Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Rome Open City

Roberto Rossellini's Rome Open City, made in the immediate aftermath of World War II, is a stirring, deeply moving portrait of Rome during the final years of the war, with the Nazis occupying the city and Allied forces slowly closing in. It is a rough, ragged movie, made on whatever film stock Rossellini could scrounge up in the desolate post-war economy, shot in the bombed-out streets of Rome with a kind of documentary realism that imparts an even greater impact to this story of the enduring resistance against evil. The film is divided into two parts, with the first half focused on the daily lives of a loose group of Resistance fighters living in Rome. Francesco (Francesco Grandjacquet) works for a Communist newspaper, and helps coordinate the activities of a group of militant anti-Nazi fighters, led by his friend Giorgio (Marcello Pagliero). Francesco's fiancée, the widow Pina (Anna Magnani), is involved in the struggle as well; despite being pregnant, she helps incite riots against the shops that control food rations and keep the people of the city from getting enough to eat. Even her son, Marcello (Vito Annichiarico), joins the fight, as part of a gang of kids, led by a crippled boy, who go on late-night bombing runs against the Nazis.

Rossellini has crafted a portrait of a whole community — a whole people — united in opposition to the evils of the Nazis, with everyone contributing to the fight, even the children. Obviously working from his own experience of the wartime occupation and the tyranny of the fascists, 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. The need for bread, for food, drives the people, who are so starving that they must overcome their moral compunctions against stealing, simply in order to survive. In the midst of this chaos, Francesco and Pina still plan a wedding, still desire the normalcy of getting married. Pina's family excitedly gets ready for the day, baking a wedding cake — doubtless with whatever materials they could scrounge together — and planning a "feast" of the meager luxuries they can gather in this devastated city. Rossellini's casual presentation of these scenes emphasizes the sense of life staggering on, trying to approximate normality even in the midst of the terror and uncertainty these people feel.

The details mean everything for Rossellini, the small touches that demonstrate how thoroughly he understands this situation and these people — because not long before he was among them, living the life depicted here. At one point, when someone wonders if the Americans are really close, if the promise of liberation is really at hand, Pina nods towards a nearby destroyed building, a victim of Allied bombing. The only sign of hope for these people is often the evidence of the destruction wrought by the Nazis' enemies on the city. Others within the city are not as aware of the importance of this situation. Pina's callow sister Lauretta (Carla Rovere) works in a cabaret, and thinks nothing of letting German soldiers drive her home. She's sick of the squalor of her home life, embarrassed to be poor, and she wants only comfort and fun. She seems oblivious to everything outside herself. Her friend Marina (Maria Michi), Giorgio's girlfriend, isn't so oblivious, but she's still abstracted from the struggle, selfish and unable to truly grasp the import of events. She keeps looking for the missing Giorgio, who's hiding from the Gestapo, and seems annoyed that he hasn't been in contact with her, as though he could reveal himself so casually. Marina's weaknesses — including her drug use — make her easy prey for the Germans, who keep her under their thumb through the sinister spy Ingrid (Giovanna Galletti), who has a weird lesbian chemistry with her target.

Rossellini balances the film's darker moments with surprising humorous touches, particularly in the portrayal of the priest Don Pietro. The priest is an exceptionally pious man who is ashamed to even admit that he knows a popular song, sheepishly whistling along and then seeming embarrassed to even be aware of such worldly matters. Later, in a shop selling various religious and secular statues and decorations, he's troubled by the proximity of a figure of a saint to a statue of a nude woman. He turns the nude statue away from the saint, then realizes that now she's mooning the saint with her bare, rounded butt, and turns the saint away, sparing his stone eyes the sight of the voluptuous nude. Rossellini shoots this bit of silent comedy with the statues in the foreground and the priest framed between them, so that the nude statue's butt is turned provocatively to the camera as well as towards the saint, juxtaposing the statue's sexual charge against the priest's discomfort. The priest is a man who believes that the Nazi occupation is God's punishment for humanity's sins; he tells Pina that this "scourge" was deserved because of people's sins. But this belief doesn't stop him from joining the Resistance, from doing everything he can to help. His religion is judgmental, rooted in fire-and-brimstone and the fear of sin, but instead of judging those around him as individual sinners, he recognizes the real evil around him and turns his attention to that.

