"It's my duty to help those in need" - Don Pietro Pellegrini
Open City took the world by storm in late 1945 and early 1946, usheringin a new filmmaking movement called neorealism. These movies changedthe face of filmmaking forever, particularly by blowing away theprevious standard of cinematic realism. While neorealism lasted lessthan 10 years, the movies influenced future directors from MartinScorsese to Jean-Luc Godard.
The movement was brief because it was a sign of the times, but moredefined by the times than anything else. Open City was shot just afterGerman occupation of Italy, when the country was quite simply ravagedby the effects of World War II. Cinecitta, like virtually everythingelse, was in shambles and money for movies was considered frivolousconsidering everything that needed rebuilding. Those who wanted to workin the industry were forced to take to the streets.
Rossellini shot his film almost entirely on location, mainly withnatural lighting. Rebelling against the studio product much like theFrench New Wave a decade and a half later, Luchino Visconti hadactually done this two years earlier in his very good film Ossessione.Unfortunately, the first and best version of James M. Cain's ThePostman Always Rings Twice wasn't seen worldwide because Viscontididn't purchase the rights to the novel. To me Visconti's film is astylized melodrama that looks more like a film-noir shot outside duringthe day than it does any subsequent neorealist efforts, but dependingon how narrowly you define neorealism, it can be considered the firstfilm of the type and in fact the name comes from a comment on the lookof Ossessione. Anway, working with a budget of just $20,000, Rosselliniused two professional actors to carry the film that was otherwisefilled with non-professional locals. Times were so tough that they wereforced to shoot on scrap film stock and pretty much just paste ittogether. The film has all kinds of imperfections includinginconsistencies in lighting, film stock, and sound as well as poweroutages during shooting.
That an exceptional director like Roberto Rossellini is almost onlyremembered for this shaky work is really sad. In spite of it's obviousflaws Open City is inarguably a remarkable achievement. However, it isfar more a testament to Rossellini's thriftiness, spirit, fortitude,resourcefulness, and ingenuity than his skill as a director. It's notuntil the final segment of Paisan that he shows himself to be a greatdirector, with his skill and diversity becoming more readily apparentin his subsequent films that are now rarely seen in the US. This is aman who continued to challenge himself after he'd made his name. Itshould have been obvious how he was maturing as a director in thestories he told and the way he told them, with Stomboli anticipatingMichelangelo Antonioni's much more famous L' Avventura, but critics andaudiences held him to the standard of this choppy film.
Rossellini's goal in making Open City obviously wasn't just to restarthis career; it was to restart and rejuvenate his country. His filmshows what film can be. It's entertaining yet informative. It's fictionyet it tackles legitimate problems of real people. It's serversmultiple purposes for people at home as well as abroad. It shows lifeas it is, making one want to work for what it could be. The look mightbe what makes neorealism distinct, but these purposes behind thenarrative were the heart and soul of the movement.
Rome, Open City is certainly a highly memorable film of tremendouspower. While I've pointed it some of it's many technical flaws, if thesubject matter isn't able to gain from some of them, it's certainlyable to rise above them. This is a stark gritty realistic document thatcaptures the shocking desolate look of Italy at that time and theplight of its people. It builds on a desperate tragic yet hopeful mood.It depicts the humanity, spirit, determination, and tenacity of theItalian people. It shows the heart and soul of a nation struggling tosurvive oppression, clinging to maintain their tradition and regaintheir freedom. And it does so with a great deal of urgency andimmediacy because the present would determine the future of the nation.
Clearly, this is a propaganda film. It's not so much political as a cryout to the nation to do what's necessary to restore Italy to a livablecountry rather than a place of poverty and suffering. At the same time,it's a cry out to the world to see the Italians as human beings, havecompassion for them, and help out. I think Rossellini's primary goal isthe health of his country, but if he had his way clearly he'd choose asocialist government to lead the way (which forgets that the communistsrecord for senseless death was also less than stellar).
Each Italian person with a notable role represents a human quality suchas love, faith, and rebellion. In all fairness, not all the Italiansare portrayed as good noble people because the character Marina (MariaMichi) is motivated by greed. However, Marina is only bad so the pointcan be made that it may be to late for you and your loved ones if youdon't do start doing the right thing immediately.
One of the keys to the success of Open City is all the time Rossellinidevotes to developing the ordinary Italian. The characters are distinctenough, but there's also a general life and collective spirit to what'sleft of the humble little country. The first 45 minutes are spentmaking the viewer care for the Italians and Italy as a whole. Somepeople find this portion to be slow but, while the Nazi presence isunmistakable, it allows you to concentrate on the "innocent" starvingpeople that are trying to move on. Then, when the Nazis rear their uglyhead and kill one off the favorite characters for no reason, it's sucha startling, infuriating event. The scene placed at the beginning ofthe film would have a certain amount of power, but it's the bond you'veformed with this character that allows it to rip you apart.
