The film consists of six separate but connected stories following the progress of the Allied invasion of Italy starting on the island of Sicily, continuing to the occupation of Naples, then to six months after the liberation of Rome (but with a flashback to the beginning of the Roman campaign), the conflict between Fascists and Partisans for control of Florence, a visit of three American military chaplains to a monastery in Porto Tolle in the Appennine mountains and finally to the Po Valley and the capture of Italian partisans and their American advisors by retreating Germans in the north. In the first Sicilian sequence, the Americans and the Italians are very cautious of each other; neither side really trusts the other. An American platoon is seeking to cross a minefield and requests a guide from some Sicilian locals. No one is interested until a young girl named Carmela (Carmela Sazio) agrees to help them. Above the field is a stone fortress where the G.I.s set up temporarily. The platoon shortly goes off to check out something in the distance leaving Joe from New Jersey (Robert Van Loon) to stand guard alone with Carmela. Neither of the two speak each other's language and a frustrating non-conversation takes place. However, the two manage to strike up some form of connection without understanding the other's language. Joe lights his Zippo to show Carmela a photo of his sister but a German sniper sees the light and shoots Joe -- fatally wounding him. Carmela tries to hide the dying Joe as the German patrol methodically approaches the stone tower. What happens next I won't spoil.
The second sequence displays the terrible destruction in Naples with Rossellini's camera pouring over the rubble which was still there at the time of filming. An off-duty African-American MP named Joe (Dots Johnson) gets drunk and is surrounded by a group of young Italian boys who spot an easy mark. One of the boys named Pasquale (Alphonsino Pasca) "buys" the G.I. from the other boys and follows him around; waiting for Joe to pass out so he can steal whatever he can from him. Sitting on top of a pile of rubble, Joe fantasises about going back to America a war hero but then realizes that his colour makes his life in America not much better than these poor Neopolitans. Joe eventually does pass out and Pasquale steals his boots. Three days later, now-sober Joe is driving in his jeep when he sees Pasquale stealing from the back of a supply truck. He grabs the boy and demands he return his shoes. Insisting that Pasquale take him to his parents, the boy leads Joe to a cave where displaced and homeless Neopolitans are scratching a bare existence. Pasquale's parents were both killed and Joe, seeing how much worse the Italians have it than anything he's experienced back in the States, forgets all about his boots.
The third sequence takes place six months after the liberation of Rome. A drunk American soldier Fred (Gar Moore) is picked up by a prostitute (Maria Michi) who takes him back to her room. However, the G.I. bemoans the fact that "Rome is full of girls like you" and recalls six months earlier when things were different and he had met a beautiful, virtuous Italian girl named Francesca. Rossellini then provides us with a very un-neo-realist flashback and we see the tender meeting between Fred and Francesca. It is at this point we realise that Francesca is the very same prostitute the drunken Fred is talking to; he doesn't recognise her in his boozy haze. As we experience the brief but sweet courtship and promise to return, Rossellini dissolves back to the bedroom six months later. Francesca slips out on the sleeping Fred and gives her real address back home to the whorehouse Madame who promises to give it to Fred when he wakes up. Francesca then goes home to await Fred's return and the happy reunion she feels sure is to come. Again I won't spoil it but the ending is not what you'd expect.
The fourth episode takes place in a hospital in Florence. Harriet (Harriet White) is a nurse who spent some time in Florence before the war. She is fluent in Italian and is in love with a Florentine painter named Guido Lombardi. She discovers Guido has become a Partisan leader known as Lupo (i.e. "The Wolf") and the rumour is he's been injured or killed. Along with another partisan, Harriet makes the dangerous, maze-like journey through the city where fighting is still raging between the partisans and the fascists; desperately trying to find out what actually has happened to her lover.
The fifth sequence finds a trio of US military chaplains (one Catholic, one Protestant and one Hebrew) entering a 500 year old monastery in the Appennines. The brothers warmly welcome the chaplains and offer them lodging and food. After some time, the brothers become aware that all three chaplains are not in fact Catholic but follow the "heresies" of Luther and Judaism. The stunned monks ask the Catholic chaplain Captain Martin (William Tubbs) if he has ever tried to "save" the men by showing them they stray from the "one true faith". Martin says that he has not and the monks think that it has become their duty to convert the two chaplains to Catholicism. In the dining hall when food is placed in front of the three chaplains, the monks sit with nothing. They explain they will not eat; they will fast. Rossellini does not make it plain whether the monks are intolerant of the "evil false" religions of the two chaplains or whether their desire to convert them stems from their genuine love for them and a naive attempt to "save" them from the error of their ways. This is certainly the most enigmatic of the film's episodes.
The sixth and final segment takes place in the Po Valley among the reeds as Italian partisans team up with American military "advisors" to fight the remaining Germans still clinging to the north of Italy. Both sides are giving no quarter. Rossellini puts his camera right down on the same level as the fighters among the reeds alongside the river which gives a vivid approximation of what these men go through to the viewer. After several vicious battles, the partisans and Americans are captured. I again will not reveal what happens next for you really should watch the film yourself and see. The use of real locations (judiciously sprinkled with perfectly realised studio sets) puts you right there in the middle of an Italy just liberated mere moments ago. While Rossellini uses real actors (Dots Johnson, Maria Michi, Harriet White, William Tubbs) many of the cast are indeed non-professionals (Carmela, Joe from Jersey, Pasquale, the two non-Catholic chaplains and all the monks) and give just as affecting performances. Rossellini's subject matter of the meeting between two "alien cultures" which must try to find some commonality is shown with . . . well, realism; there is failure to understand each other, mistakes made and genuine bonding achieved. There is also tragedy. Nothing is given a pat answer. However there were enough examples of success between Italians and Americans that a sense of becoming "paisans" after the war seemed quite good for the future. PAISAN is an extraordinary movie which cannot be missed.