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: the priest's reaction when Marcello knocks the bomb off the table by hitting into the gun is hilarious, despite the high stakes. The priest's subsequent interaction with a cranky old man who he's pretending to help is equally fun, as the flustered priest tries to explain that he needs the old codger — who keeps excitedly shouting out how much he hates fascists and Nazis — to lie still and pretend to be sick. He finally has to resort to hitting the old guy in the head with a frying pan, which prompts Marcello to admiringly study the dents in the pan afterward. The mingled humor and suspense of this scene is especially potent because the whole sequence ends in such heartrending tragedy, which is even more jarring and unsettling considering the tone of what went before.

In the film's second half, in the aftermath of this shattering event, Rossellini shifts his focus onto the attempted escape and capture of Giorgio and Don Pietro by the Gestapo officer Bergmann (Harry Feist). 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. 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. The film presents evil as eternal, as preying on the weak, like Marina, who sacrifices everything for a fur coat that, in the end, is taken back from her after she faints at the sight of Giorgio's corpse. Ingrid walks out, arm-in-arm with the slimy Bergmann, and blithely declares that she's saving the coat "for next time." Such evil corrupts and destroys what it can, but Rossellini counters this image with an even more potent tribute to the spirit of men like Giorgio and Don Pietro. These two men, with such different opinions and ways of life, with different values and beliefs, are nevertheless united in their goodhearted insistence on helping others, on combating evil, on refusing to capitulate to the easy alternatives. This is the difference, too, between the strong, brave Pina and the flighty, insecure Lauretta and Marina. And the film's final image, a shot of the children walking together down a dusty road, seems to suggest that the next generation of such good men and women is already developing. It is remarkable that Rossellini, in the aftermath of a horrible war, could make a film of such hope and humanity and grace, a film that acknowledges the horrors the world had just lived through while paying tribute to those who had so bravely resisted these horrors.


Sam Juliano said...

"It is a rough, ragged movie, made on whatever film stock Rossellini could scrounge up in the desolate post-war economy, shot in the bombed-out streets of Rome with a kind of documentary realism that imparts an even greater impact to this story of the enduring resistance against evil."

This is a wrenching and thoroughly accomplished piece on a film that is rightly considered the lynchpin of Italian neo-realism, and remains Rossellini's most revered and identifiable work. As you note, the story behind the making of the film is as fascinating as any cogent analytical study could ever yield. With Pontecorvo's THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS its the quintessential resistance film, and its realistic treatment of daily Italian life in essence heralded the postwar renaissance of the Italian cinema. Rossellini was intent on showing that Italians had fought valiantly against oppression and for freedom.

Anyway, I have read that the director sold his bed, a chest of drawers and a 'mirrored wardrobe' to raise funds for the film, and that the priest Don Pietro was modeled on on Father Don Morosini, who was executed by the Nazis in 1944.

When one speaks of humanism in the cinema, this film, and two by De Sica (BICYCLE THIEVES and UMBERTO D) are invariably mentioned first, and rightly so. This is a towering review, that brings in everything pertinent, including the broaching of silent cinema and the underpinning of humor.


Sam Juliano said...

Needless to say, the Eclipse set of Rossellini films, where this masterwork is offered up, is one of the glories of DVD releases in the past few years. It finally gives this seminal work the treatment it has long deserved.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks a lot, Sam! This is definitely (obviously!) an amazing film, made perhaps even more so by the circumstances of its creation. Its shoestring budget and rough aesthetic only add to its appeal, as it's clearly a statement of great passion, a statement that the director just needed to get out at any cost. It's just beautiful, with so many mingled emotions, such mastery of tone - the ultimate tragedy is only intensified by the moments of comedy and small-scale drama that coexist with the darker depths.