Sunday, 25 April 2010

Rome, Open City (1946)

***WARNING: Spoilers below***

***WARNING: This is a long one, so get comfy.***

Synopsis: World War Two. Italian resistance fighters hide out then get caught in occupied Rome. It ends badly.

One of Rossellini's (and cinema's) most important and influential films and rightly so. This visually and thematically gritty post-war war film sees a group of resistance fighters hiding out before being sprung by the Nazis and tortured under questioning. There are so many great things about this film that it's difficult to know where to begin.

I'll start with the visuals. Apparently filmed with scavenged bits of celluloid, the overall look of the film (especially the opening scene) is dark and grubby and shabby black and white, giving the film a really filthy, documentary, rough and ready feel. Purely visually speaking, you can see how neo-realism became the engine of postwar Italian cinema, and eventually paved the way for the French New Wave. So many scenes reminded me of Truffaut's 400 Blows, as well as (more obviously) De Sica's The Bicycle Thieves.

Like these other films, we quite often feel as if we're watching the director just following the characters around (quite a different feel to his Journey to Italy) like a photojournalist. This is low-key but masterful film making, with a cast of (mainly) non-professionals giving quite astonishing performances.

Some of the cross fades between scenes are sharp and beautifully constructed. One has a the cross fade from right to left just as the character of ??? walks through a door from the right, walking towards frame left. This to me symbolised how this character is the one who will move the action forward, who will (through her actions) force her agenda on the 'goodies' and bring about the dramatic conclusion. Here she is, literally bursting through the screen and ruining everything.

The film also has some ace characterisation. Don Pietro Pellegrini (played brilliantly by Aldo Fabrizi) is a fabulous character. A Catholic priest (with a socialist streak a mile wide) helping out the resistance, his bullish frame set off nicely by his calm and sometimes comical persona. This character is reminiscent of a Graham Greene whiskey priest (cf. The Power and the Glory), predicting South American liberation theology. He balances grace, humility and tenacity with an everyday humour. There's a lovely moment in which he's in a shop with some small statues. He notices that one of the statues (a saint) is 'looking' at the nude torso of another statue. He turns around the nude statue but realises that the saint is now staring at the statue's rear end, so he turns the saint too. A lovely, light little moment. Even though in the midst of moral panic, he's still got time to restore dignity to statues.

Incidentally, this scene also reminded me of that pivotal moment in The Goonies when Chunk breaks the statue of Michaelangelo's David.

The Holy Family of Pina (the fantastic Anna Magnani), Francesco and Marcello. We are introduced to these key characters early on and we soon realise how important Pina is to the resistance, almost a Virgin Mary, Mother of God to all of them. When we find out that she's both pregnant and already mother to Marcello (pint sized resistance fighter) this confirms her role as the all encompassing Mother to resistance. This religious theme surrounding Pina then evolves and gathers momentum in two devastating scenes.

Death is a very real and everyday occurrence for the characters but still the killings that we do see shock us terribly. The most incredible scene in this film is the one in which Francesco and other fighters are being taken away. Pina is then shot and killed as she's running after the truck that's holding him. The action here happens so quickly, that we just don't have time to really process what's going on and when we do, it's just appalling. The horror of what happens to her casts a dark cloud over the rest of the action. Later on, we see two sheep delivered to a bar (black market meat) and subsequently shot in the back yard. We immediately think back to Pina's murder - she is the innocent lamb to the slaughter, dispatched in cold blood.

Another key female character is Marina, the ex-lover of the leader of the resistance, Giorgio. She's a beautiful but drug addicted actress (the profession should be a clue) in thrall to the Nazis and their stolen goodies and access to drugs. It's Marina who is the catalyst for the final, violent scenes in which Don Pietro and Giorgio are tortured and then killed. Maria Michi's performance is quite something; she veers from desperate for attention from Giorgio to desperate for attention (and narcotics and fur coats) from a female Nazi (suggestions of lesbianism pretty strong here) to desperate at the thought of betraying her countrymen. It's exhausting just watching her. A real twist-the-knife-in moment comes after Marina has fainted at the site of the tortured Giorgio. Female Nazi No.1 walks calmly up to her, takes off the fur coat she'd just given her (her 30 pieces of silver) and proclaims 'for the next time'.

The Children of Rome as a group are almost a whole character in themselves. They're a great model for the typical gang-of-kids-as-adults and a mirror of the adult resistance fighters (the adults are really just as vulnerable as children in the end). The kids in this film are fantastic; energetic, as angry as the adults but amazingly organized and strategic in their cunning, this bunch of little urchins are a force to be reckoned with. Emulating their older role models, the kids get together to blow up a petrol tanker (?). They then scramble back into their apartment block through a side alley hidey hole (later used by the men themselves to escape - what a parallel) a la the kids in The Goonies.

Their powerlessness is shown along side that of the adults in the final scenes in which they witness the execution by firing squad of Don Pietro. This scene reminded me of Elie Weisel's Night - a partly fictional account of Weisel's time in a concentration camp as a child. The key moment in the book comes as another child is being executed by hanging for being 'exposed' as a thief. As the camp inmates are forced to trudge past his lifeless body, a man asks "Where is God?", the response "He's up there on those gallows". Maybe one of the messages of the film is that God is in amongst the horror and suffering of the Italian people, through the actions of the heroic few. It's only as we follow them from this scene back to their neighbourhood (with St. Peter's in the background, standing proudly as testament to the pride and strength of the city, and religion?) that we see that they are the ones to pick up the baton and re-take Rome.

Theme of resistance, political injustice and the decisions we make in extreme circumstances
Having recently watched Ken Loach's IRA film The Wind That Shakes The Barley, I was struck by some similarities in overall tone. Both films focus their attention on occupying armed forces (the baddies) and a resistance movement (the goodies). It's difficult to compare the films in an unbiased way as I have no 'real' connection to WWII occupied Rome, whereas the decades long fighting between the British Army and the IRA did affect my life directly (growing up in London in the '80s I knew only too well the impact of living with constant terrorist threat, albeit mostly in the form of there being no litter bins in central London and on the Tube at the time). This was 'normal' life and never turned me into a rabid anti-Republican.

However, what I am sure of is that Loach's socialist credentials are writ large in The Wind That Shakes The Barley. As we watch beating after humiliating beating we are in no doubt at all as to how evil the Black and Tans and the British Army were with several scenes of violence against the poor, beautiful Irish peasants. I found it a bit heavy handed and patronising in its message (Look. They were baaaad. Er, yes, I think we already knew that.), which is a huge contrast to the gut reaction that is Rome, Open City. Ken Loach decides on the subject matter of each film he makes, you get the feeling that Rossellini had no choice but to make a film about what the Romans had just experienced. A better companion piece would almost be Picasso's Guernica - another black and white masterpiece depicting the skewed and twisted ravages of war. I haven't felt an author's palpable anger and hatred as strong as this since reading John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.

This film could almost be a reflection/bookend/second part to Renoir's Regle Du Jeu, both depicting the impact of WWII in Europe, although on two very different classes of society. They both show us how individual decisions can drastically alter a larger narrative (mostly for the worse). One positive difference is how Rossellini's film is, unsurprisingly, chock full of heroes whereas Regle Du Jeu is pretty thin on the ground when it comes to heroes. Those that we do meet come off pretty badly. Or dead.

Anyway, I've rambled on for FAR too long. Just watch the film. It's awesome.

See also: The Bicycle Thieves, The Wind That Shakes The Barley, Battleship Potemkin, Regle Du Jeu and, er, The Goonies.

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