Movie Review: Il Generale Della Rovere

Il Generale Della Rovere is a 1959 Italian film directed by Roberto Rossellini, based on the writings of Indro Montanelli. The film is set in Italy during World War 2 and follows the character Emmanuele Bardone, played by actor and former neorealist director Vittorio De Sica. Upon its release it was widely acclaimed and was also awarded the Golden Lion. It is a dark, harrowing, intense, and yet elegant film about the war seen from Italy’s perspective. It is also unique in the way its main actor, De Sica, takes on a very serious role in contrast to his usual light-hearted roles in comic films.

Emmanuele Bardone is a professional scammer who goes by the name of Colonel Grimaldi, gaining the majority of his money through swindling families of political prisoners by promising them he would be able to persuade German authorities to favorably consider the cases of their imprisoned family members, as long as they are able to pay him.

The money he extorts he uses to gamble, which is always his ruin. At one point, he is desperate for money and turns to a woman called Valeria who lives just across from him in the same apartment building who is able to give him things to sell. This time, Valeria gives him a quite sumptuous-looking ring, which is fake. Bardone scrapes the city, trying to sell the ring at a hefty price for anyone who might be interested. However, everyone he comes across is too poor to be able to afford his price for the ring, and for awhile he is left dejected and penniless.

Il Generale Della Rovere

Il Generale Della Rovere
Bardone attempting to sell his false ring while having lunch at a brothel.

One day, he is invited to have lunch at a brothel, where he finds an old lover, Olga (played by Sandra Milo). The owner of the brothel, an old woman, is also a long-time friend. At the table for lunch, he passes around his ring to the prostitutes to see if they are interested in buying it, but all of them decline. By the end of dinner, Olga and Bardone go to her room and she tries to give him 30,000 lire. Bardone, confused at such a generous offer, asks why she would do such a thing for him. Olga collapses, sobbing, on her bed, and laments about her past life and how terrible her life has become. Bardone attempts to comfort her but she pulls away, telling him desperately to go away and never come back, leaving the money for him as she rushes out of the room.

With this large amount of money, Bardone immediately sets off to gamble. Not for the first time, despite all the intensity and silent wishes for luck in the smoke-stuffed room as he and several other men and women stare down the green table, he loses all his money. Disappointment shows on his face, but it is a familiar disappointment as he has surely seen the same unlucky results countless times before. However, losing so much money would only be the start of Bardone’s worries, as his scams finally come back to bite him.

Earlier, Bardone had convinced a woman that he was in the process of getting her husband, a political prisoner, out of jail and that he needed her payments to continue the process. However, this woman discovers that her husband had actually been shot, so when Bardone pretends to bring her hopeful news about her husband’s fate, she has him arrested by the German authorities. However, Bardone finds himself in a bit of luck when he encounters Colonel Muller (Hannes Messemer). Early on in the film, he briefly encountered Muller as his car had burst a tire and Bardone had kindly given him directions of the nearest place that could provide a tire change. During this encounter, they had also talked amiably, although briefly, with each other. This seemingly frivolous encounter turned out to save the now endangered Bardone from an immediately unfortunate fate.

The Details

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Bardone’s and Colonel Muller’s first encounter in the beginning of the film, a meeting which would prove highly valuable later on.

Colonel Muller, impressed by Bardone’s ability to pretend to be someone else, offers Bardone an opportunity: to become General Giovanni Braccioforte Della Rovere (Il Generale Della Rovere), an important and famous military official of the Italian resistance who was accidently killed by German forces. For this opportunity, Bardone would have to be sent to San Vittore prison in Milan where political prisoners are held, his task being to discover the true identify of someone called “Fabrizio,” the leader of the Italian resistance against Nazis and fascists. Having no other choice, Bardone agrees.

