The Machine That Kills Bad People (1952)
Directed by Roberto Rossellini
Monday, June 25, 9:15 as part of BAMcinemaFest
In Roberto Rossellini’s post-WWII black comedy The Machine That Kills Bad People, the camera becomes a fully operational merchant of death, weaponized in the name of social justice. The operator of the titular machine is Celestino (Gennaro Pisano), a disgruntled photographer who believes the patron saint of his small Italian village has deemed him judge, jury, and executioner, allowing him to take revenge against the politically corrupt and greedy with the snap of a shutter. He picks off vile politicians, scheming businessmen, and clueless dilettantes, hoping to even the odds between classes.
Interestingly, it’s a role the man first resists out of some kind of instinctual morality, but slowly embraces out of frustration with the institutions around him. As a result, Celestino becomes a formidable proxy for the hand of god (or the devil) invoked during both the opening and closing credits, creating his own autuerist form of justifiable homicide. Celestino’s rage can be felt in every desperate moment, every futile attempt to convince the legion of upper class crooks their debilitating actions will have a ripple effect on the poor.
The elite’s brazen indifference and buffoonery toward the public’s collective wellbeing is consistently shocking, most notably in their consistent bastardization of WWII nostalgia and heroism. This motif is introduced immediately when Rossellini cuts to a pair of ex-soldiers standing above the beautiful Mediterranean, plotting to build a hotel over a sacred communal burial ground—a place they once landed as part of the Allied invasion forces. The horror of these men’s troubling intentions is expressed through their vast moral obliviousness, confirming what the omniscient 4th-wall breaking narrator foreshadowed in the film’s first scene: that all the film’s characters are “thieves, schemers, and concerted swindlers.”
Drenched in acidic surrealism and blunt social commentary regarding the evils of cronyism and profiteering, Rossellini’s hilariously satire still feels relevant today. A Coen brothers remake would be heaven on Earth.