Saturday, April 4, 2009

Target #264: Rome, Open City (1945, Roberto Rossellini)

TSPDT placing: #98
Directed by: Roberto Rossellini
Written by: Alberto Consiglio (story) (uncredited), Sergio Amidei (story & screenplay), Federico Fellini (screenplay), Roberto Rossellini (uncredited)
Starring: Aldo Fabrizi, Anna Magnani, Marcello Pagliero, Vito Annichiarico, Nando Bruno, Harry Feist, Giovanna Galletti

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!! [Paragraph 3 Only]

On its initial release, Roberto Rossellini's Rome, Open City (1945) was hailed for its harrowing documentary realism, sharing the 1946 Palme d'Or, and even today it is regarded as the type specimen of Italian neorealism, a movement that produced such treasures as The Bicycle Thief (1948) and Umberto D. (1952). The film's photographic style, which is coarse and unstylised, could certainly be considered classically neorealistic, as could Rossellini's unavoidable preoccupation with Italy's fascist history and war-time devastation. One might suggest that the film's unexceptional film-making technique was imposed upon Rossellini rather than being an entirely deliberate artistic decision; the Germans had only just withdrawn from Rome, and its citizens were still reeling from years of Nazi occupation and Allied bombing. Just as Carol Reed filmed The Third Man (1949) amid the crumbling ruins of war-torn Vienna, Rossellini uses the backdrop of a fallen city to emphasise the disintegration of a formerly unified nation, now surviving only in fragmented patches of human spirit that must now be forged back together again.

Rossellini's film is most often praised for its realism, and for its primary focus on the ordinary citizens of Rome. However, during the film's first half, I didn't find this approach entirely successful. Rather than centering the film intimately on one or two characters, as Vittorio De Sicae did in his two well-known neorealist films, Open City instead jumps from one to another, manufacturing a sense of unity among the oppressed citizens of Rome, but also diluting the viewer's ability to identify with any one character. In this sense, the film is similar to Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers (1966), or even Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925), in that individual characters hold lesser prominence than the ideals for which they are fighting. Suggesting that the art of neorealism took several years to perfect, Rossellini also occasionally veers towards melodrama. Scenes involving the arrogant Major Bergmann (Harry Feist) establish a simplistic "us versus them" mentality, offering Germany as the outright villain in a manner similar to that of any early 1940s American propaganda film.

I must admit that I found myself less-than-captivated during the film's opening half, perhaps because Rossellini wouldn't focus exclusively on any one character. The most interesting moments were those tinged with drama – a German soldier unexpectedly removes a gun from his pocket, a terrorist bomb shakes the city buildings. But if I had any doubts about the director's technique, then the harrowing realism of Anna Magnani's death, photographed as though through the lens of a bystanding newsreel camera, without any dramatic fanfare or unnecessary cinematic punctuation, convinced me of its merits. Notably, Rossellini deviates towards drama in his film's second half, but I considered this an improvement, my complete sympathy now directed towards a specific character, the dignified Roman priest Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi). The German treatment of captured rebels is unflinching in its hostility, including a prolonged torture session with a blow-torch, and a sombre firing squad execution as city children watch on with downcast eyes. Interestingly, Rossellini doesn't end the film with an Italian victory, as might be expected. The misery lingers; any victory could only be hollow.

Currently my #7 film of 1945:
1) The Lost Weekend (Billy Wilder)
2) Spellbound (Alfred Hitchcock)
3) Brief Encounter (David Lean)
4) 'I Know Where I'm Going!' (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger)
5) Leave Her to Heaven (John M. Stahl)
6) Scarlet Street (Fritz Lang)
7) And Then There Were None (René Clair)
8) Roma, città aperta {Rome, Open City} (Roberto Rossellini)
9) Blithe Spirit (David Lean)
10) Cornered (Edward Dmytryk)

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