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Rome, Open City (1945)
|by P. G. R. Nair|
Director: Roberto Rossellini /Italy/Italian/100mts
It is a work of great emotion, indelibly stamped by the conditions of its making, by the war and the anti-Fascist struggle, and it is one of a number of works from that period to have established a movement toward a realistic and committed art.
The Gestapo commander in the city, with the help of the Italian police commissioner, captures Giorgio and the priest as they are escorting a German defector and Giorgio out of town, and interrogates Giorgio through torture. They attempt to use Pietro's religious beliefs to convince him to betray his cause, citing that he allies himself with atheists. Pietro responds that anyone who strives to help others is on the path of God whether they believe in Him or not. They then force Don Pietro to watch as Giorgio is tortured.
Rome Open City is not a neutral or disinterested account of the occupation. It is an account which selects certain events and shapes them for a political purpose. To call it a myth does not amount to calling it a lie. Five aspects of this shaping in Rome Open City are worth remarking upon in particular. First, there is the time in which the story takes place. The German occupation of Rome lasted nine months, from 11 September 1943 to 4 June 1944.
Rome, Open City tells a socially conscious and ultimately harrowing story, beautifully acted by a cast of non-actors. This neo-realistic film relives the tragic suffering of Italy and the people's resistance to Nazi occupation during World War II. The role each plays in the resistance reveals an intimate portrayal of their lives. In Rome Open City, which spoke of men and women in difficult times, tormented, injured, scorned, humiliated, Italians recognized their own experiences during the years of a tragic, suicidal war. It was the people of Italy who were won over, finding in the film the flavor of truth.
The film had a mixed reception when it was first shown in Italy, where audiences wanted to forget the miseries and divisions of the recent past. Acceptance there grew after the film was acclaimed abroad, including in the United States, where the New York Film Critics chose it as the best film of 1946. It was praised for the powerful performances of Fabrizi and Magnani, and the use of nonprofessional actors, chosen for their physical appearance, was triumphantly vindicated. The employment of real locations and even the roughness of the filmstock contributed to the film’s raw immediacy, its appearance of newsreel authenticity. Rossellini’s direction was guided, he said, by the “situation of the moment” and reflected his own changing perceptions and an actor’s mood during shooting rather than strict adherence to the script.
It was the great success of Rome, Open City that first drew international attention to Italian neo-realism, and it has been claimed by some as the first full-fledged example of that style. André Bazin, editor of Cahiers du Cinéma, praised Rossellini’s “integrity of style and a moral unity only too rare in cinema,” saying “there is no Italian director in whose work aims and forms are more closely linked.” Bazin goes on: “Neorealism is a description of reality conceived as a whole by a consciousness disposed to see things as a whole. Neorealism contrasts with the realist aesthetics that preceded it. . .in that its realism is not so much concerned with the choice of subjects as with a particular way of regarding things”—in Rossellini’s case “a presentation which is at once elliptic and synthetic.”
For all its dramatic manipulation of complex events into a linear story of defiance, courage, and redemptive hope it remains a brilliant portrayal of life in a city under occupation. However, it is important to be clear about what it is and what it is not. It was essentially a transition film—for Rossellini, for the cinema, for a society coming out of two decades of Fascism—rather than a wholly new kind of work. To put it another way, Rossellini may have reinvented the cinema, but not with Rome Open City. It is a hybrid, in which cinematic innovation is grafted onto dramatic convention, the values of anti-Fascism and working-class collectivism onto a narrative with a conservative sexual and social ethos.
A series of "Hundred Favorite Films Forever"
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