The standout character is clearly Pina (Anna Magnani), a worn downpenniless widow raising two children in a crowded apartment and aboutto have her third. She has real problems other than the Nazis, andmakes us focus on the embarrassment and shame of the Italian people.Pina has been so busy trying to keep her family afloat that she hasn'teven had time to get married yet, and even today pregnancy meansmarriage in religious Italy. Most of her problems aren't her fault, yetshe blames herself and tells the priest Don Pietro Pellegrini (AldoFabrizi) she's lived a bad life. While Pina is the most well roundedand best developed character, much of her strength comes from thepowerful emotional portrayal of the great Anna Magnani. Her Pina is areal earthy person with inner strength and fiery sometimesuncontrollable emotion.
The Nazis are pretty much interchangeable caricatures straight from thestockyard. They are excessively cruel animals that torture and kill forthe Reich. I realize that they actually did these things and even 57years later it's hard to see the humanity in the Nazis, but this filmgoes out of its way to make us hate them that much more, even makingtheir inhumanity hereditary. It portrays them as the anti-Italian. TheItalians are the great family people with a simple intimate life builtaround love, while the decadent individualist Nazis are so anti-familythat they are a bunch of prissy homosexuals. Like much of the film thehomosexuality of the Nazis was actually ahead of its time, but in thiscase that's obviously not something to commend it for.
What's surprising about the poorness of Rossellini's treatment of theNazis in the first part and worst part of his trilogy of war is thatthe third and most consistently great part of the trilogy, Germany YearZero, is designed to make people forgive the Germans so the world canmove on to a long period of peace. That, of course, is a film that goesout of its way to differentiate between the evil Nazis we see here andthe "innocent" Germans that are trying to start anew. That said, inspite of his total forgiveness, he still feels the need to take thehomosexuality nonsense one step closer to the gutter by making thedenounced teacher and his friend come off as pedophiles. Open City alsotries hard to make a point against future war, but does so very poorlyby overly relying on a lame premise that by not giving in to Nazitorture (they want the captured Italians to undermine the resistance)the Italians have proven the idea of a master race, the reason for thewar, faulty. Anyway, the idea that Open City is documenting the factsis by far it's strength, but the Nazis being lumped into a bigone-dimensional group partially undermines the believability of theItalian characters that, while obviously sympathetically drawn as thegood hardworking but suffering and impoverished people, by all meansreally did exist.
The plot of Open City isn't particularly original. In fact, if not forthe other aspects like the look, the shock of outsiders seeing thedecimated wartime, the message, and the general sense of urgency allthis creates, it could be a generic Hollywood melodrama. One thing thatmakes the film a standout is that it's so involving that you might notrealize the plot isn't new and some of the politics are bad.
The film is set in '43 or '44 when Nazis controlled the open city (asupposed demilitarized zone that can't be attacked) of Rome. It'spartly based on the real story of the catholic priest Don Morosi thatwas publicly executed, but this story is convoluted with another andwinds up being not nearly as simplistic as subsequent neorealistmasterpieces like Germany Year Zero or De Sica's Bicycle Thief &Umberto D that focus on one or two characters. That said, the manycharacters were necessary to show the spirit of the nation as a wholeand the film has always rightfully been hailed for the understandablemanner in which it delivers its messages. One of the most importantthings the film shows is that everyone from a pregnant woman to apriest to a child can do their part to rebuild the country.
There are a number of good scenes in the film. Some lighten the filmand make it more watchable like the scene where the priest Don Pietrois picking up money to support the military junta and he pauses in theshop to turn the statue of the naked woman away from the statue of thesaint. This doesn't work since she's totally naked, so he turns thesaint as well. This leads to a sad funny scene where he returns to thenow smelly rectory and argues with the sexton Agostino (Nando Bruno).
Pietro: I told you not to cook here!…and cabbage!
Agostino (not knowing the priest is helping the revolution and thebooks contain the money): I'd rather cook chicken. We've no food andyou buy books!
Tension is very high from the beginning of the film with high-rankingrevolutionary Giorgio Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero) going from onerooftop to another to escape the pursuing Nazis. What's important aboutthis scene is that it's not a stunt and he's not made into anythingresembling a superhero. This is not a film about skill or agility. Theheroic deeds involve risk, pain, or even death, but are somethinganyone could do for their country if they had a great enough desire.
Open City does something that few films do today. It tells a bleakunsettling tragic story where the key characters die with the idea thatpeople will understand how it can be uplifting. These characters areheroic for maintaining their dignity and for not revealing the secretsthat would undermine the resistance movement. It's not really aboutheroism though; it's about people doing what's necessary.
The film ends with Italy still needing to resist even though filmingstarted after the country had been liberated, most likely because itwants to help shape Italy's new government that's in opposition of thefascists. It's the courage of their fellow people that is uplifting andis meant to give the nation the strength and intestinal fortitude tocarry on. Although all the deaths leave indelible images in our mind,the key to the ending is not the assassination. It's the saddenedchildren of the revolution that had gathered around and whistled movingon, together.
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese
Len: 1h 37min
Size: 696Mb (Film) + 350Mb (Extras)
Video codec: XviD
Video bitrate: 946 kbps
Resolution: 480 x 320
Audio codec: Lame MP3
Audio bitrate: 120 kbps