william steig drawing

May 19, 2010
Kartina Richardson

Race in Film: Paisá (Paisan)

Paisá directed in 1946 by Roberto Rossellini is, in my most humble opinion, one of the greatest films ever made. After watching neo realist films I often wonder how different American movies would have been then and now, had WWII been fought on US soil. I’m not saying Best Years of Our Lives (released the same year) isn’t good, but it’s certainly no Paisá.

Paisá is the second film in Rossellini’s “War trilogy”, films made during and after the war (preceded by Open City, followed by Germany Year Zero). Though Open City is generally more critically acclaimed, I find Paisá to be more moving.

The film consists of six episodes set during the liberation of Italy at the end of WWII.Though all the episodes are powerfully moving, I shall focus on the second, for it is in this episode that I saw something I had never seen before in a European movie from the 40s-50s. Something I had rarely seen in any Hollywood movies of the same era.

It was a black man. An American black man.

A soldier. Not a butler or janitor.

I was startled, I was amazed, I was impressed.

I was filled with a greater love for Rossellini that I suspect is similar to seeing your baby walk for the first time.

This second episode follows a tiny boy named Pasquale, expertly non-acted by Alfonsino Pasca (why are there so many amazing kids in neo-realist films?) who tries to “buy a Negro.” Yes. “Buy a Negro.”

The Negro in question is Joe, a drunk African American MP played by Dots Johnson, who, with senses dulled, finds himself at the mercy of Pasquale. Joe drunkenly fantasizes at length about the hero worship that will welcome him upon his return to New York, only to admit soon after that in reality he lives in poverty and has no desire to go home. He falls asleep and Pasquale steals his shoes. Three days later Joe runs into the child, and escorts him home to speak with his mother. Joe not only discovers that the boy’s parents were killed in the war, but that he lives in abject poverty.

In this episode Rossellini not only comments on the the similar suffering and lack of power experienced by Joe as a black American, and poverty stricken Italians in the aftermath of the war, but shows Joe’s discomfort in recognizing his own position of privilege. A position he is not familiar with. It is striking to not only see these similarities being drawn, but to encounter such a real black character in a film from 1946. Though Joe is drunk in the opening of the scene, he is not a caricature. His eyes are not wide with bewilderment nor is his mouth fixed in a grin. He is not tap dancing alongside Shirley Temple. He has a certain amount of authority, both as an MP, an Allied soldier, and an American. He has experienced pain, as a soldier witnessing the horrors of war, and as an African American living with poverty and racism. It is because Paisá was not an American film, that Joe, the black MP exists.
(It is about distance).
An Italian director could criticize American racism in a bold way (a way that wasn’t simply a testament to the goodness of white people in disguise), an American director could/would not.

The scene in which Joe sits with Pasquale atop a pile of rubble and fantasizes about his return to the U.S., is one of the most fascinating in all of film. A bold statement it’s true, but look at all it touches upon:

Poverty in post war Italy
Poverty faced by many African Americans
The similarities between the two
The trauma of war
The trauma of racism
The power and privilege we have as Americans
The power of American soldiers
The powerlessness of children
The disempowerment of African Americans
Our inability to communicate with one another
Methods of physical and emotional survival
Friendship
Dreams
Helplessness…

I’m already out of breath.

I would love to see a full length film based on this episode. Preferably done by a resurrected Rossellini. The closest thing we have to it in my knowledge is Miracle at St. Anna and I suspect that this episode directly influenced Spike Lee in the production of the film. I haven’t seen it in some time, but I do remember there being several striking similarities, primarily in a scene that involved Italian children. I did not think Miracle at St. Anna was good, but it, like this episode reminds us of the unfortunate rarity of portrayals of soldiers of color.

Race in Film is Mirror’s first special series! Read about it here and stay tuned for more!

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2 Comments

  1. marshall

    Nice piece. Did you ever see ‘ the Bicycle Thief’ or ‘Shine’ ? Those two did it for me as far as the italian neo realism thing goes.

    Reply
    • Kartina Richardson

      Do you mean Shoeshine? If so, YES, it is unbelievable. The end of the movie is possibly the saddest of all time!!

      Reply

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