It’s generally agreed by film critics and historians alike that Roberto Rossellini is hard to place, and harder to recommend properly. One reason for this, I think, is that — out of respect and esteem — people have been shy of admitting that Rossellini was a hustler, a chameleon and a bit of a rogue. Take the event for which he is still most famous. Take the whole Ingrid Bergman affair.

At the very end of the Second World War, Rossellini (born in 1906) had seized the moment of national breakdown and made three remarkable films that became part of Italian neorealism: Rome, Open City (1945), Paisan (1946) and Germany Year Zero (1948). If you’ve never seen them, do so now. They are shaky as realism but they are fascinating, troubling and deeply moving, and they were shot very cheaply in conditions close to those depicted.

Along with the work of Vittorio De Sica (Shoeshine and Bicycle Thieves), these films made a great impact in America. One of the people affected was Ingrid Bergman, by then a star beloved by the people, a wife and mother. An Oscar winner. Untouchable. She wrote Rossellini a letter from out of the blue: She was sick of the artificial films she was making in Hollywood — could she work with him? The Italian jumped. His great ambition in life was to meet a great movie star, go to Hollywood and have much bigger budgets. He was involved with Anna Magnani at the time (on a film called L’Amore and in an affair), but Magnani was North African, coarse, a bully — not yet a star. So Ingrid and Roberto were a match made in their fantasies, if you could discount or finesse the fact that each of them longed to be the other.

The scandal that attended their union was the greatest the movie world has ever known, in large part because the American public had acquired such a fond and unreal view of Ingrid. They were condemned from pulpits, in the press, on the floor of the Senate. But they were trapped: They had to work together (it was part of being great lovers), and it had to be in Italy. They had children and they made several films together — all serious failures, and all very deflating to the romance. Ingrid found she hated realism. Roberto wasn’t too happy handling story.

Those films — Stromboli (1950), Europa ’51 (1952), Voyage to Italy (1954) and Fear (1954) — are flawed, and you can guess from the screen’s tensions that they were not happy working experiences. (The marriage was breaking down almost as soon as it was entered into.) But they were hugely important in their influence on Antonioni, Godard and many other directors. They are full of pain, for they are stories of breakdown, not fulfilled love, yet they have an honesty and a beauty in which one can see Rossellini finding himself as a director. Turmoil was his best subject, not calm.

The scandal concluded. Bergman went back to Hollywood and she won another Oscar for Anastasia (1956) — a romance every bit as silly as those she had complained about in the ’40s. Rossellini moved on: to documentary; to lavish historical epics filmed as if they were documentaries; and to films made for Italian television. The landmarks here are India (1959), General della Rovere (1959), Vanina Vanini (1961), Garibaldi (1961) and The Rise of Louis XIV (1966).

UCLA’s is a great event, likely to have the best prints possible, plus visits from Rossellini scholar Tag Gallagher as well as Isabella Rossellini — another fruit of the great melodrama. I only hope that the full measure of Rossellini comes across — not just the artist, the father and the lover, but the opportunist, the expert on cars, money and women, the lovable scoundrel. For although he sometimes filmed the lives of saints, he was not one. He was all the Karamazov brothers rolled up into one. The difficulty in understanding him and his work comes above all from the attempt to insist on one thing at the expense of the other. Let the honest endeavor begin: See as many of the pictures as you can.

ROBERTO ROSSELLINI: A Retrospective | UCLA Film & Television Archive | Through March 31 |

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