"Paisa" is part of a WWII trilogy shot just after the war, together with "Rome, Open City" (1945) and "Germany Year Zero" (1948), each depicting a specific episode of WWII: respectively the conquest of Italy by the Allies, the occupation of Rome by the Germans and post-war Berlin. "Paisa" is not only the best of the three, it is Rossellini's masterpiece, an essential Neo-Realism movie and a major Italian classic. For the anecdote, "paisa" is an informal word meaning "countryman".
Although this movie is about Italy's campaign at the end of WWII, it only briefly deals with its important moments: the Allied landing in Sicily, the battle of Monte Cassino, the Gothic line battle. These are just summarised with archive footage between the main scenes. Interestingly, it does not even mention other critical moments: the downfall of Mussolini, his escape, his brief so-called "republic", his final downfall and execution, the invasion of Italy by the German army, the deportation of Jews, etc.
This because the movie shows war at human level: how war and its aftermath impacts people's lives and values; also, it revolves around the relationship between Italians and Americans. It is not a "war movie" in the generally accepted sense, but rather "humane stories during war".
To illustrate different aspects, it shows six scenes as the Allies progress north through Italy's landmarks. Three scenes occur during the battles (1, 4, 6) and three afterwards (2, 3, 5). Remarkably, the movie avoids the pitfall of many "vignette movies", namely the sensation of watching different shorts instead of a full-length picture: "Paisa" maintains a thematic and aesthetic unity throughout. At the same time, each scene has its own specific interest, which enhances the unique character of the movie.
Aesthetically, it combines documentary and fictional styles, in a ground-breaking manner for the period. Every scene begins with archive footage: when fiction starts, it seems a continuation of archives. Also, as in a documentary, shooting is sober, stories are simple, themes are realistic. However, Rossellini introduces at carefully chosen moments fictional elements to enhance the dramatic impact of each scene: music, lighting, offbeat humour, surprising actions. The latter notably include: the Italian girl turns against the Germans (1); the GI first does not recognise the boy who stole his shoes (2); the GI does not recognise the woman he fell in love with six months before (3); a woman and a wounded man manage to pass the fighting line (4); the entire scene in the monastery feels out of this world (5); a small group of partisans resist the German army (6).
Humour is another key element. It is tricky to introduce humour in a war movie, but Rossellini succeeds in order to avoid an altogether too tragic tone. The entire scene in the monastery (5) is humorous, which is acceptable because at that stage the war in the region is over and the monks do not have to face too tragic consequences, as opposed to the scenes in Naples (2) and Rome (3). The tone is satirical (the monks are nervous because a Jew and a Protestant are within their walls), but at the same time we understand how they feel. Another hilarious part, albeit much shorter, is the incredible dialogue between British officers (4): they are looking at the fighting from far away and talk in a phlegmatic manner as if the war did not exist.
This humour partly balances the overall tragic tone of the movie: killings, poverty, cruelty. Tones are hence balanced between dark (1, 6), light (5), or both (2, 3, 4). Irony, this dark form of humour, is constant: the GIs think the girl shot their companion, while she tried to avenge him (1); the GI cannot get his shoes back (2); the GI thinks the woman he fell in love with is just another prostitute (3); the nurse crosses the line to find a man who is actually dead (4); the monks are tolerant up to a point (5). Irony in the last scene is subtler. Many scenes contain a touching speech by an American: the GI tries to talk to the Italian girl (1); the GI dreams of glory (2); the GI regrets the good spirits during liberation (3); the chaplain confesses he found peace of mind (5). However, the only speech in the last scene is the dreadful propaganda from the German officer about destruction and new order. This is highly ironic: it opposes the previous humane speeches; also, it was obvious in winter 1944 that Germany had lost the war and Nazism was utter barbarity.
On top of death and destruction, war brings moral decay. People know what they are doing is wrong, but they have no choice: the GIs force the girl to help them (1); "Don't sleep else I will steal your shoes", the orphan warns the GI (2); the prostitute regrets the time when she was respectable (3); by crossing the fighting line, the man looking for his family gets a partisan shot (4); by asking for food in a house, the partisans expose its inhabitants to severe revenge from the Germans (6). Because deep down, people are decent and try to help each other: the girl turns against the Germans because she was touched by the GI trying to talk to her (1); the GI pities the orphan's misery (2); the usherette allows the prostitute inside without paying to escape the police (3); the partisans let the two civilians pass despite the risks for their cause (4); the peasants feed the partisans despite the risks (6).
Hence the movie is mostly tragic with an optimistic message: after the war, hopefully a better world will emerge based on people's humanity that was temporarily crushed. Italians collaborators and German Nazis are seldom shown: they belong to the past. Symbolically, communication progressively improves between Italians and Allies during the movie: from impossible conversation (1, 2) to limited dialogue (3), to eventually efficient coordination (4, 5, 6). The last shot simply but beautifully illustrates hope: after a dramatic close-up on partisans thrown into the water, the camera moves up towards the horizon and the voice that previously described fierce battles announces the war will soon be over.