Soon, Bardone is relocated to the San Vittore prison, a maddening stretch of stone bricks and metal bars. Upon arrival, believing that he is really Generale Della Rovere, the other political prisoners are fascinated and inspired by Bardone and his military feats. After he is officially planted in the prison, a curious thing starts to happen with Bardone: previously always a scammer and a gambler, always driven by money and discarding his morality in order to get it in any amount, Bardone instead, touched by the stories of these resistance members, starts to sense a shift in his beliefs and in his heart.

Over time, he starts to feel for the other prisoners, starts to understand their struggle, starts to weigh the importance of their anti-fascist beliefs. While he is only kept in prison to obtain information and compete a task, he ultimately ends up becoming another member of the resistance. Interestingly, he becomes more dignified in prison than he ever was outside on his own.

Il Generale Della Rovere
Bardone’s fear and uncertainty are obvious upon his first introduction to being imprisoned.

Bardone’s new compassion for the political prisoners is slowly revealed. For instance, at nightfall, when an air raid tears apart parts of the city just outside of the prison, Bardone convinces a guard to let him momentarily out of his cell so he can call to the other prisoners over the sounds of the bombs, feeding them words of bravery to help steady their nerves. Bardone is also strongly impacted when a fellow prisoner, Aristide Banchelli, is brought back to Bardone’s cell, battered and bloodied from severe torture by the Germans who believed Banchelli may know who Fabrizio is.

What to Know

Bardone immediately starts to care for this suffering man, having him drink some water and making sure he’s still breathing. In the morning, when breakfast is brought to their cell, Bardone tells Banchelli that they have soup to eat, but reels away when he discovers that Banchelli had slit his wrists and killed himself so he could not be continuously tortured and forced to speak about the resistance. Terrified and shocked, Bardone screams of Banchelli’s death out the cell door. Soon after this incident, Bardone is also brutally tortured.

Il Generale Della Rovere
After Bardone is tortured.

Some time afterwards, he is brought to a room with about twenty other men who are all to be executed as the Germans are sure Fabrizio is sure to be among them. While he is in this room, the real Fabrizio reveals himself to Bardone, believing he is Generale Della Rovere. This information is pivotal: according to Colonel Muller’s promises to Bardone, it would give Bardone back his freedom, a reward of 1 million lire, and safe conduct to Switzerland. However–and this may be the most moving part of the film–Bardone does not turn in this information. Instead, as the other prisoners in the room are called by name by German guards to be escorted outside to be shot, Bardone follows them in the same manner when his name is called.

Before he is escorted outside, Colonel Muller stops him and pulls him aside, demanding Bardone to give him information about Fabrizio, knowing that on a night where the prisoners were to be executed, one of them would have felt the need to confide in the Generale. Bardone asks for a pencil and paper, which Muller gives him, hoping to obtain some information. Instead, Bardone, writes a letter to Della Rovere’s wife and children in the Generale’s place to give them closure, the letter reading, “My last thought is for you.”

Bardone leaves Muller, ascending a staircase to go outside. Muller shouts after him in protest, following him outside and telling Bardone that they will kill him if he follows the others and that he does not need to die if he gives up the information. Bardone ignores him, joining the line of prisoners who have been tied up to be shot. He gives them his last courageous words, telling them to think of their families and of their patriotism, before they all, including Bardone, are shot dead.

Il Generale Della Rovere
The scene of the execution. Bardone is the only man in the lineup not blindfolded or tied to a pole, to the far right. Colonel Muller in the foreground, unable to face the scene, instead faces the camera.

Il Generale Della Rovere is a fascinating portrayal of a man who valued nothing except money in the beginning, a man who is slowly able to change who he is for the better, a man who truly becomes the man who he was only pretending to be after connecting with the struggles of imprisoned resistance members. In the start of the film, Bardone survived by exploiting others for money. By the end, Bardone sacrificed everything, including himself, so he could give his fellow prisoners the dignity and strength of believing that the great Generale Della Rovere died fearlessly at their side for their shared cause.

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