Rome, Open City (Rossellini, 1945)

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The following account is gleaned from various reviews, and is posted in connection with the showing of this movie @MRHS on Wednesday (Feb. 4, 2015) at 7:30 pm:

“All roads lead to Rome, Open City,” Jean-Luc Godard wrote in 1959. It was groundbreaking in the sense of freedom with which it was filmed, its raw portrayal of occupied Rome and its emotional force. The images have a natural depth that validates the emotions and makes them seem true.

The film is filled with indelible images that live in the heart: children silhouetted in the darkness in front of an explosion; the flowing cassocks of Don Pietro and Marcello as Marcello is pulled kicking and screaming away from his mother’s body; the prophetic slaughter of the two sheep seen through a restaurant window; the boys embracing as they walk away from Don Pietro’s execution, toward a brighter future. Born of wartime trauma and a desire for unity in the new Italy that would come, it has lost little of its power.

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Shooting for “Rome, Open City” started in January 1945. The war in the rest of Italy was still on. There was no film stock, and so Rossellini and his team had to use abandoned scraps found here and there. Rossellini, little by little, sold all he owned so that the film could go on.

This was a film born in the spirit of the resistance and from its many voices. The people of Italy were won over, finding in the film the flavor of truth. In the film, which spoke of men and women in difficult times, tormented, injured, scorned, humiliated, they recognized their own experiences during the years of a tragic, suicidal war.

The celebrated documentary aesthetic and naturalistic performances of “Rome, Open City” help the work achieve moments of devastating, near miraculous beauty.

It also owes part of its emotional power to its mixture of politico-religious symbolism and quotidian humor, which manages to be both vaudevillian in its depiction of the Chaplinesque proletariat and understated in the script’s witty dialogue and subtle dramatic irony.

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As played by the magnificent Anna Magnani, the pious Pina is the film’s archetypal earth goddess, a widowed Madonna and pregnant mother of two who plans to marry a resistance fighter after losing her first husband.

She bursts with maternal caritas and insatiable vivacity, the bags under her eyes causing them to burn with an even brighter inner light on screen. As the unofficial field commander of Rome’s fifth column of fed-up housewives, she embodies all Italian women, while her husky voice and natural curves project a refreshingly frank sexuality even by contemporary standards.

As head of the resistance, the atheistic communist engineer Giorgio is nonetheless spiritually captivated by the Catholic Pina, who has the grace to question her faith in such trying times while still convincing her atheist fiancée to be married by a priest.

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Her faith stands in stark opposition to Giorgio’s lover, Marina, a showgirl and prostitute whose lack of faith causes her to betray the resistance to the fascists. In contrasting Pina and Marina, Rossellini shows that it takes a saint to maintain any kind of moral dignity in this debased yet somehow still holy Catholic world.

When Magnani runs down the street, chasing after her fiance who has been captured by the enemy, that scene, every vicious second of it, is not long but it’s perfect. The Italians know how to depict a pietà, and the film provides one of the most stunning, albeit unorthodox, examples of the subject this side of the Renaissance when Don Pietro holds a dead Magnani in his arms on a crowded Roman street recently emptied of fascist soldiers.

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Rossellini has made a deeply humanist work in which he gives equal weight to the everyday concerns of these people as they simply try to live, and to the urgency of the behind-the-scenes struggle against the Nazis.

He balances the film’s darker moments with surprising humorous touches, particularly in the portrayal of the priest Don Pietro.

The sequence where the Nazis storm the apartment building is a brilliant example of Rossellini’s mastery of tone. The sequence is tense and almost unbearably suspenseful, as the Nazis weave through the building, taking everybody outside, trying to find the men who are hiding and escaping through various secret passages. Rossellini balances this tension with the subtle humor of the priest’s attempts to hide a machine gun and bomb before the Nazis find them.

In the film’s second half, Rossellini shifts his focus onto the attempted escape and capture of Giorgio and Don Pietro by the Gestapo officer Bergmann. The harrowing sequence where the Gestapo question and then torture Giorgio, while the priest is forced to watch, occupies much of the second half of the film. It is a powerful testament to Rossellini’s belief in the power of the human spirit, in the strength of the men who dedicated themselves to the Resistance.

Bergmann tries everything he can think of to get the two men to talk. He tries to split them apart by stressing to the priest that Giorgio is an atheist and a Communist, and by telling Giorgio that the royalists in the anti-Nazi Resistance will eventually betray the Communists. But neither man talks, no matter how much psychological or physical pressure Bergmann exerts on them. They are secure in their belief that they’re doing good, and Bergmann’s petty means of coercion prove insignificant to such men of strength.

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One of Bergmann’s officers sums up Rossellini’s point of view in a speech where the director, surprisingly, seems to put some of his own ideas into the mouth of an embittered Nazi officer who has belatedly realized how bankrupt his own side’s ideas are. This man bitterly says that he once believed that the Germans were a superior race, but that seeing the resistance of the Italians and the French has changed his mind: if these men can be so bold, so honorable, can so stoically resist all manner of torture or threat of death, how can they possibly be inferior to the Germans who kill them? Even Bergmann seems to understand the logic of this.

This is the underlying message of the film: no matter how terrible things are, no matter how triumphant evil might seem, the ultimate victory of good is assured by the tremendous strength and persistence of those fighting on its side.

 

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