Roberto Rossellini's first film is a work of deceptive transparency. In its initial moments the film appears to be a documentary about underwater, even deep-sea, species. But soon after, the narration, in the manner of Cocteau, unleashes a powerful "dual reality" onto the images, imbuing them not only with a narrative logic, but a kind of magic. (Let's be clear, for Rossellini there are basically no precedents; or about those that can at least "be said to" exist this filmmaker would always be willing in turn to rejoinder, and pointedly, that the material influences for any film of merit hail from life itself and the powers of the observer; correspondences between films might exist — but why shouldn't they, since audiences and filmmakers are all, ostensibly, alive.) Magic always resides within reality; maybe it's better to say Rossellini "imbues" less than he unlocks. So I ask, at no-one in particular: Is the difference in method (imbue vs. unlock) why Rossellini (or Vigo, or Renoir) have, insanely, been perpetually categorized as (excruciatingly loaded, extraordinarily wish-fulfilling and villainous phrase) "master realists," as though they were closer in form and temperament to the aggressions of a Chernyshevsky than to the "specific details" of a Nabokov? As though Picasso's famous assertion — "I do not seek — I find" — were, after all, too "oracular" (read as: foolish, mad, cavalier, unsuitable for We 2.0) and, therefore, too domineering in service of the cause of the Individual (too self-involved!), rather than that of the marxist-christianic Social Fabric (just communist/grown-up enough!)? It is my belief that whenever imagination and freedom stand as the core precepts of one's aesthetic, no intrusions (invited or repressed) of "political" or "social" "realities," either as plot-element, backdrop, or general milieu, can grant Possession and Control of that work to the envious workaday critics, hack bloggers, or majordomo Ideologians. All great artists know, and from head to toe, that the big picture is the Individual and his interior perceptions of the outside world — and that artistic generation is simply the mimetic representation, mise en abyme, of this graceful essence and its occasionally ancillary residue (i.e., external action). For Rossellini, social realities exist in counterpoint to knowledge and fantasy, and Rossellini's Undersea Fantasy [Fantasia sottomarina, 1938] is an essay upon man's only material reality: his origin, and the circumstances of his end.
Tag Gallagher: "[The film] was shot in an aquarium on the porch of [Rossellini's] cottage in Ladispoli, twenty kilometers up the coast from Rome, in the summer of 1938. The director filled dead fish with lead and manipulated them with long hair from his wife's head."
So the setting for Undersea Fantasy's action is neither actual undersea environs or ocean floor, nor that kind of aquarium staging wherein the camera floats in some yellow cage amid zigzag schools of glittering fish. From Rossellini-Film-1: "neorealism." The 'fourth wall' is re-established, is not retractable; we're only made aware it's there at all at the astonishing moment when the predatory octopus's tentacles lash forward at the camera — and its suction-cups splatter in attachment to what we now realize is a glass wall positioned between the plateaus on the inside and the camera on the outer side — not quite 'our, the spectators', side'. For there exists an envelope of non-aquatic space between the onscreen set and the camera, which, in the battle sequence centered around the octopus's sudden and shocking circumscription, reinforces the Rossellinian concern of an ideal freedom being hemmed in by an absolute, initially invisible boundary of control.
In the narration's 'anthropomorphisization' of the sea-animals and its reconstitution of many of our own movements within the events of this small marine kingdom (the twitch of a lobster's antennae are said here to emit radio signals for aid in the fight against the predator; a carefully constructed montage bolsters the soundtrack's relation of the betrayals and loneliness afflicting a lovelorn fish), Rossellini leads us, implicitly, undidactically, to consider nothing less than man's aquatic origins, our collective crawl out of the primordial filth, and in so doing he proclaims our daily struggles as embodying stuff already-imbued with the primacy of Truth. And in filming along the way the combat that ensues between the terrorizing octopus and the ingenious and resistant fish, Rossellini crafts as elegant a depiction as any of the notion that "man," to use the words of Orson Welles in that Dick Cavett interview, "is a crazy animal." Love, jealousy, hate, determination, obsession, ambivalence, compulsion, contradiction, redemption, transcendence: We'd do well to recall that The Beatles' album Help! was initially intended to be released with the title Eight Arms to Hold You...
Resistance against the confines of control finds its correlative in another undersea filmmaker: Jean Painlevé, who six years after Rossellini's Undersea Fantasy would direct with Jean Grémillon the first film on the 'overgrounding' of the French Resistance, when Paris was seized back at the end of the war from the Germans and their Vichy collaborators. Organized from footage shot with handheld camera in the heat of the conflict by an ad hoc crew, and created as documentary revelation for an international audience, the film, Le Journal de la Résistance  (narration in English, and French title retained for its screenings in the UK, US, Canada, etc.), was recently released on Criterion's DVD edition of Melville's Army of Shadows [L'Armée des ombres, 1969] — with little indication on the disc's packaging of its presence, and even littler fanfare from critics over such. As these frames attest, Painlevé's and Grémillon's picture is a remarkable document that deserves at least as large a portion of the public as greeted the celebrated re-emergence of Melville's (equally excellent) film.
Rossellini, proving himself a thinker of maximally poetic and imaginative breadth, even uses his film to contemplate the seldom-considered reality of animals in the wild suffering accidental deaths.