Paisan (meaning ‘fellow-countryman’) comprises six episodes as Yank and British troops battle their way northward to push the Nazis out of Sicily and Italy. They are tied together in semi-documentary fashion by an off-screen narrator pointing out on an onscreen map the successive waves that took the Allies from Sicily to the valley of the Po. Sequences are otherwise unconnected.
Most of the film’s quality must be credited to young Italian writer-director-producer Roberto Rossellini’s feeling for people and his ability to put them in an atmosphere of reality. Aside from a director’s sensitivity to his characters, Rossellini knows the technical tricks of getting desired effects with the camera, lighting, mood and location. Rossellini achieves part of his effect by the mingling of professional and non-professional actors in his cast in such a way that it’s often impossible to tell which is which.
Initial episode, in Sicily, is the night of the landing there, with an American – Joe from Jersey (Robert Von Loon) – left by his squad leader to guard an Italian girl in a deserted castle. In Naples, a Negro MP (Dots Johnson) has his shoes stolen while he sleeps by an Italian urchin. Rome sequence is the best of the lot. A prostitute (Maria Michi) picks up a GI (Gar Moore) and takes him to her room. He lies on her bed too drunk to do anything but babble of the fresh, sweet girl who befriended him with a drink of water when his tank burst into the city six months earlier.
In Florence, there’s a chase by an American nurse and a partisan through German lines. It’s more tense and breathtaking than any staged by maestro Alfred Hitchcock himself. At the Gothic line, three chaplains – a Catholic, Protestant and Jew – are overnight guests in a Franciscan monastery. Final sequence, in the Po Valley, has a group of OSS and British Intelligence men working with partisans behind German lines.