|Cast:||Aldo Fabrizi, Anna Magnani|
|Screenplay:||Sergio Amidei, Federico Fellini, & Roberto Rossellini|
"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, ushering in a new filmmaking movement called neorealism. These movies changed the face of filmmaking forever, particularly by blowing away the previous standard of cinematic realism. While neorealism lasted less than 10 years, the movies influenced future directors from Martin Scorsese to Jean-Luc Godard.
The movement was brief because it was a sign of the times, but more defined by the times than anything else. Open City was shot just after German occupation of Italy, when the country was quite simply ravaged by the effects of World War II. Cinecitta, like virtually everything else, was in shambles and money for movies was considered frivolous considering everything that needed rebuilding. Those who wanted to work in the industry were forced to take to the streets.
Rossellini shot his film almost entirely on location, mainly with natural lighting. Rebelling against the studio product much like the French New Wave a decade and a half later, Luchino Visconti had actually done this two years earlier in his very good film Ossessione. Unfortunately, the first and best version of James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice wasn't seen worldwide because Visconti didn't purchase the rights to the novel. To me Visconti's film is a stylized melodrama that looks more like a film-noir shot outside during the day than it does any subsequent neorealist efforts, but depending on how narrowly you define neorealism, it can be considered the first film of the type and in fact the name comes from a comment on the look of Ossessione. Anway, working with a budget of just $20,000, Rossellini used two professional actors to carry the film that was otherwise filled with non-professional locals. Times were so tough that they were forced to shoot on scrap film stock and pretty much just paste it together. The film has all kinds of imperfections including inconsistencies in lighting, film stock, and sound as well as power outages during shooting.
That an exceptional director like Roberto Rossellini is almost only remembered for this shaky work is really sad. In spite of it's obvious flaws Open City is inarguably a remarkable achievement. However, it is far more a testament to Rossellini's thriftiness, spirit, fortitude, resourcefulness, and ingenuity than his skill as a director. It's not until the final segment of Paisan that he shows himself to be a great director, with his skill and diversity becoming more readily apparent in his subsequent films that are now rarely seen in the US. This is a man who continued to challenge himself after he'd made his name. It should have been obvious how he was maturing as a director in the stories he told and the way he told them, with Stomboli anticipating Michelangelo Antonioni's much more famous L' Avventura, but critics and audiences held him to the standard of this choppy film.
Rossellini's goal in making Open City obviously wasn't just to restart his career; it was to restart and rejuvenate his country. His film shows what film can be. It's entertaining yet informative. It's fiction yet it tackles legitimate problems of real people. It's servers multiple purposes for people at home as well as abroad. It shows life as it is, making one want to work for what it could be. The look might be what makes neorealism distinct, but these purposes behind the narrative were the heart and soul of the movement.
Rome, Open City is certainly a highly memorable film of tremendous power. While I've pointed it some of it's many technical flaws, if the subject matter isn't able to gain from some of them, it's certainly able to rise above them. This is a stark gritty realistic document that captures the shocking desolate look of Italy at that time and the plight of its people. It builds on a desperate tragic yet hopeful mood. It depicts the humanity, spirit, determination, and tenacity of the Italian people. It shows the heart and soul of a nation struggling to survive oppression, clinging to maintain their tradition and regain their freedom. And it does so with a great deal of urgency and immediacy because the present would determine the future of the nation.
Clearly, this is a propaganda film. It's not so much political as a cry out to the nation to do what's necessary to restore Italy to a livable country 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, have compassion for them, and help out. I think Rossellini's primary goal is the health of his country, but if he had his way clearly he'd choose a socialist government to lead the way (which forgets that the communists record for senseless death was also less than stellar).
Each Italian person with a notable role represents a human quality such as love, faith, and rebellion. In all fairness, not all the Italians are portrayed as good noble people because the character Marina (Maria Michi) is motivated by greed. However, Marina is only bad so the point can be made that it may be to late for you and your loved ones if you don't do start doing the right thing immediately.
One of the keys to the success of Open City is all the time Rossellini devotes to developing the ordinary Italian. The characters are distinct enough, but there's also a general life and collective spirit to what's left of the humble little country. The first 45 minutes are spent making the viewer care for the Italians and Italy as a whole. Some people find this portion to be slow but, while the Nazi presence is unmistakable, it allows you to concentrate on the "innocent" starving people that are trying to move on. Then, when the Nazis rear their ugly head and kill one off the favorite characters for no reason, it's such a startling, infuriating event. The scene placed at the beginning of the film would have a certain amount of power, but it's the bond you've formed with this character that allows it to rip you apart.
