possible. While the sailors, as I have already said, are never shown acting heroically, they are John Does doing their duty, no GI Joes. The same is true for the second part of the story taking place on a hospital ship where the wounded main protagonist has been transferred : all we see is suffering patients and the medical staff at work. Nothing metaphoric about them, they are only themselves as part of a war machine beyond their control. An impression that gets reinforced by the fact that none of the actors are professionals. In "The White Ship", veracity matters more than the official ideology.
It all happens as if Rossellini was instilling the neo-realism to come into what was intended by the authorities as a sheer propaganda object, which saves the film and its maker from dishonor. Is "The White Ship" a masterpiece for all that? Not really ! For three reasons: first it is a hybrid product hesitating between documentary and fiction, between agitprop and realism. Secondly, it has a conventional love story, just worthy of a photo-novel. The third defect may be the worst: the characters lack psychological depth. They ring true but remain superficial all the time, preventing the viewer from identifying with them.
Nevertheless, "The White Ship" is not a film to be disdained. It has a rich historical value and manages to stick to the sailors' and officers' everyday lives rather than produce the pompous call to glory expected by Rossellini's fascist sponsors. Imperfect as it is, it is a valuable document as well as in its best moments, a precursor of neo-realism. Rome will soon be opened.
To tell you the truth, before entering the hall, I thought I knew in advance how the film would develop : a corrupt system (in this case an aluminium company that threatens the environment of Iceland and its people), would make the protagonist (a carbon copy of the white hero) an activist who would start by winning her first fights before having to face severe counter-attacks only to triumph in the end, all the wrongs righted. The only thing that really attracted me was that the story was set among the unusual landscapes of Iceland. How big (and pleasant) my surprise was! For, as of the very first shot, it was quite evident that "Woman at War" was not going to tread the beaten track. What other movie indeed opens on a fifty-year old lady drawing a bow and shooting an arrow towards high voltage power lines? And not only that but also managing to cause a short-circuit cutting off supply in the aluminium plant area? There mustn't be many. Such an attack against toxic modernism carried out by a woman using archaic weapons sets the tone for this fanciful and utterly unpredictable film.
For, in the wake of this inspired overture, imagination, suspense, laughter, happily follow suit. The delighted viewer is indeed treated to a whole menu of various pleasures, such as breathless sequences (Halla being hunted by cars, dogs, drones, helicopters), constant surprises and twists (impossible while watching a scene to guess what will come after), unexpected changes of tone (the underground warrior being also the conductor of an amateur choir), unusual ideas (Halla saved from icy waters by being plunged into a... hot water source), detachment from the action (the ever-present brass band) and irrepressible comedy (the recurring mishaps of a poor foreigner). At the same time and for the same ticket price, you get a very serious social and political commentary (among the topics broached, corruption, commitment, environment, the future of mankind). And although this last aspect is pessimistic, even bordering on bitterness and despair, it is always alleviated by the writer-director's sense of humor and narrative skills.
A very positive assesment, to which can be added a fine homegenous cast in which Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir, remarkable as she is, never tries to be number one.
All in all, a perfect film, managing to combine art, entertainment and reflection, which is not so common. Recommended of course.
- a plain crime story which, despite being crossed by whiffs of irrationality, remains basically believable. The situation itself, the story as well as the characters, minus their eccentricities, are indeed quite realistic. Moreover, the dialogues are well written, funny and uttered with talent by two masters of comedy, Benoît Poelvoorde (the bad-ass inspector) and Grégoire Ludig (the helpless suspect), both more sober than they usually are.
- a satire challenging the clichés and set pieces of the sub genre already mentioned: the charmless interior of the police station; the worn out, a bit sadistic interrogator and his dubious jokes ; the suspect maintaining his innocence without being able to prove it, the cigarettes, sandwiches, colleagues dropping in and out, ... It is all here, but in a slightly offbeat, farcical way.
- a commentary on the theatricality of such "in camera" dramas. Dupieux shrewdly plays on the fact that as soon as a murder is committed and suspects are interrogated, each of the protagonists seems to play a role written in advance and is at a loss as to how to extricate themselves from having to live out that role.
To make a long story short, you will find "Keep an Eye Out" either an exciting or a senseless movie, depending on whether you play the game or not. I wish you to be in the second case.
I will conclude by witnessing to what has been one of the most intense emotional experiences I have been through, meaning by that the highly inspired rendering of the 'Ninth Symphony'. This amazing sequence is - even if nobody ever mentions it in film histories - a genuine piece of anthology. It works exceptionally well- at full capacity - on three levels : music of course (with a perfect performance by the London Symphony Orchestra), drama (the suspense coming from whether Beethoven will be able or not to conduct his piece till the end) and editing (the various shots and camera angles being cut in exact accordance with the pulse of the music), with the effect that each separate element (music, image and story) are blended together only to carry you away out of this world to a superior continuum, a kind of nirvana where only ravished souls access.
If only for this fabulous time of rapture, 'Copying Beethoven' is not to be missed. So, my recommendation is: leave your prejudices aside and let yourself go. You will not regret it. A cocktail of history, great music, excellent filmmaking, exciting dialogue, brilliant acting and storytelling, that's an offer you can't refuse !
Which is why I would not recommend "Twelve Hours by the Clock" to anybody but film historians (as a sample of the French Film Noir wave) and/or Lino Ventura completists. The others are likely to be disappointed: wet powder is useless!