Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Reflections on PTSD & Rossellini's 'Paisan'

A U.S. soldier comforts a comrade following action near
Hatkcong-Ni in Korea, August 28, 1950
Trump's latest political gaffe about PTSD last night was just too much for me to stomach.

On Monday the same tough guy who got his daddy to help him get a medical deferment based on bone spurs to avoid the Vietnam War, showed up at an event hosted by the Retired American Warriors PAC and insulted the veteran attendees by suggesting that combat vets who suffer from PTSD aren't "strong" and "can't handle it."

In doing so Trump, whose bone spurs miraculously healed themselves once America began to withdraw combat troops from Vietnam, once again demonstrated an appalling lack of understanding of war and the myriad stresses combat veterans serving in military conflicts have been forced to face for generations.

If he understood anything about PTSD it has nothing to do with lack of strength or the ability to "handle(s) it"; it's a deep psychological trauma that is the byproduct of the horror of war.

You know who I feel sorry for? The thousands of American veterans affected by PTSD who've been manipulated into pledging their support for Trump by the calculated conservative media distortion of Hillary Clinton's record and the unprecedented vilification of President Obama.

Each of those vets are going to have to face the decision to support a deceptive Republican presidential candidate who revels in portraying himself as a brash Hawk on defense, yet avoided military service in Vietnam, lied about his financial contributions to a veterans charity, mocked Senator John McCain for the years he spent as a POW in North Vietnam (where he was ruthlessly tortured) and just yesterday demonstrated a simplistic, superficial grasp of PTSD - in front of a crowd of veterans no less.

First-time actress Carmela Sazio in Paisan
Once I read that story last night, I just turned off the radio and my computer to delve back into the work of noted Italian director Roberto Rossellini.

A man who deftly explored the impact of PTSD on both soldiers and civilians during World War II in his classic war trilogy; three neorealism films he made between 1945 and 1948, exploring various aspects of the Italian experience during World War II.

Rossellini is my latest foray into Italian neorealism films, last week I watched the first chapter in his war trilogy, Rome, Open City, a compelling but disturbing 1945 fictional account of the Italian partisan's efforts to fight the Germans during the occupation of Rome, centering around a brave priest's attempt to protect an Italian Resistance leader from being captured by the Gestapo; a film which Rossellini managed to shoot during the actual German occupation.

Last night I watched the second chapter in the trilogy, Paisan (1946), a powerful examination of the impact of the German invasion and occupation of Italy on the lives of a variety of characters in different parts of the country.

Unlike Rome, Open City, a story following a specific set of characters over the course of the film, Paisan is a series of six different unrelated short stories (each written by a different writer) following vignettes from the lives of unrelated characters in different parts of Italy at various points during the German occupation.

The stories are fictional, but each is introduced with a descriptive documentary-style narrative; they serve as brief summary-introductions of the different chapters of the invasion and occupation of Italy by the German Army.

The first follows a squad of American soldiers who come upon a church in a small town where civilians are hiding from the Germans; they ask a young local Italian girl to lead them past German minefields on the coast so they can scout a German position.

In the neorealism style of Vittorio De Sica (The Bicycle Thief), Rossellini cast non-actors in the main roles to enhance the sense of realism; the actress who plays the main character from the first story (pictured above) Carmela Sazio had never acted before, yet she gives an intense, emotionally impactful performance.

U.S. soldier Joe serenades street kid Pasquale in Paisan
Interestingly the second story follows a young orphan played by Alfonsino Pasca who befriends a drunk African-American soldier found wandering the streets of Naples named Joe, played by Dots Johnson - a former taxi driver and musician from New York.

Joe is a lonely Military Policeman in the Army who's exhausted from the war and longing for home; yet he wrestles with the bleak reality that the home he comes from is a hardscrabble, poverty-stricken existence and recognizes that his life in the Army is actually better.

In the photo above, Joe sits on a pile of rubble using his imagination to fly back to New York City to eat a lavish imaginary meal in a restaurant on Broadway; the young street hustler Pasquale can't understand English, and Joe only knows a few words of Italian but they find a way to communicate and bond in an almost father-son like relationship.

In the strange final scenes of this chapter, Joe is escorting a convoy of American Army supply trucks the next day when he spots Pasquale and confronts the boy about having stolen his boots after passing out the night before, forcing him to take him to his home to get his boots back.

When Joe and Pasquale arrive at the latter's neighborhood in the hills just outside the city, Joe glimpses the extreme poverty of urban Naples brought about by the war for the first time.

Joe and Pasquale enjoy a puppet show
He glimpses crowds of impoverished Italians forced to seek shelter in large caves, as if recognizing something of a mirror of his own existence in America, without a word Joe turns, gets into the Jeep and drives away.

It's a reflection of the intense social commentary layered throughout neorealism-style films, but I found it fascinating that an Italian director found it important to glimpse the African-American experience from the Italian perspective.

As if Rossellini wanted to emphasize the commonalities between poor African-Americans and poor Italians in terms of their places in their respective societies in a post WWII world.

The other four vignettes of Paisan are equally compelling (Wikipedia offers a brief summary of each story) with fascinating characters, but in true neorealism fashion, the endings to each of their stories is strictly non-Hollywood.

The fates of each of the characters in Pasisan is emotionally moving, but in a reflection of the harsh reality of war, their stories conclude with sobering reminders of the truth of the incalculable suffering of WWII.

Paisan is more than just an example of masterful filmmaking, seen in the light of the ongoing suffering in places like Syria, Afghanistan and parts of Africa where wars continue to rage, these six vignettes are timeless sobering meditations on the human condition that are just as relevant today as they were seventy years ago.

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