The standout character is clearly Pina (Anna Magnani), a worn down penniless widow raising two children in a crowded apartment and about to have her third. She has real problems other than the Nazis, and makes 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't even had time to get married yet, and even today pregnancy means marriage in religious Italy. Most of her problems aren't her fault, yet she blames herself and tells the priest Don Pietro Pellegrini (Aldo Fabrizi) she's lived a bad life. While Pina is the most well rounded and best developed character, much of her strength comes from the powerful emotional portrayal of the great Anna Magnani. Her Pina is a real earthy person with inner strength and fiery sometimes uncontrollable emotion.
The Nazis are pretty much interchangeable caricatures straight from the stockyard. They are excessively cruel animals that torture and kill for the Reich. I realize that they actually did these things and even 57 years later it's hard to see the humanity in the Nazis, but this film goes out of its way to make us hate them that much more, even making their inhumanity hereditary. It portrays them as the anti-Italian. The Italians are the great family people with a simple intimate life built around love, while the decadent individualist Nazis are so anti-family that they are a bunch of prissy homosexuals. Like much of the film the homosexuality of the Nazis was actually ahead of its time, but in this case that's obviously not something to commend it for.
What's surprising about the poorness of Rossellini's treatment of the Nazis in the first part and worst part of his trilogy of war is that the third and most consistently great part of the trilogy, Germany Year Zero, is designed to make people forgive the Germans so the world can move on to a long period of peace. That, of course, is a film that goes out of its way to differentiate between the evil Nazis we see here and the "innocent" Germans that are trying to start anew. That said, in spite of his total forgiveness, he still feels the need to take the homosexuality nonsense one step closer to the gutter by making the denounced teacher and his friend come off as pedophiles. Open City also tries hard to make a point against future war, but does so very poorly by overly relying on a lame premise that by not giving in to Nazi torture (they want the captured Italians to undermine the resistance) the Italians have proven the idea of a master race, the reason for the war, faulty. Anyway, the idea that Open City is documenting the facts is by far it's strength, but the Nazis being lumped into a big one-dimensional group partially undermines the believability of the Italian characters that, while obviously sympathetically drawn as the good hardworking but suffering and impoverished people, by all means really did exist.
The plot of Open City isn't particularly original. In fact, if not for the other aspects like the look, the shock of outsiders seeing the decimated wartime, the message, and the general sense of urgency all this creates, it could be a generic Hollywood melodrama. One thing that makes the film a standout is that it's so involving that you might not realize 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 (a supposed demilitarized zone that can't be attacked) of Rome. It's partly based on the real story of the catholic priest Don Morosi that was publicly executed, but this story is convoluted with another and winds up being not nearly as simplistic as subsequent neorealist masterpieces like Germany Year Zero or De Sica's Bicycle Thief & Umberto D that focus on one or two characters. That said, the many characters were necessary to show the spirit of the nation as a whole and the film has always rightfully been hailed for the understandable manner in which it delivers its messages. One of the most important things the film shows is that everyone from a pregnant woman to a priest to a child can do their part to rebuild the country.
There are a number of good scenes in the film. Some lighten the film and make it more watchable like the scene where the priest Don Pietro is picking up money to support the military junta and he pauses in the shop to turn the statue of the naked woman away from the statue of the saint. This doesn't work since she's totally naked, so he turns the saint as well. This leads to a sad funny scene where he returns to the now smelly rectory and argues with the sexton Agostino (Nando Bruno).
Pietro: I told you not to cook here!
Agostino (not knowing the priest is helping the revolution and the books contain the money): I'd rather cook chicken. We've no food and you buy books!
Tension is very high from the beginning of the film with high-ranking revolutionary Giorgio Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero) going from one rooftop to another to escape the pursuing Nazis. What's important about this scene is that it's not a stunt and he's not made into anything resembling a superhero. This is not a film about skill or agility. The heroic deeds involve risk, pain, or even death, but are something anyone could do for their country if they had a great enough desire.
Open City does something that few films do today. It tells a bleak unsettling tragic story where the key characters die with the idea that people will understand how it can be uplifting. These characters are heroic for maintaining their dignity and for not revealing the secrets that would undermine the resistance movement. It's not really about heroism though; it's about people doing what's necessary.
The film ends with Italy still needing to resist even though filming started after the country had been liberated, most likely because it wants to help shape Italy's new government that's in opposition of the fascists. It's the courage of their fellow people that is uplifting and is meant to give the nation the strength and intestinal fortitude to carry on. Although all the deaths leave indelible images in our mind, the key to the ending is not the assassination. It's the saddened children of the revolution that had gathered around and whistled moving on, together.