“You cannot go on shooting in ruined cities forever.”
Here’s our comedy, my friends,
and here's the prologue.
What do we need? A clear day
and a calm sea.
Now, a cardboard mountain ... deserted it’s sad
until we cover it with houses.
And here’s city hall with its fountain.
And here are the grand houses of the rich.
And now that we’ve set the scene,
here are the characters.
All thieves, schemers, conceited swindlers,
lazy, malicious and silly.
Servile or insolent, complaining and never content...
In the end, nice or not,
they resemble each other a lot.
Now let the comedy start.
Listen and laugh with all your heart.
The film’s introductory verse
“La macchina ammazzacattivi (The Machine That Kills Bad People) is a morality fable about a photographer, Celestino Esposito, who is given a camera that kills people by petrifying them as their image is snapped. He sets about liquidating his small town on the Amalfi coast of bad people, but discovers that good and evil are intertwined and that the man who gave him the camera turns out to be no saint but a demon doing the Devil’s work.”
“The type of realism that I inaugurated with Roma citta aperta and Paisa is no longer of any use today. It was fine then when it seemed a crime not to suggest to men the necessity of becoming conscious of the world in which we lived and of the need to sink our hands into this world to feel what it was made of. Today other things concern me. Today I think one must discover a new and solid base for constructing and for representing man as he is, in the marriage that exists in him between poetry and reality, desire and action, dream and life. For this reason I made L’amore (1948) and La macchina ammazzacattivi, which is perhaps my most original film. Its framework is modest, its tone is more facile, but sometimes one must descend if one wishes to say things that everybody can understand. On the other hand, it is precisely in La macchina ammazzacattivi that my new convictions are summed up and explained, and simplicity is no bother in such a case.”
“La macchina ammazzacattivi contains my wanderings on the Amalfi coast: the places where we were happy and where we were in love; where there are poor devils who are convinced that they have seen a demon; where one told me one day: ‘Yes, I saw him, the werewolf. Yesterday evening, I ran over him on my bicycle.’ They are crazy, people inebriated with the sun. But they know how to live by employing a power that few of us possess: the power of the imagination.”
“La macchina ammazzacattivi was a film reflecting both Rossellini’s search for a new style and a personal artistic crisis that the film was intended to resolve. In it, he tried to draw nearer to the commedia dell'arte. It was precisely the force of fantasy that Rossellini tried to present in this puzzling film, a quality he claimed to find in abundance on the Amalfi coast, where it was filmed and where he had already shot several episodes of Paisa (1946) and Il miracolo (1948).
[The film’s] value lies in the fact that it helps to explain the transition from Rossellini’s war trilogy to a very different kind of cinema altogether that would find its fullest artistic expression in Viaggio in Italia (1954). The plot is extremely complicated, as we should expect from a film linked by the director himself to the traditional commedia dell'arte and scripted in part by the playwright Eduardo De Filippo, who was certainly the greatest contemporary writer in the Neapolitan regional tradition.”
“Rossellini, clearly, is concerned with (...) the nature of photography itself. In good neorealist fashion, Celestino views the camera as a means of separating reality from illusion, good from evil. It enables him, so he believes, to penetrate the surface of events and to fulfil a God-like role in his small village (not unlike that of a film director on the set). Strikingly, Celestino can only ‘kill’ people not by photographing them directly but by re-photographing photographs of them. At the instant the photographer takes the picture, the victims freeze in the pose they strike in their photograph. [I]t also emphasises the self-reflexive nature of the entire film, which opens with a large hand and arm placing all the elements of the story before us in the form of paper cutouts. Consequently, Celestino – like Rossellini – is engaged in the essentially self-reflexive act of producing a work of art from another work of art. In this comic parable, Rossellini is telling us that photography and cinema are incapable not only of separating good from evil but also of distinguishing reality from appearance. The camera becomes a fallible instrument which reflects not reality but human subjectivity and error.”
“Enormously self-aware, much to the dismay of realist critics, La macchina ammazzacattivi continuously and exuberantly foregrounds its own status as artificial construct rather than real life. At the same time, however, Rossellini’s typical documentary impulse is also greatly in evidence, and the disruptive combination of stylization and documentary, not unlike De Sica’s Miracle in Milan (1950) has bothered many. From another point of view, however, it is precisely this unstable, contradictory blend of ingredients that, in posing the problem of realism, makes the film so interesting. [F]or the film’s simultaneous insistence on a documentary realism is what constitutes its rough, unconventional appeal [e.g. the scenes of the blessing of the boats or the religious procession for Sant'Andrea]. In any case, the particularization of locale is remarkable.
A more correctly literal translation of the title would be The Apparatus to Kill Bad People – it is also important to know that ‘macchina’ is the common Italian word for ‘camera’. The major feature of the film’s self-reflexive questioning, of course, is Celestino’s role as photographer. [This] self-reflexivity is further insisted upon by the very fact that the ‘deaths’ caused by the camera are portrayed on the screen precisely by the use of uniquely cinematic devices such as stop motion, montage, and reverse action, tricks as old as Georges Méliès. And, of course, they are just that, tricks, and thus to be shunned by all proper realists; what Rossellini seems to be coming to understand at some level, however, is that all cinema, including the realist variety, is, and can only be, trickery.”
We’ll take down the sets, my friends.
The play is over. Here’s the moral:
Do good but don’t overdo it!
Avoid evil, for your own sake.
Don’t be too hasty in judging others.
Think twice before you punish anyone.
I’ll leave now for time does fly,
So I’ll take my bow and say goodbye.
The film’s rhymed epilogue
- 1Eric Rohmer and François Truffaut, ”Interview with Roberto Rossellini ,” In Jim Hiller (ed.), Cahiers du Cinema – The 1950s: Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985), 209.
- 2Tag Gallagher, The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini (New York: Da Capo Press, 2006; revised edition).
- 3Roberto Rossellini, “Rossellini si defende [interview with Fernaldo Di Giammatteo, 1948],” in II mio metodo (Venice: Marsilio Editori, 1987). Quoted and translated in Peter Bondanella, The Films of Roberto Rossellini (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 87.
- 4Roberto Rossellini, II mio metodo (Venice: Marsilio Editori, 1987), 93.
- 5Peter Bondanella, “La macchina ammazzacattivi: Doubts about the Movie Camera as a Morally Redemptive Force,” The Films of Roberto Rossellini (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
- 6Steven Jacobs, Framing Pictures: Film and the Visual Arts (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011), 122.
- 7Peter Brunette, “The War Trilogy and After: La Macchina Ammazzacattivi (1948–52),” Roberto Rossellini (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996; reprint).