Thursday, July 6, 2017

Rome, Open City (1945)


World War II was over and many European film studios were limping within the industry. Roberto Rossellini’s film Rome, Open City would be a visionary picture made under less than desirable conditions and pertained to issues many Italians of that time would rather soon want to forget, but it would serve to become one of the finest films of its day. An international success and a product where necessity was the mother of invention, the picture would aid in the introduction of the new wave of neorealism in Italian cinema, a style which would influence generations of future filmmakers.

Rome, Open City is a drama about life in Rome during Nazi occupation and the struggling attempts to fight off the military oppressors by its resistant citizens. Within the Nazi and fascist ruled Rome a small community of oppressed citizens struggle to deliver messages and money to Resistance fighters. Giorgio (Marcello Pagliero), a communist and leader of a secret faction of the Resistance is being hunted by the Nazi authorities, leading to the raid of his small, close-knit neighborhood. A sympathetic local priest, Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi) is recruited to continue the aid of transporting clandestine information and financial support for the cause.

The dangerous actions of the citizens and a secret small sect consisting of their strong-minded children, leads to the hunting of the individuals that aid in the Resistance. Giorgio and Don Pietro are captured and are integrated by the authorities, but refuse to surrender information, leading to the tortured death of Giorgio. Don Pietro who holds back through the pressure of watching Giorgio’s death is sentenced for execution. However, when the men of the firing line cannot bring themselves to execute a man of God, the stone-hearted Nazi leader finishes the job. The film closes on the sadden reactions of the altar boys, freedom fighters in their own right, who witness the execution as they mourn their brave priest.

The picture is a raw drama of struggle and strife reflecting the burdened communities occupied by the Nazi and fascist forces during World War II. A production of a perceived lesser polished nature as it utilizes handheld camerawork and natural lighting set to the background of the actual city of Rome, ravaged by the recent war. Rome, Open City is vast difference from the refined and sugared up tales more commonly observed in the cinematic product of Hollywood or even the UK, France, or the Soviet Union during this period. The raw style gives a sense of realism to the picture that makes the drama more tangible for viewers and more authentic in emotion.

Following the conclusion of World War II, Italy was in the process for recovery from the years of being directly in the middle of the conflict, scarring their cities and towns. The motion picture industry was barely limping as the nation that once supplied one of the greatest artistic centers of the world found it difficult to find finances for cinema when other aspects of the nation was still healing. Filmmaker Roberto Rossellini found funds in a wealthy, elderly Roman lady and sought to produce two short films based on actual events during the war within Rome, ultimately deciding to merge the two small productions into one larger project. The result would become Rome, Open City.

Inspired by tales of Roman children that banded together in fighting Nazi occupying soldiers and another tale of a priest who used his pious cover to aid resistance fighters with transportation of information and goods came a screenplay that was heavily influenced by what Rossellini and his producers experienced or observed in the occupied city. His vision vastly outweighed what his financier could afford, leading Rossellini to shoot the picture with in a more inexpensive and perhaps crudely staged manner manner, leading to the handheld camerawork and changes in film quality throughout prodution. Relying of what film stock, he could get his hands on, from inexpensive film stock where he could find it to left over unused portions of reels from documentary crews or other film productions, Rossellini worked with what he had. That with the lack of studio time, sets, and equipment Rossellini was forced to make be creative with much less, leading to the neorealist style, which was not the intension upon beginning the production.

This somewhat hurried work style and a need to do more with less forced director and actors to share a great deal of emotion and drama in fewer shots and takes, leaving a gritty feel to the process and creating a unique style that would one day inspire generations of filmmakers. Beautiful images of Rome from a non-romanticized manner presents the audience with a much more authentic understanding of how people of Rome saw their city through this very difficult time in history. Perhaps the most memorable shot in the film is its last with the saddened children walking back into the city with St. Peter’s Basilica towering over the background. This image depicts the religious tone of the story along with the loss of the main character which manifested the resilience of a city, its icon, and more so its people, above the ugliness of what the world had brought to these citizens.

The picture features native Roman actor Aldo Frabrizi in the wonderfully tragic role of the priest Don Pietro. Frabrizi’s background as a comic performer was in a state of transition at this point, taking on more dramatic roles, with Rome, Open City being a milestone in his career. Also finding critical reverence with a performance in the picture was Anna Magnani, who portrays the heartbreaking Pina, an expectant woman killed on the eve of her humble wedding day when as the Nazis raid her neighborhood and arrest her fiancée. A veteran actress in Italy, Magnani’s death scene gained international notoriety. The middle-aged actress would become one of the nation’s prominent actresses thanks to her overwhelming performance.

When the film was released shortly after the conclusion of World War II Italian audiences originally did not embrace the picture, largely due to audiences not wanting to be reminded of the war’s negative impact. However internationally the film was greatly praised and embraced as one the superior works in cinema. With time Italians too came to admire Rossellini’s feature which help inspire a new style in motion pictures, neorealism. Rossellini’s, unexpected success in style resulted his own neorealistic trilogy, following up Rome, Open City with1946’s  Paisá and Germany, Year Zero in 1948.

Rome, Open City would gain superior renowned in 1945/46 with a Grand Prize at the newly formed Cannes Film Festival, as well as honors from American observers with awards bestowed by the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics Circle. The raw motion picture style would spread throughout Europe in the coming years as an entire continent was inspired by the notion of more realistic representation in motion pictures. It would take nearly two decades before American filmmakers and audiences would embrace a similar style with the great social changes in the 1960s and 70s.

Today this film is seen  a masterpiece that captures an aspect of war form a point of view not normally observed by American audiences and with it brings a refreshingly new, yet grittier style of filmmaking that makes the medium feel cyclical, always renewing and returning to simplicity to discover the root of emotions in cinema.

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