[Note that this review may contain spoilers]
Starring the inimitable Toto, this 1952 comedy from Roberto Rossellini immediately engages the viewer through its opening reversal. For Toto’s character, Salvatore Lojacono, is on trial for breaking into prison and is doing his best to ensure he gets sent back there.
Via extended flashbacks punctuated by courtroom scenes set in the present, we learn that Lojacono, a barber, was sentenced to a 30 year sentence for a crime of passion, killing his best friend after discovering that the man had made advances on his wife, now dead, and he has found life on the outside intolerable.
Leaving the prison on parole after 22 years incarceration full of optimism, he first finds the street where his shop used to be is no more; his wife Aida has died while he was in prison.
Following a woman to a dance hall – it is hinted that Lojacono’s desires are of a sexual nature, though the circumspection with which the matter is both discussed in court and represented makes it difficult to tell – Lojacono next becomes involved with a group of dancers who making a bid at the dance marathon record, whom he winds up bankrolling after their manager / impresario admits to being broke. Rather than paying the bills the manager then disappears, rendering the record attempt and Lojacono’s generosity void as they are expelled from the dance hall.
It continues like this as Lojacono meets fellow ex-cons, each of whom proves more interested in continuing their old swindles and schemes than seeking an honest living.
Next, Lojacono happens upon his brothers-in-law who, with their family, turn out to have a fortune in large part based upon selling out a Jewish family to the Nazis during the war.
Even worse, in personal if not social terms, it is revealed that his own crime of passion and honour may have been for naught in that “we’re fighting for this woman’s honour, which is more than she ever did” sort of way.
With its pervasive sense of despair and less obviously focused socio-political critique, Where is Freedom? seems an odd film for Rossellini to have made, but on reflection perhaps becomes understandable when contextualised.
The sense of hope and renewal expressed by his neo-realist films of the immediate post war period, that the struggle against Nazism and Fascism had been for something positive, in leading to a new understanding of the world, had, after all, failed to materialise.
The post-war re-alignment saw the hopes of Catholic-Communist co-operation fostered by the resistance dashed, with the post-war realignment resulting in the latter’s de-facto official exclusion from government and re-definition as an enemy within who would sell the country out to the Soviets.
As such, it is perhaps not so much that the film lacks focus, in the way that Rossellini’s earlier anti-fascist entries did, but that its focus has shifted to the new order’s hypocrisies and those of the people themselves. In the case of the former, it was the way the Christian Democrats (DC) denounced the purported godless materialism of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) on the one hand whilst encouraging the development of a materialistic consumer society on the other. In the case of the latter, it was the unwillingness of the individual – or rather, as emphasised here, “amoral family” – as social and economic actor to engage in the kind of collective action that would have led to the better, more utilitarian outcome for all, as the prisoner’s dilemma and the logic of betrayal rather than co-operation it encouraged led to a worse outcome for most and the worst outcome of all for those, like Lojacono, who played the game by the wrong rules and were taken for suckers.
What this cynical view of human nature – or, bad faith in presuming that there is such a thing as human nature, and, if so, that it was one better understood by the DC than the PCI – also does is position the film an largely unacknowledged link between Bunuel’s 1951 Los Olvidados, with its savage, nihilistic denial of Rossellini’s earlier neo-realist optimism and Ettore Scola’s 1976 Brutti, sporchi e cattivi, with its reworking of neo-realism as grotesque pitch-black comedy.